A moving moment

You’ve probably all noticed that my blog updates have become somewhat infrequent, at least compared to the beginning, where I’d hammer out an entry a day. Don’t worry, this is just a momentary slump (I hope); things are somewhat stressful at the moment, and I don’t get to watch or read as much as I’d like. Even when I do find the time, I’m usually somewhat too tired to appreciate films, series and books as much as I’d want to.

That’s where gaming comes in. I can be as tired as I want, yet I can still get some enjoyment out of Guitar Hero (where I’ve graduated to Hard mode, meaning that I’ve now got five fretting buttons to contend with!) or Splinter Cell. Or I could be “enjoying” Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth.

CoC: DCotE (doncha love acronyms?) is one of the creepiest games I’ve played since… well, since Thief 3 and that Holy Grail of computer game horror, the Cradle. I’m not particularly informed when it comes to H.P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos, but for those of you who know even less, Cthulhu is this cheerful fellow:

Yo, C-man!

(Any similarities to a certain crustacean Doctor are purely coincidental.)

The game has a couple of easy scares (boo! decomposing corpse!), but by and large it works with more subtle techniques: half-glimpsed horrors and whispers in the dark. Slowly going insane is as much of a threat in this game as things that go bump in the night. The game starts with the protagonist cuts his stay at an insane asylum short by hanging himself – what follows essentially is a long, drawn-out flashback – an odd way to motivate players to progress: “Just one more level and I can hang myself! Yay!” For the first two, three hours of gameplay you don’t even have any weapons, which makes for an original twist on the genre: for once, the solution to all your problems isn’t unloading a gun in some gilled horror’s face.

And the game has what is possibly the best chase sequence I’ve ever seen or played. You’re woken up in the middle of the night as a couple of shady guys (with serious throat problems, from the sound of it) try to break into your room to turn you into chowder. Your only option is to run, bolting doors behind you or blocking them with wardrobes and the like. Then, a bracing escape via the rooftops while you’re being shot at… and don’t even look down, because otherwise you’ll find out just how Jimmy Stewart felt in that classic Hitchcock movie about a guy with vertigo. I think it was called… “The Man Who Was Afraid of Heights”.

Shredding geeks

Many gamers are looking for one semi-mythic, intangible quality in games: immersion. It’s basically the ineffable property of making you forget that you’re sitting in front of a computer screen or TV, grasping a gamepad or a mouse, and feel that you’re really there. But, let’s face it, even with the most immersive games you never feel like you’re a mute MIT graduate saving the world with a gun in one hand and a crowbar in the other, or a cyber-ninja special operative infiltrating terrorist strongholds or a Persian prince able to run along steep walls and turn back time. There are worlds between playing FIFA 08 and actually kicking a football – there’s little to no comparison between pressing X or O and propelling a leather ball towards the enemy goal with your foot. Possibly the only game that offers near-absolute immersion is computerised chess, because as if you’re, like, really playing chess!

Okay, enough sarcasm – what I’m getting at is this: there are few games that make you believe you’re really doing what your on-screen avatar is doing. Fair enough, really; there are limits to how much I’d want to believe I’m being shot at by alien armies while killer zombies are trying to chew my frontal lobe. And I definitely don’t want to believe I’m actually playing football at Wembley Stadium.

There is a game (or several games, by now) that gives you a fairly convincing illusion that you’re actually doing the thing you’re playing, and that game is called Guitar Hero. I’ve had it for a while, but I’ve only recently started to play it again. And it’s great fun. Looked at objectively, it should be a humiliating experience: you stand there holding a plastic toy shaped like a Gibson guitar, pressing colour buttons and strumming a white bar in sync with popular rock songs. You’re as close to rock stardom as Third French Lord in an amateur production of Henry V is from saying, “And I would like to thank the Academy…”

But, hell, if it isn’t fun… And it does a great job of making you feel like you’re playing complex solos, totally rocking the place, dude! The game mainly works because the rock songs used make for surprisingly good videogame levels. So far, I’ve only made it to the second of four difficulty levels with any success – I’m only using four of the five fret buttons, which means that my hands are in for some pretty bad strain. But the choice of songs is almost perfect: Guitar Hero has everything from ’70s glam rock to ’80s cheese rock (is that a term? it should be!) to 21st century alternative rock. And since I don’t really listen to the radio, it’s this game that has introduced me to the following eminently cool song:

However, there’s a further turn of the screw to my geek joy. I’m very much an old-school gamer – I played games on machines that are practically Etch-a-Sketches compared to a five-year old mobile phone. My first slice of nerd heaven was a Commodore 64, a name that still brings on a hush of awe in the right crowd. The C-64 has been defunct for decades, yet there are insane people still working with them… and this is where I don’t care just how nerdy and geeky I sound, but the following is just distilled nostalgic coolness:

Are you going to San Andreas?

Okay, it’s “Plug an old game” time. Yesterday I finished my second or third playthrough of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. And it’s still one of the most versatile games I know – it’s probably the truest “sandbox game” that’s out there. For those of you who aren’t computer game nerds like myself, here’s a handy definition from Wikipedia:

A sandbox-style video game (or a video game with an optional sandbox mode) is a video game with an open-ended and non-linear style of gameplay, or a mode of gameplay within a game that is more often played in a goal-directed manner. The sandbox analogy is used to describe this style of gaming because, as with a physical sandbox, the user is simply allowed to do what he or she wishes (with the available game elements and within the limitations of the game engine — the metaphoric toys within, and boundaries of, the sandbox).

Now, what does that mean in concrete terms? San Andreas is a story-heavy game, it’s “played in a goal-directed manner”, but it gives you a lot of freedom in a) how you go about achieving the goal and b) how you spend your time in between missions. The game world is huge – you’re given three virtual cities/states to play around in: LA-inspired Los Santos, San Fierro (based on San Francisco) and Las Venturas, which is eerily similar to a certain desert city replete with casinos and organised crime. And while the story itself is enjoyable enough, some of the most fun can be had just boarding one of the many vehicles (cars, bikes, boats, planes) and zooming around. Personally, I get most of a kick out of navigating the hills of San Fierro on my trusty BMX bike, but here’s some of the fun’n’games that others came up with.

Crazy jumps 
Bike stunts 
Base jumping 

Weee are alien magicians!

Videogame critics keep saying that there’s precious little humour in video games (or at least humour that isn’t unfunny at best and cringeworthy at worst). Now, it may be true that the humour in most games is made up of stale wisecracks and one-liners that make you groan… but then, most movie comedies aren’t really very funny, are they? There’s little good comedy in games as in films, but there are of course gems in both media. The games I’m thinking of, for instance, are many of the old LucasArts adventures (Grim Fandango, Sam & Max Hit the Road, the Monkey Island titles minus Escape from…), No One Lives Forever, Psychonauts – and Anachronox.

I never finished Anachronox when I originally played it; the pre-patch version was so buggy that it started to crash frequently halfway through the story. Now, thanks to some new tech and inofficial patches, I’m finally able to play it again, and in spite of the engine showing its age, I’m riveted. The game’s the strange offspring of Japanese RPGs, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Raymond Chandler crime novels. It’s got some of the best writing and voice acting ever in computer games. Even though I don’t particularly enjoy the gameplay itself, I still can’t stop playing, no matter that I’ve got newer games waiting for me both on my computer and on PS2.

It’s a shame the game didn’t sell very well at all, since it was meant to be followed by a sequel. As it is, Anachronox ends on a cliffhanger, and it’s unlikely that we’ll ever get the follow-up. Which is roughly like ending Lord of the Rings on The Fellowship of the Ring, with Frodo and Sam going off to Mordor – THE END. NO, WE WON’T TELL YOU WHAT HAPPENS. It’s a crying shame that good writing sells less well in videogames than big boobs, big guns and uninspired franchises.

P.S.: Anachronoxis a good illustration of my theory that humour is usually funnier when the characters aren’t just Punchline Delivery Agents(tm), but are actually fleshed out. There are moments of surprising poignancy in the game, which make the comedy shine more brilliantly.

P.P.S.: Here are some more trailers of genuinely funny games – because it’s these kind of games the medium needs if it wants to be more than just adolescent (male) power fantasies. I also hear that the new game Portal, scripted by Eric Wolpaw of Psychonauts fame, is very funny, and very good.


Grim Fandango:


Did that soldier just shoot the fourth wall?

Yesterday evening I finished Metal Gear Solid 2. The ending was decidedly underwhelming, for all its action and its cascade of relevations, one topping the other. It was also facile and preachy, and it hadn’t earned the right to be preachy. I wasn’t as annoyed at it as many people seem to have been, though, based on reviews and posts on the internet.

Penny Arcade’s take on the MGS2 ending

What seemed to annoy them most, however, was the metafictional self-awareness that crept into the last 2-3 hours of the game. Your superiors, who keep contacting you via radio throughout, start to make increasingly explicit references to everything that’s gong on being a game, even telling you at one point to switch off the console. While this isn’t postmodern fiction on a par with Pynchon or Auster, it’s still a refreshingly clever take on most videogame narratives, where you, the player, are as much of a puppet as your in-game avatar, following orders that the game’s narrative imposes on you, with little or no choice. The self-referentiality is also represented quite wittily, with everything that’s overtly game-like – the ‘continue’ and ‘save game’ screens, for instance – playing into it.

Why is it, though, that people – gamers as much as readers or movie and TV audiences – hate self-awareness so much? Read IMDB comments (admittedly, hardly the most critically-minded crowd) and you’ll see that self-aware fictions tend to get extremely strong reactions. Audiences, by and large, don’t want to be told that what they’re watching or playing is a film, a game. They prefer to submit to the illusion that ‘this is real’. In fact, they resent narratives that don’t allow them the comfort of that illusion. Because if something that we want to believe to be real is actually a fiction, it raises questions that may be a tad uncomfortable. Or perhaps I’m just a snobbish post-structuralist… But I think that at its best, you can see the puppeteer’s strings and appreciate his illusion-making, yet still feel for the puppets as if they were real.

And now, so’s you don’t get bored: a movie!

On a different note: What do you do if you get a book as a present, and you want to honour the present – but you hate the book? After Miéville, I moved on to Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors, and I keep wondering whether I really want to be reading this. It’s one of those “you have to laugh to keep yourself from crying” type of memoirs, where the things that are (supposedly) tragic are drawn in an exaggerated, cartoony fashion. According to the blurb on the back, it’s “hilarious… Adrian Mole scripted by Hieronymus Bosch”. The problem is, I don’t buy any of it. I’m not saying that Burroughs concocted the whole thing from scratch, but its over-the-top, camp tone and narrative feel fake to me. Augusten, a ceaseless self-dramatiser, is one of the most annoying narrators I’ve read in a long time. Is he a poor sod? Yes. Do I want to listen to him being a poor sod? No. And for all of its outrageousness, its lurid sexuality and forthright storytelling, there’s something disappointingly conventional and even prudish to the novel. Which may be true to the young protagonist, but that doesn’t make him or the book any more interesting.

So why am I still reading it?

Surreal Snakes and heroic metafiction

– What’s going to happen to us?
– There, there. We always end up in a universe where we exist. Remember Copenhagen?

Remember the self-aware, postmodern hospital soap opera that Nate watches in the first episode of season 3 of Six Feet Under? Well, if that network – COMA TV? – had a 24-type series, chances are it’d be pretty much like Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, the PS2 game I’m currently playing.

 Quite honestly, I’m not certain whether MGS2 is a badly scripted, badly acted mess of a soap opera as done by Tony Scott, or whether it’s a clever parody of existentialist hi-tech conspiracy thrillers (ah, that old chestnut!). Whichever it is, the game is a weirdly compelling guilty pleasure. But yes, the writing makes Final Fantasy X seem a masterpiece of subtlety.

In part, the game is obviously tongue-in-cheek; the absurd conversations with Otacon when you save the game, or scenes like the one where you have to sneak across a walkway underneath a guard answering the call of nature make that clear. But what about the bathos of Otacon’s relevations concerning his quasi-incestuous relationship with his stepmother? And what about Peter Stillman (Paul Auster fans note the name!), the anti-demolitions expert who faked having a fake leg for years in order to gain sympathy? While the latter reads like bizarre black comedy, the game plays it absolutely straight-faced.

I can’t say I ‘get’ MGS2, nor can I gauge its tone most of the time, but I definitely want to know how it ends – even if people have it that it’s the sort of ending that makes you want to throw your Playstation out the window. But, dagnabit, did they have to make the cutscenes that long? I feel like I should take a day or two off in anticipation of an ending cinematic that’s bound to be (or at least feel) as long as Peter Jackson’s King Kong.