Amateur Hour Continues!

Posted: April 14, 2011 in Gaming
Tags: , , , , ,

Wherein I continue to fancy myself a qualified game critic.

Most of the games I play these days are direct sequels in series I’m already invested in, though developers do, on occasion, find success in completely original works. To counterbalance yesterday’s lot, all of today’s games fall into that latter category.

Heavy Rain

…tasks you with finding and identifying the Origami Killer: a serial murderer terrorising an unnamed, American city vaguely reminiscent of Philadelphia. The victims are all children, who go missing from public places only to turn up several days later in remote locations, drowned in rainwater and with an origami figure on their chest. You play as Ethan Mars, the father of the most recent victim, as well as three supporting characters: journalist, Madison Paige, who suffers from crippling insomnia; private investigator, Scott Shelby, who’s working with the mother of a previous victim; and FBI criminal profiler slash full time drug addict, Norman Jayden. They’re all, in some way, connected to the case, and all in very real danger as a result of their involvement. The different here: in Heavy Rain, there is no game over. If a character dies as a result of your choices, they stay dead and the plot moves on without them. This makes for an extraordinary number of possible outcomes, and your experience of this story is exactly that: your experience.

Heavy Rain not only sounds like a Hollywood-style thriller, but it plays like one, too. Indeed, I recently mentioned to Colin (from whom I borrowed it) that whenever I think back on it, I remember it as it were a movie I’d watched as opposed to a game I played. It’s frequently to be found on lists of video games that approach cinema, and Eurogamer France said it best, remarking that “The game from Quantic Dream has touched me, unquestionably, as a player because it symbolizes today the culmination of a genre halfway between cinema and video game.” Indeed, Heavy Rain describes itself not as a game, but rather as an “Interactive Drama”. As a great advocate of games as a legitimate form of narrative, I appreciate that Quantic Dream are taking steps to bridge the gap, and it definitely seems to be the direction gaming is taking if L.A. Noire’s recent inclusion in the Tribeca Film Festival is anything to go by.

The control scheme is unorthodox, mapping the various buttons on your controller to context-sensitive actions on-screen. The more complicated the action you’re trying to make your character perform, the more complicated the digital acrobatics required to do it. In the life-or-death situations you’re frequently placed in, the game makes liberal use of quick time events that require you to press the buttons in the split-second that they flash on your screen. The panic of your character is mimicked in your own frantic button bashing, and whether you’re pushing through a crowded shopping mall to find your son or driving down the wrong side of a highway at the behest of a twisted child killer, it really does serve to draw you into the events. The game even purposefully blurs these symbols depending on your character’s ability to “think straight”, and you might find yourself pushing circle when you were aiming for square because, in Ethan’s adrenaline-soaked daze, they’re almost indistinguishable. It’s a nice touch, and the only times I ever found the controls to be unresponsive were events that required you to physically shake the controller. This isn’t a problem if you’re shaking an inhaler, but quickly becomes one if you’re trying to violently throw off an attacker.

As you’d expect from a game whose plot centres around the deaths of innocent children, Heavy Rain is unrelentingly depressing. You begin in the picture-perfect home of the Mars family but – like the Wizard of Oz in reverse – the colour soon bleeds out of Ethan’s world, and that of the game. Even in its lighter moments, Heavy Rain is about as cheerful as a Lars von Trier movie. The passage of time is measured with quiet urgency as the player soon works out that those seemingly random numbers that appear at the beginning of each new chapter are actually an indicator of the ever-rising water level during this bleak, rainy season. If it reaches 6 inches, Ethan’s son, Shaun, is lost for good. And, because this is Heavy Rain, that outcome is a definite possibility.

In order to save him, the killer provides Ethan with five origami figures, each of which leads him to a “trial” whose successful completion will provide him with a clue to Shaun’s location. These trials are among the tensest parts of the game; made all the worse because you yourself have to push Ethan through them. (You can, of course, opt out of them, but that doesn’t bode well for little Shaun.) The “Butterfly” trial, in particular, is like living through a scene from Saw: crawling through an air duct littered with broken shards of glass with only a box of matches to light your way. The “Lizard”, too, involves some fairly horrendous self-mutilation using whatever’s handy.

The game’s soundtrack (scored by Canadian composer, Normand Corbeil, and recorded at Abbey Road Studios, London) is lovely, and appropriately cinematic: varyingly sombre or nail-biting as the situation demands.

Naturally, the game is not without its flaws. Its developers are French, which means that Heavy Rain offers equal-opportunity nudity but also English voice acting that’s occasionally less than stellar. At least two of the characters sound like they’re faking their own accents, and the kids in a certain flashback scene are just inexcusably horrible to the point where I wish they’d been fired and re-cast entirely. Likewise, not one person in the game can pronounce “origami”, and while I wouldn’t expect them to have pitch-perfect Japanese pronunciation, it would be nice if they could have gotten together and decided on one consistent mispronunciation instead of the eighteen different versions we hear throughout the game. The plot, too, suffers from selective memory: one of the story’s most misleading red herrings is neither explained nor mentioned again in the second half of the game. Ironically though, my greatest criticism was with the ending I got, which – as it turned out – was the game’s best possible outcome. For someone who hates neat, happy endings, I felt a little cheated, and yet I only have myself to blame since I myself chose it. Alas, as much as I might hate “Hollywood” endings, I couldn’t bring myself to wilfully harm the game’s protagonists for the sake of my own literary satisfaction.

These are, however, small blemishes on an otherwise incredible experience, and Heavy Rain is the most involved I’ve felt in a game in a very long while. It’s ridiculously immersive and, at times, painfully tense (Ethan’s trials, and a certain scene involving Madison and a basement come to mind). I rarely find games that I simply have to keep playing, but Heavy Rain is most definitely the digital equivalent of a page-turner. Once it was all over, I was tempted to go back and see how the scenes would have played out if I’d made different choices, but it was the game’s creator, David Cage, who convinced me otherwise. In an interview, he said that “I would like people to play it once…because that’s life. Life you can only play once…I would like people to have this experience that way. I’m fine with [people reloading saves to avoid bad endings], but the right way to enjoy Heavy Rain is really to make one thing because it’s going to be your story. It’s going to be unique to you. It’s really the story you decided to write…I think playing it several times is also a way to kill the magic of it.”

I wholeheartedly agree.

Ōkami

…was a swansong of sorts for the PlayStation 2; one of the console’s last great games before its fall into obsolescence. It’s also one of the many games I bought before moving to Japan and didn’t end up playing as a direct result of that migration. In this instance, however, I’m genuinely glad that I waited until four years after its release to play it as almost every aspect of Ōkami is influenced by Japanese culture and mythology. By extension, this means that it made infinitely more sense to me now than it would have if I’d played it in 2007.

The title is a perfect example: Ōkami (written 大神) means “Great God”, but it’s also a homonym for 狼: “wolf”. And, by no small coincidence, your character is a god in the shape of a wolf. Her name (which also uses an alternative reading of 大神) is Amaterasu Ōmikami, or “Ammy” to her tiny companion, Issun. In the Japanese version, he dubs her “Amako” which carries much the same nuance, though I noticed that not all of the changes were so faithful. The English localisation team frequently shortens the Japanese names (presumably to make them more palatable for a Western audience) and a road sign pointing to クサナギ村 (Kusanagi Village), will be plain ol’ Kusa Village in the translation. It’s not a problem, just something I was aware of, and probably for the best since names like Tsudzurao are hardly gaijn-friendly.

Where Heavy Rain features on some critic’s lists of games approaching cinema, Ōkami is almost invariably listed as a contender for games that approach art. This is due in no small part to a visual style that takes its cue from the Ukiyo-e genre of art; and the whole thing – from beginning to end – looks like an 18th century woodblock print in motion. The effect was barely lessened for the game’s comparative age, and despite requiring me to jump back a generation and dust off my PS2, it still looks beautiful.

The storyline – and indeed the majority of the game’s characters – takes its inspiration from Japanese folklore, and sees the sun goddess Amaterasu defending Nippon from an ancient evil released from its 100-year slumber. Severely weakened from their last battle and her time in dormancy, our lupine heroine must find and restore the other 12 celestial gods who bestow on her special “brush techniques” that she might once again fell the dreaded Orochi. Along the way, she encounters characters from all walks of Japanese mythology: everyone from an unaging fisherman fresh from a trip to the dragon palace under the sea, to the rather more obvious choices. She’s joined on her quest by the smartassed, inch-tall Issun: a travelling artist who hopes to learn the brush techniques vicariously by hitching a lift in Ammy’s fur. Together they set out to restore the sun goddess’ strength, along with the rest of Nippon which has been corrupted by Orochi’s darkness. Despite the rather epic nature of the plot, the story is actually injected with a great deal of warmth and humour; and – true to its Shinto roots – a deep reverence for nature. The scenes where you watch the landscape burst back into life as the result of your labours are as satisfying as they are gorgeous.

Amaterasu interacts with the environment with the use of the Celestial Brush, which turns the screen into a canvas on which you can draw the various brush strokes learned from the other gods. Drawing a circle around dead trees like the one above, for instance, will cause them to burst into bloom, earning Amaterasu praise that she can use to upgrade things like her health and ink reserves. The brush techniques are remarkably varied, ranging from a simple swirl that conjures a gust of wind to put out fires, to a veil of mist which slows down time giving Ammy an advantage in battle. It reminded me a lot of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, only with brush strokes that control your environment rather than catchy tunes.

The scenes where one encounters the other gods (all signs of the Chinese zodiac) are among the most innately Japanese, not just in their names (the boar-god, Bakugami, gives Ammy the power to wield bombs, for which the Japanese word is bakudan) but also in tone, humour and cultural reference. When one first meets the rabbit god, Yumigami, for instance, she starts pounding mochi with a giant wooden mallet then gifts you with the power to turn day into night by drawing the moon. This would all seem absolutely mental were it not for the fact that I now know that while we might see a man on the moon, the Japanese people see a giant moon rabbit hard at work making mochi. No, really. This insider knowledge also helps when it comes to battling Orochi himself. Each of his eight heads will attack you with an element and only by using the opposing force can you take them down. Some are more obvious than honours (the “fire” head breathes fire) but for others, it helped that they actually had the kanji for their respective powers stamped on their foreheads. Indeed, the only thing that remains a mystery is Japan’s obsession with spherical ultimate bad guys – a trend I’ve noticed since as far back as Ozma in Final Fantasy IX.

Still though, my absolute greatest appreciation for my newfound insights into the game’s inherent Japanity occurred when, towards the end of the game, I reached the “frozen north” of Kamui. Why?

…because it’s totally based on Akita! 😀
(Komachi, namahage, kamakura, oh my!)

One last thing that struck me was that the game is actually a clever commentary on the very concept of belief. It doesn’t do this overtly (or even, perhaps, intentionally) but whenever Amaterasu helps someone to, for example, perform a dance that will bring the village’s trees back to life, she’s rewarded with “praise” from the person she assisted. If you choose to do nothing, then that person is simply dancing like a fool, so it’s only as a result of a god working behind the scenes that these “miracles” can occur. And isn’t that exactly what a miracle is in the eyes of a believer? I might be an atheist but I really enjoyed this simple microcosm for what faith ultimately boils down to. Ammy begins her adventure in a cynical world where belief in the gods has waned, but it’s the accrual of faith and goodwill from the people of Nippon that leads to one of Ōkami’s most moving scenes in the game’s final moments.

In spite of its relative vintage, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Ōkami is one of the best games I’ve ever played, and though my time in Amaterasu’s world was somewhere in the region of 60 hours, still I can’t think of a single bad thing to write about it. Musically, visually, thematically perfect.

Dead Space

…recently received a sequel, but before I could play it, I figured I should probably tackle the original. The storyline is standard fare for a horror set in space: a rescue team is sent to investigate the sudden communications blackout with an interstellar mining ship that – to the surprise of no one – turns out to be infested with grotesque, bloodthirsty aliens. Among the rescue team is our taciturn protagonist, Isaac Clarke, whose girlfriend, Nicole, was serving aboard the ship before they lost all contact. The premise is nothing new, but seems like a decent enough starting point for interplanetary terror.

Dead Space looks gorgeous (if that’s the right word for a game that rewards you with a trophy for dismembering a set number of limbs) and it made me jump a fair few times over the course of the first hour. The problem, therefore, is with the characters; or rather, the complete lack thereof. Isaac literally doesn’t speak to another living person over the course of the game, instead choosing to stand there like a mute whenever he’s being spoken to. We don’t even see his face until 10 seconds before the final credits roll, and it’s hard to sympathise with a man whose basically a walking spacesuit. The strength of games like Resident Evil (and to a far greater extent, Silent Hill) is that we feel something for the protagonists, and – by extension – don’t want Chris & co. to be murdered by marauding zombie hordes. The characters of Dead Space are so painfully underdeveloped that I honestly couldn’t care less whether they lived or died; and – by the end of the game – most everyone has fallen into that latter column. The plot, too, is hopelessly transparent. Skip to the next paragraph if you want to avoid spoilers but **look away now** dead girlfriend is obviously already dead, and teammate’s inevitable betrayal is inevitable.

There are some really nice ‘wow’ moments, such as when the ship opens and you can see the entire planet beneath you, or entering an area with zero gravity and realising that – true to the old adage – in space, no one can hear you scream. Even these, though, are a scanty reward for playing through 12 very similar chapters (“get off the tram, fix some malfunction part of the ship, return to the tram” is a formula that covers about 11 of them) with little to no character development. Zero-g also made me a little nauseous due to the lurching motion of the screen whenever the camera readjusted itself, and the only horror involved in the game’s final boss is the discovery that it’s easier to kill than, well, anything else in the game up until that point. As a minor, self-inflicted quibble, I’d also seen the game’s ending already, having watched an article on the Scariest Moments in Gaming. (For the record it really shouldn’t have qualified.)

Like Batman: Arkham Asylum, this was another game I borrowed from Colin, and just like Batman, I’d categorise it as average and largely unmemorable. Interestingly, however, Colin did tell me that everything I hated about Dead Space has been addressed in the sequel: Isaac meets people and – gasp! – actually interacts with them, and even the motion sickness-inducing zero gravity sections have been retooled. Whether that’s a strong enough incentive for me to play it, however, is another matter entirely.

***

Our third and final exploration of my geekery will (I swear) conclude tomorrow the day after whenever I damn well please.

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