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