The Rear-View Mirror: Shadow of the Colossus and Psychonauts (2005)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Video games are the cosplayers of modern media. They like to dress up as other media, in particular movies and comic books. Look at the biggest-selling games of almost any year and you’re likely to see games dressed up as Michael Bay movies or as the latest Marvel extravaganza. In some ways early video games had more of a unique voice, not least aesthetically, because when you’ve got pixels the size of pomegranates and harsh bleeps and bloops it’s futile to try and look like a Jerry Bruckheimer action flick. There was an abstraction to the classics, the Space Invaders and Pac-Men of yore, that came with technical limitations. At least since the modern days of real-time 3D graphics, and especially in the last ten years, video games have come to look less and less like abstract art and more like what we see at the cinema, a big bucket of popcorn in our lap.

Space Invaders Continue reading

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.

Dream a little dream

Inception. One of the coolest, smartest action flicks this side of The Dark Knight. A fun, brainy conundrum for those who prefer a bit of smarts in their big-budget entertainment.

And the source of some truly weird YouTubes.

Remember a year ago, when I posted about Psychonauts, a computer game that’s the bastard offspring of Tim Burton (when he was still good) and Terry Gilliam, where you explore psyches made real, tangible and pretty frickin’ weird locations? Well, this mash-up is beautifully executed and works disturbingly well:

Want to see (or rather hear) something weirder, though?

Reminds me of watching The Wire with my girlfriend and the two of us intoning the ending music. Good times.

P.S.: Next entry’s going to be more of a proper blog entry, with more than one sentence before there’s a picture or a YouTube video. Promise!

Psychotic dentists, mutated lungfish and a turtle named Mr. Pokeylope

You may already have gathered this, but in case you haven’t I have a confession to make. It’s one of my dirty little secrets.

I re-read books. And not only that: I also re-watch films. And, horror of horrors, I re-play games. Old games that have fewer pixels than Dick Cheney has had ethical thoughts. Games that require an hour or two of fiddling with Windows, downloading fan patches and editing game code in order to work on a 21st century operating system.

Of course I don’t replay any and every game I’ve ever played. Your run-of-the-mill first-person shooter is unlikely to get much of a repeat performance with me, unless it’s got that certain je ne sais quoi and is called Half-Life 2, I guess. (Or No One Lives Forever, or Call of Duty 2. For some reason, though, I didn’t even properly finish Doom 3 once.) Just like the films and books I enjoy more than once, some games are so good at telling a story and pulling you into their world, whether this is because of the gameplay or the writing, that I can’t resist revisiting them.

Psychonauts is definitely one of those games. It’s one of the most inventive, best written video games I know, and funny to boot. It’s also one of those rare cases where the gameplay itself is fun but not all that special – but once you combine it with everything else, the game becomes that oldest of chestnuts: more than the sum of its parts.

It’s the sheer exuberant imagination of the minds the game visualises: the paranoid delusions of the Milkman Conspiracy (and its wonderfully off-the-wall G-Men), the monster-movie inspired Lungfishopolis, the many other minds that form the basis for the game’s level. And the often inspired voice work is still among the most perfect in the videogame industry.

Differently from many of the other classic games I replay (or hope to, if I ever find the time), Psychonauts is still available (there’s no need to get it for lots of dough on eBay), namely on Steam. I don’t often do such blatant plugs on my blog, but this game is worth it.

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.

Psychonauts

Grim Fandango:

Portal: