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2010 Retrospective - Part 3: Taxidermy, Porn, Politics

Another of 2010's critical darlings, Amnesia is a game I felt I had to play given my interest in horror. It's certainly good, but the sheer amount of praise it's gotten alarms me. It has been called the first great survival horror game in years, one of the scariest games ever made, etc. It isn't any of these things. What it is is a polished, well-made, extremely reverent fan work... so reverent it borders on fetishism. The makers of Amnesia clearly love survival horror. A bit too much.

Amnesia cannot be a "great" horror game to me because it does not possess an imagination of its own, like Silent Hill or Resident Evil once did. Outside of its clever interface design (and an admittedly phenomenal encounter with an invisible monster) it brings nothing new to the genre... unless mid-90s point-and-click horror games are so old they qualify as new again. I understand that people lament the death of survival horror, of the days before action gameplay creep reduced the genre to a thematic subset of third-person shooters. But I've played plenty of games recently that evoke those lost tensions and manage to be original. Demon's Souls, Deadly Premonition, and Hell Night were all superior "survival horror" experiences to me. Compared to such fresh experiments, Amnesia's strictly lock-and-key puzzle design and effective-yet-monotonous atmosphere feel like calculated exercises in fanboy taxidermy. It enshrines, rather than reinvents, the genre.

Other M is a game I liked quite a lot, in spite of its gag-inducing gender politics. It's a bit unfair how the game design itself drew criticism from a lot of people, who seemed loath to consider its gameplay and story separately, heaping them both into the same sour judgement. In a world of God of War clones, Other M's novel 3D gameplay was refreshing to me, re-capturing the excitement of mid-90s 3D experimentation. The story though was rightfully considered shit by almost everybody. I am not the sort who demands Japanese games conform to an American liberal standard of what women should be (Celes is still one of my favorite game characters), but Other M had me choking with disgust... not only for how it portrayed Samus, but for just how pointless it was to the series.

Samus relationship with Adam, her former commanding officer, had been explored in Metroid Fusion, and Other M hits virtually all the same story beats, even though it is supposedly a prequel. Really it's just a thinly veiled remake of Fusion (right down to the reappearance of certain bosses) only with the melodrama cranked up so high it could shatter glass. Metroid was never exactly a feminist manifesto, but it also never portrayed Samus's gender as a point of weakness. Other M does, saddling her with a band of macho marines that call her "princess" and -- I swear to god -- have to save her when her suit (her only source of power, apparently) luridly evaporates off her naked body any time she suffers a crisis of confidence. It's like a porn-parody of Iron Man.

Raging fans tended to blame Team Ninja, given their penchant for bimbo characters. As far as I know though, they were mostly tapped for visual design of Other M, which may explain why all the women in the story (not just Samus) look like 9-year-olds who've just found their mother's make-up case. The writer of the actual plot was still long-time series helmer Yoshio Sakamoto, and I'm sure this was his honest attempt to "humanize" a character he felt responsible for.

It's a shame because, after the macho (read: American) militarism of Metroid Prime 3, I was keen to see the series given back to a Japanese developer, who have always treated the militaristic aspects of the mythology with more ambivalence (the military turn out to be the villains in Fusion). The medieval sexism of Other M however had me missing Prime 3, a game where the military seems to A) employ women and B) allow them to wear normal clothes. Between the two games, Metroid has the worst aspects of both cultures covered. Maybe the next game should be Swedish.

Silent Debuggers is a game I had never heard of until last year. It was on a list of overlooked Turbografix-16 games, and the description intrigued me. It is, in fact, one of the better variations on the film Alien I've ever seen in a video game, nailing a lot of elements that later variations failed to get right. Especially good is the game's modeling of the motion-tracker from the film, which emits an audio pulse when a creature is close. Because of the game's primitive "fake 3D" approach, which is just a bunch of static 2D images of 3D corridors that it flips through as you move, it creates the impression that each move is a "step". Hearing the motion-tracker go berserk when you take a single step into a room and hearing it instantly go silent when you step back out achieves a crisp clarity of cause-and-effect that even the Alien vs. Predator games didn't really have.

I also really liked how the game, which came out in 1991, prefigures the brutal resource management of survival horror, forcing you to constantly ration ammo and health, both of which can only be replenished from finite supplies located in the core "safe" section of the ship. (Use them up and you're fucked.) This, combined with the fact that the whole game is on a single timer, and you must find a way to escape before the ship explodes, creates a surprisingly tense experience, in some ways akin to the white-knuckled thrill of System Shock 1's final sections. I didn't finish Silent Debuggers, because it got rather hard and somewhat repetitive after a while, but that didn't diminish my impression of just how effectively it captured a particular kind of suspense, a kind many games try for but few achieve.

I played Bethesda's Fallout 3 like everyone else, and enjoyed it like everyone else, but it still felt like a watered-down version of Fallout to me--the bloated Hollywood remake to Black Isle's lean, sassy original. This could be seen primarily in terms of the writing, which was cartoony and obvious compared to the sharp satire of Fallout 1 and 2, and in terms of the game's general moral view, which was much more binary. Fallout 3 was definitely a post-KOTOR Fallout, tending to view the wasteland much more in terms of obvious heroes and villains. (Thanks Three-Dog, for letting me know which ghouls are "okay" to kill.) New Vegas, thankfully, is a return to the more murky moral universe of the original games, and not coincidentally given that Obsidian is partially made up of refugees from Black Isle. To my mind this makes New Vegas a more "legitimate" Fallout sequel, with a stronger continuity of tone and attitude.

I didn't even come close to finishing New Vegas, but I didn't have to to feel refreshed by its less jokey, more complex take on post-apocalyptic politics. Its faction system, while more "top down" than I'd prefer (I don't like how factions magically know you killed their members, even if no witnesses survive), presented an intriguing tangle of opposing world views, all of which seem to have their own logic and potential for corruption. One person's hero was always another person's villain, and the way New Vegas repeatedly asks you to make political decisions based on incomplete or distorted information is commendable. Like Alpha Protocol, it stubbornly insists on seeing the world in more complex terms than the majority of triple A games do... and that's easily worth the price of a few bugs.

I have a longer post about Shinobido waiting in the wings, so I will not go into great detail about the game here, aside from saying it was a game I'm very glad I played. Released outside Japan only in PAL regions, it was an obscure and original alternative to the Tenchu series, made by Aquire after they lost the Tenchu license to From Software. For anyone who's a fan of stealth, non-linear narrative, or faction-based politics Shinobido is a must-play, if only to see a completely original take on these ideas.

Up Last!
Shalom: Knightmare III
Deadly Premonition
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow & Legacy of Darkness
Epic Mickey
Spy Fiction

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