Wednesday, September 28, 2011

It’s All In The Game!

Over the past seven days, I’ve seen at least three high-hit posts that somehow manage to take two things that shouldn’t be held together in the same regard to make a statement which can only interpreted as a subjective abomination. I’ve decided to join the ludicrousness here, but I’m going to be a bit more creative with it. I won’t use extremely biased points to reach a conclusion for the sake of ‘stirring the pot’[1], nor will I make some silly tongue-n-cheek reductivist claim at the expense of a myriad of class and race problems[2]. Nope, I’m going to use two of those horribly attention-whoring posts to form one in which both parties can live in harmony!

I recently went through and rewatched the The Wire (which I didn’t think I’d have a hankering for again at least for a few more years), but upon completion I realized a disturbing number of people comparing the show to the likes of other high-profile television serial dramas---most likely because of the Emmy Awards (and fans of The Wire remain bitter to this day that the show touted as 'the greatest television show ever' somehow managed to not win any of these awards). Mainly though, I’m speaking of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Sopranos. Now, I’ve seen two of those shows and a bit of remaining one and I’m pretty certain that none of them are even in the same league as The Wire. No, I’m not saying ‘this is objectively better than this’---what I am saying is that the modus operandi of the former three isn’t the same as David Simon’s fictional assault of Baltimore. Despite the fact that the aforementioned three are good and entertaining shows, The Wire is the only one that wasn’t designed with a core focus on entertainment, in fact it might be the only television show that ever has done such a thing (at least to the degree it did). Now, if you’re a fan of my blog you should be able to immediately see where I’m going with this…

There’s a certain game that I’m a big fan of that wasn’t designed as pure entertainment either. I covered it in quite a few posts last year and I stand by that assertion to this day. Since the spiritual successor to this game is due out in a week, I figure such a post is timely.  Yes, that game is Demon’s Souls, From Software’s 2009 ballbuster that pulled none of its punches and punished the player for even the slightest whiff of stupidity during play.

Both of these pieces of media are initially experiences that may or may not appear too dense for someone to just jump into, typically because their first impression of them are that they are too boring, or too hard to 'get into'. These experiences do not cater to the audiences whims. It assaults everything they fundamentally hold dear as mere viewers and players.

At this point, I’m going to use an article[3] to illustrate the similarities between these two (and a little bit of research on my part[4]). There are five dense seasons in The Wire just as there are five dense stages in Demon’s Souls and each are notably different experiences from one another. For the uninitiated, the article I’m using basically uses the opening scenes of each season of The Wire to illustrate what that respective season is meant to accomplish (something David Simon said was intentional on him and his crew’s part).

Season 1: The Wire

"The scene: McNulty interviews a witness to the killing of a man nicknamed "Snot Boogie," who was shot after robbing the local craps game once too often. When Jimmy asks why they kept letting Snot play after he robbed them a time or two, the surprised witness explains, "Got to. This America, man."
"The theme: America and all its institutions are now so fundamentally committed to business as usual that they keep letting their own equivalents of Snot Boogie into the game, since that's the way it's always been done."

Demon’s Souls: The Boletarian Palace: How many people picked up Demon’s Souls under false pretenses? They might say they were looking for an enjoying action RPG, but the second that first dredgling leaped upon them, they immediately got pissed. The formula from The Wire is working backwards in this instance, as business as usual was letting gamers into this experience to begin with. Every gamer that picked up Demon’s Souls and got pissed because it was too hard, picked it up to soothe some weird fucked up RPG standard it didn’t live up to, or even those who picked it up solely because of its quickly acquired reputation for being hard were all shot down. They were all in essence ‘killed over some bullshit’. The tagline for the DVD of The Wire is ‘Listen Carefully’ and this is something I myself immediately picked up on in Demon’s Souls level 1-2. The famous bridge where a large red dragon comes swooping down to burn any living thing making its way across is easily avoided. I recall a certain reddit exchange where the voice of dissent was claiming that Demon’s Souls offers no indicator of this encounter, that the game was just cheap, stupid, and uncessarily hard. Both myself and another opposing redditor were kind of dumbstruck at this because our assumed reaction was simple:

We heard that dragon’s wings seconds before it came roaring down to burn us---therefore we avoided the attack. This is business as usual in gaming. Players have been trained to just run across the bridge and if there’s danger, there better be a big fucking sign that says ‘hey stupid, look behind you!’. Demon’s Souls relentlessly requires that you pay attention to what is going on at all times, or else you’re just going to end up lost and frustrated. Sound like a certain television show?

Let’s not forget the sense of familiarity that is associated with any ‘first level’ in any videogame. Demon’s Souls being as unforgiving as it is essentially guarantees that the player will not soon forget the Boletarian Palace, just like any viewer of The Wire won’t soon forget the D’Angelo Barksdale[5] running grounds. Such an opening level easily relates to The Wire’s ‘pit’, where that same raggedy-ass orange couch holds analog to Demon’s Souls’s infamous bridge.

Season 2: The Wire

"The scene: McNulty, banished to the marine unit, is reminiscing about the now-defunct factories that once ringed Baltimore's harbors when he gets a distress call from a party yacht that's stalled in the shipping channel. The tux-clad host bribes Jimmy to let his swanky pals continue their soiree unmolested."
"The theme: Season Two deals with the disappearance of American industrial life, as seen through the eyes of the barely-employed union men on Baltimore's docks. McNulty's run-in with the party boat shows how a place like the harbor, which once provided steady employment to the city's blue collar citizenry, has now become just another playground for the rich."

Demon’s Souls: Stonefang Tunnel: The resignation the player will have at this point is easily relatable to officer Jimmy McNulty’s banishment to the docks throughout the second season. Coincidentally, the enemies here mirror the labor force in The Wire, being hostile working goblins (literally, the golbins are mining as you make your way throughout the level like a small workforce) that don’t take kindly to having their area infringed upon. The docks in general is an easy corollary to stage 2’s mining tunnel. The long arduous path to the first and second boss is also reminiscent of Frank Sabotka’s situation in which he accepts the compromise of shipping illegal materials for the sake of making ends meet. His dangerous but efficient shortcut mirrors that of Stonefang’s horrific drop which serves as a infamous shortcut to stage two’s boss, the Flamelurker, and taking on the Flamelurker with anything less than magic is trouble most people are simply unprepared for.

Season 3: The Wire

"The scene: Dope slingers Bodie and Poot witness the demolition of the high-rise towers where they once worked, and discuss how often Poot caught social diseases from a girl there. ("Don't matter how many times you get burnt," Bodie says. "You just keep doin' the same.") The high-rise implosion inadvertently fills the surrounding streets with dust."
"The theme: Two, two, two themes in one! As Bodie and Poot's boss Stringer Bell and police commander Bunny Colvin each try - and fail - to change the way their side of the drug war does business, Bodie's words foreshadow the pointlessness of attempting reform. Meanwhile, Stringer's partner Avon Barksdale gets caught up in a pointless war with rival Marlo Stanfield, which becomes an Iraq war allegory; the high-rise implosion and its aftermath are framed to evoke 9/11."

Demon’s Souls: The Tower of Latria: Just as stage three is my favorite level, season three of The Wire is my favored season. What begins in a prison-like insane asylum ends up branching out in the decayed tower of a once revered queen.  The player cuts the chains on a massive heart to gain access to an elevated tower where two ruthless and infamous enemies are likely to viciously [6] kill you. The decay of a once great tower is shown across the simple aesthetic in this level, just as streets show the decay of the bureaucracy inherent in Batltimore’s Police department. The trip from the hellish depths of the swamplands to the highest tier of the tower show that no matter where you go, you’re essentially fucked. You’re not getting out. The game is out there, and it’s either play or get played.

Season 4: The Wire

"The scene: Snoop, one of Marlo's chief assassins, visits a hardware store in search of a new nail gun. A salesman, not realizing Snoop intends to use the device to seal up her many victims in abandoned homes, gives her an elaborate lesson on the value of powder-actuated nail guns."
"The theme: The focus shifts to a Baltimore middle school and how the city school system isn't preparing many of its students for anything but life on a drug corner. Snoop's conversation with the hardware salesman is the first lesson of many where the student takes away something entirely different from what the teacher intended."

Demon’s Souls: The Shrine of Storms: The tagline for season four is ‘no corner is left behind’ which is funny considering that the corners in the Shrine of Storms are the most dangerous in the game, featuring cliffsides where any hyper-powered skeletal guard could be waiting with a giant axe, and there’s no time to think as the childish manta rays are there to prove just much of a danger at almost every turn. Any small amount of hope seen inside the safety of the caverns is a false light emitted by invisible wraiths who are just as deceptively much of a danger as any potential-filled child who is forced to grow up on the corner. There’s no solace in any classroom if you’re just fated to go right back outside, and any formidable challenge in the face of the player is actually just a blind[7] obstacle to be overcome so you can proceed back outside.

The Wire: Season 5

"The scene: Homicide detective Bunk cons a very dim suspect into believing that a copy machine doubles as a lie detector." 
"The theme: “Season five is about ‘what didn’t happen’. This is the great joke that we played the newspapers this year. And I said ‘you’re gonna be angry at us’. Not all journalists. I got a bunch of correspondence from smart journalists who got it. People consume stories on one level for the most part, not everybody—-but a lot of people do. The guts of what happens in The Wire season five is what doesn’t happen.”"

Demon's Souls: The Valley of Defilement: ‘Read Between the Lines’ is the tagline for the concluding season of The Wire and the archdemon for world five respresents that in spades. Not only that, but she ideally captures ‘what doesn’t happen’. There is no climatic boss battle, there is a confrontation where the player is depressingly introduced to the futility of their actions and just what it is they’re fighting towards. In a game that places very little ‘in your face’ emphasis on its story, what the player reads between the confrontations with Maiden Astraea and the concluding encounter with King Allant isn’t a note of triumph. Its either a potent realization of sorrow or a primal awakening of a lust for power.

Nothing is won, no greatness is gained. At best, the conclusion of Demon’s Souls is like The Wire in the same sense that either one rises to power with a vain lust to maintain and cultivate it further or a failed hope in trying fruitlessly to uphold their sense of right and wrong in a world that no longer has any meaning for such concepts anymore.

1. IGN’s pointless article comparing Skyrim to Dark Souls.
2. questfolove calls Breaking Bad ‘the white wire’, why? God only knows.
3. ‘Keys to the Wire’ by Alan Sepinwall
4. Since the prior article was written while season five was still on the air, I added my own summation for season five,  mostly gleaned from a lecture I watched David Simon give on YouTube.
5. One of The Wire’s ‘babies’, a mascot for what happens when any real change is attempted in a world that renders you obsolete.
6. Go find Stringer Bell’s eerily similar fate when he decides it’s okay to cut the heart of out of his own business measures.
7. See Roland Pryzbylewski

Monday, September 26, 2011

Poor Okamiden...

Yeah, I’m still here. I’ve just been busy.

Kurow is full of weird slang.
While the list of recent games that interests me has been dwindling this year, the urge to write about the ones I have played hasn’t lost its will at all. I’m well aware that I still owe this little space quite a few blogs too, it’s just a matter of my finding the time to bang them out. One of the games that I have been playing off and on over the past few months is Okamiden, the portable sequel to Clover Studio’s 2006 Zelda-killer (which if you regularly keep up with me---was a successful ‘assasination’ in my eyes)[1]. The title for this post is apt because this game will be the middle child in what I’m assuming for the series’s future. I completed the little adventure last night and I was quite impressed with it.

What surprised me is that even with no immediate title to pointlessly compare it to, I couldn’t help feeling that upon completion, Okami as a potential franchise just zapped away a bit more of the small reservoir of love that I have for the Zelda series. It’s surprising to me because Okamiden is not a game without its flaws. It’s riddled with shortcomings and questionable decisions left and right, but still managed to intrigue me as a game even more than Skyward Sword probably will (which I’ve decided to skip until I’m home for the holidays). The question there becomes why?

Well it wasn’t that hard to figure out after immediately completing it, as the game’s conclusion is as satisfying as its predecessor---but starkly more depressing. Even in comparison with more high-profile AAA games with focus on narrative, the game deals with its own in a surprisingly mature manner. This is the biggest and most obvious thing that I took away from both Okami and Okamiden. It actually cares about the little tale it’s presenting whereas the likes of Nintendo only cares about its franchise’s continuity to the extent that they can tease fans and keep it as vague as humanly possible as to not risk compromising things as ridiculous as its timeline’s continuity (all while appealing to the fanbase’s every whim) [2].

I’ve never been one to spare people details just for the sake of avoiding spoilers, but if you’re trying to keep things fresh in terms of Okamiden, you may want to stop reading here.

So the most famous thing about Okamiden is that a main character dies at the end. Kurow, a living doll made by a Moon Tribe member (who was prominent in the first title) makes a small doll in his image; Kurow is then sent down from the moon and immediately befriends Chibiterasu (the main character and son of Okami’s main heroine, Amaterasu). What was surprising about Kurow is that in reality he was a MAJOR player in the overall game. It’s arguable that the player will spend even more of their time with Kurow on Chibiterasu’s back rather than Kuni (son of the first game’s Susano and the small child featured prominently on all the game’s advertising). That leads into another discussion on the games treatment of its partner characters. Chibiterasu befriends five children who all play major roles in his adventures during the game:

Kagu – A brash young girl who participates in theatre acting as a passion, but is also ashamed of being a powerful Miko practitioner.
Nanami – A young mermaid who the player meets chronologically before she actually first appears in the game proper.
Manpuku – A portly boy looking for his mother in the past who has a distinct weakness for eating.
Kurow – The eccentric ‘doll’ sent from the moon. He talks and carries himself in the same style as Okami’s Ushiwaka.
Kuni – Susano’s adopted son who is captured after the second boss battle for the entirety of the game.

The game weaves these five together as well as a game of its nature will allow, even going so far as to repeat the time-travel thematic that the first game used so ‘epically’. This is the most defining characteristic and difference I can ascribe between Okami and Okamiden. The former was a massive and epic adventure encompassing a narrative that worked on multiple scales. Okamiden is about a third of its predecessor’s size (going off my own playtime as Okami took sixty hours for me to complete my first time through; Okamiden took around twenty five), and made more use of thematic mechanics in terms of how its story unfolded. Not only that, but it makes use of subtlety to hammer home those themes too. The best example I can think of to describe that is the appearance of the ‘Goryeo’ from the first game[3].  What was a sunken ship in the first title is a thriving vessel in Okamiden, filled with people and doubling as a sort of mini-dungeon. As its arc draws to a close however, a sea dragon appears and attacks the ship. Instead of the expected boss battle with the dragon,  the captain and its members proudly lecture Chibiterasu and Kurow on the responsibility meant for them both and forces them off to complete their own journey. 

As Kurow carries a crying Chibiterasu off (who is upset because he wants to help the ship’s crewmembers who are facing dire odds), one can make out the ship being dragged violently underwater by the serpent. Granted, some of its members do survive and can be met later, but the way in which the scene dealt with the concept of loss was unexpected for a portable game of this type, and as far as I know there was no indication at all that the crew as a whole survived, so you’re left to accept the death of a number of people you just recently met.

The things that really work against the game are the reason I almost stopped playing halfway through myself. Technically, the game is inferior to its PS2 counterpart. There’s only so much a portable game will be able to accomplish so that much was obvious. Aesthetically, it’s just as charming, but not as surprising as the first game. This means that novelty that was present in the first game is now lost in a game that is technically hindered as well being only a supplement in terms of its own aesthetic originality. The difficulty of the game is not to be overlooked either, as one will probably make their way through the entire game being able to count their total number of deaths on a single hand. There’s only so much sense of accomplishment one can glean from a game when it’s as easy as this, and that ends up working against it. The celestial brush techniques are varied, but don’t deviate that much from the first game and only enjoy the DS’s more-suited touch screen functionality at best. The game generally relies too much on retreading mechanics, themes, and areas from the first game without (or only minimally) garnering appreciation for each. As much as I appreciated the double trip to two different sections of Nippon’s past, we did do the exact same thing in Okami too---we didn’t need a checklist crossed off in terms of ‘cool stuff we should just do again’.

So the first ten hours was me fighting that last paragraph in its entirety, but the latter fifteen or so let the young characters shine and Okami’s original game mechanics take center stage in an admirable fashion easily worthy of its big PS2 brother. The music is just as lovely as it was before and it more than anything else---breathes new life into the old areas the player will traverse again[4]. Given the somber conclusion of Okamiden (Kuni is denounced as a son by his father and leaves home to learn about his past), both Kuni and Chibiterasu could easily appear in a grander fashion on a more powerful console.

Okamiden makes me enthralled to think about what could be done with a new PS3 iteration, but at the same time I don’t even think it would be worth it at this point either [5]. Gamers have proven that they don’t really want (nor do they deserve) it.

1. There’s a in-depth post in there somewhere, but in order to capture it accurately, but I’d have to play both Okami again and a Zelda of my choosing (probably Ocarina of Time) to figure out why I’m so intent on Okami proving Zelda’s unequivocal failure. As it stands, I’ve enjoyed the first Okami title more than I have any one Zelda game.

2. Nintendo has spoken on this countless times, but the most recent instance I’ve read is in this month’s Game Informer where Zelda’s series producer states outright that they purposefully keep the series continuity and narrative downplayed because otherwise they’d have to give it priority comparable to the game’s mechanical design (which is about the laziest damn thing I’ve heard).

3. Okami Wikia – Sunken Ship [ ]

4. Check out ‘Evil King Supression’ – Okami’s Final Boss theme [ ]

5. Okami was in the Guinness Book of World records for being the least commercially successful game to win a ‘Game of the Year’ award. It failed to break 1 million in sales even including a 2nd release (the PS2 and the Wii).