The silent limbo of old video games

Silent Hill 2 (Konami, 2001)

Behind the Curve – Silent Hill 2 (Konami, 2001)

Silent Hill 2 is a fascinating survival horror experience that takes us on a psychological journey that is exemplary in it’s presentation and maturity, especially compared to the relatively poor standards of video game writing. I elaborate on how and why Silent Hill 2 works, but I don’t know what I could add that dozens of video game critics and pundits haven’t said already. This game came out in 2001 and has long been a darling for the “games are art” folks. Hell, that’s why I played it in the first place.

No, I have nothing to add on the actual content of Silent Hill 2. What I’d like to talk about is the fact that I had to play this game on an emulator. What?!?! I know! I might as well have slapped the developer in the face.

Silent Hill 2 (Konami, 2001)
Silent Hill 2 (Konami, 2001)

But frankly, I felt like it was my only option. Internet research informed me that my copy, the HD port for Xbox 360, is an unforgivably inferior version. Rumor has it that Konami was working off unfinished code when they made it. The Silent Hill HD Collection is apparently missing fog effects and there are screwed up audio files that were vital to the experience. My only other option was to track down a PS2 and an original disc, but a cursory glance at eBay revealed this path to be financially unfeasible.

Why is it that old video games, particularly console games, are so absurdly difficult to get hold of? This is something that the video game community needs to start working on if they ever want to be taken seriously as an art form. A crucial tenet of art is that it’s a big open community, a shared social conversation. Some of the most brilliant art in existence builds on or responds to the ideas that came before it. To restrict access to a medium’s lineage is to effectively cripple the creativity of artists working today.

It’s so strange to see this happening in the internet age, when the idea of an unattainable product should be considered quaint. Right now I can go on Amazon and buy a copy of Citizen Kane on Blu-Ray for fourteen bucks. I can rent it from the local library for even less. I can get a digital copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for free. Both of them contain all of the original content, unaltered and retrofitted to work with modern technology.

But video games don’t work like that. If I want a legitimate copy of Silent Hill 2 in its original form, I need to drop ninety bucks for the PS2 disk. This just doesn’t happen in other mediums (with the possible exception of the “Special Edition” of the original Star Wars trilogy).

Silent Hill 2 (Konami, 2001)
Silent Hill 2 (Konami, 2001)

But of course, we all know why old console games are so hard to get hold of. More so than other industries, games are controlled by corporations. And if a corporation doesn’t see the benefit of making the original piece available, then it won’t be available. Which is their right, of course. Ever since our corporation-friendly copyright laws effectively gutted public domain, there is little incentive for companies to share their toys. But I hope these corporations understand that they’re doing long-term damage to the gaming industry. Until we have an open and accessible gaming community, this medium will still be thought of as “just toys” by the general public.

 

Coming up:

  • Documentary: Best of Enemies (2015) – Monday, November 21
  • Book: 1984 (George Orwell, 1949) – Monday, November 28
  • Movie: The Imitation Game (2014) – Monday, December 5
  • Game: Pokemon Go (Niantic, 2016) – Monday, December 12
  • Wild Card! – Monday, January 30

The influence of opinions

The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening (1993)

Behind the Curve – The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (1993)

(Warning: This article spoils a twist in the story of The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. That being said, the twist is super obvious. In fact, I wrote this article only three quarters of the way through the game.)

The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening (1993)
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (1993)

The fact that I haven’t finished this relatively short game at time of writing should be an indicator that I’m not exactly salivating over it. I acquired Link’s Awakening years ago, probably from a garage sale or something like that, and I only started playing after deciding to work through my gaming backlog.

Whatever the sweet-spot is for enjoying Zelda games, I must have missed it. I was very big into them when I was a kid, but thinking back I can’t remember beating any of them. Perhaps they were just too long and complex for my young, ADHD-addled mind. Now that I’m older and focused enough to handle the mechanics, I find myself often bored by them. Part of it is their stories. Although Link’s Awakening gets away from the obligatory”bad-guy-kidnaps-princess” plot that Link and his colleague, Mario, are always dragging around, I still find myself un-engaged. The story is thin, simplistic and way easier to predict than it thinks it is.

Seriously, if you get to the end of the game before realizing it’s all a dream, kindly disable your sexual organs. The human race doesn’t need those genes.

I know that Nintendo games are typically more about the gameplay than story. But it seems that’s not enough for me anymore. Maybe I’ve missed the maturity sweet-spot whereing I could fully appreciate Zelda games.

Bottom line is that I was ready to give up on Link’s Awakening. Out of curiosity, I decided to look online to see the general consensus on this particular Zelda entry. Perhaps, I thought, this is one of the crappier games that fans prefer to ignore. Imagine my surprise to learn that Link’s Awakening is a critical success, praised for its story and mythology. It’s consistently ranked among the top 10 Zelda games, and one critic even called it the best Game Boy game ever. A dubious honor, perhaps, but I was genuinely shocked.

The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening (1993)
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (1993)

So now I’m probably going to keep playing Link’s Awakening, to see if there is some brilliance to it that I failed to notice. Perhaps, I thought, I wasn’t giving it a fair chance. And that made me wonder: is it weird that I can so easily be made to doubt my own opinion? This isn’t the first time it’s happened. A while back I watched Equilibrium, a 2002 science fiction movie with some really great action scenes but a story that I found boring and cliched. But then I found out that MovieBob, an internet movie critic I follow and respect, thinks Equilibrium is great. So I’m giving that another chance. Granted, I was not entirely sober when I initially watched it on Netflix. Maybe I overlooked it’s positive points.

This behavior might seem like a lack of of confidence in my opinions, but I think there’s something else going on. I’m the type of person who actively tries to enjoy the entertainment I experience. It’s why I’d probably make a terrible critic. Even when I recognize a movie is bad, like Batman v Superman or Suicide Squad, I usually find something to like in them. And when I genuinely dislike something, like Link’s Awakening, I’m more open to the idea that I’m simply not looking at it from the right angle.

I don’t know if that’s a good or bad trait for a writer, but it’s definitely a great trait for an audience member. I get to enjoy almost anything!

 

Coming up:

  • Documentary: An Inconvenient Truth (2006) – Monday, October 17
  • Book: A Farewell to Arms (Ernest Hemingway, 1929) – Monday, October 24
  • Wild Card! – Monday, October 31
  • Movie: No Country for Old Men (2007) – Monday, November 7
  • Game: Silent Hill 2 (Konami, 2001) – Monday, November 14

Competitive versus artistic gaming

Portal, 2007

Behind the Curve – Portal (Valve Corporation, 2007)

Video games are one of the youngest creative mediums around today. They date back only 50 years or so, and for a significant chunk of that time games were little more than very advanced toys. They weren’t truly art. I know that’s a controversial statement for the eternally self-conscious gaming community who bang the “Games are art!” drum without truly understanding what the concept of “art.”

Yes, obviously games can be art. I just replayed Portal, and that game might as well be in a museum. It’s the first game I ever played that left me with the contemplative, satisfying sensation I normally associate with an intellectually stimulating book. But don’t tell me that Pong, or even Donkey Kong merit the same artistic recognition. Do you really think Donkey Kong was made with artistry? Creativity, certainly, but not artistry. It was designed to challenge, entertain and snatch quarters from children. That was its primary goal.

Portal, 2007
Portal, 2007

Not all games are art, just like not all video is art. Citizen Kane is art. A WalMart employee orientation video is not art. Pacific Rim is not art, even though it’s a great movie. Pacific Rim is entertainment, and there’s a difference. Blanket statements like “games are art” become intellectually troublesome because they cheapen the impact of genuinely artistic games, like Portal and Spec Ops: The Line. Pretending that all games constitute “art” renders the term completely meaningless. If Pong counts as art, then why not real life Ping Pong or Tennis? When Tom Brady walks on the field, it’s not to experience a work of art.

That said, games occupy a unique space. All games, from the artistically minded Portal to more competitive games like Madden and Rocket League evolved from purely competitive progenitors. As a result, games are just as much a sport as they are an artistic medium. Often, the line is pretty blurry. Even artistically rich, single-player games will challenge the player. And purely competitive multiplayer games like Overwatch structure themselves around a story, however little of it they tell the player.

This dichotomy that makes video games utterly unique as an artistic medium. Take a step back and think about how unusual it is. In what other artistic medium do people experience the work competitively? You don’t compete with your friends in movie watching or book reading.

And I think this competitive aspect of gaming partly explains why something like 99% of all games include combat. Even Portal, which is pretty much a pure, artistic puzzle game, has several challenges where one must destroy gun turrets. And even when there’s no direct combat, many artistic games include death as a fail state.

Portal, 2007
Portal, 2007

The ubiquity of death and combat is also strange for an artistic medium. I’m not saying combat is antithetical to art, but consider for a moment the variety of experiences seen in other narrative mediums. In movies, there are violent, action-packed pieces, sure. But there are also witty comedies, raucous comedies, psychological thrillers, contemplative meditations, inspiring sports movies, children’s adventure movies, documentaries and many many more varieties of film that involve no killing, combat or death. By comparison, video games have very little variety.

It seems more than a little immature that dropping the player into a life-or-death situation is the only way many developers can think of to create conflict. I’m not sure I have a point, except to say that I wish games could be more creative in generating interest and dramatic conflict. I suspect we’ll see more variety emerge as gaming continues to mature as a platform. I know that the “walking simulator” genre is doing innovative stuff, but removing all challenge from the experience seems like a bit of a lazy solution. Hopefully we will continue to develop creative and original ways in which to challenge players.

 

Coming up:

  • Documentary: Sky Line (2015) – Monday, September 19
  • Book: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (Douglas Adams, 1980) – Monday, September 26
  • Movie: Battle Royale (2011) – Monday, October 3
  • Game: The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (Nintendo, 1993) – Monday, October 10
  • Wild Card! – Monday, October 31

Star Wars is dumb

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, 2003

Behind the Curve – Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (BioWare, 2003)

Growing up in the 90s I was too late to be part of the initial Star Wars craze, but I grew up loving it nonetheless. I remember taping the movies on our VCR whenever they were playing on TV. These were the original films, mind. None of that special edition crap. I remember running around the house with a paper towel tube making lightsaber noises. I remember grunting at cup across the table, trying to move it with the force.

I even loved The Phantom Menace when it came out. In fact, I loved all the prequel movies. I was still a kid at the time, and as such I was blissfully unaware of the fan backlash. Even now that I recognize the flaws in the prequels, I still look at them through nostalgia-tinted glasses.

But my interest has waned in recent years. Lately I’ve been wonder whether I’m a Star Wars fan at all. This is oddly timed, since Star Wars is currently better than it has been for years. The Force Awakens will definitely be remembered as one of the high points in the franchise, combining the wonder and excitement of the original movies with the improved technology and choreography we saw in the prequels.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens, 2015
Star Wars: The Force Awakens, 2015

In addition, I personally consider Kylo Ren to be one of the best Star Wars villains. Sure he’s a whiny brat like Anakin in the prequels, but that makes sense for a dark side Force user. Their power is supposed to come from intense emotions, and Ren really embodies that unchecked rage. Other dark side users like Darth Vader, Darth Sidious and Count Dooku always seemed way too calm and in-control to me. Basically they were slightly meaner Jedis.

So Star Wars has made an amazing comeback and is now better than it ever was. So why is it still losing me? Well, I suspect it’s because I’m just now realizing something about the franchise: It’s really dumb.

First of all, the universe doesn’t make sense. The stories take place many hundreds and thousands of years from one another, but technology never changes. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic supposedly takes place many millennia before the movies, but all the technology is virtually identical. Same lightsabers, same blasters, same ships. The main character even gets a ship that looks exactly like the Millennium Falcon. It’s clearly just there for fan service, but it raises some questions. If this model of ship has been around for thousands of years, why isn’t it more common? Especially if it’s still the “fastest ship in the sector” after all that time. It’s like if the fastest car today looked like a model T. And you’d think more people would get that kind of ship it they’re so fast, but they only ever seems to be piloted by Star Wars protagonists.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, 2003
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, 2003

Even if technology does evolve, it’s in stupid ways. Although I like The Force Awakens, the New Order’s Starkiller Base is unquestionably one of the dumbest, most ham-fisted attempts to raise the stakes I’ve ever seen in a franchise. What’s scarier than a Deathstar? A giant Deathstar!

But I think I reserve most of my ire for the whole light side, dark side dichotomy. When you have a conflict between two groups and one of the leaders literally calls himself “dark lord,” you have officially blasted any chance of forging a complex narrative out the airlock. You might as well be writing an episode of Super Friends.

To be fair, there have been some attempts to muddy the line between light side and dark side in side stories. KOTOR includes the only example I’ve seen of a neutrally-aligned force user. But most of the Star Wars universe is just good guys being noble and bad guys being evil and positively no self-awareness. I mean, the New Order has fricken Nazi banners for God’s sake. Are you kidding me? I know that calling the bad guys “stormtroopers” was never subtle, but this is a whole new level.

So in conclusion, I’m no longer a Star Wars fan. I’m just a guy who will watch every Star Wars movie the day it comes out.

 

Coming up:

  • Documentary: (Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies (2015) – Monday, August 15
  • Book: American Gods (Neil Gaiman, 2001) – Monday, August 22
  • Wild Card! – Monday, August 29
  • Movie: From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) – Monday, September 5
  • Game: Portal (Valve Corporation, 2007) – Monday, September 12

Power of friendship!

Pokémon Yellow: Game Freak, 1999

Behind the Curve – Pokémon Yellow (Game Freak, 1999)

I have to say I’m pretty damn sick of the whole “power of friendship” theme. First of all, it’s unbearably saccharine to the point of inducing nausea. And on top of that, it’s a bit overdone, particularly in children’s entertainment. You see it in shows like Pokémon and the original Yu-Gi-Oh! (i.e., the only anime shows I’ve watched) and it’s also prevalent in every Pokémon game I’ve ever played.

Pokémon Yellow: Game Freak, 1999
Pokémon Yellow: Game Freak, 1999

I know what you’re thinking. Mike, you’re an alleged adult. Why are you getting worked up about children’s entertainment? To those people, I would like to politely and maturely recommend that you suck on a phallus. I like Pokémon and I like Yu-Gi-Oh!, so there.

Don’t get me wrong, I like friends. I’ll even concede that there is a certain power in friendship, and that communicating said power to our children may be worth the time. But in practice, whenever I see that theme come up in a narrative story I cringe so hard that my face is in danger of imploding.

Besides, while having friends is very good and sexy, there’s also nothing wrong with wanting some time alone. Maybe it’s just me, but I always get the impression that these stories frown on that tendency. Solitude is portrayed as being a character flaw at best and downright villainous at worst. In the Yu-Gi-Oh! TV show, nice guy Yugi is followed around by huge posse. His rival, Kaiba, works alone and is constantly portrayed as a giant asshole.

Yu-Gi-Oh!, 2001
Yu-Gi-Oh!, 2001

In reality, I feel like that dynamic would be flipped. Walking around with a “crew” to cover your back is something exclusive to insecure douchebags and egotistic ganster rappers (so yeah, just insecure douchebags). Whereas being able to work and travel without a hand to hold strikes me as more confident and emotionally balanced.

It all smacks of modern society’s irrational prejudice against introverts. It’s a prejudice that I tend to take personally for some reason.

Please come up with new morals in children’s entertainment, for the love of God!

 

Coming up:

  • Documentary: Requiem for the American Dream (2015) – Monday, July 18
  • Book: The Martian (Andy Weir, 2011) – Monday, July 25
  • Movie: The Usual Suspects (1995) – Monday, August 1
  • Game: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (BioWare, 2003) – Monday, August 8
  • Wild Card! – Monday, August 29

The rise of computerized Americans

Fallout 4: Bethesda Game Studios, 2015

Behind the Curve – Fallout 4 (Bethesda Game Studios, 2015)

Of all the strange, science fiction premises we see in movies, books and video games, there are two that I consider plausible in our boring little world: aliens and artificial intelligence. The alien thing is practically a statistical certainty if you know anything about the vastness of the universe, but who knows if we’ll ever actually run into them? Their societies may be too distant or existed in a different period of time. Artificial intelligence, on the other hand, is a lot closer to reality. It’s also, in many ways, a much trickier problem.

For a little over a half-century we’ve been living in an age of extreme technological advancement, unprecedented in terms of speed and refinement. I have a device in my pocket that can access the entire collected knowledge of humanity at a moment’s notice. A device that’s faster and more powerful than any computer on the shuttle that brought man to the moon. The Computer/Information Age is more revolutionary for our society than both the Enlightening and the Industrial Revolution, and it shows no signs of slowing down.

Self-aware artificial intelligence is on the horizon. I know that sounds like science fiction, but a lot of smart people are already losing sleep over it. Stephen Hawking famously said that artificial intelligence would be humanity’s greatest achievement, but possibly also its last. And of course we have movies like Terminator, 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Matrix to show us how AI’s could show up to bite us in the ass.

2001 A Space Odyssey: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1968
2001 A Space Odyssey: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1968

It is a frightening thought. If humanity encountered aliens, we would at least have some idea of the fears and desires motivating another organic race. AIs would be a complete unknown. We don’t know, and can’t begin to fathom, the actions of a being unburdened by the emotions of flesh and unbound in terms of morality and mental capacity. Maybe they would want to kill us. Maybe they’d want to die. Maybe they’d have no feelings one way or the other.

But that’s not my main concern. I think the potential dangers of AI are well-established enough in popular culture that no sane scientist would create one without extensive safeguards. No, I’m more curious about the ethical implications. We’ll need to ask ourselves: Does a thinking, possibly feeling AI constitute a “living” thing? If so, do we have the right to enslave it for the purposes that are being discussed?

It’s a knotty question. Every working definition we have of “life” is based exclusively on the carbon-based lifeforms that have inhabited the Earth. That sounds like a large data set, but consider that all life on this planet shares a common ancestor. We are bound to share numerous traits and processes (such as a reliance on liquid water) with even our most distant cousins, like plants and bacteria. That doesn’t necessarily mean that those traits are the litmus test to see if something is alive. It’s like growing up in an all blond-haired family and declaring that blond hair is a defining trait of the human species.

My point is that alien life might surprise us. We might not recognize an organic alien life form if it deviates too far from Earth-life. Recognizing an artificial lifeform would be even more difficult.

And let’s say that the AI is alive. Is it moral to create an intelligent being for the sole purpose of working? Let’s say there was a factory somewhere that cloned humans to build a cheap workforce (there’s actually something like that in Cloud Atlas, which I highly recommend). How would we feel about that? I think that most people wouldn’t care that these humans were built from the ground up by a company; we’d call it slavery. That’s basically what we would be doing with AI.

Fallout 4: Bethesda Game Studios, 2015
Fallout 4: Bethesda Game Studios, 2015

Humanity has a history of being, ironically enough, inhumane to our fellow man, of dismissing his humanity. There was a time not too long ago when “scientists” claimed that black people were less than human. I predict that similar arguments will be made against AIs (or Computerized Americans, as they may someday be known). Maybe there will even be some merit to the arguments: we are talking about ones and zeros. I simply recommend we not be so quick and dismissive of what could be a fully sentient creature.

In other words, let’s try not to be dicks this time.

 

Coming up:

  • Documentary: Prescription Thugs (2015) – Monday, June 20
  • Book: Brave New World (Aldous Huxley, 1931) – Monday, June 27
  • Movie: The Machinist (2004) – Monday, July 4
  • Game: Pokémon Yellow (Game Freak, 1999) – Monday, July 11
  • Wild Card! – Monday, August 29

Your nostalgia is legitimate

Pokémon Red and Blue: Game Freak, 1998

Behind the Curve – Pokémon Red and Blue (Game Freak, 1998)

Like many kids of my generation, I grew up obsessed with Pokémon. That obsession waned somewhat when I went to high school and became more self-conscious of jeering peers. As a result, I missed everything after Generation II.

Pokémon Red and Blue: Game Freak, 1998
Pokémon Red and Blue: Game Freak, 1998

I decided that the franchise’s 20th anniversary (God, that makes me feel old) is excuse enough to revisit the history of Pokémon, starting with the O.G. games: Red and Blue. And as the tagline to this series suggests, I will, indeed, be “catching ’em all.” I’m going for a completed Pokédex this time; all 151 Pokemon, including Mew (thank you, glitches!). It’s a task my younger self never managed.

It’s interesting to revisit a game in which I used to spend so much time. There’s more than one town that I still know backwards and forwards. And I keep tripping over little nuggets of nostalgia, like landmines buried in the code. I remember during one playthrough my Blastoise fainted in a battle with my rival at Silph Co. During that time I was in the habit of blowing through the game using only my starter, so all my other Pokémon were HM slaves. Soon all I had left was a level 12 Oddish against his Venosaur. But something happened. The computer got caught in a loop. It kept trying to use Poison Powder, but Oddish is part Poison and you can’t poison a Poison-type. So I started chipping away at Venosaur’s health with Cut, and eventually it fainted.

I love these games. I love that there are so many little moments I remember 15 years later. But nostalgia is a funny thing. Now that I’m older and I have a more critical eye, I’m not so sure that Pokémon is a good game. It’s slow and repetitive. The writing is somehow worse than it was in the anime (which I also watched religiously).

Pokémon Indigo League: The WB, 1998
Pokémon Indigo League: The WB, 1998

You could argue that the games are at least deep experiences. The massive variety of Pokémon gives you the freedom (in theory) to create a unique team and play-style. But in practice, most players will wind up with very similar looking teams. The world doesn’t really open up until halfway through the game, and by that time you’re used to the handful of guys you caught in the early levels. It’s unlikely that you’ll invest the time to train a bunch of newbies. And since the game has a bad habit of not telling you about certain out-of-the-way places, like the Power Plant, you may not even find them.

Nostalgia also made me forget the little annoyances that pepper the game. Caves, for example, are infuriating for their random encounters every 2 steps and their weak-ass Zubats (aptly nicknamed “Cave Herpes” by Honest Trailers) that constantly confuse my guys. And then there are the broken moves in Gen I. Like Bind, which prevents you from attacking for like 5 turns while it whittles away at your health.

None of this will stop me from playing Pokémon Red and Blue, or from enjoying the back-catalog of Pokémon games. I still have nostalgia-tinted blinders on. And I’m perfectly fine knowing that my nostalgia is clouding my higher critical thinking. If you enjoy playing a game, that should be all that matters. Who cares if your bias is making you overlook a game’s many faults?

I never understood the internet trend of shaming a person for liking a game/book/movie/show that’s widely considered to be bad. At the end of the day enjoyment is enjoyment, and the only person you have to explain it to is yourself. If someone thinks less of you for liking a game, they’re probably not the type of person whose approval you’d want in the first place.

In conclusion, I still love Pokémon. But after replaying it, I understand why most of the adults who buy Pokémon games played the series in their youth.

 

Coming up:

  • Documentary: The Propaganda Game (2015) – Monday, May 16
  • Book: The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood, 1985) – Monday, May 23
  • Wild Card! – Monday, May 30
  • Movie: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) – Monday, June 6
  • Game: Fallout 4 (Bethesda Game Studios, 2015) – Monday, June 13

A realistic moral choice system

Deus Ex: Ion Storm, 2000

Behind the Curve – Deus Ex (Ion Storm, 2000)

Usually when a game offers a moral choice it’s presented in the Mass Effect style. That is, we reach a critical point in the plot where a large choice must be made and the game gives us a few options, usually based on our actions leading up to that point. The consequences, on both large and small scale, are usually fairly obvious. Now I love Mass Effect. I’ve said before that it’s my favorite game series of all time. And I think the moral choice system works for the Mass Effect story. It’s certainly more nuanced than most games on the market. But it’s still a rather simplistic take on moral issues.

You see, all of Commander Shepard’s moral decisions are penultimate. Destroy the data or don’t destroy the data. Save this species or that one. Push the red button or the blue. But that kind of clarity and dichotomy is rarely present in real life moral choices. In real life, evil options aren’t obvious choices. Sometimes they look like the only way to proceed.

Mass Effect: Bioware, 2007
Mass Effect: Bioware, 2007

Deus Ex doesn’t have a moral choice system, at least not in the modern sense. Instead, it conditions you to not want to do bad stuff. Let me explain what I mean. Before the first mission, my support character (Let’s call him Agent 1) stressed the importance of accomplishing our objectives without bloodshed. With that in mind, I painstakingly sneaked around all the guard patrols, relying on the difficult-to-use and difficult-to-find-ammo-for nonlethal weapons when I got into scrapes.

At the end, Agent 1 complimented my performance. But another character, Agent 2, thought I was a big ole wuss and made fun of me. On the next mission, in which I partnered with Agent 2, I was more aggressive. I killed most of the enemies by the end of it and Agent 2 seemed pleased with my results (so much so it was pretty creepy). But some of my character’s dialogue changed to be more psychotic, and the sensible characters who I liked seemed nervous around me.

Deus Ex: Ion Storm, 2000
Deus Ex: Ion Storm, 2000

All of these characters have since dropped from the plot, and I’m at a point where I can’t realistically avoid killing enemies. Nonlethal ammo is just too rare for it to be practical, and as I said they’re very tricky to use. But I find myself avoiding murder when possible. I don’t know why. There’s no reward for doing so, not even the dubious prize of Xbox Gamerscore. I just find myself avoiding.

I feel that this is a more realistic depiction of moral choice. Evil deeds are not just an “evil” button at the end of a morally neutral mission. Evil deeds are little bites of misconduct offered constantly throughout an endeavor. Tiny temptations that occur throughout our day, and may not seem that bad at the time.

 

Coming up:

  • Documentary: Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) – Monday, April 18
  • Book: The Thin Man (Dashiell Hammett, 1934) – Monday, April 25
  • Movie: Spotlight (2015) – Monday, May 2
  • Game: Pokémon Red and Blue (Game Freak, 1998) – Monday, May 9
  • Wild Card! – Monday, May 30

Family friendly

Lego Lord of the Rings: Traveller's Tales, 2012

Behind the Curve – Lego Lord of the Rings (Traveller’s Tales, 2013)

I’ve always found it amusing how adaptations aimed at kids will employ weird creative tricks to dance around the more mature aspects of a property. For example,  Marvel cartoons weren’t allowed to say words like “kill” or depict anything that would vaguely suggest mortality. It leads to weird situations. Like Wolverine only remembering he has claws when fighting robots enemies. Spider-Man: The Animated Series was fairly obnoxious with its use of “destroy” as a replacement word for “kill.” And there was one amusing episode where he teams up with Blade to fight Morbius, a literal vampire, but nobody ever says the word “blood.” They all call it “plasma.” I assume that idea came when a Red Cross van parked outside the animation studio.

Spider-Man The Animated Series: Marvel, 1996
Spider-Man The Animated Series: Marvel, 1996

Obviously Lord of the Rings needed to be more family friendly for it’s Lego treatment. The source material gets a tad dark with its severed head catapults and addiction metaphors. Plus there was all that talk of orcs eating “man flesh,” which is incidentally still sounds like the worst euphemism for “penis” of all time.

But some of the alterations are just absurd. Like, really absurd. For example, they had to keep Boromir’s death in the story. It was an important plot point. So apparently they tried to marry that moment with Lego’s wacky, slapstick sense of humor. Rather than getting shot repeatedly with arrows, Boromir dies of a banana to the chest. I wish I was making that up.

Usually in posts like this I try and break down what the storyteller was going for and try to figure out how it could have been done more successfully. But in this case I’m not sure what I could say. I don’t know that there is a effective technique of de-fang violent stories and make them family friendly. And it probably doesn’t matter too much. Most kids won’t notice the weird parts because they’re not exactly experts on tone and story structure. Only losers like me will think it’s weird, but the game isn’t aimed at me so I don’t know what I’m complaining about.

So I’m just going to use the rest of this blog to describe other weird moments in Lego Lord of the Rings. Because they’re really frickin’ funny.

Lego Lord of the Rings is one of the first Lego games to feature voices, and they actually managed to keep “Looks like meat’s back on the menu, boys” line. An orc says it when Frodo and Sam show up at the Black Gates of Mordor disguised as pizza delivery guys.

Lego Lord of the Rings: Traveller's Tales, 2012
Lego Lord of the Rings: Traveller’s Tales, 2012

Other moments weirdly come across as more messed up than the original. You know when Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli investigate the aftermath of a battle between a company of Rohirrim and the Uruk-hai who took Merry and Pippen? In the movie there was a head on a spike next to a pile of burning bodies. Well there’s no head on a spike now. Instead, there’s a large stack of still living Lego Uruk-hai heads. They teeter back and forth and make comical balancing noises. How is that better???

But the highlight for me was Théoden’s death. It was handled tastefully in the movie. He fell in battle, trapped under his horse. The animal neatly hid his mangled lower half, while he says his goodbyes to Éowyn. Well, the Lego version is kind of like that. Except the line “My body is broken,” was way more literal. Because while Théoden and Éowyn have their tender moment, Merry picks up the king’s legs! And they twitch!!!

Lego Lord of the Rings: Traveller's Tales, 2012
Lego Lord of the Rings: Traveller’s Tales, 2012

I know all the characters are made of plastic, but that still seems demented enough to cause nightmares.

 

Coming up:

  • Documentary: An Honest Liar (2014) – Monday, March 21
  • Book: One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir (Binyavanga Wainaina, 2012) – Monday, March 28
  • Movie: The Warriors (1979) – Monday, April 4
  • Game: Deus Ex (Ion Storm, 2000) – Monday, April 11
  • Wild Card! – Monday, May 30

Marcus Fenix falls victim to Runaway Badass Syndrome

Gears of War 2: Epic Games, 2008

Behind the Curve – Gears of War 2 (Epic Games, 2008)

So I’m going to talk about about the story in Gears of War 2. I suppose that’s like discussing the interior design of a whore house. Sure it exists, and somebody probably spent a long afternoon designing it. But it’s not that interesting, and if all you care about is the carpet you’ve completely missed the point. You don’t play a Gears game for the story. You play it because you’re after that specific brand of cathartic power fantasy which the phrase “chainsaw assault rifle” so deftly evokes. But I can’t write a 500-word blog entry about chainsaw assault rifles. If I did it would consist mostly of the words “Awesome!” and “F**k Yeah!” with a liberal addition of grunts and growls.

Gears of War 2: Epic Games, 2008
Gears of War 2: Epic Games, 2008

Instead, I’m going to talk about the main character, Marcus Fenix. Now Marcus is a COG sergeant who leads Delta squad. He’s roughly the size and shape of an average fridge and has a voice so gravelly that you could use it for sandpaper. In short, Marcus seems specifically designed to be the most badass person imaginable. Which is just one reason why he’s the least interesting character in the plot.

That’s not an exaggeration. There are characters in this game with less than five minutes screen time that I find more interesting than Marcus. Hell, some of the Locust were more interesting than Marcus. How did this happen? Personally, I think it’s an extreme case of what I’ve termed “Runaway Badass Syndrome.”

It’s a well-documented occurrence that gruff cowboy-types tend to play well with American audiences. It’s the phenomenon that’s kept Clint Eastwood in the green for years. And there are some “writers” working today who think you can make a character as brash and contrarian as possible, with no sense of context, and the audience will love him.

Gears of War 2: Epic Games, 2008
Gears of War 2: Epic Games, 2008

But that’s not what happens. Instead, Marcus comes across as hopelessly boring and robotic, a huge buzzkill to his more engaging squadmates. Not that Marcus’ comrades are deep or original in any way. They’re mostly one-note stereotypes, but at least they’re likable. Carmine is endearing in an innocent rookie kind of way. Cole is a fun Terry Cruz-type. Dom if fairly boring, but at least he has the missing wife moments that come close to touching. Most importantly, they all go through a multitude of emotions, whereas Marcus is just all gruff, all the time.

I’ll give you an example. There’s a moment in which Dom and Carmine are speculating as to whether or not the Locust feed on “Imulsion.” It was mildly interesting to hear, as it fleshed out the Gears of War universe. I’d have been interested in hearing more, but Marcus shut down the discussion by stammering out some cliched badass phrase. Something like “I only care about how to kill them.”

Gears of War 2: Epic Games, 2008
Gears of War 2: Epic Games, 2008

And that was pretty much standard operating procedure. Marcus never contributed anything interesting to the plot. He’s a joyless meathead with a constant scowl. It’s hard to tell if he cares about anything, because everything he says is coated with the same bored irritation. His only motivation seems to be “being a soldier,” but I’m not convinced he has any goals beyond that. Sure, he wants to save the world, but if he screws it up I don’t think he’d be that bothered. Because if the Locust are defeated, what the Hell would Marcus do with his time? Go back to school? Find a steady job and a nice girl? He’d be on an office massacre inside of five minutes.

I feel like I’ve seen characters like this a lot lately. Writers try to make their heroes as awesome as possible, but the best heroes, the ones that stay with us, have unique joys and vulnerabilities. They have worries and goals that extend beyond the next big gun fight.

 

Coming up:

  • Documentary: Meet the Patels (2014) – Thursday, February 11
  • Show: The Jinx (Chapter 4: The State of Texas vs. Robert Durst) (2015) – Monday, February 15
  • Movie: Lazer Team (2016 – I can break my own rules!) – Thursday, February 18
  • Book: Wool (Hugh Howey, 2011) – Monday, February 22
  • Game: Lego Lord of the Rings (Traveller’s Tales, 2013) – Monday, March 14