Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Game Review: Thirty Flights of Loving & Dear Esther

I just took a break from being Batman and running around Arkham City to cross two non-games off my to-do list. I say ‘non-games’ because each of the two in its own unique way is an interactive experience rather than a game. They don’t so much tell a story as strongly hint at one, tickling your imagination by giving you just enough elements to suggest a narrative without quite connecting the dots for you. In both cases, there is room for interpretation of how it all ties together.

Thirty Flights of Loving – In this highly stylized short story that takes about fifteen minutes to ‘play’ from beginning to end, you’re part of a trio executing a heist. There is no dialogue, barely any text and you see everything from a first person perspective. Most interesting about this flight of fancy is the use of jump cuts. You may find yourself running down a hallway only to suddenly be in a different scene, be it one taking place earlier or later. Apart from moving around and being able to click on things to move the plot forward, you have no influence on the course of events. Thirty Flights is the sequel to the equally experimental Gravity Bone, which shares its colorful, primitive graphics but has a few more traditional gameplay elements and a great, cinematic final scene. In this earlier game, you play the part of a contract killer, but things get silly; at some point you have to take photographs of birds which afterwards explode for some unknown reason. On Steam, Gravity Bone comes packaged with Thirty Flights and there’s a text commentary option for the latter that gives insight into the making of it but does not clarify the story. ‘Playing’ both stories and reading the commentary will not take more than an hour in total and it’s certainly worth picking up for the curiosity value, assuming you find it on sale. I don’t quite get why the reviews have been so massively positive though. Granted, it’s novel to apply artsy cinematic ideas to a slightly interactive animated short story, but the end product doesn’t seem all that substantial from a story perspective. To me the ‘games’ seem to be stuck in a weird and slightly uncomfortable Limbo between a game and a short film.

Dear EstherDear Esther tells its ambiguous story in a totally different way. You don’t click or interact with anything or anyone, you just observe as you move around the stunningly detailed landscape (or possibly mindscape) around you. The abandoned island you find yourself on, contains strange sights for you to see as you follow a long, winding way to a beacon blinking on the horizon. There are signs painted with luminous paint, lit candles in unlikely places and stranded boats of the wooden as well as the paper variety. A voice joins you now and then on your walk, dropping pieces of a sad and spooky story that must somehow be related to the island and its strangeness. The connection gets clearer as you go, but never completely solidifies. Apart from the voice, there are only ambient sounds and the occasional piece of piano, violin or choral music to break the silence. The sky is grey, overcast, with a ray of light in the distance. There’s a beautiful sadness to it all. The path you walk is very linear, the environment laid out in such a way that you can make a small extra detour, but never wander off in an unintended direction. There is no running, you move at a slow but steady pace. Those short on patience need not apply. Dear Esther only works if you give in to the mood of the piece: put on headphones, turn off the lights and preferably have a large, high-resolution monitor. Don’t expect action, more a meditation with hints of story. This meditation will take about 75 minutes to complete.

As you see: despite both being an experiment in storytelling, we have an apple and an orange here. I enjoyed Dear Esther more, because of the atmosphere. It’s funny that simply the act of moving yourself through the environment makes it a compelling experience, when the minor adjustment of watching the game as a movie would likely make you fall asleep by the midway point. Important note: the save system was messed up. If you don’t complete the story in its entirety at first, you may only be able to start at the beginning instead of at one of the other three chapters. Thankfully, there’s a work-around for this.

Anyway – I am off to be Batman again. As one does.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Movie Review: Skyfall

Convoluted plots and unlikely action sequences have always been a staple of the James Bond franchise. (As well as hot women, exotic locations, gadgets and shaken-not-stirred martini’s, before sponsoring by Heineken perverted the latter.) But since Daniel Craig has taken on the Walter PPK of 007, the movies have tried to head into a grittier, relatively more believable direction. Skyfall, more than previous installments, puts the emphasis on characters and is unusually introspective. Respectful nods are made to Bond movies past and both Bond and his boss ‘M’ (Judi Dench) are reflecting on a career that is closer to the end than the beginning. As the story progresses, the scale of it seems to be shrinking and getting more personal, rather than growing bigger and being of import to the world at large. Unfortunately, as with The Dark Knight Rises, the realism makes the somewhat more ridiculous parts stand out in uncomfortable contrast.

For starters: what’s the deal with Evil Masterminds? Why do they feel the need to set up complicated webs of intrigue and precarious plans, full of unpredictable factors, when their end goal could obviously be reached in a much easier way? Because then there would be no movie, that’s why. Both MI6 and their adversary show some true foresight at points in the movie, while having strange blind spots at others. There were a few instances in which a car was at the ready to pick up someone at just the right place and time, despite these people just exiting a chaotic, unforeseen situation. And the way a mode of public transport is used effectively for a quick, spectacular escape at one point seems to give up completely on probability, sacrificing it on the altar of coolness (and, admittedly, it does look cool). There is an IT component to the plot and, as usually happens in movies, the sequences which attempt to make hacking look visually exciting seem to have no bearing on reality either. And dear screenwriters: our hero gets taken into an Evil lair, but no one thinks to give him a thorough body search? That signifies either sloppy henchmen or sloppy writing. (Who in their right mind would pass on a chance to give Daniel Craig a body search?)

While I do like Craig’s gritty Bond and the self-awareness about getting older and possibly having peaked already, I don’t like some of the characterization he’s been handed. Without getting too specific, there is more than one occasion in the film when Bond seems all set to act the hero, but only springs into action a moment or two after it’s too late. Maybe this was done to humanize him and make him feel more fallible, but it’s a jarring shift between this and his action hero mode. Also worrying, given the more realistic tone, is the disregard for collateral damage, be it of the material or innocent bystander variety. Must be a ‘greater good’ mentality.

The continuity between Bond movies remains somewhat baffling. It is understood that ‘M’ and ‘Q’ are codenames for a certain position within MI6 and that the title is passed on from one person to the next. Even Ms. Moneypenny could potentially be a code-name. But does the same count for the 007 moniker and the name James Bond? The numbers signify agents, but are we supposed to assume that the previous incarnations are all pushing up daisies? That doesn’t seem the case, as it’s made clear in Skyfall that James Bond is 007’s actual birth-name. (Weird that he would use his real name to introduce himself - “Bond. James Bond” – while on the job.) So then it seems that all James Bonds are indeed meant to be the same person, duplicating in slightly varying forms throughout the last 50 years, in what must be alternate realities. So there you go: it’s a scifi-franchise.

Is Skyfall the best Bond movie ever, as some people claim? No, I wouldn’t say so. But it is one of the most interesting ones, fleshing out the characters of Bond and M more than usual. It gives Judi Dench a lot of screen time, which is always a good thing. And it is notable for an unusual ending, that I unfortunately can’t get into without major spoilage. Despite a script containing plot holes that are hard to miss, as well as a generous helping of silliness, the movie is definitely worth seeing, for newbies and die-hards alike. The latter will likely get out of it the most out of it, though, being able to appreciate its cheeky winks to its heritage. I have it on good authority that James Bond will return.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Game Review: Spec Ops: The Line

I do not like military shooters and tend to avoid them like the plague. A lot of them are morally awkward, featuring mostly white Westerners shooting at whichever group of ‘others’ seemed the most threatening at the time the game went into production. Also, the online-multiplayer seems to be the main selling point for most of these games, and I don’t enjoy getting continuously ‘fragged’ or ‘pwned’ by foulmouthed teens who have spent all their time online practicing instead of developing social skills or getting laid. And finally: realistic shooters tend to bore me with their machismo and rabid patriotism. But then along came Spec Ops: The Line. It’s a military shooter, but it gathered so much buzz for its unconventional storyline that I decided to pick it up when I spotted it on sale.

You are Captain Martin Walker, a guy who at first seems like a cookie-cutter all-American hero. You lead a squad of three into Dubai, which has been hit catastrophically by sandstorms. Your job is to covertly find out what happened to a previous team – the 33rd battalion led by a certain John Konrad. It was sent to Dubai to evacuate the inhabitants that were left behind after the rich and powerful had fled the city. As you walk into an unclear situation with multiple factions fighting each other, mistakes are made which escalate the situation, including one as harrowing as I’ve ever witnessed in a video game. Walker’s mind and body take a severe beating and his team begins to doubt him. Depending on what you do during the final mission and the sequence that follows after the credits, it leads to one of four downbeat, existential endings. None of them include bunnies, rainbows or unicorns. Despite this, all of them are worth watching and profound in their own way.

Having been pre-warned by reviews that the parts where you shoot a literally unbelievable amount of opposing soldiers are fairly generic and turn into a slog near the end, I played through the game on ‘easy’. I can actually recommend doing that, if – like me – you just want to optimally experience the story (‘enjoy’ seems the wrong word). It improves the pacing as you won’t have to replay any of the lengthy and increasingly grim battles more than once. From a gameplay perspective, the actual shooting is indeed pretty standard apart from a mechanic where you can shoot glass that has sand on or behind it, to pour an avalanche over your enemies. Some people have complained about the fact that vaulting and melee combat were mapped to the same button, but I wasn’t hindered by this too much, engaging long-distance by preference. Dodging hand grenades is a pain, however, because sticking to cover, getting out of cover and running are all controlled by the same button. So if someone lobs a grenade at you, you have to carefully un-stick yourself and amble away from your cover far enough for you start running when you press that button again, instead of going right back into cover and getting blown up.

The game has been criticized for being hypocritical, discussing the horrors of war, while at the same time trying to entertain by way of gunfights. But the context of the shooting matters. Odd as it is, you feel somewhat guilty as you go through these sequences, but compelled to keep going because you want to see what happens next. And yes, there is heroic rock music playing on the background at points, which is obnoxious if taken at face value, but which contextually is clearly ironic, along the lines of that ‘America, f*ck yeah!’ song from the South Park guys. The gore may be entertaining to some people (and in some other games it is to me too), but here it mostly feels painful. The faces of the soldiers you kill are generally detailed enough that they become individuals when lying dead on the ground. At some point you hear a couple of guards having a very normal, humanizing conversation, right before you inevitably have to kill them. If you’re not engaging with the game intellectually, all you’ll see is a bland shooter. And you’d be missing the point entirely. In a strange way, it would be less fitting if the killing was very creative and a lot of ‘fun’. Admittedly, the fact that you can get ‘achievements’ for certain kinds of kills is a bit dubious, but to avoid a financial loss with expensive-to-make games like this, you have to please gamers of all kinds, not just the ones with a philosophical bent. So, yeah, the game does make a few concessions that slightly weaken its point.

Though some of the things you will see in Spec Ops: The Line are hard to watch, the graphics themselves are impressive and the sand swept environments are outright beautiful at times. For the atmosphere, the visuals and the story, I really recommend picking up the game if you catch it on sale. Run through it over the course of an afternoon on ‘easy’ to get the most out of it (and forget about the allegedly mediocre, tacked-on multiplayer component, which I ignored). Of course, alternatively you could just look up the cut scenes on YouTube. But when taken out of context and without the interactive element, I don’t think these scenes would have the same impact. To feel that, you have to identify with Walker, at least up to a point, and feel responsible for his actions. It’s not often that a war game lets itself get inspired by something as thoughtful as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. (Note that the name of the ambiguous leader of the 33th battalion is Konrad.) If you’re a gamer on the look-out for something with substance, don’t miss out on this experience. Even – or maybe especially – if you normally hate military shooters.