Ryu_San Blog

Why We Need a Citizen Kane...

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A few weeks ago, IGN editor Michael Tomsen committed one of the worst sins a game journalist can commit: he reminded the world that video games still are just games for kids. Invited by ABC news to come forth with a name for "our" ,Citizen Kane he chose "Metroid Prime" as the most eligible candidate for that honor. I won't bother you with the justifications he used to back up his choice, as Anthony Burch, in his somewhat truculent form already addressed them with the necessary criticism in this interesting read. Suffice to say, IGN's editor might've been better off not saying anything, instead of spewing such ridiculous statements, that serve only to show the lack of culture most game journalists possess.

The formulation of this question is not new. Where is the of Citizen Kane video games? This problem is very ambiguous, and the way in which it was phrased can lead to a host of misinterpretations on what is being discussed. The most important disclaimer in this regard is – I am not, in any way, about to compare cinema with video games, they are different mediums with different expressions, and we would do well to accept the differences. The truly relevant question which lies hidden in the "Citizen Kane" conundrum is this: what video game can you show the world that will convince it of the medium's legitimacy and maturity as a means of expression?

Whether someone chose "Citizen Kane" or "Metropolis" or "Nosferatu" or "Birth of a Nation" or any other film for the comparison is irrelevant. The reason why someone thought of "Citizen Kane" probably derives from its relative closeness to present day, and to the profuse knowledge most of us possess regarding film and its history (as opposed to the illiteracy we show towards older art forms). It is easy for us to track the relevance of film as an art form as a consequence of the study of certain works, in which "Citizen Kane" plays a major role. Also, film, being a product of the XXth century, emerged in a somewhat similar social and economic climate to that of video games, making its process of maturing from a purely commercial business to a wider, more encompassing artistic medium, seem replicable in our means. This is why we should crave a "Citizen Kane" – we want video games to achieve the same status as cinema did, and so we await eagerly the prophetic light of a piece of art so profound, that it can turn the blindest of skeptics into an illuminate, devote follower of video games. But what features made "Citizen Kane" relevant enough as to establish film as more than a form of entertainment? The answers are many and highly subjective. What follows are my own answers, and anyone is free to give theirs to help the debate.

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The most important of "Citizen Kane's" qualities is, without a shadow of a doubt, it being a true film. It isn't a piece of theatrical performance set in an intangible stage, it isn't a novel with its text hammered into spoken words by both narrator and actors, no! It was pure image and sound in narrative form. The cinematic language employed in Welles' masterpiece was so powerful and visionary, that it would take more than a quarter of a century for someone to even consider updating it. Welles took all the potential of cinema and attempted fulfilling it, by virtuously condensing a story into an expressive piece of celluloid, captured thanks to a beautiful (and revolutionary) cinematography, exquisite soundtrack, and an outstanding work in terms of actor performance. Every framing, mise-en-scéne and camera movement serves as a vessel of metaphor for the telling of Kane's life – these are the only true words of the language used by this audiovisual book. This is what eventually lent artistic legitimacy to cinema – "Citizen Kane" was a work that could not be replicated in other formats without losing its greatest strengths as a work of art.

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The second, sometimes forgotten, quality of "Citizen Kane", stems from its universal, perpetual appeal. "Kane" may bear a special figure as a man, being a magnate like we have seen so few, but his story was personal, human… familiar. We can all relate to his life in some way, to his desperate attempts at happiness through all the wrong ways, his wild spiral of triumph and decay, his moral and emotional contradictions as a human being, his ever frustrated obsessions with money, power, love and immortality. Forget the outstanding nature of the characters, this film addresses life, period. These are the challenges that all our lives hold in storage for us, our own existentialist anxieties and psychological dramas. And "Kane" doesn't touch these subjects with superficiality or carelessness, it is pondered, ambiguous, profound and life-like. As Roger Ebert put it: "Its surface is as much fun as any movie ever made. Its depths surpass understanding. I have analyzed it a shot at a time with more than 30 groups, and together we have seen, I believe, pretty much everything that is there on the screen. The more clearly I can see its physical manifestation, the more I am stirred by its mystery."

Last, but not least, there is the matter of it being a work that is unique, personal, authorial, unbound by genre conventions or pre-determined notions of what films should be, and, of course, not oriented in any way with a commercial logic. It was not only ahead of its time, as it was honest and true to its authors' visions. This is their tale, their ideas, their craftsmanship, their art. This is a movie about their message, and it's that notion which governs everything in it, from the seemingly meaningless stage prop to each earth-shattering dialogue. This is probably why it wasn't a commercial success and why it was shunned by the producers of the time (despite marginal profit!), eventually leading to a troublesome dispute with Welles throughout the remainder of his career, with several unauthorized edits to his works that, still today, rob them of their artistic value. "Citizen Kane" is a work of art, something which in the world of money… is usually misunderstood. Despite all this, "Citizen Kane" lives on still today, thanks to the continuous recognition by many critics and scholars (heck, even the Academy recognized it with several Oscar nominations!), and by a growing interest of the public in the work throughout the 1950's and beyond. It became a symbol – a popular one at that, I might add – that film can be art. Many haven't seen it (and if you're one of those, stop right now, and go watch it), but everyone knows that "Citizen Kane" is considered the greatest film ever made.

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Now returning to what lead us to this film. Where is our Citizen Kane? What video game has become a symbol of our medium's maturity and legitimacy as art? So far, I'd say none. No one sees, and rightfully so, video games as artistic objects. Perhaps the question then is, does a game with the qualities I've mentioned before even exist? Namely, a game that fulfills the medium's potentials, that has an adult and universal discourse, and is an authorial work? And if it does, how can we make that game a symbol? Is that even possible? How and where can we find our own Rosebud?

"Mr. Kane was a man who got everything he wanted and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn't get, or something he lost. Anyway, it wouldn't have explained anything… I don't think any word can explain a man's life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a… piece in a jigsaw puzzle… a missing piece."

[More unanswered questions in the next article concerning our Citizen Kane.]

Breaking out of the Cage

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Not everyone recognizes that there is a problem with the current state of videogames. Most are content with the mindless "fun" they afford players, and those that aren't content, tend to cower beneath the towering weight of money-grubbing companies that just want to maximize their profit. But there are those rare few who have their eyes out on more ambitious goals for videogames and who aren't afraid to stand up and be pretentious. David Cage is such a man, as this recent presentation shows; as always, it makes for an interesting read coming from someone who actually has something which is worth reading about. Ever since I remember reading about him and his games, he's always been yapping about games' legitimacy as art-form, and how he is trying to tell stories through games. He's perceptive and culturally knowledgeable; like all those who watch a movie or read a book every now and them, he can tell that videogames lack the maturity and emotional depth that other artistic mediums live by, and so he struggles to bring videogames one step closer to those other means. Sadly, his ambition never panned out as much as one would hope, as his games always ended up being shallow replicas of the future for videogames that he so heartily stands by.

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"Omikron" (a.k.a. "Nomad Soul"), was a visionary attempt at capturing the sense of a living breathing world, completely rendered in 3D. Two years before the open-world breakthrough of "Grand Theft Auto III", Cage was already fiddling with notions of scale in space, gameplay and narrative, which most designers would've run from like a devil from a cross, so ambitious they were for that time. It was a game only rivaled (and let's be honest, in many ways, surpassed) by the contemporary work of Yu Sukuzi, "Shenmue". Cage's work was not without merit though, he managed to devise an entire fictitious world, a provocative, gaudy blend of science fiction aesthetics, deeply rooted in cyberpunk culture, Philip K. Dick-ean themes of personality and identity, and some post modern elements. He was avant-garde in every sense of the world, and even managed to bring David Bowie in to collaborate as actor and singer/composer of the game's original score, further establishing "Omikron" as an artistically legitimate venture. The game was far from perfect, as the cacophonous mix of gameplay **** (adventure, beat'em up and first person shooter) was convoluted and ill-balanced, and the game suffered from a myriad of bugs and technical issues, all of which reviewers of the time took at heart.

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His next game would suffer a better fate in eyes of both public and critics, though in the humble opinion of this writer, was far less progressive and experimental than its spiritual predecessor... and equally unbalanced. Cage's self presented challenge in "Fahrenheit" (a.k.a. "Indigo Prophecy") was to create an interactive narrative system that would permeate seamlessly through game-play. The game eventually became known both by its modern adventure game trappings - which gave players the sort of choices which the old-school linear adventure games had seldom afforded -, and by it consistent use of quick time events, which curiously enough became known as such precisely due to Suzuki's "Shenmue", even tough the mechanic itself dated back to "Dragon's Lair". Once again, ambitions proved superior to Cage's capacity to fulfill them: the use of QTE's was excessive and repetitive, with endlessly drawn out actions sequences (in a sort of daft copy of "Matrix's") forcing players to mindlessly mash buttons in Simon Says fashion, and the narrative system, though certainly interactive, yielded some of the most ridiculous and over-the-top story-lines ever to grace a modern videogame.

Heavy Rain

Both his games failed, yes, but criticize as much as we can, we cannot help but admire his achievements and his courage for taking risks. "Omikron" and "Fahrenheit" were attempts at adult forms of storytelling that were genuinely serious and mature: "Omikron" had a virtual space that was palpable and brimmed with character, and "Fahrenheit" (before blowing up with its outrageous plot twists) had realistic characters and an ingenuous sense of suspense and mystery. Even today, the vast majority of games cannot accomplish what David Cage did in his only two games. He may very well be a thinking man's Molyneux - a sort of pretentious wanna-be that aspires to the moon, but ends up with his knees deep in the Earth's mud - but he will always have great aspirations and capacity of self-criticism (as his constant recognition of his past failures clearly shows), something which is sadly lacking in most designers. Hopefully (let us pray in tandem), he will soon realize the potential of his ideas in "Heavy Rain" and finally flesh out the sort of mature interactive narratives his games always hinted at, but failed in achieving.

State of the Art Interlude - Battle of the Minds

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Chris Crawford and Jason Rohrer in

Earlier this week, Dieubussy warned me of "Into the Night, with Jason Rohrer and Chris Crawford", an ARTE documentary that places face to face two very important figures of the video-game world. On one side is veteran Chris Crawford, a man that my games' professor likes to call the grand-daddy of video-games, someone who devoted his entire life to the medium we so love. He was the first great promoter of the games as art debate, published numerous books on game design, and is the author of many notorious games such as "Balance of Power" or "Balance of the Planet". On the other side, is an aspiring youngster named Jason Rohrer, a sort of new found hope for art games that has authored a number of interesting indie ventures, such as "Passage" and "Between". The documentary follows a casual and provocative debate between these two figures, the old and the new, as they cover everything from the state of the industry, to what paths lie ahead for games so that they become an artistic medium. Two different views on the same sort of issues I've been addressing in this series of articles called "State of the Art".

I really recommend this documentary, as we get a rare, unedited, unbiased glimpse at the minds of some of the most important designers in the medium. This isn't an entertainment media piece, with flashy scenarios, catchy phrases, pompous segments and simplified analysis, no, you only get two insightful creators from different times and places, having an honest, heartfelt discussion about video-games. It's a conversation filled with possibilities, loose ends and unanswered questions, making it a wonderful starting point for a profound reflection on all the matters that surround the medium. It's old school journalism and documentary at it's best, and quite possibly, the best documentary piece on video-games ever made.

With some luck, I will soon post a more in-depth analysis of some of the ideas present in the documentary.

For those in Germany and France, the documentary is available online at the ARTE website, and for all the rest, well… you know where to find it *wink* *wink*.

State of the Art pt.3 - "Touch of Evil"

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Orson Welle's

I left the last article with a prominent question: what is ludism, and why is it hurtful to the medium we so treasure? Ludism comes from "ludus", the roman word that translates the concept of "play". Playing can mean many things, but in this case, the dimension we're looking for is that of "playing a game".

A game is not like a toy, which allows children to fully author their own little fantasies and decide on how they want to entertain themselves. Kids can take an Action Man and make him fight against the evil Dr. X, as the box entices them to, but they can also play doctors with Dr. X and pretend Action Man is just a sick military man straight up from Iraq. For a child with a toy in hand, the sky is the limit - the toy is but a facilitator, or catalyst, to a type of play governed by his own imagination. It serves only as physical accessory that can help emulate fantasies, bringing them a step towards reality; but in the end, the real magic is happening in each kid's heads.

A Chess board

A game is a different beast altogether. It's structured - a pre-determined form of play that is static and unchangeable. It usually has a metaphorical background (war in "Chess'" case, or finances in "Monopoly"), a set of strict rules, goals and challenges, and also a number of rewards and penalties. It is, in its very essence, a competitive form of play, whether the competition comes from a direct opponent ("Chess", "Tennis"), an indirect opponent (beating a pre-established record in a racing track), or just an abstract challenge (improving the number of elevations you can endure). There are many more aspects to what defines a game - from the voluntary choice of players to participate, to the possible cooperative dimensions, etc. -, but the key idea here is: a game is a structured form oriented towards a specific type of experience, with a specific type of entertainment that advents from that same experience.

What do you get from playing a game? When stripped to its barest, competition leads to certain psychological effects. Humans are biologically driven by goals, which is probably why Capitalism seems to drive people to work so damn hard. When people achieve goals and get rewards in the real world, the brain itself rewards the person on a psicobiological level, by releasing a specific type of pleasure hormone that makes the person happy, even euphoric - it's the brain's own way of saying "congratulations on the job well done". The reverse is also true, so when you lose, you feel frustrated, angry and annoyed. Games are entertaining exactly because they tap into that whole "reward/penalty" dialectic of our mind. Our brain is wired to respond to that sort of experience, so when you emulate it with a game, you get the same results, despite not having the real life consequences. Video-games (for the reasons I wrote in the previous article) are exactly the same - they're normal games, with the small exception that instead of playing them with a board, pencil & paper, or a football camp, you play them with a computer or computer-like device (such as a console).

Aeris' Death in Yoshinori Kitase's

So, now that we know what a game is and what it accomplishes, let's dissect its limitations. Games, and by extent, video-games, can really only transmit two sets of emotional responses: the sentiment of achievement and realization when you win (usually called "fun" in this context) and the infinite frustration you get when you lose. That is all. Some of you might say- What? , but I laughed in "Monkey Island", cried in "Final Fantasy VII" and was in love with Yorda in "ICO"!!! And here is where we start discussing the importance of video-games being so much more than solely "games", which is where I wanted to get all along.

Ever since the birth of the medium, it has evolved by merging with many other languages and mediums, giving birth to new landscapes inside the realm. "Monkey Island" makes you laugh because of its textual and literary qualities - its off-beat humor comes mostly in the form of dialog and narrative description, not game-play. Aeris' death in "Final Fantasy VII" is a pure cinematic moment, translated through a wonderfully designed FMV, which acts as an emotional peak, also thanks to a text-heavy scenario. The actual games in "Monkey Island" and "Final Fantasy VII" had nothing to do with the emotions you felt. The added dimensions that were on top of those games, are what really made these, like others, highly emotional and, by consequence, memorable. But what about "ICO"? Wasn't the act of holding Yorda's hand a game-play mechanic that made you feel something? This is where it gets tricky, and where the barrier between what is a game and what isn't starts to blur. For the sake of argument (and to avoid extending this beyond its already enormous length) I'll leave you to think about this matter for now, and further on, I'll digress on "ICO's" exact nature as a "game".

The fact remains: games are not expressive enough to encompass powerful feelings such as loss, sadness, fear, happiness, etc, etc, etc - none of you have ever felt these emotions while playing "Chess" or "Monopoly", have you? But we know that the "video-game" (or whatever you wanna call it) medium is, in fact, capable of producing those same emotional reactions by using other mediums' language, but with an added bonus, that of interactivity. However, we cannot harness that potential if we continue to merely create games, or complex forms of emotional cinematic/literary/visual/musical experiences with games underneath. If we do that, then we are wasting all the potential expressiveness of our medium by reducing it to its ludic or game-y dimension, which is severely limited.

And so, we come to the million dollar question: if games are so limited in terms of emotional expressiveness, then why are we still calling our interactive medium "games" or "video-games", and more importantly, why are we using "games" as a model for our medium when it's so poor compared to others? And the answer is so simple. Because in reality, we, as gamers and consumers, are happy that games are the way they are. We like the familiar, universal appeal of the ludic dimension, which has been present in the medium since day one (the tragic, original sin I've written about before). We, as players, designers and journalists, have come to expect games to be "games". We do not envision a different, higher vision for "video-games", closer to that of Art, for instance. Hell, we don't even reward or buy works that are trying to achieve that higher concept. Quite on the contrary, the more polished and entertaining a game is, the better grades and sales it gets. However, if a game is artistic, it is usually dismissed by everyone for not being "fun", even if it gives us so much more on an emotional level. We simply do not account for the added expressiveness the medium can offer, and thus we remain adamant that "fun" is the only emotion games can convey to us. And as long as this situation perpetuates itself, then "video-games" will remain "games". And I'm sorry, but it's not the fault of the industry, as much as it is our own fault for not telling it, as consumers, that we want more. If we want Art in video-games, then we must learn to support it whenever it arises.

[In the coming articles I will continue delving on these issues and explore how everyone can help change the current video-game landscape.]

Wave Foam - "Discussing News on a Daily Basis"

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"The Great Wave off Kanagawa", Katsushika Hokusai

I finally caved in and decided to do a daily blog. These entries, called "Wave Foam", will take the form of small reflections on news I encounter in my daily internet read. For obvious reasons, they will be much less substantial than my weekly updates, which I'll try to keep unscathed by this new addition. Nevertheless, I will make these articles as incisive, provocatory, and (hopefully) interesting as all others. Logistically, it would be troublesome to post them in the gamespot blog as well (being a daily feature), so if you want to read them, please head on down to my wordpress blog.

Hope you enjoy it.

State of the Art pt.2 - "Original Sin"

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William Blake's

Like any new means, when the video-game medium originated, it was an exciting, unexplored new world filled with promise. But like in any realm of the unknown, there were no guidelines on how to garner the potential of that vast reign of unfathomed possibilities, which lied feverishly in wait in the tips of programmers' fingers. And it was precisely in that now distant moment of genesis, that the original sin of the video-game means was committed. The moment in which that glorious plain of infinite potential was transformed into the claustrophobic gallows of technological toys. But it was not a sin that came by chance, for it was the natural course of things taking its toll.

Video-games never were anything more than virtual shapes built on intrinsic webs of computer hardware and software. Such objects, much to our dismay, could only be crafted by engineers; with their front row seat in the creation of video-games, came the comprehensible urge to imprint a technological and scientific paradigm into them. Painters and sculptors would have surely thought differently, but alas, they knew not how to program in assembly. But even engineers were nothing more than modern craftsmen; they knew not how to mold video-games on their own, and thus had to seek outside influences for inspiration for that monumental task of creation.

Allan Alcorn's

Inspiration eventually came from games: from sports and tennis, to board-games like monopoly or go; these were the defining models that shaped the medium. There were many reasons for that misled choice: from the playful nature of the original video-game applications ("Nimrod", "OXO", "Tennis for Two", "Spacewar!") and consoles (such as the pivotal Magnavox Odyssey and the later ATARI Pong), which seemed perfect for a younger demographic, to the estrangement that most adults had with computers, which made it impossible to reach different audiences, down to the fact that it was a language that engineers understood, whilst art for example, was something well beyond their cultural and academic background. With these two worlds conceptually intertwined at the very conception of the medium, video-games soon became the technological counterpart, or evolution if you will, to traditional games... and thus it was that the word "video-game" was born.

In a quiet instant, computer engineering companies - Capcom (originally named Japan Capsule Computers), ATARI (which stemmed from Nolan Bushnell's Syzygy Engineering), and game/toys/entertainment companies - Nintendo (which started in the hanafuda cards business), Sega (formerly named Standard Games, a company that built coin-operated amusements), Namco (initially devoted to building children rides), Konami (percussed by a jukebox rental and repair company) - had taken the leading role in the industry side of the medium, designing hardware and software applications. The origins of these companies subtly dictated their own orientations and the mind-sets of their creators, eventually determining what the video-game medium would stand for. Despite all the good that came from these and many other companies (e.g. the later Sony and Microsoft), they still ended up branding video-games with a specific image that, in the long term, has become prejudicial to their own business.

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The term video-game is not neutral or associated with a vaster conceptual ground, like Cinema or Music are; video-games are seen as nothing more than computer games made to entertain little kids and adolescents. Just think on how close the aesthetic of a vast majority of games is to that of toys, action figures and cartoon series. And how similar, on an abstract level, is the interaction of games to that of a board or sports game. How equally inexpressive all these mediums are on an emotional level. That is why games are never associated with a powerful cultural medium that can take on artistic forms and expressions. If you've ever been to a museum showing an interactive media work, you won't see the term "game" or "video-game" written underneath. Yet if you see a conceptual film, the word film will surely be in its description. This is the type of prejudice that has become associated with the term game... a prejudice that, in my opinion, is completely understandable.

But what malicious archetype is this, so strong that it can dictate the complete lack of depth and maturity that is pervasive to such a potentially powerful medium? What is this thing that sucks up so much artistic vision and technical prowess, that we so rarely get to experience something that escapes its clutches? And how come so many visionary works are understated and underrated in a vast sea of glorified computer toys, that have become the de facto standard of the means?

It is the sin of games' ludic paradigm.

[In the next part I will address the reasons why games shouldn't be just "games" and why ludism is such a malicious influence on an artistic medium. In the coming articles I will continue delving on these issues and explore how everyone can help change the current video-game landscape.]

State of the Art pt.1 - "Balance of Power"

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Chris Crawford, despite being present at the very infancy of video-game development, achieved a thorough knowledge of the area, one that granted him a visionary insight over its future. In his book, "The Art of Computer Game Design", he defined video-games, laid out the principles of game design (most of which stand today), delivered a possible games' taxonomy out of a remarkably small number of titles, and even predicted how the industry would evolve, to a point only realized in the XXIst century - a heterogeneous marketplace (only possible today thanks to download services).

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But there's another idea in his text, one far more provocative and stunning than any of the rest - the idea that in the old days of 16 color screens, kilobyte sized memory, and assembly programming, Chris Crawford already regarded video-games as Art. As he himself admits, video-games couldn't be further from "a Shakespeare play, a Tchaikowsky symphony, or a Van Gogh self portrait", and yet he could already perceive the video-game equivalent of such masterpieces possible in the means! However, twenty seven years down the road, and such a statute seems far from being consolidated. In fact, most of Crawford's criticisms still stand today: "computer games are much like candy, comic books, and cartoons", "artistic flair has heretofore been treated as subordinate to technical prowess", and as he had predicted, the market is still overrun "with blockbuster games, spin-off games, remake games, and tired complaints that computer games constitute a vast wasteland."

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I, for one, believe he was right, the potential for video-games to become a rightful form of art exists. One look at games like "ICO", "Silent Hill 2″, "Gadget - Past as Future", or my recently reviewed "Myst" and "D", quickly reassures my heart that games can be Art. More so, the recent rise of the indie scene has allowed many new developers to find niche markets whose players have higher expectations for video-games - Jenova Chen's "flower" and Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn's "The Path" are but some of the most outstanding examples of this new trend.

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And yet, despite all theses advances, the same teenager oriented industry and ludic design models remain. Talking about art in the context of video-games is still, let's face it, wishful thinking. The small beacons of light that I mentioned beforehand are minuscule when compared to the ever growing cloud of darkness that dominates games' landscape. Players, in general, don't want to play new games (just compare established franchises' sales when faced with new IP's, such as the recent EA fiasco) or even artistic ventures (see the sales of PSN titles, of which only "flOw" makes it to the top ten). Game designers themselves, show little interest in creating interactive art instead of glorified tech toys. Publishers and producers just back up where the money is: shooters, platformers, role-playing, sports, and casual games still eat up the gross of video-game's productions, with original titles that step out of the boundaries of tried and true formulas and established genres being harder to find than a needle in a haystack. Journalists on the other hand, instead of defending artsy ventures and breakthrough original games, as a way of helping the means evolve by educating and cultivating gamers, insist on valloring mediocre games that apply template design models, such as "Killzone 2″, "GTA IV" or "Gears of War 2″. Everyone says these games are "more fun". Art games, on the orther hand, aren't. In fact the whole industry seems to measure itself upon this generic, abstract equation of "fun". Back in the ATARI days, Chris Crawford said that "Computer games are much like candy, comic books, and cartoons". They still are. Just serves to show how little games have changed in this quarter of a century.

[In the coming articles I will delve further on these issues and explore how everyone can help change the current video-game landscape]

Takayoshi Sato Interview

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It's not in my habit for me to link to other blogs or sites, as a way to propagate news or otherwise irrelevant pieces of information on the videogame media landscape. I simply assume people who take an interest in my blog have access to the same information as I have, and are smart enough to select their own dose of internet dailies. However, sometimes one must break his own rules, and this is that day for me. As you may or may not have noticed, I nurture a big reverence towards "Silent Hill", a series of games which I believe to be mostly unmatched in the History of games, for the complexity of its human dilemmas, its brilliant aesthetic background, and its success as an interactive work. My dear, dear friend Dieubussy [who besides being someone I hold dear, is, hands down, the most cultured, knowledgeable individual that I have ever met, when it comes to video-game's history and art (and many other areas)] has had the pleasure of interviewing one of the geniuses behind the "Silent Hill" series, Takayoshi Sato (CG director and director of "Silent Hill 2″). Read the interview, in English, here, it's probably the best advise I have ever given in this blog.

2008 Roundup - Action

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Besides casual affairs such as "Rock Band", "Wii Fit", sports games or the occasional MMORPG (read "World of Warcraft"), action games have become the last bastion of the industry when it comes to the aptly named "hard-core" gamer audience. FPS or third person, linear or open-world, whichever the case, action games have become the norm for most gamers. The trend continued last year with an onslaught of shooters hitting the market: "GTA IV", "Army of Two", "Dark Sector", "Dead Space" (yes, I am also inserting it in this category), "Crysis Warhead", "Gears of War 2″, "Resistance 2″, "Far Cry 2″, "Left 4 Dead", "Metal Gear Solid 4", etc. Not only is this trend concerning for those who appreciate quality as well as diversity, as it hides another heinous trend in video-games - the continuous launch of sequels. Amongst the ten named beforehand, only four are original video-games, which amounts to less than half. Because of that fact, you can't expect much creativity from this batch, nor any true surprises.

"GTA IV" is, in essence, "GTA III" with a dramatic, socially aware story, which is one of the best of the year (if you forget about its atrocious structure, that is); "Army of Two", "Dark Sector", "Dead Space", "Crysis Warhead", are all mediocre shooter games, mostly well designed, but with little (anything?) to set them apart from the rest of the pack; "Resistance 2″ and "Gears of War 2″ are sequels in the worst of senses - they look like exactly the same game with buffed up graphic engines… and well, they're both "bigger, better, more badass", whatever that means; "Far Cry 2″ could have had an interesting, fresh take on its genre, and yet wastes it with a simplistic interface, bland artistic assets, and a bucket load of generic quests; finally, "Left 4 Dead" the less formulaic of all these titles, showed an on-line mode with a great deal of care in forcing interesting group dynamics unto its players, in the process perfectly translating the defining notions of survival horror (the movie genre), but unfortunately, lacked any of the formal requirements for it to be a memorable experience (decent level design and pacing, ambiance and character design, etc). Curiously enough, of all these games, the only one that sticks out to me… is the one with a big fat "4″ stamped on its cover.

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"Metal Gear Solid 4" - Despite all my criticisms towards Kojima's farewell ode to Snake, it is still the only game in this category that at least tries to tell something, to convey a story, to spark some sort of intellectual, emotional reaction in its audience. The care with voice acting and character rendering alone (the facial animations are probably the best of the year), are proof that Kojima is trying to tell stories with his medium; stories about people, of humanistic concerns, and not some random rambling about war with explosions and firefights. It's a work of superlative beauty as well, conjuring up carefully orchestrated images and sounds into a brainless genre that thrives so much on grey-washed color palettes and bass-filled soundtracks. And notice how inhabiting the popular aesthetic of shooters such as "Call of Duty 4″, "Metal Gear" still comes up as more balanced, aesthetically convincing game in every way. Kojima simply plays with video-games' expressive elements as much as he can, bending the preconceptions of what defines a genre, and what defines a game even, in the process delivering notions of dramatic construction, aesthetic ambiance and contextualization that go far beyond the crude matter of its peers. In the game's formal structure, for instance, Kojima divides the game into acts, but instead of being content on establishing different narrative points to match that structure, he went as far as adapting each of the game's expressive vehicles to the context of each act, establishing different aesthetic moods and game-play **** to fit the story - in essence, altering a dramatic structure (originally designed for theater) to blend with the interactive medium. Who does that? Whether inside or outside the genre? Very, very few designers. And doing all this, while also presenting an entertaining game which even the most simple-minded of gamers can appreciate, makes this title soar high above the rest of its pack. In such a bad year, it's definitely one of the best the medium offered.

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"Biggest Disappointment" - "Metal Gear Solid 4" - You must be thinking - "What? How can the same game be the best and the most disappointing of the year?" The answer is simple: despite all its qualities, "Metal Gear" is the best also by demerit of its peers; it's a disappointment because it's beneath the grandeur of its author. Think about it, here we have one of the best designers of this industry, the man who did "Snatcher" and the original "Metal Gear Solid" - someone who we've come to look up to in awe, for his quality both as a script writer and as a revolutionary game designer - and the best he can come up with is a safe sequel, one in which he surrenders creative freedom to please his die-hard fans. "Metal Gear Solid 4″ has details of sheer genius, and yet it wastes them on the silliest of plots, one that stinks of fan-service in every cut-scene, just so that the fan-boys can be content with a neat little ending to their precious ten year old saga. The notion that the audience can decide the fate of a work coming from such an influential author is, to say the least, frightful. The game's form and overall tone only serve to make it even more of an insult, reveling on low humor and tons of silly Anime tropes that break the otherwise tragic tone of "Metal Gear Solid's" story. And thus, a game that could have been labeled a masterpiece is, in many ways, a mediocre title polluted by all that is wrong with the medium. Which begs me to think that though Kojima is an incredibly talented man, he is now chained to a successful product, dictated by the most prosaic and demeaning laws of franchising - if that is not a reason to despise the state of the industry, I don't know what is.

2008 Roundup - Survival Horror

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Survival Horror is dead. There, I said it. I know what you're thinking - I'm overreacting, exaggerating for the purpose of making a point. But the sad reality is that I know that the genre is, at best, in a coma. Not only is it stagnated, as it has lost its sense of identity and it's purpose of existence.

Admittedly, translating horror into the interactive medium has always been tricky, because unlike most genres horror relies on a sense of discomfort and unpleasantness that can seem antithetical with videogames' ludic logic, its defining fun factor. In the last years, the fun factor dictatorship has become increasingly prevalent, evolving game design into a form that favors a thoroughly easy, straightforward experience where both challenge and frustration are practically banned, and where each and every moment must be one of pure endorphin stimuli. However, for a good survival horror to instill tension, stress, and fear, it needs to be unpleasant, boring, even silent at times, and game developers have come to avoid these moments like a devil does a cross. By doing so, they have destroyed the very essence of what makes a good horror piece.

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Perhaps even more important for the current predicament the genre finds itself in, is its migration from east to west, which eventually stains its defining matrix. Japanese developers always understood the genre better, not only because they defined it in the first place (see Shinji Mikami's "Sweet Home", released back in 1989) but also because Japanese horror films always translated better into the videogame medium than their American counterparts. Because Japanese horror focuses on psychological elements, it feeds perfectly on the interactive dimension, in order to blur the relationship between protagonists and player. On the contrary, American horror lends it self so much to action thrills and fleeting notions of suspense that it eventually makes its interactive translation closer to that of shooter videogames. And with "Resident Evil" now leading as an example for survival horror gone shooter (a trend blatantly notorious in the "Resident Evil 5″ demo), it's hard to have any faith in things improving in the future [more on this issue in my articles regarding horror - here, here and here].

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The only saving grace of the year, of course, comes from the only major Japanese take on the genre: "Siren Blood Curse", by Keiichiro Toyama (creator of "Silent Hill"). The reason is simple: it's the only scary game I've played this year. It's not brilliant, mind you, it's actually a bad game on many levels, but unlike any other release this year, it's one that shows its creators truly understand the meaning of the words "survival horror". First and foremost, in its formal qualities, which it successfully borrows from Nippon horror - its gritty visuals, surreal ambiance and cacophonous soundtrack - all delightfully translated into interactive form. Sadly, the gameplay still seems dated, lacking the elegance and simplicity of more traditional survival horror titles, and most of all, poorly implemented to the point of breaking the eerie mood the aesthetic delivers. Yet in such a dreadful year, it is by far the only unique piece of horror I would even think about praising. Its delightfully scary, freakish and obscure - like all survival horror games should be.

alone_in_the_dark_03As to what went wrong this year… well, everything. The new "Alone in The Dark", a game that despite a few cool gimmicks managed to throw all its potential to hell thanks to an early release, filled with bugs, game design flaws and stupid control schemes… oh, and also thanks to the overall mediocrity of its artistic qualities, with special mentions to its ludicrous plot, its "24-like" episode structure, and its dramatic, epic doomsday-ish "I want to be Roland Emerich" directing ****[irony intended]. There's also "Silent Hill Homecoming", the biggest insult one could ever make to one of the best videogame series ever designed, which I will not further criticize, lest I become too acid and distasteful for my readers, and, to sum it all up, the yawn-inducer "Dead Space", which despite my criticisms, can still be seen as a decent action game, just… not a decent survival horror game.

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As to the future, it looks grim. "Resident Evil 5″ has more "Call of Duty" in it than it has "Resident Evil" (just look at the screens… they're bathed in daylight, it's heresy!) and all other series have withered away. Perhaps the Wii can bring some hope, with titles such as "Sadness" or the upcoming "Fatal Frame / Project Zero", but it is doubtful they will reach their audience in such a casual marketed console. No matter how sad it might be, the genre is dead… might as well come to terms with it.

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