The Ghost of Spectres Past

Spectre isn’t a bad film. It is competently made on most counts, though admittedly this is damning it with faint praise, and it has a fantastic pre-credit sequence that’s up there with the best of them. Nevertheless, Spectre is a huge disappointment – perhaps even more so than Quantum of Solace. Where Quantum suffered from Marc Forster not being very good at directing action, Spectre suffers most from writers that don’t really understand what exactly they want the film to do and, worse, not realising that Skyfall had done most of these things already, and done them well.


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More than fine

I’m not a big fan of Heavy Metal. Perhaps it’s that I’ve never had the hair to go with headbanging. Perhaps it’s that I dislike the sexism that often seems to go with it. Perhaps it’s simply that I was raised on Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and that has influenced my entire musical development. I’ve always been more into borderline pretentious psychedelic prog rock, if anything, and then lots of indie singer/songwriter stuff than the leather-and-studs bridgade. I enjoyed This Is Spinal Tap, but half the jokes probably went straight over my head. Other than Ozzie, I’m not sure I could pick any of the greats of Metal out of a police line-up.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I started playing Tim Shafer’s Brütal Legend (savour that umlaut!) – and immediately fell in love with the world and atmosphere of the game.

Tim Shafer could be called the Tim Burton of the videogame world – if you disregard Burton’s creative stagnation, his repetitiveness and his increasingly mannered goth shtik. His games are strong on character, world building and storytelling, to the point where the gameplay becomes secondary. He’s the guy who spliced together Casablanca and the Mexican Day of the Dead and who created a summer camp for the psychic. And he’s the mastermind behind Brütal Legend, a game that takes as its inspiration Heavy Metal – not only the music, but the aesthetic, the ethos, the feel of it all (minus the “Smell the Glove” misogyny, mind you). Its world is designed to look like all the Metal album covers you can imagine, turned up to 11. It’s inhabited by laser-eyed black panthers and mastodons with gleaming metal tusks. It should be tacky – but instead it pulls off its loving hommage with style, with a little help from Jack Black. I mean, how can you not warm immediately to a game featuring lines such as these:

– Ever feel like you were born in the wrong time – like you should have been born earlier, when the music was… real?
– Like the seventies?
– No. Earlier… like the early seventies.

What is perhaps most amazing is that in a game featuring KISS-faced Amazons, phony big-haired rock stars (even the guys from Spinal Tap would find General Lionwhyte embarrassing – and yes, he’s one of the game’s villains) and a very familiar-looking Guardian of Metal, Shafer manages to pull off a story that takes turns being funny, thrilling and finally poignant. It’s difficult not to wipe away a manly Metal tear at the game’s ending. In a medium that’s full of teenage male wish fulfillment gone wrong (or just stale), that’s a rare gift.

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: