Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Another World

I was there when it began: the personal computer was still pretty much a gleam in Steve Jobs’s eye, and “Pong” was an amazing New Thing.

My grandparents saw the birth of flight, the telephone, the radio. My parents were there for the beginnings of TV. In my lifetime the home computer and its related sibling the internet changed everything.

I remember my friend Howard coming into the shop with his eyes wide to tell me about Asteroids and Battle Zone. Someone had opened a makeshift arcade in town and it had almost immediately become the focal point for local kids. I was astonished when Howard told me that a mutual friend had put “probably close to a hundred dollars” into the Asteroids machine all by himself.

Of course from there it was Space Invaders and Donkey Kong, and Donkey Kong in particular became a sensation. Arcades — long thought to be an extinct species (at that time no-one played pinball anymore; ironically now pinball is seeing a rebirth… as a computer game) — sprang up all over town. 

We were young men and the Arcade was a place where we could all hang out together. Each of us had our favorites. I loved Dig Dug and Galaga. I began even then to hate what we now call “platformers” because I wasn’t coordinated enough to play them well.

Then came Nintendo and Sega and the Arcades dried up as fast as they had grown. Dead in the water. With the Sega Genesis and the Super NES you could play right in your home games that were more sophisticated and refined than anything in the Arcades. Depending on how much you played, you saved a lot of quarters in the process.

What a long, long way computer games have come since those days. Really, it’s been the needs of gaming and the needs of graphic artists that have driven the never-ending expansion of home computer capabilities. My first home computer had a 180 megabyte hard drive. Back then a megabyte meant something. A gigabyte was unimaginable. You’d never fill up a gigabyte hard drive, right?

Today if you don’t have 500 gigs you’re screwed. Even simple apps like Word have become bloated monsters. As a designer, I frequently work with single images and files that are bigger than my first computer could have handled. A single modern computer game will take up to 25 gigs of your hard drive — in the process, creating effects that were undreamed of when all this began.

I think of Battle Zone, which was the first immersive 3-D game, and it was just green lines on a black screen. Now — all you have to do is turn on your television to see ads for games that are more photo-realistic than some movies. 

In fact, they’re closer to movies now than they are to games. They’re interactive movies. Some offer you more freedom than others. We’ve reached a point where the faces of wholly computer-generated actors can be more convincing and expressive than the faces of breathing ones (especially if the actor in question is Tom Cruise).

Batman. Let’s talk Batman. The Caped Crusader has appeared in video games almost from the start, and in those early days they were just side-scrollers, just platformers dressed up in Batman drag, no different than any of the other home games on the market and not as good as some. A fifty-cent comic book offered you more in the way of content and story, and was more satisfying.

Now we have Batman: Arkham Asylum and its sequel, Batman: Arkham City. Both of these were actually written by Paul Dini, one of the best writers to come out of Batman: The Animated Series, and feature voicework by two other veterans of that show, Kevin Conroy as the Caped Crusader and Mark Hamill as The Joker. Both go way beyond anything that can be thought of as a “game;” they tell complicated stories, Big Stories with a Beginning, Middle and End and characters that you actually start to care about. 

In Arkham Asylum, Batman personally returns the Joker to confinement, only to find that this is just what the Joker wanted and prepared for, and now the Inmates have taken over the Asylum. Mister J has laid his hands on the serum that turns another villain, Bane, into a rampaging mountain of muscle — and he plans to use it on all of the Asylum’s inmates.

Holy Beef Stew, Batman! It’s a more compelling story than the ones in all three of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies combined.

The game actually manages to put you inside Batman’s skin: you begin to understand what it feels like to be Batman. The Asylum is hugely atmospheric and as detailed as a Real Place, and unlike a film you can walk around inside the set and take in all the sights. The bathrooms even have working toilets.

The game is linear and plot-focused; but without your active participation, the story does not move forward. 

I found Arkham Asylum to be so remarkable that I started looking at what else was out there in the game world. I mean — from the point of view of the writer, this is a whole new dimension and angle to storytelling. It opens up a boatload of new creative possibilities. 

This ain’t Dig Dug.

From there my next move was Borderlands 2. And this completely entranced me.

Fans of the game will tell you “it’s the loot” or “it’s the humor” or “it’s the sheer infinite variety of weapons at your disposal” that make the game so great. They’re all wrong.

Borderlands 2 does have a linear story that you can follow at your own pace (actually more than one — with all the add-ons installed, there are actually about a dozen unrelated stories that you can follow as you wish, how you wish, when you wish), but its magical power lies in the fact that it’s set in a Completely Open world that you can explore at your leisure. And that world is both vast — covering what feels like an entire continent — and finely detailed. If you’re tired of following the story, you can go off on your own to any one of dozens of locations and Hunt Monsters. You can hang out in Moxxie’s Bar, order a beer, play with the slot machines. When you’re ready, there’s a whole raft of colorful characters who will offer you jobs — side missions — for rewards. 

After literally weeks of playing, on and off, and beginning to feel like Pandora was a real place that existed somewhere in the bits and bytes of my computer, I did finally complete the main story arc; but I’ve only begun to explore the secondary story arcs and am nowhere near exhausting the game of its content.

Then there’s Bioshock. I finished it last night.

It almost completely linear in its play and the way it tells its story… also, its content amounts to flat-out Horror, and it is relentless in the way that it throws its horrors at you. 

But the world that it creates is simply amazing; one of the best, most vivid and mesmerizing Fantasy Settings that I’ve ever encountered in any medium, book - film - game, what have you. This is actually a problem.

The city of Rapture is so engrossing that you just want to explore, to look, to take in your surroundings… but you’d better not. Especially in the later sections, if you stand around in one place too long, or even if you don’t, you will be under attack in no time. The game’s “monsters” — humans who have genetically modified themselves to such an extent that they have all gone psychopathically, murderously mad — are constantly at you, constantly in your face, and they can kill you with two hits. The makers of the game created this fabulously detailed world — and then made it impossible for you to enjoy it.

The story is more ambitious than some you can find in books. An industrialist named Andrew Ryan — a sort of Howard Hughes type — has built an entire Art Deco city under the sea: and has attempted to run it on Ayn Rand’s principles of Objectivisim. Ayn Rand = Ryan… get it? Because Objectivism flat-out doesn’t work as a philosophy, the city has, over the course of ten years, come completely unglued — and now it’s down to Ryan and one other man fighting over the leaking ruins of what remains.

There are wonderful plot twists and embellishments, and for the first two-thirds the story is as engaging as the setting, if you can find the time to think about it between attacks. Unfortunately, it all goes pear-shaped in the final third, as happens often in movies. Many threads are allowed to drop by the wayside. Ryan’s rival is both underdeveloped and uninteresting, and in the end you have to kill him for no other reason than that he’s been lying to you all through the game. His actual demise is satisfying enough, given his crimes, and if you play in such a way as to trigger the Happy ending (there’s an Unhappy ending waiting for you if you are mean to Little Girls) you won’t feel as if your time has been wasted. But overall that final third feels like a missed opportunity. The actual climax of the game is Ryan’s death, and that happens almost two hours before you’re done. 

Which doesn’t minimize the impact of what has gone before: good is good and even the first Star Wars is still a good movie despite all the crap that came after it. But the creative challenge in all mediaforms is still to create a meaningful and cohesive whole: and in games as anywhere else, even with all the power we now have to create fictional worlds that entrance, arriving somewhere and accomplishing something still seems to be the hardest part of all.

— Freder.

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