Archive for review

Cutting Commentary in Velvet Buzzsaw

Posted in All the Things, Movie Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 4, 2019 by trivialpunk

I never said I was consistent. The horror aesthetic is in right now, and creeping doom is on every horizon, but that’s more the state of the gaming industry than its content. Perpetual experiences and micro-transactions don’t lend themselves well to producing horror games, even if they do inspire dread. So, it was either ride the Dark Souls wave or write about the only thing more horrifying than creeping existential horror: politics.

Not here, though. No, the personal is political, so I can excuse the evening off from charting our winding path into a coiling snare. There are so many things in this world that would bind us and use us that one can hardly keep track. Sorry, got kinky there for a second, but it speaks to the question that faces most artists in today’s market.

Capture.PNG

There are many ways to read Velvet Buzzsaw, and I’ve spent a lot of time avoiding outside interpretations of the movie, except the initial review that led me to it. I wanted to remain surprised, because I was promised a character-focused horror movie with great cinematography and a twist. I got a lot more than that, though, and I want to give you the same opportunity I had to enjoy it. So, here’s your spoiler-warning. From here on out, I’m going to be spoiling major plot-points and the central gimmick of the twist, as well as dissecting what I see as the ethos of the film. There will be no coming back from these spoilers, soo…

SPOILER WARNING!!!!

That being said, let’s start with the exploiters of artists and the gate-keepers that enable the scarcity they profit off of. I mean, the cast. Morf Vandewalt is a renowned art critic that is insulated by pride, pretence and pomp. He acts as a gate-keeper of value in the artistic world that “assesses out of adoration,” but the film goes out of its way to demonstrate his profound naivety towards the powerful people and institutions that profit off his work. This is a great example of the lighting direction and framing coalescing with the narrative at the perfect moment for a story beat.

Capture2

Up until this moment, Morf has been framed as a suave, sophisticated socialite whose words can move mountains. But here, for one moment, his hair is under-lit to make it look like a bowlcut, as Morf is saying something that we know isn’t accurate with absolute confidence. He is, in truth, incredibly childish. You can see it in his demands and complaints. As a critic, Morf is being used to promote dangerous items for dishonest people, as well as destroying the careers and lives of countless artists to further his cachet. He excuses his actions by claiming that his opinions are honest, and they do seem very genuine, but he does tear down Ricky for Josephina. He knows it is wrong, though, and he even gets moments of moral indignation by refusing to sell out his personal beliefs. Morf is not morally corrupt, but he’s not overtly critical of the systems off of which he profits.

You know who is morally corrupt, though? Rhodora Haze, former punk artist turned wealthy socialite. As the owner of the Haze Gallery, she deals in modern art and Machiavellian politics. She’s manipulating Morf behind the scenes, holding contracts like switch-blades under the throats of other characters and stage managing the launch of the Vetril Dease Collection: a series of paintings that were discovered after the artist’s death. Since the artist is dead and the owner of the art is under her thumb, she is free to lie about the paintings at will. She squirrels half of them away to increase their scarcity value.

Rhodora’s mirror-mirror doppelganger is Gretchen. As a newly-minted art advisor/gate-keeper, she’s trying to survive in the same world of money and perception as Rhodora, but she’s nooot as good at it. In her stumbles, we see the ugly seams of their art scene come blatantly to the surface. She tries to bribe Morf to point her to “under-valued, pre-review art,” because she sees Rhodora profiting by buying pieces before Morf’s favourable reivews go live and increase their value. Of course, Rhodora isn’t bribing him; she’s spying on him. Despite Morf’s integrity, he exists in a system where his favourable reviews can be fore-casted by the people who profit off of them. An uncomfortable reflection of the game review space I left all those years ago? Maybe that’s why we’re here…

Let’s not get TOO meta, TOO fast. Where were we? Josephina is another inductee into the world of power and politics. As an employee of Rhodora, she stumbles across the paintings of Vetril Dease on the evening of his death. Recognising his brilliance and claiming them for herself, Josephina empties the man’s apartment of his life’s work. It’s clear that Rhodora took her under her wing as a employee, but is in the process of demoting her when she’s tipped off to the existence of the Dease collection. Josephina is strong-armed by Rhodora, under threat of contractual litigation, into handing over management rights for the Dease Collection in exchange for wealth and prestige. She agrees, because she has no choice.

Jon Dondon is a competing art dealer that learned well from Rhodora. He spends his days trying to poach artists from the Haze Gallery and sabotaging their stars. Jon Dondon puts considerable effort into undermining the reputation of the Dease Collection before meeting his bitter end. His body is discovered by Coco.

Coco is the mirror-mirror opposite of Josephina. She’s working an entry-level position at the Haze Gallery and learning how to navigate the choppy waters of a cut-throat industry. I have a fan-theory about her. I think she sabotaged Josephina in the opening act of the movie by calling her Right before work to tell her about her cheating ex. When Josephina was moved off the front line, Coco got her job. A job she immediately lost, because Rhodora uses and discards people at will, but it’s clear that she’s learned how to undermine people in order to advance her interests. Yet, the film doesn’t totally condemn her for her actions. Coco’s trying to survive in a harsh market, and it’s causing her to compromise her integrity. At the mid-point of the film, she reveals that she’s been spying on Rhodora, and the information she gleaned gets her a new job. So, she’s dishonest, buut…

Capture3.PNG

Which is really more of a condemnation of the system she wants to profit off of than her as a character. At least, in relation to the other characters in this little psychodrama. She keeps losing her job, because her employers keep dying for their sins, but she survives, even if her dream is broken.

That’s most of the main cast. There’s the blue-collar Bryson, who exists as a stereotype both so broadly drawn and utterly eclectic that I can only call him a douche-hipster. Piers is an established artist that is struggling to find creative truth in a system that values constant exploitable productivity. Damrish is an emerging artist from the streets that wants to find a place where his work can mean something, caught between financial success and cultural relevance.

The last two members of the important players are almost uncredited. They are the representatives of the Museum of Modern Art, and only one of them gets a name. It’s Jim, and his unnamed partner says one of the most important lines in the film to Gretchen: “…If you wanted to ram more of your collector’s hoard down our throat to increase their value, you should have done so before the Dease deal was locked…” You see, there’s only so much room in a gallery to show off cultural artefacts, so curators have to be careful with their space. As an artistic institution, the museum has a responsibility to the integrity of the art world, but the leverage provided to Gretchen by the inflated value of the Dease Collection gives her power over their investors. The wealthy gate-keepers of the art world have lent her the pictures and capital necessary to dictate what cultural artefacts will be displayed as valuable in the museum. She does to them what Rhodora did to her by packaging Dease with another artist named Minkins. In this scene, the film is saying that the power structures that profit off of exploiting artists do not elevate art based on its cultural value but on its ability to be exploited for profit. Therefore, the exemplars of this cultural space did not gain ascendancy through cultural relevance, but  through systems of power. Even if the art is only valuable for the moment:

Capture4.PNG

From EA to Disney, this is the relationship that most artists find themselves in today. The gate-keepers of artistic value are propped up by towers of money, and it seems like the only way forward is to sell-out for profit. As Gretchen says, “Look, I came to the museum, because I wanted to change the world through art. But, the wealthy vacuum up everything, except crumbs. The best work is only enjoyed by a tiny few. And they buy what they’re told. So why not join the party?” These are not evil people, but they’re still profiting off of a system that locks culture and the ascendancy of artistic vision behind pay-walls and monetary access. So, what should an artist do in this environment? What is the point of art if nobody sees it?

It turns out that the film has really optimistic answers to both those questions, but I want to address two very important aspects before we get to those answers. The first is that the paintings are haunted by the ghost of Vetril Dease, because he literally put his blood, sweat and tears into his work. His pain and madness are seared into his tormented works, and their raw manifestation is what ensorcells both critics and artists alike. This life of misery, “A howl for answers and a resolution that never comes,” is the fascination point off which the galleries will profit. They’re capitalising on the dead man’s pain.

The second aspect is the way in which Dease’s media is altered for consumption. Not a single stroke on his paintings is changed, but when they are removed from the context of his tiny, ramshackle house, they lose their connection to their meaning. Dease faced serious abuse, and his work was a means of processing that trauma. His howl for answers reveals the depth of that pain, but that depth is completely removed by transplanting it to a gallery space for safe consumption. In a gallery, people see the brilliance and clarity of the emotion, but they are insulated from its impact. Capitalism sanitizes media and removes it from the consequences of its context, a point which the film makes extremely explicit:

Capture5.PNG

Everyone thinks that Gretchen’s death is part of the exhibit, so they’re removed from the reality of the situation. The children in this scene think it’s fake blood; they assume that everything in the gallery is safe for consumption, so they are protected from its implications. The paintings and sculptures in this movie could stand in for any form of media. By removing media from its context and making it safe for capitalistic consumption, we are insulated from its true meaning, thereby allowing the framers of that information the power to control our perception of it. Which gets even more interesting when you consider that Damrish is a culturally-relevant Black artist being tugged away from his artist’s collective to pursue success in a mainstream gallery

Capture6.PNG

It should not be ignored that the history of African Americans in most artistic mediums includes a long history of exploitation. That the gate-keepers of power in this movie are primarily white, and that systemic socioeconomic differences are of key importance in relation to their access to power. No one in this movie is anything close to racist, but they are unquestioningly profiting off systems of exploitation built on inequality. You could not have an honest psychodrama about the flaws inherent in media exploitation without bringing up the rotten foundation on which it is built. This applies to all vulnerable populations across the media landscape, from Freddy Mercury to the Jackson 5. While naming those two makes it seem like these were relationships of mutual profit, we’d do well to remember the barriers they faced and the artists of all stripes and orientations who see nothing for their life-times of work. The more vulnerable you are, the easier you are to exploit, which is why some populations are targeted more explicitly than others.

Everyone in this movie is duplicitous to some degree. They’re all stage-managing personas and stabbing each other in the back behind warm smiles and “Kisses!” They are the perpetual manifestations of this psychodrama, profiting with cold brutality as they devour warm bodies with neat, sanitized pretence. It’s the same cheerful nihilism on display when the News feeds us justifications for murdering people and presents the deaths of thousands as an engaging tragedy. There is no human way to easily digest the deaths of that many people, but when it scrolls by on your news feed, it feels like one more point in a burning world. Something you can accept and “deal with.”

The personal is political, and the most important point of conflict in the daily lives of most people watching this movie will be fighting the apathy bred by comfort. The most important weapon against action is the idea that everything will be okay. By making things safe and digestible, we never feel the true weight of the tragedies happening around us. There is an art to insulating us into inaction, while at the same time justifying murder. It is the howling storm into which we all must scream.

That brings me back to the haunted paintings and my two final questions. What is the point of art if nobody sees it? I think the film answers that rather handily on multiple occasions. An artist’s primary concern should be the act of creation. “All art is dangerous,” which is to say that all art is powerful. Dease created otherworldly paintings as a byproduct of using art as a tool for exploring his trauma and grief. He survived a life of torment through art, even while definitely committing some murders along the way.

At the end of the film, we have an extremely human moment with Rhodora as she hands the keys of her beach house to Piers. Piers has been struggling with alcoholism and the media-driven idea that artists flourish by sacrificing their sanity to addiction and mental illness. Grappling with the raw honesty on display in Dease’s work, he wants to keep the “easy answer” at arm’s length, while he “tries to get back to creation.” The art world only values him as long as he’s creating work that they can sell, and it seems like the only answer to creating that work is sacrificing his mental well-being. Which is when the ghost of another dead artist steps in. Rhodora’s old girlfriend Poly -who was killed by a similar life- whispers a quote into the chill winds of history that saves Piers, “Dependency murders creativity. Creativity plays with the unknown, No strategies exist that can enclose the endless realm of the new. Only trust in yourself can carry you past your fears and the already known.”

Dependency on liquor and the financial approval of others is murdering Piers’ creativity, while the addiction slowly kills him. Rhodora tells him to take a break from the art scene, because she’s aware of its potential for toxicity. He needs to heal. She tells him to go somewhere and do something for nobody but himself. Because, at the end of the day, You always see your art. What is the point of art if nobody sees it? None, but the artist always sees their work. Art is a tool for expression and self-discovery. The finished product has inherent value to the artist and naturally reflects the time-period of its creation. At the beginning of the film, Rhodora posits that her art world has been thriving since a caveman charged a “bone to see the first cave painting,” tacitly suggesting that art and capitalism are inherently intertwined. Which perfectly reflects her world-view, but it has nothing to do with reality.

While it’s true that pretty shells and intricate carvings have always been traded as valuable, the drive to create is inherent to the human experience. Whether it’s ancient, crumbling paintings or lines in the sand swept away by the tide, the act of creation is inherently valuable. When we place importance on the exploitability of the finished product, rather than the act of creation, we murder creativity. So, what should an artist do in this environment?

Damrish’s story-line follows this logic to its fruition. The personal is political, so we should create for each other in an accessible space. Instead of allowing ourselves to be exploited for personal economic gain, we should look to the good we can do in our community as artists. If you have a voice, then we should use it with thoughtful purpose. At the same time, the collective in the film suggests that if this is the case, then the community needs to be there to support these artists. As someone who wrote free articles for years, I can tell you that you can’t dine on artistic integrity. We need to respect each other and our art, because our creations hold value. Both for ourselves and the future generations that will try to understand us through the exemplars of our culture.

Then, there is the other artist: Vetril Dease. The vengeful spirit left to toil in obscurity, exploited after death without the consent of his personal demons or consideration for the private pain it would unearth. His flesh was sold at auction with each painting, his literal body of work was violated for profit. Artists often sign away the right to control their work in exchange for the ability to create it, especially in the gaming space. Their legacy as creators is controlled as if they were a meaningless incident of its creation. The sole reason I’m writing this review, now, is that I kept asking myself one question: “What is the motivation of the paintings in this movie?” What injustice do the demons locked away behind Dease’s rage seek to correct? In looking for this answer, I came to my thesis for the film: “By making media fit for consumption by cultural institutions propped up by capitalist markets, we sanitize pain and profit off of death. Art that is both personal and culturally relevant/transgressive will/should undermine the power structures that enable the exploitation of art and humans, so that no more people must die in painful obscurity while the rich profit off their work.”

Each death in the movie reflects this motivation. Bryson was supposed to take the Dease paintings to be locked away in a warehouse, but he clearly died on a country road in the middle of stealing them. Rhodora kept Dease behind lock and key, both preserving the paintings he wanted destroyed and setting his work up to be exploited. Josephina stole his work and sold it, despite his wish that it be destroyed. John Dondon dug up Dease’s tragic past, but he was killed before he could use it to undermine the value of the work and profit off the destruction of his competitors through it. Gretchen was killed moments after threatening to use Dease’s work to destroy the hopes of emerging artists, keeping undiscovered artists like Dease in the dark forever to profit off the increased the value of Dease’s posthumous work. Morf kept emerging artists from the public’s eyes by judging their work to be valueless, profiting off their destruction to the point that one of his targets killed himself. Further, Morf stood to make millions from an exclusive Dease book-deal. Before dying, he publishes a tell-all article on Dease’s tragedies and the deaths connected to his work. It is telling that Morf was assumed to be corrupt by people like Gretchen, and that his credibility was only ever destroyed when he told them a bizarre, uncomfortable truth.

Damrish and Piers don’t die, because despite their exposure to the work, they never exploited it. Coco kept losing her job, so she never made a dime off it, either. She lost her dream but not her life. She’ll return home and find something new. And Dease’s art? It’s still out there, circulating out of stolen crates. Which makes me wonder… out of the context of these exploitative systems, will his art still be dangerous, Or was his art most impactful/destructive within this system, because it sought to tear down the power structures that exploited it? Am I reading too much into this? Possibly.

These paintings reflect a dark theme that stretches all the way back to “The King in Yellow.” A terrifying work that inspires heights of artistic excess or the lows of human suffering. Artists often see in works of this amorphous, eldritch nature a kind of creeping wonder. Am I divining something that exists or creating an idea from whole cloth? Kind of meta in a sense, because it comes back to why I’m here and often not here.

I created this blog to “forward the realm I analyze,” as Morf would say, but I found myself in the same position a lot of the time. Discussing gaming at this moment is putting support behind companies that are busily exploiting and destroying the works and artists that I admire. I couldn’t allow myself to be part of that anymore, even if the encroachment of larger investors opened the doors for greater profit. I have zero desire to be chewed up and spit out by an ungrateful industry, but I will always love gaming.

Yet, in my absence, I’ve seen the work of people like Jim Sterling and others pushing back against the glorification of exploitative excess, and I see in that movement a future for gaming. We’ve been here before, so maybe it’s better to stand and fight. These exact same historical beats have been playing out over time, from 3-D to the syphilitic collapse of the AAA Industry from its moulding throne. As we know, from the ashes of failure rise the Embers of a new age, and I’ve been heartened by the growth of the indie scene on Steam. Its gluttonous collapse after Steam Greenlight seemed to me the absolute excesses of Dark Souls’ Humanity. Even I’m back here, writing about the revolutionary potential of an above-average horror movie churned out by a corporate mechanism designed to respond to Disney’s global I.P. Power Grab.

Still, we must shout into the howling gale. We must not place the value of creation on the exploitability of the finished product. In this life, we must live and create, finding joy and integrity where we can make it. I have no mouth and I MUST scream.

Also, I wanted the opportunity to clear up a misinterpretation of my earlier assertion that reaction-time was an important consideration in relation to tank-controls on early survival horror games. Yeah, the tension-and-release cycles are still effective, even when the controls are fluid, because they speed up the monsters, too. The point isn’t the movement of the characters on the screen. The point is the experience of the individual reacting to them. So, if both characters are slow, then tension rises as the character prepares to react, then executes and experiences the results of those actions. The timing of that cycle is the important thing, not the speed of the pixels on the screen. When you’re running away from Pyramid Head’s attack in Silent Hill 2, you have a fraction of a second to react, then pick a direction and run. The tension exists in the execution of the maneuver, even if success or failure are decided at the beginning of the reaction when the startle reflex kicks in. It doesn’t matter if you get hit; it matters that you panicked for a second while you tried to react. That’s part of the build-up of physical tension that accompanies the game’s psychological anxiety.

The Hunters in Resident Evil are the same way. They cross vast distances in one jump, but your reaction to them is hurriedly finding a horizontal axis to safely cross their straight leap. This allows you the time to turn around and launch grenades at them. The controls were slow, so the tension came from thinking quickly. Now, you can react more quickly, but the startle reaction is still there, so more of the mechanical tension has to come from the staging of the game-play sequence.

So, yeah, Velvet Buzzsaw is a psychological revenge-drama where art goes on a killing spree to avenge an exploited artist. Give it a look if you’re still interested. Even with everything spoiled, it’s worth watching. Hell, maybe I’ve been over-analyzing things this whole time, and you’ll find something different in viewing it. That’s the nice thing about art: we each get to decide its value to us. I’ll be back if I feel like I have something else worth saying. Until then, I’ll just be enjoying things for their own value, because…

Capture7.PNG

Uzumaki in its Medium: Mandelbrots and Death

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else with tags , , , , , , , on November 12, 2013 by trivialpunk

Welcome back! A little this and that before we get started. I did a rewrite of my oldest story for a creative writing class, and you can find that here. This week saw the introduction of two new Letsplayers to the Valid and Sound stable: DeathSarge and Alice Brady. You can find Deathsarge’s blog here. For Deathsarge’s introductory video, we played The Stanley Parable. Alice Brady’s introductory video was Organ Trail, the zombie-themed remake of Oregon Trail. This week, Alice and I are starting our descent into Alan Wake.

For those of you not familiar with Valid and Sound, it’s the collaborative label for my local group of nutty Letsplayers. We were going to call it Valid OR Sound, but we figured that, with enough of us in the room, we could cover both bases. Now, for the reason we’re all here: this week’s discussion of horror. Just before Halloween, I polled my Facebook friends for their favourite horror antagonist in any medium and the overwhelming response was The Spiral from Uzumaki. So, today, we’re going to discuss how Uzumaki’s medium enables its particular exploration of horror, as well as some of its more psychological aspects.

Uzumaki___Spiral_by_Tailed_Fox

There are a lot of complaints when a story changes mediums. Often, we blame the directors for ruining our book in the process of making a film. If you ask anyone that likes anime and manga, they’ve probably got a favourite expression of any franchise. Don’t word it like that, though, ask them: Do you prefer the manga or the anime? Almost unfailingly, they will have a preference. This isn’t always because one is of greater or lesser quality. Often, this is because the story was made for its original medium. Have you ever tried to sketch an oil painting or fry a cake? What you get out of it might be good, but it will also be fundamentally different.

This problem is exacerbated when we’re discussing horror, because horror is an experientially fickle genre. Translating a story from one medium to another takes a greater deal of skill and an understanding of the essential elements of the story. Look at Ender’s Game. I loved the book; it was one of the first novels that I read as a child. The movie, however, left me cold. It was a box-checking exercise. It covered all of the events of the book, but felt stunted and emotionally detached (I actually laughed at the inciting incident of the token conflict with Bernard). That’s not really fully the fault of the directors. They actually did some pretty clever things. How could they have done it better? Well, for starters, they’d have to strip down the story to its fundamental elements and focus on those. On the characters, the plot and the message.

However, again, that would produce a movie that would be fundamentally different from the book but that would still carry the same weight of experience. Lord of the Rings is a great example of this. Yes, they got three movies to work with, but they were also telling three books worth of story. A lot of stuff was chopped out to ensure that the movie’s world felt Gestalt. And it worked. It worked because the directors understood how to translate from one medium to another. Translation relies on two things: 1: The fan-base being open to changes (That’s where we can assist in the production process). 2: Having an understanding of why something works in a particular medium and how it could work within another.

That brings us back to Uzumaki. The story of The Spiral is an interesting one. Essentially, this town has been cursed by The Spiral. What is the spiral? Well, it’s a shape, but it’s not a self-contained one. It suggests the infinite within the framework of a circle. It spirals endlessly outwards and unceasingly inward. Well, at least, that’s what it looks like. In reality, it’s a self-contained shape, but it’s also visual short-hand for something that’s mesmerizing. It’s a drill. It’s a slump into depression. It’s the physical decline of old age. It’s the cyclical nature of history and human experience: roving in circles that are never quite the same. It’s a literal example of not being able to make ends meet. It’s a plume of smoke. It’s draining water. It’s hurricanes. It’s everywhere. It’s a physical manifestation of the rules of nature. It’s Mandelbrots and death

That’s what makes the spiral such a perfect antagonist. The Spiral appears to have a Will of its own, but it’s absolutely inscrutable. There’s no way to know the motivations of a force of nature that’s so enigmatically ubiquitous. Our lives are spirals. We are made, in part, by spirals. Yet, it’s sort of an odd shape, so it’s salient when we find it.

These things make The Spiral perfect as an antagonist. It’s both innocuous and vaguely disconcerting, but also fascinating and self-referential. This is the slow-building, existential horror that Japan traditionally does so well. Think Silent Hill or The Ring. As a person trapped within the Universes where they hold sway, there’s nothing you can really do to understand them, no matter how hard you thrash. Even James Sunderland’s revelations at the end of Silent Hill 2 do little to explain why it was all happening in the first place. There are hints and pieces of lore, but truly understanding the motivations of the town is beyond his ken.

That’s a lot like Uzumaki. What the hell does the spiral want? What’s its end-goal? Does it even Want? And if it’s unstoppable and insatiable, by virtue of having no actual goal, then we’re caught in a violent maelstrom of unreconcilable impossibility. Two of our greatest human strengths are pattern recognition and curiosity. Both are part of the search for meaning and The Spiral skewers us with them, because we find it fascinating. We can go mad trying to discern the patterned motivations of the spiral and fall to it through our unfailing motivation to understand it. In that way, it’s extremely Cthulhian. It turns our minds against us and hollows us out with the domineering surety of a drill. Ceaselessly and without motivation, it chips away at who we are.

Most disturbingly, it is us. The seeds of our doom are sewn in the very tools we would use to resist it. That’s what makes The Spiral so awesomely disquieting, but the method of presentation is important, too. Why does Uzumaki fare better as a manga than it would as a book, if Lovecraft exploited a similar vein of fear in literary form? Well, in part, it’s because the fear is visual. The manga includes some pretty disturbing images, like this one:

uzumaki-1136762

Believe me when I say, this is pretty normal by the standards of Uzumaki. Yet, it’s not entirely the visual. Part of it is our attempts to understand the mind –the experiences– of the character. Third-person and first-person books often include a semi-omniscient narrator to allow us to look into the minds of  the characters within it. Uzumaki does something similar, because it shows us the characters. Whether you realize it fully or not, you’ve spent your entire life trying to figure out what people are thinking and feeling based on their postures and facial expressions. The manga format lets us do this, but it also plonks its characters into completely alien circumstances. What… how does the person in the picture feel? Sliding along the floor, dragging against the rough linoleum, eyes askew, depth-perception shattered. His skin isn’t his own, and his back has become a horrible burden. A burden of The Spiral.

We can, in a way, look into the mind of this young… man, but we can’t quite figure out everything about him. In fact, we’re disturbed and repelled by the idea that we might. Even, that we might try. This is the uncanny valley of psychological interpretation. Close enough to us, close enough to our edge of madness, to be enticing, but still so Eldritch that it’s beyond our comprehension. It’s unsettling how much that notion suffuses our experience of the story.

In the early stories of the series, we see more clearly the effects of the fascination induced by The Spiral, but the same uncanny valley rules apply. We can see the madness in their eyes, but we can’t experience it. We have to take it as rote that it’s there, whereas we might question it in a literary piece or a movie, when it would hinge on actor portrayals. Unless we can experience the force of the mental spiral downward into insanity through the medium, it will always seem stilted. Uzumaki’s visual element bypasses that by letting us see it in freeze-frames. We can see it happening, but we’re locked out of fully understanding its nuances. It’s the edge of the uncanny valley of understanding that we find disturbing.  This is why “Eldritch light” is always more effective than “vaguely fuzzy lights of unknown origin.” It’s fully understandable, but partially incomprehensible.

Yet, the story counts on the fact that we’ll try. Some of the story’s more visceral contortions are made doubly effective by the imagination of the reader trying to understand the feelings of the character. You’ll see what I mean as you read, but, for a more general interpretation, you know how you cringe when you see someone hit their head? That’s because you know what that feels like, and part of you has understood what that feels like. You’re fed the sensation theoretically, and, if your mirror neurons are firing properly, part of you felt the necessary movements to produce the effect. We’ve all been trapped in tight spaces before, so you’ll understand the effects of The Spiral just enough for it to disturb you.

There’s more, though. One of the most important elements of contemporary horror is timing. I’m sure you’ve noticed the flaring violin strings and building musical jump-scares that go into most horror movies now. For the veterans among us, this sort of thing can be annoying, because it basically warns us when something’s going to jump out. It’s a bit sigh-worthy, but the crescendo of the strings, the height of the musically inspired tension, is juuuust before the horror-trope is executed, and then it is held. It’s just before the stabbing. Just before the cat flies across the screen (So many fake-out scares are cat-related!!). In a way, the music is telling you when it’s time to tense up and think about what might happen. Manga doesn’t need that, though. Uzumaki requires your volition.

Turning the page of a book is an active process. In fact, reading a manga, at all, is an active process. You have to construct the scenes that occur between each panel yourself. You have to think about what’s happening in each panel, take it in and animate it. That plays right into Uzumaki’s hands. It uses detailed, highly unusual, somewhat disturbing images to provoke our imagination. This is the thing that helps to guarantee what I was talking about earlier. Because the onus is on you to animate the scene, you have to work that little bit harder to understand the motivations and situations of the characters. Often, that simply doesn’t happen when we’re being spoon-fed something on a screen.

In a way, comics are a nice compromise between mental animation and gratuitous information, with a well-defined mental distance between character and reader. It’s this specific type of engagement that makes Uzumaki so effective in manga form, surprisingly off-putting two-page spreads included. Besides all that, if it was on television, the camera would control what your eye looked at. It would trace the lines of The Spiral, and, personally, I think that would look a bit hokey. It would break the forth wall, because I would know that the director really wants me to get into the spiral mind-set. As a book, it would describe The Spiral, but it wouldn’t have the same impact of having to absorb it and its effects visually, mentally, the same way the manga does. Uzumaki, as a manga, asks me to sit and really appreciate The Spiral. I’ve caught myself, time and again, following its flowing, orderly lines to the edge of the page and into the void of ethereal madness beyond.

Pacific Rimshot – Taking the Good with the Not Quite as Good

Posted in All the Things, Movie Reviews with tags , , , , , , , on July 14, 2013 by trivialpunk

Okay, I didn’t want to write this. I really didn’t. I look at horror games, and I can really only justify stretching to horror movies for this blog, because they’re related. Also, movies with zombies in them. Or, alternatively, just games I like. Okay, so I’ve got plenty of precedence for a pop-culture romp. I mean, pop-culture is pretty much what I do. And yeah, some of the monsters were a little scary. But, still, I didn’t want to write it. Pacific Rim is getting enough attention without me sticking my nose in. However, it has gotten so much positive attention that I feel I’m justified here. Enough of that, let’s sink our teeth into…

pacific-rim-movie-banner-striker-eureka-jaeger-vs-kaiju
The reason I felt like I had to write this was because every time I recommended it, I wanted to put an asterisk on the end of my recommendation. I’ve told people over and over that it’s awesome, and it is. However, for some people (The pop-culture obsessed psychotics like me), there are going to be some issues. That’s why I’m here to warn you about them now, so that you can just sit back, relax, and enjoy the robots. I probably shouldn’t have to tell you that I’m going to be unleashing a spoiler-cane here, but I will any ways.

Not that there’s much to spoil. Pacific Rim is a largely visual movie. Stunningly visual, actually. I felt like my eyes were going to melt out with joy when it fired up. It didn’t hurt that the theatre was mostly empty, because it was a Thursday night, so it was as silent as I could have wanted. I got totally absorbed in the film. Well, mostly. You see, there are still going to be plot-holes to fall into. Huge ones. That’s what I’m talking about. I fell into them, and it interrupted my enjoyment of the film. I don’t want this to happen to you. Before we get to that, though, we’re going to talk a bit about culture. I know, right?

It’s debatable pop-culture wisdom that some of the primary differences between American and Japanese video games is the approach these cultures have to weapons and combat. Bushido (I’m not kidding with the reference) tends to stress responsibility and wholeness. As that approach to combat trickled down through the ages and culture, it manifested in games, representing a bond with one’s weapon during combat. The power lies within-without. Conveniently enough, there’s an Extra Credits video that explains the concept better than I could. Conversely, the idea of the citizen soldier, of great individuality, manifests in the American Zeitgeist and, consequently, its video games.

This was easier to parse out early on, before the world became so globalized. If you want video game examples of this, then, for Japan, think Megaman and Vanquish (Gundam Wing, Evangelion). For America, on the other hand, think of Doom or Duke Nukem (Independence Day, Die Hard). That’s what makes Pacific Rim so interesting as a study of culture. It’s about the bond between people. In this movie, strong connections are the pre-requisites to stopping the end of the world. Stop me if this gets a little too “real.” To me, this represents something that today’s movies are approaching again and again: we need to work together as a world to survive. It happened in World War Z. It’s happening again here. It’s actually a trend that I love. The internet should bring people together.

That mush aside, Pacific Rim’s pilots connect deeply to one another, while also melding with their machine. It’s a perfect blend of the two concepts. The deep connections between the Jaeger (giant robot) pilots enables them to fight the Kaiju (giant monsters).

One of the things that has bothered me so much about this movie is that people are calling it totally original. I know the idea of originality is fluid, at best, but I didn’t make the references to Evangelion and Independence Day lightly. If you mashed those two movies together and added revolutionary special effects, then you’d get Pacific Rim. That’s not a bad thing; they’re fantastic and so is this. Once you think about it, you won’t be able to unsee it, though. The speech by the commander. “Today, we’re cancelling the Apocalypse.” … “Today, we celebrate our Independence Day.” It’s spooky.

Okay, that all aside, let’s talk plot-holes, because they’re going to bug you. So, let them bother you now. That way you can just enjoy the movie. Okay, if the Jaeger program is a failure, then why are the coastal cities surrounding the rift so unusually intact? Why cancel it at all, especially in favour of that wall. Oh yeah, their big plan to replace the Jaegers is to build a big wall from California to Alaska. Aside from the fact that that won’t cover anything, it’s a dumb idea. I mean, we get to see a Kaiju rip right through the wall in the middle of the movie. We’re also made privy to a flying Kaiju (hereafter known as a Fly-ju). So, who approved this plan?! To me, it evokes the image of a bunch of tired, old bureaucrats sitting around a table, looking at financial charts, when one throws up his hands and says, “Fuck it! We’ll just build a big wall!” Right, because anyone that served on the Maginot Line can tell you what a great idea that is. On the car-ride home, we came to the conclusion that the only way to think around this glaring plot-hole was to assume that said bureaucrats had the same agenda in implementing it as the movie-makers had in putting it in the movie: to raise the stakes. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it makes more sense than the wall. There were trying to push humanity into coming up with an actual solution.

Near the end of the movie, they discover that the reason they haven’t been able to get a nuke through the rift between worlds, where the Kaiju are coming out of, is because it’s only a semi-permeable membrane. Like a cell, it reads an incoming object and decides to accept or reject it. This is a perfectly serviceable analogy, because it certainly looks like a cell on the inside. *Double Spoiler Alert* Once they get the explosive through, one of them ejects to escape. This makes sense, since the rift hasn’t closed. However, once the other once ejects, the rift is collapsing, and it’s safe to assume the other side of the rift closed. So, how the hell did he get through? Oh well, think your way around it again!

You see, the aliens are “colonists.” They come to other worlds to strip them of their resources. However, given how many resources are available in a single solar system, let alone a galaxy, for a resource-rich society like theirs, why wouldn’t they be flying around the galaxy gathering resources instead? Well, if you think about it, it might be easier to rip a rift between adjoining dimensions than to develop fast-than-light capabilities. Maybe the rift was already there, or even weakened. Otherwise, I think they’ll be back. Even a thermo-nuclear device isn’t going to put a scratch on the kind of resources it would require to create and sustain the Kaiju. Back to Independence Day again, the scene where the explosion goes off in the alien’s face is almost the exact mirror of the nuke-the-mothership scene from Independence Day. Only now, it has four eyes.

Further assisting us is a pair of comedy-scientists that are competing to solve the Kaiju problem. One clearly representing Biology and the other repping Physics. Sort of. In the end, they learn to work together, Jaeger-style. Woot. (Aww, if the sciences cooperate, then everyone wins. It’s a good message.) The reason I bring this us is because the physicist discovers a pattern: a count-down (No, I’m not making another Independence Day reference). That count-down is leading to an unleashing of Kaiju like we’ve never seen before. The time between emergences has been shortening by a predictable factor. He uses that model to predict a double-emergence. Now, why does this make sense? Time-dilation, of a sorts. As the universes move closer together, the time it takes to travel between them, relative to each world, shortens. On this side, we see them coming out slowly. However, I have a feeling that on the alien’s side, they’ve been just pumping them in one after another. That’s why it takes them so long to adapt. They don’t realize that they need to re-adjust their tactics until they’ve sent a few through, because it’s happening immediately for them.

This also explains why the gate lets our hero through. On the human side, the gate may have been closing immediately, but, because of his direction of travel, the human side to the alien side, he arrives on the alien side, drops off the nuke, then comes back before it ever closed. Remember, the time between each emergence was shortening, suggesting that it’s now faster in this direction. So, that explains that.

The troubling thing is that if this is true, then there should still be Kaiju en-route, unless they were caught in the collapse of the rift, which seems likely. Also, and you won’t understand now what this means as a plot-hole, but eagles can lift some deer. You’ll understand.

Things move a bit fast, but that’s okay. We’re trying to tell an epic tale of robot smash-ups in a limited amount of time. The entire tale is actually quite expansive, and I’m thoroughly impressed with how they brought it across. The one thing I’m still divided on is the ending. Dude-buddy-pilot pops to the surface (with a wicked case of the Bends, I assume) and embraces his lady-love. Everything’s good! Saccharine and happy. I was kind of hoping a shark would eat him, because mundane threats still exist, but oh well.

On the one hand, I believe you should trust your audience enough to deliver them a sad ending. A dose of reality. On the other hand, I’m on-board for a happy ending. It would be a grievous shift of tone at best for our hero to just die at the end, especially after all the crap he went through. “Save the world and die” is a pretty anime thing. Sacrifice for the good of the whole is a decent message. However, if Halo has taught us anything, it’s that we don’t like our armoured heroes to stay down. And, if this movie showed us anything, it’s that you can still sacrifice a lot and live to tell the tale. It’s a nice fusion between the concepts.

So yeah, go see Pacific Rim. It’s a great film. I’ve heard it’s even alright in 3-D. You may come across some plot-holes or things in the movie you didn’t like that I didn’t cover here. I only wanted to go on so long. Just ignore them or make a game out of explaining them. Often-times, movies ask us to suspend our disbelief. To look past their flaws at the diamond underneath. I’m not always willing to; a movie has to earn that. It has to give me something worth looking past the crap to see. Well, Pacific Rim has my respect. It’s fantastic. Go see it.

One last question remains: what is a Jaeger’s feet made out of?!? Do you know how much impact it’s handling? It’s insane! Also, look for cameos from GLaDOS.

Addendum: In many areas, it’s also quite a clever film. It respects you enough to not have to explain every little detail of itself. Just another thing that makes it great.

Crying Over Cry of Fear

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2013 by trivialpunk

After spending a few days immersed in the Gloam universe, I decided to pop my head back up and play some games. If you follow my Twitter, then you may remember that I said I was cracking open a bunch of indie horror games a little while ago. You may have wondered, briefly, why I’ve been so silent on the subject in my blog. Well, the truth is that I didn’t find many worth talking about. If you were around in the early days of Newgrounds and saw those, “Scariest Thing Ever” posts, where some scrolling text tells you a vaguely creepy story and a picture flashes up to the sound of an entire orphanage of children rejecting their broccoli, then you’re familiar with what I went through for roughly three games and counting. I’m not going to point fingers, because I’d prefer to talk about good games than stomp all over developing ones.

With that in mind, today, we’re going to talk about Cry of Fear, because it was pretty damn decent. It began its life, “Dear Esther” style, as a Half-Life mod from Team Psykskallar. Now, it’s a stand-alone game that you can download from Steam for free. Pretty snazzy. Although, honestly, I’m not sure if I’d recommend the game. If you’re really hurting for survival horror, then it might give you a dose. It’s not fantastic, though. Well, it has its moments. Ah bugger, let’s just get into it.

542476_308446645887233_104860890

It starts by dropping you into an alleyway with a mysterious text message. From there, you just follow a bunch of corridors until you hit the end of the game. The plot isn’t exactly deep, and it jumps around a bit, but it is fairly compelling. Juxtaposing the wacky antics of the protagonist (Read: critically flat voice acting) with the situation makes you want to figure out exactly what’s going on. However, as you go through the game, I’m sure you’ll start to feel like you’re walking through a piece of another survival  horror I.P. It seems that large cities have many of the same problems that haunted lakeside towns do. Disappearing corridors. Spontaneous, intrusive surgery. Populations on the verge of utter insanity. Puzzles. Health bars. A dark, mysterious parallel universe streaked in blood and rust.

Basically, what I’m saying is that if Cry of Fear isn’t directly related to the Silent Hill series, then one of its parents must have had a wandering eye. There are some differences, though! Cry of Fear is a first-person game. Unfortunately, it was clinging on to its bastard siblings’s arm so hard that it took melee mechanics along for the ride. Because of the technology its working with, its hit detection is incredibly dodgy. Or, maybe not dodgy enough, depending on your perspective. There is a dodge button, but the game’s stifling corridors aren’t conducive to avoiding the flailing arms of vague monstrosities. You’ll end up taking a few more hits than you ought to and miss more than your share of attacks that should have connected. In fact, overall, the combat is the weakest part of the game.

The creatures you fight run right up to you, so there isn’t much time to consider the implications of engagement. There’s no dread. In fact, most of the creatures in this game pop up like whack-a-moles. It’s trying to freak you out like the aforementioned Newgrounds fodder, but that’s not really frightening. After the first couple of times, you’re more than ready for it. “Ooh, the lights flickered. I’m assuming that means we’re going to have to bash something back into the ground soon.” They just move too bloody fast. They’re in your face, instantly. Blam wham bam. Next.

cry-of-fear-15-700x438

Counter-intuitively, there’s a positive aspect to their movement, even while their movement speed is detrimental. The character models jerk and spasm like good anthropological horror creatures should. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that the creature design was my favorite thing about this game.. There are these monsters that have their arms attached to their chest with big, iron staples. As you whittle down their life, you break open the staples, and they can attack you with their arms. There’s another creature I like to call “The Aborted” and the usual rambunctious pick-and-mix of disfigured knife-wielding toddlers and hammer-wielding psychos. The boss creatures are pretty interesting, too. They require you to think a little bit before you unload your pack of buckshot into them.

There’s one creature that made me turn the game off and write this review without finishing the game, though. Well, it’s more of a situation. You’re in a long stretch of alleys and a (well-designed) standard chain-saw wielder pops out of a door to chase you down the alley. This one part combines all of the worst aspects of the game into a big barrel of blah. The shady hit detection ensures that you can never be sure where he’s swinging, so dodging is pointless. Even if you could dodge, he moves so fast that he’s back on you in a second. The linear corridors don’t provide you much room to maneuver, and they dead-end a lot. Obviously, if you get caught in a dead-end, then you’re meant to panic and turn around. Unfortunately, as with most chainsaw wielders, he kills you instantly. So, you’ve just got to run through a few times to get it right; it’s just trial and error. He’s killable, but I unloaded my entire arsenal without managing it. You’ve got a sprint bar, so you’re going to have to half-run, half-back-peddle to make it through, because you run out of it pretty quickly. Optionally, you can load yourself up with morphine when you run out of sprint and get another bar to use. Still, if you run by something you want to go back to, he’ll just kill you.

The design of this area really needs work. The first time it’s scary. The third time it’s not. By then, it’s just dull and frustrating. Plenty of things could have improved this portion: adjusting his run speed, giving you an adrenaline boost, not making you watch the cut-scene, giving you room to work around him, not putting a tantalizing machine gun behind him, making him a two-hit killer, not using fake-out corridors with one-hit kills, not baiting us with doors… the list goes on. Many games, as far back as Clocktower, have tried to implement returning baddies for the sake of oppressive fear. You have to do it right, though, and this doesn’t qualify. If I could say something positive about it, then it would be that he’s visually creepy, and he bugs a lot. If I wasn’t so interested in actually playing through the game, then I’d just have let him bug out and be past it already. Maybe the buggy movement was left in to make him manageable. I’m not sure. His sound design is quite good, as well.

Actually, the sound design is probably the strongest part of this game. The track list is certainly immersive. Earlier, I mentioned that the monsters pop up a lot. In the earlier portions of the game, when it’s still trying to build tension, they use sounds to herald the coming of monsters frequently, and they do so quite well. Of course, even this is used to try to freak you out when the jump-scares come, but what can you do? Moving forward with praise, the lighting is well put-together. Your cellphone doubles as your flash-light (Just like in real life!), and it casts a downwards-facing light when you’re not holding it. This makes the upper portions of the game darker than the bottom ones, obscuring the movement in the distance and making you choose between safety and surety.

Aesthetically, it fits the bill, and I’ll admit to being freaked out a couple of times, but it’s not scary. It’s not even really engaging. I found myself slogging through the game, trying to finish it so I could develop a balanced opinion for you, but it just wasn’t enough to counter my frustration. It has lost too many points already for me to recommend it wholeheartedly. Maybe I’ll log back in and find my way past chainsaw face using a bug, now that I’m done with this, but it won’t feel like a victory. I just want to see the end. Still, if it has a good ending and a strong latter portion, then I might change my overall opinion. We’ll see.

Before we wrap up, I want to address the puzzle aspect of the game. As I’m sure you’re well aware, you can’t have a game that’s all combat, especially a survival horror one. Different types of engagement are key to keeping your audience interested. Of course, you don’t want to go the Modern Warfare 3 route, but mixing it up a bit will give you a better game. As is traditional, Cry of Fear uses odd puzzles. However, it doesn’t use them very well. The first “puzzle” is two sheets of paper that are lying on the ground on opposite ends of a small area. Once you pick them up, they give you the name and password for a computer that’s in a nearby shop. Don’t worry, you’ll find it; it’s the only shop with an open door. Once you log on to the computer, a messenger window pops up with a previous conversation on it. It’s just one post: a door code. Oddly enough, there was a locked door that needed a code at the beginning of the area… hmm…

Now, this is kind of neat, but it’s sort of an eye-roller, and it’s a huge missed opportunity. The game could have provided us with some context for why the code was being posted, maybe even hinted at what was going on. Hell, it could have tried for full over-the-top oddness, which, when juxtaposed with both frightening and mundane situation at the same time, leaves you with a vague feeling of surreality. Think: the fridge in the hospital in Silent Hill, the coin puzzle in Silent Hill 2 or the Shakespeare puzzle in Silent Hill 3. This puzzle makes mundane sense, but it’s a bit flat, even while it’s unreal. There’s no frightening magical logic. It vaguely alludes to the idea that someone left those there purposefully, but it fails to make that point meaningful. “Okay, someone might be following me, or I might be losing it. But, why a computer? Why keep them separate?”

To really flesh out what I mean, let’s look at another “puzzle” in Silent Hill 2: the lock-box in the hospital. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. Clearly, an insane someone wrapped this thing up tight. It has four separate locks, two of which require keys and two of which require combinations. Each key has a story behind it. Each code is delivered to you in an off-putting way (written in blood on a wall awash in the red stick-icky in a panic cell and on the carbon paper of an insane note in a typewriter). By the time you crack the box, you’re reeling with possibility, “What’s in the box?!?” Any of you that know the puzzle I’m talking about will probably chuckle at the Seven reference here, but it’s the right amount of surreal. It follows the video game’s logic and pulls you deeper into the world. If nothing else, it engages your imagination.

By comparison, Cry of Fear fails to feel like anything but a fetch-quest. Yes, if you dig right in, if you force yourself to, you can find interesting moments to puzzle over and different points of foreshadowing, but the game-play doesn’t highlight them effectively. Many of the problems with the game can be traced back to the engine. It’s not the sort of thing you’d want to make this game on, but they did and that deserves some praise. Still, the game should have changed to reflect the tools available. Instead of stuffing a concept into a set of mechanics, you need to make the concept fit to what you’ve got available.

It’s okay. It’s not really a bad game, and the voice acting makes sense, because it originated in Sweden. Honestly, I’d be a bit off-put if they had good voice-acting; terrible dialogue is kind of a survival horror tradition. I’m still going to finish it. I’m not entirely sure I’m happy about that fact, but there it is. At the end of it all, I give it 3 Slightly Stale Donuts out of A Cute Dog in a Dead Homeless Man’s Hat. Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you on the other side.

World War Z: The Movie – One Goal, No Soul

Posted in All the Things, Movie Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 30, 2013 by trivialpunk

Alright, I wrote a really long pre-amble to this post, but then it went on a little too long, so I posted it as its own thing. So, for this one, we’re getting right down to business!

world_war_z-wide

If you want to see a zombie movie, then don’t go see World War Z. If you’re a fan of the book and want something equally as intelligent, then don’t go see World War Z. This is not the utter condemnation it sounds like. It’s a recognition of what World War Z is; in many ways, it’s not your traditional zombie movie. There are things it does right and things it does wrong. So, by now, you’re waiting for me to do my “I know it’s not horror, but it has zombies, so swiggity-swool, I think it’s cool,” but no, we’ve got to get right down to it. Right now. Now. …

Contemporary pop-culture wisdom states that zombie movies are not about zombies. You could replace the zombies with anything (flood, bandits, slow-moving, overly-aggressive girl-scouts), and it would still ring as a zombie movie. Zombie movies are, at their core, about the walls of society breaking down. That’s a bit trite, so let’s elaborate. They’re about the decisions people make when no decision looks good. They’re about selfishness, avarice, hope and courage. The outside world is hostile and bursting to get in, but you do everything you can to keep it out. Meanwhile, your society is rotting away from the inside. Think “The Divide.” That’s a zombie movie that includes absolutely no zombies. I’m not recommending that you watch it, because it’s incredibly depressing and so focused on delivering a message that it skips right over character depth. It explores interesting portions of the human psyche, but it does not explore gestalt humans. The complexity that the characters do have isn’t complemented by much. It’s just all bad, all the time. Even the light that manages to squeak through is yellowed with grime and fly corpses. Then again, terrifying situations do tend to focus your priorities a bit. I’m just not sure it’s as black and white as all that.

That’s the freedom that zombie movies give us. They let us take people to the edge and comment on what they find there. World War Z is a bit… unusual, in this respect. First of all (and SPOILERS, btw), it’s all about Brad Pitt flying around the world looking for a cure and appreciating different set-pieces. Its schizophrenic presentation is a bit reminiscent of Modern Warfare, which isn’t necessarily bad, and it’s helped by a fairly decent framing mechanism. The problem is that World War Z, the book, is told in vignettes. They’re small pieces of exposition, told within a larger short story, that combine together to form their own story. Making a movie out of this chaotic approach would be impossible, unless you went full-on mockumentary (truth be told, I wanted THAT movie, but…). They did the best they could. They wove in references and set-pieces fairly competently, even if the driving plot is a bit absurd. I mean, that’s a lot of resources to be spending on one man, especially one without the means to posit a solution.

Speaking of plots, they stripped out references to the Redeker Plan. I think it’s because it didn’t fit in to the world they were trying to create. If you’re familiar with the book, then you know that the Redeker Plan is the extremely pragmatic, controversial solution to the zombie apocalypse and that it was implemented during World War Z. Essentially, it talks about who to save, why, and how. Then, it talks about who should be sacrificed and why. It’s about the greater survival of the species, even if the survival of our humanity is a bit more questionable. The book was an indictment of popularity and policy. It was a harsh criticism and a noble celebration of our greatest endeavour: politics. You can laugh at that statement all you want, but working on the level of “society” is incredibly complicated. It’s like House on Haunted Hill with a room full of socio-paths, and the occasional psychopath. However, this approach would have been a little too dark for the movie we got.

The World War Z movie, as it stands, is about the hope and bravery inherent in the individuals working to make society run again. It’s about the small acts of kindness that can mean everything to someone. It’s about what we can accomplish when the world bands together. (If you’re familiar with the book, then it’s one of the two versions of The Hero City movie.) It’s incredibly saccharine, but that’s not a bad thing. I’ve got loads of movies about how people suck and only your best friends will help you kill a werewolf, but in the serious AAA world of adult zombitainment, I haven’t seen anything like World War Z in a while. Once in a moon, it’s nice to have someone rip off the cowl of cynicism and talk about how good people can be. When we approach the apocalypse, we often talk about how shit humans are going to be to each other. Maybe that’s true, but it’s nice to see a little something from the other side. (Maybe we won’t be the architects of our destruction. Maybe there are things larger than us) Yeah, it’s tragic and all, but it’s sparkled with so much bravery and magical realism that I can’t help but feel that the events of the movie are being held at arm’s length. It’s like I’m literally watching a baby eat his mother’s face, while she holds him close and smiles, and all I can think is, “Aww, wook at his wittle teef!”

So, that would be a bit detrimental to any oppressive atmosphere it could try and build, but there’s more than that. The movie goes about itself with a sense of camp that’s charming, despite being occasionally cringe-worthy. There was some brilliant advertising, as well, that pulled me out of it still more. For me, though, the zombies killed the feature more than anything. They don’t make sense within the book’s own universe, or ours. If you read my post on realism and its uses, then you’ll be familiar with this, but offering an explanation is always a huge risk. It’s extremely important that you do it right, because, otherwise, you risk breaking the covenant you made with your viewers. Let’s look at a small scene from the movie…

hqdefault

The Israeli wall scene. Visually, it’s quite striking. Even in the movie, this scene is pretty well executed. For those of you worried about CG zombies (like me), then be happy that they actually used it to do some good. They didn’t use CG because they were lazy (in terms of production costs, that doesn’t even make sense) or totally technophilic. They did it because scenes like this one would be impossible without CG. To put your mind at ease a bit more, they used practical special effects whenever they could. As you would expect from the budget and talent on the project, they did a great job. Most movie extras ever, I think? Any ways, the reason this pile doesn’t make sense, and another reason I don’t think this qualifies as a zombie movie, is because it’s not zombie behaviour. It’s hive behaviour. The zombie behaviour in this movie was modelled after locusts. It’s pretty cool watching the tides of humans race around like insects, but, zombies, they are not.

Each individual zombie, according to the canon I’m familiar with, is a unit onto itself. However, all zombies have exactly the same desires and response-patterns, so you’ll always get predictable, centralized behaviour. It’s kind of like how fan-site message boards work. For this scene to make sense, the zombies would have to all be drawn to one spot on the wall. Fair enough, but these zombies are climbing in a controlled fashion. Sure, maybe they’re following a single stream of least resistance, like water, but that’s not really very zombie. Zombies are stupid, mindless drones. These drones are quite intelligent. In fact, and I’m about the spoil the end of the movie, so be wary, they’re intelligent enough to surge, in a coordinated manner, around sick children, so that they don’t run into them. That’s right, zombies won’t bite terminally ill people, because that would weaken the strain. What terminally ill means here, and how the zombies know you’re terminally ill, is tactfully avoided. We’ll get back to that in a second…

Why is this important? It implies an awareness on the zombie’s part that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Water behaves in patterns because of the rules governing it. Locusts communicate and behave in tandem because of an awareness of their surroundings. Zombies, on the other hand, walk off the edges of buildings. This scene right here is problem solving. It’s an efficient path. So, that doesn’t make much sense. The zombies that surged around the crouching child, ostensibly, did so to avoid being slowed down or hurt by him. Earlier, I saw a zombie leap – catapult, really – through the air to catch a helicopter. Continuity would be nice.

That’s the risk we run when we explain ourselves. You have to, otherwise you’re not really saying much, but it’s a careful, treacherous undertaking. World War Z shows how tactful it can be by not getting into the specifics of how zombies sense the terminally ill or what terminally ill means. That would have been a clusterfuck, especially since the pretense didn’t make much sense to begin with. The zombie virus kills them. No heart-beat, no infection. That’s almost a direct quote from the movie. So… yeah… science and continuity aren’t the movie’s strongest points, but, in the post-apocalypse, at least zombies will be able to become part of the triage process.

These aren’t haphazard changes by lazy artists, though. The book was an epic tale about humans in the zombie apocalypse. It represented the looming dread of a coming menace and our inadequate ability to face it, initially. It’s about growing. It’s about keeping the outside at bay while your society rots from within. In short, it’s a zombie story on a global scale. The movie is NOT that. So, the rest of the movie had to change to reflect the differences in pace and scale. Fast zombies kept the action and the infection-spread intense. When you’re trying to explore a world as large as that of World War Z, there’s not a lot of time to wait at the gates for the zombies to surge in. In many ways, it’s difficult to imagine a slow-moving swarm taking out a city in the time it would take to read the book, let alone the world, in the span of the movie.

Let’s put ourselves in their shoes. You can’t make the movie about Redeker because of the tone you want to set, the themes you want to explore and the amount of time you have to express it. So, you have to find something new. It’s the beginning of a proposed trilogy, so you can’t solve the whole thing, either. However, you’re only making another one if there’s interest and you (blessedly) don’t want to leave anyone hanging, so you need something vaguely end-worthy. Medical research is an arduous process, and you want to depict it with some respect, so you don’t make Brad Pitt a researcher.  There would be no reason for him to be out in the field. They even kill off the crazy guy whose idea it was to find patient zero, like you could actually do that in the zombie apocalypse. Like it would actually matter in this case. His death is pretty silly, look for it. What do you do? You glom on to something that sounds sort of scientific and has a background that makes sense, even if it’s mechanically ridiculous. You don’t explain that, though. You just run with it.

And why not? We don’t berate Frankenstein for the weakness of the science in it. We don’t roll our eyes at Osmosis Jones too much. Yes, the movie was about science and relied on science for an explanation that didn’t make sense; and that’s grating, but let’s allow them some creative license.

It’s politically correct as butts. It’s saccharin, wholesome and scientifically inaccurate to a startling degree, but it’s a good movie. We can’t look at things and just judge them by the standards that we have. Sometimes, we have to create new standards with new labels to discuss them properly. Meet them half-way. I don’t have a new label for this, but I’ll reiterate one thing, World War Z is not a traditional zombie movie.

Addendum: …but that’s okay; it’s still awesome.

Far Cry from Bad… If You Can Play It

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , on April 6, 2013 by trivialpunk

This week’s entry is a bitter-sweet tale. After an entire day of extolling the virtues of Far Cry 3, I get home to start it up and show my friend and it says, “Far Cry 3 has stopped working…” “Windows will look for a solution…” in that way that inevitably leads to nothing positive happening. That’s when I remembered that my game had blue-screened the night before in the middle of a gaming session, but I’d had lots of writing to get done that night so I wasn’t really that put off by it. Now, though, I’ve checked the forums and realized that this is a pretty common problem. Apparently, Far Cry 3 has a habit of just not working for lots of players for many reasons. Having tried everything on the forums and all the suggestions I can get through Google, I’m currently in the process of requesting a refund or a solution through the Steam support and ubisoft support services. Fingers crossed. There are other work-arounds, but given that I’m working through Steam and uPlay, the DRM they’ve written into the game prevents them from working. Steam hasn’t really failed me yet, but I may suggest that you avoid buying things through uPlay in the future. Again, though, if they handle it well, I’ll post an up-date on here, and sing about their willingness to put up the service behind their DRM strategies. Maybe try a physical copy. Any ways, let’s get down to Far Cry 3: a game that’s well put-together, despite occasionally being totally unplayable.

BUT, before we do that, let’s get some light on GID Radio. I’ve been going on about how games, the internet and technology are going to impact… well… pretty much everything we do as humans, and this is a nice little aside on that topic. I was going to post an article about the Microsoft boondoggle and a little opinion piece on constant internet connections in consoles, but I don’t feel like I have to. You know it’s stupid. I know it’s stupid, and it hasn’t been fully substantiated, despite the Twitter remarks of that one micro, soft bloke. I know for a fact that some of my family in the boonies don’t have the available infrastructure to support that kind of connection, and they like gaming, too. We can’t exactly pull them out of there, either, because someone has to grow our food, amiright? How many connections am I supposed to have in a house? I live with 5 other gamers with two consoles each. Do you really think we want to work around having them constantly connected? We are your customer base, Microsoft. We are the people that buy one copy of a game each to make sure we’ve got it in our libraries. Each of us currently owns at least one 360. That’s right, we bought new 360s after you messed up with the RRD problem. Please, respect those people.

download
Enough whinging! Far Cry 3 is an excellent game. Speaking of, you may have noticed the 3 on the end of this bastard child of a threesome between Assassin’s Creed, Just Cause and Borderlands, but don’t be fooled! The Far Cry series doesn’t really do continuity. Okay, you’re in an exotic locale shooting at guys in specifically coloured shirts (It is always Red versus Blue), but that’s about the extent of the similarities, besides inexplicable regeneration and a complete disregard for nutrition or malaria. The graphics are, as always, amazing, but, besides that, it’s everything a sequel should be. It builds on the original world and its concepts, improving them in many ways. It’s not afraid to gets its hands dirty and eke out an original blend of material, even if some of it’s from Assassin’s Creed.

The story, though, is all its own. It’s the  journey of Jason Brody: a rich, daredevil douche-bag that’s captured by slavers on a world-tour vacation. From there, he goes on a personal sojourn of growth and accomplishment as he adapts to the slightly racist ways of the jungle by hunting, killing, tattoing, crafting and skinning his way through an island of pirates and hapless wild life.  There’s even a little Disney-esque magic involved. That would be good enough for a slap-dash first-person shooter, but the mechanics weave into the narrative well enough to give Far Cry 3 a unified aesthetic that rivals anything I’ve played this year.

far-cry-3-291828

Like Silent Hill 2, much of what you get of the story is delivered through symbolism. Okay, so maybe they explain a lot of the symbols, but there’s a solid foundation of art and drug-induced hallucination for them to work from. I don’t want to spoil too much, but, at one point, you come back from the dead in one of the most effective contextual button-press cut-scenes I’ve seen in a while. Of course, this game is full of those scenes, but they’re supported by the game’s insistence on doing everything in first-person. You rarely leave Jason Brody’s perspective, so everything that happens to you in the game is delivered through the same lens, lending a continuity to the proceedings that brings the events home to the player.

I said that everything was connected and I meant it. Far Cry 3 is a sand-box, but it’s a sand-box done right. You start the game with a pistol and a prayer, but you can unlock free guns (weapon mods sold separately) by climbing radio towers and destroying the signal dampeners that keep the island shrouded in darkness. That shows you where the enemy bases are. By clearing the bases, you get more fast-travel points to work with and quests to do. Doing the quests brings you out into the wilderness and exposes you to new weapons and tactics. Quests and base clearing provide you with experience that gives you skill points that give you new abilities. They’re not totally new, though. For the most part, they’re improvements on existing abilities. However, they’re substantial improvements that let you use old abilities in new ways, so the core of the game remains intact. For instance, you have a silent take-down move that makes it easier to clean out camps without being detected. Through the use of skill-points, you can gain the ability to drag a body away, use the enemy’s knife to kill another enemy at range, kill one after another in a rush like a vicious machete-samurai and drop down on enemies from above to kill them from different directions, which opens up whole new ways of assaulting bases. That’s not all of them, but you get the idea.

While you’re poodling around doing all this, the jungle is busy teeming with animals, some deadly, some not so much. Hunting, killing and skinning those animals lets you craft new and better item pouches and weapon holsters. There’s more to the crafting than that, though. As you do missions and quests, you unlock new, exciting drugs to improve your performance. While the Olympics might frown on the practice, these help ensure your survival, especially the medical ones. It’s not hard to get the resources to craft them, either. Plants are lying around everywhere, just waiting to be plucked. So, it’s not a frustrating crafting system, but it does have the effect of encouraging exploration. While you’re running around following quest objectives and hunting game, you’ll run into ancient ruins (That I encourage you to explore for experience and items) and impromptu wars.

The residents of the island have had it up to …here?… with the pirates, so they’re behind you 100%. In your journey, you’ll run into fire-fights and pitched battles between animals, pirates and the native population. Sometimes, all at once. However, most of the time, you’ll run into them in their designated zones. The native residence take the compounds you clear… appearing out of nowhere the minute you’re done succeeding (nice timing, guys) and sit around in temples and hovels asking for assistance. Animals have zones they prefer, although, they show up in cages and from out of nowhere, occasionally. Pirates travel the roads and water-ways, squat in compounds and patrol… places. Just like… a small stretch of sand. So, they’re everywhere. As everywhere as the animals, actually. Before we get to a comparison between combating animals and pirates, I just realized that you hardly see any women on the island. I mean, there are a few, but the population is so ridiculously skewed that I’m a little glad you can’t choose to be a female protagonist. (Huuuungry eyes… ooh oooh oooooh)

Far-Cry-3-preview-thumb-large

The difference between hunting and fighting is a perfect example of the way the game’s flexible mechanics are organized to produce different experiences based on the way they’re employed. I haven’t made any mention of the audio, but there’s nothing quite like listening to the roar of gunfire to help you find a nearby fire-fight. However, once you’re in the thick of the foliage, the only thing that will help you stalk and counter-stalk the jungle’s deadly predators is what you can hear. You’ll definitely spend more than a couple seconds carefully listening to your headphones to make sure that the next splash of crimson the jungle gets didn’t recently belong to you. Besides admirable differences in enemy AI, most of the time, you’ll be hunting animals in the claustrophobic jungle, which makes the balls-to way they run after you that much more terrifying, but, at range, they’re pretty harmless. The opposite is true of the pirates, though. At range, they can actually be a problem once the game ramps up to RPGs and grenades, but they’re cannon fodder up close, especially with the best take-downs available.

In the beginning, you have to make a couple choices between stealth-based game-play and over-powering your enemies in the skills tree and with the limited weapons available, but, by the end, you get enough resources to make effective use of either set of tactics. Even the experience system reinforces this. Most of the avenues to gaining experience come through quests and events that most players will have to go through, or can go through with very little effort, during course of regular game-play. So, by around the middle of the journey, you should be about as bad-ass as you’re going to get. This ensures that you’ve actually got time to enjoy it all. There are tiers of bad-ass, though. Many of the higher-level upgrades require you to be at a certain point in the campaign before they become available. At that point, the enemies have stepped up their game, as well. You’ve become so much more through the course of the narrative, but your challenge is equal to you.

In a staggering lack of segue, movement in Far Cry 3 is both varied and fun! As I said earlier, the first-person perspective improves many of the more engaging aspects of the game, and there’s nothing quite like cliff-diving off a waterfall or out of an air-plane in a wing-suit. One of the last upgrades you get access to lets you sprint around forever, and, I have to say, moving around the world itself is fun, even though, or possibly because, you end up parking most of your cars in lakes or on fire.

Spoilers!!

far-cry-3-vaas

There are problems, though, aside from the aforementioned refusing to start issues. Vass, the most well-developed antagonist, is killed off half-way through the game, and it’s kind of a downer. You don’t really get to kill him, either. It all happens through a hallucination that doesn’t make much sense and in a situation where you’ve already been heartily stabbed.  The guy they replace him with isn’t nearly as interesting or engaging. The accents are schizophrenic and, at times, jarring. Many of the climactic encounters in the game are taken care of by quick-time events, which do make the encounters more personal, but robs the game of some of its epic quality when they’re put next to the warpath you had to carve to get to them. The parkour moves they include in the game to ease your movement work effectively most of the time, but, when they fuck up, they’ll send you careening off the tops of cliffs and towers.

Bugs aside, it’s well unified. It manages to marry a ridiculous sand-box with an intense, personal story-line that follows an interesting narrative arc, even if it gets a little pulpy at times. Get a hard-copy of this game, load it up and enjoy. I’m giving it A well-thumbed copy of your favourite book out of Having too much chocolate and having to share it with that hot girl from accounting for the game itself, but a Morose man covered in slightly scabby skin out of Too many spiders to squish with one foot for its frankly disappointing number of crashes.

Memorable moments: Shooting the driver of a vehicle and watching the war-wagon careen off a cliff. Doing a quest for a ghost. Dive-bombing face-first into a jaguar.

guns-motorboats-rivers-far-cry-3-HD-Wallpapers

XCOM: Pithy Remark

Posted in All the Things, Game Reviews with tags , , , , on January 8, 2013 by trivialpunk

Aaaaaand… we’re back! Back in class that is. Yes, now the whims of fate are directed by my weekends instead of the other way around. That being said, I did find time in my fate-bending schedule to play XCOM: Enemy Unknown for three days. Three days. Do you know how long its been since I’ve all-nighted a game like this? Any ways, I’m sure you don’t want to sit here and hear about how good the game is. So, you sit there and I’ll go on about it from here.

Image

I’ve heard that it was based on a game from the long, long ago: UFO Enemy Unknown, or X-COM: UFO Defense, depending on where you live. XCOM: Enemy Unknown (from the minds of Firaxis and the wallets of 2K Games)  lets you take on the role of the Commander of XCOM: a military organization that was hastily put together to defend the earth from an encroaching alien menace. You receive funding from the various nations of the world depending on how well you keep their populace from panicking, and the strength of your satellite-interceptor response network. You research the technology and creatures you capture to improve and accelerate your development, as well as improve the life expectancy of your various ground troops. Developing the base, doing research, customizing load-outs, managing your networks, ordering construction and deploying your troops are all done from the XCOM base. Once you’ve received a mission, through force of communique, or by scanning the world (a handy mechanism for speeding up time), you select your ground-team and move on to the turn-based tactical game-play.

XCOM does a wonderful job of synthesizing base management with its tactical components, without making either of them seem vestigial. Taken together, they produce an enthralling experience that had me forgoing both sleep and company for another pot of coffee. The tactical interface is pretty intuitive, and easy to pick up. I would say difficult to master, but as mastery usually amounts to figuring out play-styles that work for you, it’s more fun than difficult. That’s not to say that the game isn’t difficult, though. I’d recommend saving-and-loading often, because time is of the essence.

Many of the primary mechanics that the game employs in regards to base management are time-sensitive. As a result, and because the tactical portion of the game is so dependant on the base management (and vice versa), one small slip can have you combating alien ground-troops by having a squad of barely-functional rookies furtively wiggle their eye-brows at them. Some of my favorite moments came after particularly difficult missions, when all my best trained troops were out sick with plasma burns, and I had to complete a particularly nasty challenge with a handful of rookies and a top-notch sniper.

I want to discuss the temporal and spatial aspects of the game in more detail, but I’ll need to spoil a few things to go on with that, so I’ll put together a second post tonight with a more thorough analysis of the game-play, so as not to ruin it for anyone that’s just here for an opinion. Let’s just review this sucker! There are a large number of maps, but they do tend to repeat a bit. However, as the enemy spawns are randomized (except in the pre-assembled levels), and the game has a few different challenge modes, you won’t really notice. Moreover, as you advance you unlock different abilities, so many of the levels open up a bit as you become more mobile. It also might be because I had to play the game through twice-over to beat it, because, the first time, I messed up in the base management portion of the game.

“How did you manage that? Do you have a lemon where your melon should be?” Yes, and no. I’ll let you know now: you can excavate, build, and order multiple items at the same time. So, you don’t have to wait for that satellite to finish, or a room to get excavated, to issue more commands, provided that you have the resources and man-power. That’s a free tip, because I had no idea. As a result, my satellite network was weak, my income was piddling because I was only monitoring three nations, four nations had already withdrawn their support, and my troops were just getting lasers when they needed plasma rifles.

I probably wasn’t going to be able to recover, because if you lose eight nations, or if the overall “Doom Counter” clock strikes midnight, then your carriage is turns back into a pumpkin, with its orange goop splattered all across the countryside. It’s a pretty delicate line to walk, especially if you’re going to do it well. Even on my second play-through, I still lost four countries. All of which raises an interesting question, “If you’re going to be killed in any event, then why are you withdrawing support from one of the few world-wide organizations that has been put together to fight this menace?” It’s not like there are many others. Prompts let you know that the nations themselves are fighting, but they don’t have the reality-bending power of your ridiculous research team, nor the frankly bewildering skill of your engineering department. Given that XCOM is making progress towards destroying the alien menace, it seems a bit churlish to withdraw funding just because you couldn’t keep your citizens from panicking. Then again, I’d be pretty upset if the one steady hope for humanity only deployed one 4-6 man group squad at a time. It’s hard to justify the funding when your population is rapidly dwindling under the claws and weapons of a horrifying enemy and your go-to squad is off somewhere killing ten, large-headed cream-puffs in exchange for two-hundred dollars.

Image

Like any, the game has its problems. It’s a 3-D, isometric-view, tactical game, so there’s an awful lot of environment clipping. Rarely, a trigger won’t go off, so an ability won’t work quite the way you want it to. The game uses cut-scenes and dynamic camera movements to create tense moments during game-play, especially for kill-shots and enemy spawns, but they can get a bit tiresome. Of course, I’d been playing for almost 19 hours straight by the time they did, so it might have just been the lack of sleep. It’s chance-based, so you’ll probably miss a few shots that seem ridiculous, while the enemy makes a few that will have you clenching your teeth in impotent fury, but there are enough of the opposite events to keep you smiling (They won’t bring back your highly-trained Support-units, though). The most glaring issue is camera movement. There’s no level map, so you’ll have to move around the level a lot. Depending on the terrain, this can be an exercise in patience. Tall structures, multi-storied buildings, or weird angles can cause the camera to freak out, or speed around the level. Nonetheless, if you use the mouse-wheel height system carefully, and get used to feeling out an area’s length instinctively, then you’ll be fine.

That being said, there is still one depth-issue I’d like to address. It’s difficult to tell how long XCOM is, or how deep the rabbit-hole goes, so prioritizing facility development can get a bit sticky. For instance, scientists exist primarily to allow, or speed up, different types of research. However, near what I came to realize was the end of the game, I had so many scientists, and research credits, that almost all of my research finished within a couple days. So, it was a bit difficult to tell if I’d need any more, or if that was just a waste and I should expand the engineering department (much like my local university). It’s hard to tell if you should invest in laser weaponry, or wait for plasma. Should you send some troops for psychic testing, or would that be a waste at that point? Do you invest in building an awesome interceptor, or are there more models to come? Which resources do I keep?! Of course, this is all part of the game, and it’s nice enough to wait around for you to finish certain events before really ramping up the challenge, but it can be a bit bewildering the first time through. On my third play-through (because there will be a third), I’m sure things will go a bit smoother. Then again, that’ll be an iron-man run, so I’ll probably be regretting those words in no time.

Playing without save-scumming, a practice I tried out for about an hour before weeping quietly in front of my memorial wall (Yes, it has one of those), really gives one the impression of fighting a desperate struggle against a powerful, nebulous foe. In terms of mechanics-as-metaphor, the entire game delivers its experience very well, without making it all seem hopeless. I’m sure, with what I know now, I could go back and save that first play-through, and really savor the challenge. It’s worth the time you put into it, and it’s quite a singular experience. That’s why I’m giving it this week’s highest rating: Two Banana-nut Muffins out of One Small Lock of Albert Einstein’s Hair, Lovingly Combed and Preserved in a Hermetically-Sealed Batman Lunch-Box.

I’ll get back to XCOM tonight with a more thorough, and spoiler-filled, analysis of its temporal and developmental components. Until then, keep watching the screeeeeeeennsss…

Psychonauts and Other Confusing Nonsense

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , on December 20, 2012 by trivialpunk

So, I just finished Psychonauts… years too late, and I couldn’t honestly tell you how I feel. Let’s start with… you should play it. If you’ve got Steam, then you should grab a copy of this game, but make sure you’ve got a controller around to play it with, otherwise you’ll probably run into some trouble.

I first ran into this game early on in my gaming career when I was working at a locally-run game shop. The manager and owner were, respectively, like the Shepard Book and Mal of my Serenity in those early years. I could barely string two words together, and I didn’t really play that many games. I certainly liked them, but I wouldn’t have called myself a good judge of game-play. So, when they both whole-heartedly recommended that I play Psychonauts (this was when the Game Cube was still a recent thing), I can’t really tell you why I didn’t.

Next, when I was beginning to study game theory, I kept hearing people refer to it as one of those classic games that should be played. Critics seem to universally praise it, even if they admit that it has problems. It didn’t sell well when it was first released, but it was definitely a sleeper-hit. By all accounts, I really should have gotten this game.

Recently, I heard a retro-review of the game, realized it was on Steam and snatched it up, luckily, in the Double-Fine bundle. I loaded it up and fell in love. Then, cruel mistresses that games can be, she stabbed me in the shoulder. I held her, bleeding profusely onto her sob-racked frame, and realized that, even though it hurt, I was finishing this game. Tonight.

I sit here now, on the heels of a single-sitting play-through, with everything fresh in my mind, and all I want to do is whinge. So, let’s start shovelling Psychonauts’ grave, before we begin the vile rituals to resurrect it, flaws and all. Dat plat-forming. Early “action-adventure” titles like this feel like the precursors to games like Assassin’s Creed. Your movement is pretty free, and agile, even though you’ll run into your share of buggy physics and invisible walls. There’s a section late in the game, when you’re jumping around the outside of a flaming fence, spiralling upward, that I almost took a break on, because the controls got so buggy. More than once, you will fall to your death (or frustration) because the distance didn’t quite make sense, or an ability didn’t drop and let you grab the ledge. I even got caught sliding down a leaky pipe… forever. I had to load out of that one.

The plat-forming and movement are buggy, but they leave you enough room to experiment, and find solutions to problems from multiple angles. Hell, sometimes you can solve a puzzle simply by climbing to the highest spot and hang-gliding downwards in the direction you need to go. The fetch-quests are alright; they don’t feel too repetitive. Even collecting the game’s currency and its experience was interesting. The puzzle solutions are intuitive and the abilities work well. They’re all very well thought out, and we’ll get back to that in a minute, but first we’ve got to pick on the enemies.

Enemies in this game are either ridiculously easy, or stupidly hard. There are invincible cannons and rats that will piss you off. Just a heads up. The rats live in a facility with many entrances and holes in the walls, so chances are they’ll emerge in an area pretty close to you. Then, they’ll try to run up to you and kamikaze your ass by exploding into confusing-fumes. Be careful, because, at that point, trying to dodge the remaining rats may cause you to walk off the top of a very long climb.

Choppy platforming and bad enemy difficulty curves… even one part with a knife-thrower… but, let’s move on to the rest of the game, because it’s good. This game feels very much like it was agonized over. All of the parts of the game work together. Yes, even the choppy platforming gives you a sense of hope that you can just glitch your way to victory. All of the powers and enemies, the currency curves and mini-games, galvanize into an amazing atmosphere. Every single character is fleshed out in some way. They’ve all got full personalities, even the ones whose brains you stay out of. Hell, there’s a lady that shows up for only one boss fight, and she has twice the personality of the guy from Rage. The world is practically breathing, and just big enough without being too big. And, the story. Oh, that story.

The world makes the story come alive, and its presentation is amazing, even if the creepy, drool-filled teeth-marks of Sigmund Freud are all over it. I don’t want to ruin it any more than by mentioning Freud, so play it. It’s charming, fun, and frustrating as all hell. You’ll finish it. Trust me. I give it a Rainbow-wigged Clown-skull out of an Astral Projection of Steve McQueen.

BUT wait, there’s more! This game is full of what seems like nonsense. That’s okay, because it’s used correctly. Context is ever-so important. If you trust your audience, then you’ll find that there are many symbols and ideas that you can use to tell detailed stories without shoving their faces in it. The figments are a good example. You’ll see what I mean. I really just want you to explore and enjoy this game. It’s quite an experience. Very much like stepping into another person’s brain. However, what I mean by nonsense is that the game makes rules up and sticks to them. They make sense within the world without being explained. Part of this is audience trust, and the other is understanding nonsense.

Remember, nonsense is only nonsensical in our world. Committing to the atmosphere of a game (see Devil May Cry: ANY of them… 1 – 3) can really add something to it. It means that you don’t have to faff around explaining shit. If the audience is engaged, then they’ll accept it. It has to have a context, a reason, though. It has the serve the game and the narrative. Dead Space had a lot of weird shit, some of which made sense, but it worked because it served the game. That is, until you question it for one second… The mechanics will explain it for you (flailing, up-raised arm weak-spots and Line-Guns), if you make them mesh. Katamari had a bunch of random stuff, but it was essential to the quirky atmosphere. I’m having trouble thinking of a counter-example at this early hour, but if you’ve ever run into an immersion-breaking wat. moment, then you’ll know what I’m talking about. OH! Like when you get married to the evil woman in Fable and it seems like you’re going to team up to conquer the world, but she just sits around and makes fun of you all day. Evil, over-the-top villain seductress… with no point beyond maybe a bride for the darkly-powered gentleman. Nonsense is not useful in itself. When I say that Psychonauts is well-crafted, part of what I’m talking about is how lean it is. Every bit of random nonsense was thought out and means something. So, I suppose what I really, really mean is that it doesn’t matter what you put in your game, what crazy shit you decide is essential, as long as you think it through, and use it well, your audience will thank you for it. Most of all, they’ll understand, as long as it makes sense.

Look at Silent Hill 2 ❤ “There was a hole here. It’s gone now.” Wat.