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2010 Retrospective Part 2 - Nostalgia, Sin, Editing

I originally passed on Retro Game Challenge but picked it up after I heard it wasn't just a compilation of retro-style games but actually used 80s game culture as a framing device, even to the point where you have to consult "game magazines" to make progress. This seemed rather charming.

I got through most of the game, and found it to be a consistently clever, if slight, experience. I say "slight" because the 80s cultural aspects are indeed more of a framing device than something explored thoroughly. (I could never figure out why you or your friend didn't seem to age between 1982 and 1987.) Also, perhaps more importantly, I felt there was a big missed opportunity in the localization. American, European, and Japanese 80s game culture were all distinctly different, and the way the game coyly wants you to pretend otherwise is disappointing.

The best thing about Retro Game Challenge is how well it demonstrates how creative goal design can give a lot of depth to supposedly "simple" mechanics. The meta-game involves becoming an adept "gamer", not just finishing games, which means you have to play the same games over and over in order to perform esoteric tasks that make creative use of each game's mechanics. This aspect of the game is very well realized, and actually does a good job of re-creating the mindset of what it meant to be a young gamer in the heyday of the NES. Of course, one could easily imagine this sort of game also being a cutting commentary on the self-serving propaganda machine of Nintendo and the Stalinist grip it maintained on the culture... but I don't suppose we'll ever see that on a Nintendo platform.

Sin and Punishment: Star Successor I played because it is a shooter by Treasure, and two of their previous efforts in this vein, Gunstar Heroes and Ikaruga, are among the sublime game experiences of my life. Not that I was expecting this from Star Successor, which was a sequel to one of their more obscure, experimental shooters, an early 3D effort on the N64 that I'd only played briefly.

I didn't finish Star Successor, but my deep respect for Treasure inspired me to play it a fair amount, in spite of the fact that I'm not a big fan of its mechanics. It's basically a rail shooter where you control two avatars: your target reticule and your character, who floats around freely via a jet pack. Games where the main concept is "move a cursor around the screen and shoot things" always feel tedious to me (which is one of the reasons I can appreciate, but never really enjoy, Rez). Star Successor mitigates this tedium somewhat with melee attacks and a charge shot that, if used cleverly, do not require the player to hold down the 'fire' button the whole game. But still... like Geometry WarsSpace Giraffe, and other shooters in which liberal swarms of seemingly chaotic elements flood the screen endlessly, you inevitably feel that you're fighting a losing battle against entropy.

To some people this may not seem much different that the harsh bullet-hell challenges of Ikaruga, but, to me, there is something so logical about what Ikaruga throws at you that falling repeatedly in that world feels like a failure to master order, not a failure to master chaos... which, to a personality like mine, constitutes a very big difference.

Aside from Red Dead RedemptionHeavy Rain was probably the triple A game last year that left me the most thoroughly unimpressed... at least in terms of artistic ambition. Yes, it's much better than self-proclaimed game auteur David Cage's previous effort, Fahrenheit, but that's hardly saying anything, considering what a train wreak of interface design and pretentious bullshit it was.

Heavy Rain is an incredibly misguided game, with an utterly bone-headed philosophy of how to create narrative engagement, but with production quality so slick and expensive (though, I would argue, still not very "good") it managed to hoodwink a lot of people into thinking it was somehow what interactive narrative should be. Predictably, the best moments of the game are the ones that are the least cinematic, like when you find yourself with a whole evening to kill, and you have to responsibly manage dinner, your son's homework, your work, and relaxation, all while time ticks away.

Heavy Rain isn't a bad game; just a stupid one. Its interface design is interesting, doing a decent job of marrying symbolically gestural controller actions to on-screen character actions. This is the game's only real contribution (and the big improvement over Fahrenheit), since everything else it does has been done before, mostly in the mid-90s "interactive movie" craze that almost killed videogame storytelling. It's as if Cage got bonked on the head in 1995 and woke up in the era of the PS3. His approach to narrative design is basically "cinematics" that you can control the speed of because they are rendered in real time, and require pressure-sensitive controller actions to make the "film" run through the projector. The game is basically the experience of being David Cage's editor, more than it is anything else.

I would feel a lot kinder toward Heavy Rain if all its stumbles, indulgences, and genuinely clever moments weren't hamstrung by Cage's dull imagination, whose idea of "good writing" is on par with a mediocre X-Files episode. His notion of "gritty reality" seems to come entirely from American television, the sort where everyone's hair and teeth are perfect and everyone wears designer clothes but we as viewers are instructed to believe they represent "average" people. Only if you buy into this kind of Hollywood ruse daily will you buy into Heavy Rain, the first videogame to really nail the depravity of bourgeois cinema.

I wrote a rather long post about Shattered Memories months ago, so I won't bother to recount my thoughts in detail here. My feelings about the game are primarily positive. It doesn't deliver what it (absurdly) promises: a psychological horror experience tailored to the individual user. But it does deliver a well-realized, agreeably fresh take on survival horror, and one that surprisingly manages to demonstrate an nuanced understanding of the original classic upon which it is based.

One of Shattered Memories' best features is its excellent interface design, which uses the wiimote modesty and intelligently, not overreaching the hardware's capabilities. Also, it's one of the few games I've played that seems to achieve the right level of graphical fidelity in the environment to forgo the use of superimposed text. This really makes one examine the environment, not just look for hotspots and items, which subtlety encourages a measured, more detective-like approach to basic navigation. This was one of the few games in recent memory that I actually played twice in a row, and enjoyed doing so.

I actually enjoyed Obsidian's much maligned "spy RPG". The game did have polish issues, but a lot of the design conceits it received heavy criticism for (like the way your pistol stat dictates the speed of your aiming reticule) were identical to other, well-respected Action/RPG hybrids. One wonders what these reviewers would have said about Deus Ex ten years ago.

I didn't finish Alpha Protocol, mostly because its world and plot got so complicated it was hard for me to re-orient myself when I failed to play it for more than a week. Also, my interest waned after I realized how the game was less of a simulated world and more of a heavily-scripted tree that just happened to have a ridiculous amount of branches. Obsidian isn't unique in defining "choice" this way (it's basically the way Bioware, Bethesda, and virtually every other Western RPG developer has for the last decade) but in the case of Alpha Protocol it began to bother me since, being used to espionage-themed games that take a more simulation-based approach (Metal Gear, Hitman, Deux Ex, etc.), I increasingly found myself unable to do fairly basic things, like backtrack or explore to gather my own intel. The missions are surprisingly linear, with your "choice" exclusively relegated to how you dispatch people based on how you've built your character. I suppose this is true to the ads that said "Your weapon is choice.", but I guess I was expecting it to be more than just a weapon.

Still, Obsidian deserves credit for doing what bigger companies seem consistently unwilling to do: create a murky, morally complex world. Not that Alpha Protocol reaches the level of daring political statement (alas, Fallout 2), but it does manage to make you feel like the U.S. isn't particularly better than every other corrupt government... which is always nice.

Next Up!
Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Metroid: Other M
The Silent Debuggers
Fallout: New Vegas
Shinobido: Way of the Ninja

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