do/do not: RE6

Do I?  Or don’t I?

My rental copy of Resident Evil 6 arrives either today or tomorrow, and I’m legitimately torn between sending it right back unopened, and actually giving it a go and seeing how far I can sit with it.

I have no great allegiance to the franchise.  I think I talked about this when I talked about the demo last week, but to recap:  I never owned a PS1, but I played a little bit of RE2 on my friend’s console – definitely jumped off the couch when the dog jumped through the window, but the controls never felt quite right in my hands.  I bought Code Veronica for the Dreamcast, and I remember sort of enjoying it, though I never finished it.  When I finally bought the Wii, RE4 was one of the first games I bought for it, and I hated it.  I fumbled around in the first chapter for 20-30 minutes, fighting the controls, and finally gave up.  RE5, on the other hand?  Loved the hell out of it.  It was goofy, silly, and not at all scary; but it was also gorgeous, and the controls made sense, and it did more to encourage multiple playthroughs than almost any other game I could think of – there were so many cool things to collect and unlock and upgrade.

To say that RE6‘s reviews have been mixed is to put it incredibly kindly.  Looking only at the scores and pull quotes, you would think that the reviewers were sent completely different sets of code, from completely different builds.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a discrepancy in scores in such a high-profile game.   I don’t know what to believe.  (Though the arguments I’ve heard against playing the game sound pretty goddamned persuasive.)

Here’s my deal:  I’m not really playing anything at the moment.  I’m sorta doing a second playthrough of Borderlands 2 in True Vault Hunter mode*, and at some point I want to give Torchlight 2 another try, and I’ll be devouring XCOM next week.  But if RE6 were to arrive today, it wouldn’t be displacing anything in my agenda.

And yet… I’m not in the mood to have my time wasted.   Like I’ve said before – RE4 was universally loved, but I hated it.  RE5 was met with relatively solid and respectful reviews, but I ended up loving the hell out of it.  The reviewers are all over the place on RE6, but the reviewers I generally trust all seem to be in agreement that it’s a massive disappointment… even though they also agree that the game has an astounding amount of content (which scratches that same itch that RE5 satisfied so thoroughly).  I’ve heard that it’s at least as long as one playthrough of Borderlands 2, which is, what, 40 hours?  Jesus.

So…

Like I said last week (or whenever it was) – I played the demo with no preconceptions and no expectations, and even though I only played one campaign (of the available 3) for around 10 minutes, I wasn’t really all that impressed with what I saw.  It was hard to know how much of that was due to the state of the code (the demo does say that it’s not based on a final build), and how much was due to it being actually shitty.  And I don’t know how much shittiness I’m willing to put up with, especially when it comes to a franchise that I have no real strong feelings towards.

A lot of my waffling here is partly because I had too much caffeine this morning and needed something to write about; I’m not, like, agonizing over this.  But it’s also because I’m torn between (1) wanting to be part of the conversation and (2) being aware that I’m not a professional game journalist and thus the conversation is really just a soliloquy.  You’re not going to be missing out on anything here if I don’t end up writing about it.

And yet… I’m just so goddamned curious.  RE6 appears to be one of the highest-profile flops of the last few years, perhaps even of this entire console generation.  But even with its control issues and weak story and everything else that’s wrong with it, there’s also a lot of stuff in it that sounds quite interesting (at least in theory).  That mode where you can jump into a stranger’s game as an enemy?  That sounds inspired.  (Even if it’s inspired by Dark Souls.)

As it happens, the rest of this week and the upcoming weekend is going to be incredibly busy for me anyway, so I’m not sure I’d get all that much time with it before XCOM starts pre-loading.  Which ultimately leads me to ask… why bother?

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* In case you don’t know, True Vault Hunter Mode is basically New Game +.  You keep your current inventory, your level, and your badass perks, and then you start all over again with enemies that are also levelled up.  I’ve played it for around an hour or so, and have already looted an amazing shield, shotgun, and sniper rifle.  (Still looking for a better assault rifle, though; it’s my default weapon and I’ve been using the same one for the last 6 hours of playtime.)

baby time

So, here’s the news:  I’m going to be a father.

The whys and wherefores and everything else is not necessarily appropriate for this particular blog; just know that it took a very long time, and science was ultimately involved, and we are very happy, and the baby’s due in April.

(This is also the previously alluded-to reason as to my current financial situation; with a baby on the way, I can’t be buying new games and consoles and stuff all the time.  Even if I really, really want to.)

I had a dream yesterday morning about impending fatherhood.  (Partially inspired by the floating city in Borderlands 2, actually, now that I think about it.)  In the dream, I was surrounded by everybody I’d ever met, beaming with pride for our future child, happy and full of love for everyone and everything.  At the same time, the island of Manhattan was suspended over a gaping sinkhole, thousands of feet deep, and any time I walked past a crack in the sidewalk I could peer into the abyss underneath, and I’d get a horrible sensation of vertigo.

This is, in fact, what having a baby actually feels like – tremendous excitement, yet colored with the slightest tinge of unfathomable dread of the unknown.  (Thank God for anti-anxiety medication, is all I’ll say.)

Certainly there are lots of big life things that I feel that I’ve got to start thinking about and getting serious about – career, money, etc.  (And, of course, lots of smaller things to think about, too, like:  maybe it’s time to get rid of my Rock Band equipment, since it’s taking up an awful lot of space that we’re going to need.)

I was hoping to have some profound statement to end this post with, but the truth of the matter is that I’m just really happy.  We shared the news with our friends yesterday, and so today I’m sharing it with you.  Thank you for reading and sharing this part of my life with me.

random ramblings

1.  As mentioned a few posts back, I’m in something of a spending freeze for the foreseeable future.  That being said, I must admit that I’ve started to notice a subtle but stubborn itch in my brain that’s making me want to maybe get a Nintendo 3DS.  There are a couple reasons for this.  For one thing, the software library isn’t totally terrible anymore, and there are a few games coming up that I really want to play (Paper Mario, Professor Layton, etc.).  For another, I’m finding that I’m having a hard time staying engrossed in my iOS games.  I’ve bought a few RPGs for my iPhone but I almost never play them, and I find that if a game doesn’t let me listen to my own music (or podcasts or Spotify or whatever), I tend to ignore them, too.  Whereas back when my DS was in regular rotation, I’d absolutely plug in my headphones and allow myself to be fully engaged in the whole experience.  (Obviously, puzzle games like Picross don’t really need sound, but you get my point.)  Of course, yesterday’s announcement of the iPhone 5, coupled with my eligibility for a free upgrade in December, means that given my budgetary restraints, I can only choose one, and I am MOST DEFINITELY getting that new iPhone.  (And I’m still not ever getting a Vita.)

1a.  As I was writing the paragraph you just read, Lifehacker came out with a relevant article titled “How To Get Off The Upgrade Treadmill.”  So, there’s that.  (Still getting an iPhone 5, though, so there.)

2.  Speaking of Nintendo (and upgrading technology), I do not give a FUCK about the WiiU.

3.  My wife goes out of town next weekend, and I think I’m going to take that opportunity to move my PC tower into the living room, hook it up to my 40″ HDTV, and give Steam’s Big Picture Mode a workout.  I’m kind of afraid that I’m going to love the shit out of it, because there’s no way I can keep my PC in the living room without making my wife and my dogs very unhappy.

4.  Mark of the Ninja continues to impress.  Last night I figured out whatever the hell it was I was doing wrong and got past the figurative wall I’d run up against, getting a new ability in the process that will MOST DEFINITELY come in handy when I go back and try to ace the previous levels.  Goddamn, that game is great.

5.  Speaking of stealth games, I have a question:  do people actually enjoy the cutscenes in Metal Gear games, or do they enjoy them ironically, like they would with, say, The Room?  I bring this up because the Giant Bomb crew talked about the upcoming Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes on last week’s Bombcast and they all seemed to acknowledge that the franchise as a whole is fucking insane, but enjoyably so, but the key phrase is still:  “fucking insane.”  Which it is.  (Feel free to read my posts about MGS4 which break down that game’s specific insanity in much greater detail.)   And yet I’ve come across plenty of people – fans, journalists, etc. – who take that franchise very seriously, and who get very, very defensive when people point out how ridiculous it is.   Ultimately, I found myself enjoying the gameplay of MGS 4 quite a lot, and was genuinely awed at the graphics and presentation, but I was also in utter disbelief that anybody could take that game’s narrative even remotely seriously.  Kojima is an enigma to me – I have no idea if he has any self-awareness, which is why I don’t know if I’m supposed to enjoy his stories as the camp that they clearly are, or if he’s actually sincere about this craziness.

kickstart the jams

I’ve got things I want to say about Final Fantasy XIII-2, and also Kingdom of Amalur: Reckoning, and a few more words on Skyrim and the 1.4 patch.

But first I’ve gotta talk about Double Fine’s Kickstarter campaign, wherein Tim Schafer & Co. asked the community to help fund an old-school point-and-click adventure game.  That it’s raised its initial ask amount of $400,000 in 8 hours is amazing.  That it’s now almost a million dollars over its initial ask amount – in less than 3 days – is nothing short of extraordinary (indeed, it might break $1,400,000 by the time I finish this post – it’s a little over $50,000 away as of 12:34pm EST, 2/10/12).   I contributed $40, and I will play it on every platform it arrives on (especially since, with all this extra money, it appears likely that it’ll head to iOS devices), and I will devour the accompanying documentary.

I’d like to think that this experiment would radically change the current development system, which every small developer has repeatedly described as “fundamentally broken.”  Double Fine owns this project outright, and since they’re distributing it over Steam (and presumably other download services), they don’t have to pay retail costs – and consequently, they don’t really need a publisher, either.  It’s pure profit after they recoup their expenses, they retain complete creative control, and they’ll deliver a product that lots and lots of people apparently want.  Why can’t this work for other game developers?

Well, the answer to that question is very complicated, and I’m not going to pretend that I can answer it.  From my limited vantage point, the only real thing I can compare it to is Radiohead’s “pay-what-you-want” release of “In Rainbows”, which they released without a label behind them.  (Similarly, one could also bring up Louis CK’s recent “pay-what-you-want” release of a filmed comedy special.)

The worlds of game development, music and stand-up comedy are so different that to compare them is almost meaningless, but in this particular case these three entities (Double Fine, Radiohead, Louis CK) do share one rather important thing in common – they are adored by their fans, and they have many, many fans, and those fans very much want what these artists are providing.

This is important, I think.  These three entities are in unique positions within their respective industries – i.e., they are near-universally loved from both without and within – and they have a certain amount of clout that allows them to pull stuff like this off.  Tim Schafer’s past work has made him an adored cult figure, and yet none of his games have really sold in huge numbers.  They’ve sold well enough to make back their costs, and he’s retained an adoring fanbase, but he’s not pushing GTA or Call of Duty off the bestseller charts.  That he’s going back to his roots to make the sort of game that made him famous is, for many people (myself included), a dream come true.  That he knew that no publisher was ever going to give him the money to make this sort of game is, sadly, a reality of today’s marketplace.  New IP is very, very risky, and new IP in the shape of a point-and-click adventure title is basically asking to set your money on fire.

I’m not sure Tim Schafer expected this kind of success this quickly, though; I’m not sure anybody did.  And let’s also be clear here – at this point, he’s only raised the money; we haven’t actually seen the game yet.  The game could very well be terrible.  (Unlikely, but hey – Brutal Legend wasn’t nearly as good as I wanted it to be, either.)

Are there any other developers that could pull something like this off?  I’m not sure.  Rock Paper Shotgun is reporting that Obsidian is considering it.   You could see Jonathan Blow (of Braid) working in this way in the future, perhaps.  (My personal dream would be for Erik Wolpaw to break off from Valve to develop his own game.)  You’d need a developer with vision, is the thing.

The great irony to this whole thing is that not 48 hours before Double Fine’s Kickstarter kicked off, Minecraft’s “Notch” was offering to fund Psychonauts 2.   Tim Schafer’s said, though, that such a project would cost between $20-40M, and that kind of money isn’t going to come through Kickstarter, and I can’t imagine that Notch has that much money to kick around.

Anyway, this is a very exciting time, and it will be very interesting to see what happens next.  If Radiohead is any example, though, this sort of thing might not end up catching on beyond artists who are big enough to support such an endeavor in the first place; considering the prohibitive costs of game development, I have my doubts that lightning can strike twice.  Still, we can always hope.

Games v. Art v. Time

I was hoping to avoid entering the “Games as Art” debate, because I felt that the question was (a) insulting and (b) obvious. Of course games are art. Or, rather, they can be, if that’s what they strive for. Film is an art form, but I defy anyone to defend a piece of crap like, say, “Transformers 2” as art. Similarly, Roger Ebert saying that games can never be art is, ultimately, meaningless; no matter how smart he is, or erudite, he has not actually played any games, and therefore his argument – however well-constructed – is irrelevant. My personal opinion is that if you haven’t experienced a thing, you are not inherently qualified to have your judgment matter.

But I had an epiphany of sorts last night and I figured I might as well bring it up, especially as I was a bit surprised at what side of the fence I ended up on. Let me set the scene, then, as the prelude has everything to do with the conclusion.

A great deal of my down time yesterday at work was spent reading various Rock Paper Shotgun articles about the 10 year anniversary of Deus Ex; this one is as good a place to start as any. Deus Ex – at least the first one – is still held as a pinnacle of game design; it did the whole “choice” thing long before Peter Molyneux and Bioware started offering it as a bullet point. You could pretty much do anything you wanted to – you could be stealthy, you could be lethal, you could be manipulative, and the game responded in turn. I, like a few of the participants in the RPS article above, played and enjoyed the game when it first game out, but hadn’t played it since. And so, by the time I got home last night, Steam had put both Deus Ex 1 and 2 on sale for a ridiculously low price – I think they were $5 combined – and I felt obligated to download them and re-experience a masterpiece.

Let me offer up a quote from the RPS article now, because it’s somewhat crucial to my eventual point:

I want to cling to my memories and experience, not have it tainted by age, creakiness and other people’s bluster. Even looking in on it last night, I was horrified by how not-huge the levels seemed now. I didn’t want to destroy their grandeur in my memory, so I couldn’t stay for long.

So while I was downloading the Deus Ex games, my wife and I watched Wipeout (ridiculous TV, not art) and then, because we’re in that weird point of our Netflix queue where the movies we have are good, classic movies that we’re never in the mood to watch, we decided to watch “Visions of Light,” a documentary about the history of cinematography that I’d heard was great.

If you’ve read this blog with any sort of regularity, you’ll know that I am a graphics whore. This also extends to film – my favorite directors (Kubrick, Gilliam, Jeunet, Gondry, the Coens, etc.) are all absolutely brilliant with the camera and use it as much as anything else to tell the story. I am a big big fan of Gordon Willis, Conrad Hall and Roger Deakins; the biggest reason why I liked the most recent Harry Potter movie was that it was shot by the same guy who did Amelie, which is one of my all-time favorites.

Anyway, so this documentary was really, really fascinating. It covered a general history of American cinematography, and showed lots of out-of-context clips which did a terrific job of illustrating the cinematographer’s relationship to the art of storytelling. There were a few notable omissions – no mention at all of Eisenstein’s influence, which seemed surprising, and only one Hitchcock movie (“Rebecca”, which wasn’t even identified as a Hitchcock film). And, of course, the film was released in 1993, which was right around the time when CGI really started to become prominent, and the transition from film to digital would seem to be as big a technological leap as the transition from black & white to color. But I digress; the documentary was really just about the evolution of the form through the years, from early silent films to the noir period of the 40s and 50s, and then to the Scorcese films of the 70s, with some specific examples of absolutely fantastic shots and how they were designed and filmed.

And one of the films that was brought up, again and again, was Citizen Kane. Citizen Kane is rightly held up as one of the greatest films ever made, and a great deal of the film’s genius is due to the cinematography of Gregg Toland – indeed, Orson Welles placed Toland’s name and credit right next to his, as a rightly-deserved tribute to his contributions. Just about every cinematographer interviewed in the movie held up Toland’s work as the pinnacle of the profession, and as a deep influence on every film that followed.

Here’s the thing: Citizen Kane still holds up. If you watch it now, nearly 70 years after its release, it doesn’t seem nearly as stodgy or stiff as a lot of films from that era can, and most of its camera moves and shots are still breathtaking and jaw-dropping. It is, in short, timeless.

And this is where it started to occur to me that this notion of “timelessness” has a lot to do with the games as art debate. Because here’s the thing: if you play the original Deus Ex now, as I did last night, it’s…. kinda terrible. It’s clunky, it’s poorly acted, it’s ugly. Its relative ugliness is perhaps unfair – 10 years is an eternity these days in terms of technology – but, still, if you took today’s Call of Duty-playing teenager and sat him or her down in front of Deus Ex, they would probably say “this sucks” about 5 to 10 minutes in, and move on. And this is important, because Deus Ex wasn’t just another first person shooter; it was incredibly ambitious and state-of-the-art for its time, and now, only 10 years later, it feels like an ancient relic.

The thing about “great art”, I think, is that it can be appreciated and enjoyed regardless of when one is experiencing it. Shakespeare is still resonant today, even if the language can sound foreign. Mozart and Bach can still stir one’s emotions; Michelangelo and Picasso can still inspire awe and wonder.

Gaming, however, is hampered by a multitude of artistic difficulties. One could certainly make the very valid point that the vast majority of games have absolutely no intention to be art. They may be beautiful to look at, but they are ultimately meant to exist as product. But there’s more to it than that. 2 points to consider:

  1. The technology used to make (and play) games is evolving at such a rapid pace that there’s no real “constant.” Simply in terms of graphics, a game that looks fantastic now will eventually look shitty in a few years; but if you just factor in how a game controls, a game that you loved dearly 5 years ago is damn near unplayable now. Your memories of playing Goldeneye in college 10 years ago will not stand up to the reality of playing Goldeneye now, not after Halo and Call of Duty and everything else. My memories of GTA3 are all that game has going for it now that GTA4 has come and gone, and my experience with Red Dead Redemption has made GTA4 seem archaic in many respects.
  2. Moreover, a game that you loved dearly 5 years ago is probably on a console that doesn’t work anymore, or that you no longer have hooked up to your television – or that you are no longer able to hook up to your television. I still have my Dreamcast and a somewhat large library of Dreamcast games, but I’m not sure that I can get them to work with my HDTV without going out and buying cables (not to mention that it’s also a near certainty that the VMUs in my Dreamcast controllers are dead). It saddens me to know that I’ll probably never get to play Skies of Arcadia again, simply because I can’t. But in a way, that’s good, because my memories of Skies of Arcadia do not seem to include the relentless frequency of random encounters…

So then. What now?

I was about to predict that within the next 5-10 years, the technology curve will flatten out to the extent that it will not necessarily matter how many trillions of polygons you can render per second; the human brain is only capable of processing so much. 3D may or may not take off; I think it will, eventually, but not next year (which is what Sony seems to think); I personally don’t anticipate buying a new 3D HDTV until (a) the price comes way down and (b) there’s enough content to support it, and I think that (a) and (b) are still a few years off. But what the hell do I know – I didn’t understand the Wii, either, and the whole concept of Kinect seems more like science fiction than something I’m going to be using in a matter of months. Still, though, at a certain point, there’s only so many pixels the human eye can process; games will eventually reach a finite level of graphical fidelity.

Which means that creativity will have to take over. That’s what it’s always done, in every artistic discipline; the rules are laid out, the forms are given shape, the boundaries are drawn, and that’s when the artists can truly shine, because to break the rules will finally mean something. This is not to dismiss the truly outstanding artistic achievements in today’s games, of which there are many; it is only to say that once there is a standard form, a form that doesn’t require a new television and console and controller and eyewear every year, a form that every designer and artist and programmer can actually work with for more than six months without getting antiquated – it’s at that point that I think we can expect truly amazing things to happen. It is at that point that we can finally have our Citizen Kane.

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