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I make games. I also play them. I talk about both activities here.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

A Requiem for God of War II

This is a piece I've been waiting two years to write, so allow me to indulge myself . I don't plan on inundating this post with lots of pictures and links. The concession on the left is probably the only one you're going to get.

Videogames are not like cars. With cars, there are certain things to which people have grown accustomed; things that are not noticed. When we insert our keys into our ignitions, we are not surprised when our cars start. When activated, windshield wipers do not shock when they usher away the raindrops. When cold, the heater reliably warms us. These things go largely unnoticed, in our cars. Not so in our games.

In our games, we have instead grown accustomed to the heat not working. Sometimes we don't even complain about it; oftentimes embracing the malfunction as charming. Poor visibility is seen as a great separator between the dedicated and the uninitiated - some great challenge to overcome. Nevertheless, disproving completely idiocy, it seems that most people won't accept a game that doesn't start.

The original God of War had scorching hot heat, and relentless high-speed wipers. And not only did it start every time without complaint, it never needed gas! God of War argued in the loudest voice yet that the shortcomings so many of us had allowed ourselves to accept were in fact, not okay. In the process, it brought along with it a whole host of exciting features like power steering, windows, and door locks - things that we didn't even know we were missing out on, but things that now we can't imagine life without. God of War was effortless in its refinement and confidence. It is a milestone achievement in videogames.

Through a series of events almost bordering on coincidence, God of War also managed to do something very profound to go along with all those unconscious refinements. At its core, God of War is about emotions that appeal to the reptilian brain; emotions that don't have to be explained. The game, through its progression, manipulates these feelings, creating a concentrated core of emotion, ultimately exploding these emotions in a series of events culminating in The Hug. I've written about The Hug before, so I won't go into it now. But The Hug transformed God of War from a utilitarian piece of machinery into something else, something significant. Something that rises above nearly every game ever created.

It is in this way that the creators of God of War, and the situation that surrounds the game in general, are special. God of War is crafted by the folks at Sony Santa Monica. Sony is the platform holder of the most successful video game console of all time, Playstation 2. This thrusts the games that Sony creates into an interesting situation. These games must justify the existence of the system in ways that third party games simply don't have to. Appropriately it seems, Sony Santa Monica has grown adept in sniffing out the talent is takes to bring these games to fruition. In truth, the majority of the people within the industry I most respect, fear, admire and aspire to be like work at this studio. God of War is a special game because it is made by special people, in an environment that requires its games to be special. And these same special people got together to create a special sequel: God of War 2.

If it can be imagined, God of War 2, as a game, is superior to the original God of War. In the same silent, deft way of its predecessor, God of War 2 continues in the tradition of unconscious refinement. Presentation is top-notch. Load times are nonexistent. The music is moving. Vistas are stunning. The villains are varied and menacing. The main character is still best-in-class in control and feel. And all of the aforementioned elements have been enhanced in some way. The game knows, it seems, when you're going to die most often, and helpfully supplies restart points in the most convenient of locations. Two mechanics are prominently featured - chain swinging and ceiling hanging - accentuating the unique experience that God of War 2 aims to create. I only have two real complaints with the game's structure. The first is with its pacing - the game drags in spots, and some fights just feel like filler - a tax, it seems, for the original game's only nagging complaint - that of being too short. My other complaint is with the game's boss fights. They seem excessive, with several fights featuring notable characters from Greek mythology (notable I should say, through no help at all from the game) feeling dutifully encyclopedic in their inclusion (more on this later). And yet with all of this going for it, something about God of War 2 feels not quite right. It is both hard to explain, yet painfully obvious.

God of War 2 has nothing to say.

The original God of War redefined the standard of how a videogame should be. This, because of its profoundness at the time, was noteworthy. Two years later, we have grown accustomed not only to our reliable heat and clear windshields, but to our power steering and windows too. That God of War 2 throws in heated seats and auto-dimming mirrors feels more like an expected upgrade to a model now long in the tooth than noteworthy improvements worth pause and consideration. This is no more a fault than it is a defense; it is what it is. Treading so faithfully in established waters will inevitably create diminished effects.

But it is not here that God of War 2 creates its most salient offense. Nowhere in the entire game do you really get a sense of what the creators - those special people - have to say. Instead at every turn, I am struck with the sense that the creators went out of their way to appear as transparent as possible. Where the original God of War stood by my ear, shouting at me to care and kill and maim, God of War 2 stands in the kitchen and loads my dishwasher. It organizes my magazine rack. It feels self-conscious at every turn, begging to please. I am struck with the feeling that the creators are terrified that the brilliance created in the original may have just been a happy accident, and that the adoration heaped upon them will be taken from them at any moment. I also sense an internal struggle in this regard, with two notable, rather self-indulgent features. The first being the previously mentioned boss fights. You fight many figures of history and mythology, most without any explanation of their significance. Like Theseus, known for his six labors, or Perseus, perhaps most famous as the main character in the movie Clash of the Titans. That these figures are thrown in with such little fanfare or explanation reinforces the notion that these characters were included first and foremost to satisfy the desires of the creators. If the player recognizes these characters, well that's just icing on an already delicious cake. The same goes for the Golden Fleece, a piece of armor that from my perspective has its roots in the parry system from Street Fighter 3. The parry is a surprisingly advanced maneuver for a "game for all people" like God of War 2, and yet here it is, an integral element of the game. Perfecting it has a marked effect on your success throughout the game, yet I can't help but feel the vast majority of people who play the game will never get a handle on it. And for what it's worth, I don't feel like this is the Fleece's purpose; it exists solely for the pleasure of the creators. And because of it, it feels special, and unique, and altogether out of place in the game, which is a shame. I wish the game was filled with these sorts of idiosyncrasies. I wish the game was selfish all the time, and not just in sporadic bursts. I wish the creators of the game were as sure that what they had to say was as important to videogames as I am. But they aren't, so instead the game defaults on what is safe and reliable. The warm heater and power seats.

Because of this, I have a hard time saying that God of War 2 actually improves on the original. Sure, in the metrics of evaluation, God of War 2 is functionally superior. But what God of War does that its sequel does not is try to be significant. Regardless of the success of failure of the attempt, it tried (and yes, where it tried, it succeeded). God of War 2 does not try.

So yes, God of War 2 has nothing to say. And I make this assertion knowing full well the capability of the team to deliver something that can again change the landscape of gaming. I demand it of them because it is their purpose, and I expect no less because it is their design. And so I will wait, steadfast, until they are finally ready to speak.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Is This Thing Still On?

Well.

The dearth of posts is due to many, many contributing factors. One is that, at the end of a long day, there are several other activities with which I prefer to unwind. Of those activities, some are gaming related. I play Company of Heroes - Game of the Year 2006 - almost every day. I record a lot of television, and despite the cancellation of many of the shows I found interesting this season, I still spend one or two nights a week catching up on missed episodes. And despite many happenings in the world of videogames since my last post, I really haven't been compelled to complain - or celebrate - about anything (this is not entirely true; there is one particular topic that I'm waiting to dive into, but I haven't yet found the proper tone with which to address it). I find myself becoming rather apathetic towards videogames as a whole.

I attribute this feeling to an accelerated inevitability that in my opinion, faces all game players if things continue as they are: that of a diminishing return on videogame satisfaction. I say accelerated in my case because, as frequently mentioned, I probably play an abnormal amount of videogames. I can say with little hestitation, for instance, that I own most of the games released on the Xbox 360 this past year. And of those games, I probably could have skipped all of them and not missed out on much in terms of real significance (this is obviously a sweeping generalization I know, but if I have to give pause to come up with the Xbox 360 game that really impacted me in 2006, then the point is kind of self-evident, isn't it). But I didn't skip them, I played them. I played a great many games on the PS2 and PC as well. I purchased the collector's edition of Bully - it came with a rubber ball I never inflated and a comic book I never read. I spent a week of vacation time playing Final Fantasy XII (which is, disappointingly, just enough to scratch the surface of that game; a problem in and of itself). When the Ps3 and Wii came around, I picked those up to, and played them, dutifully (and in the Wii's case, begrudgingly), for a while. And what I've realized, through playing all of these games, is that they're all fundamentally, really freaking similar. If you've played GRAW, you rest assured that you've played Rainbow Six: Vegas too. Feel free to tell people as much when they ask you. And the entire time I played Bully - which I consider to be the best console game released last year - I felt that inevitable GTA3 deja vu; its composition as a game is unabashedly iterative. Lucky for me, I guess, that they iterated on the best videogame of this generation.

In other words, I'm burnt out. I have very nearly had my entire fill of what games, as they are presently crafted, can offer. And I think that as more and more people reach the accumulated play time that people like myself have amassed, they too will experience the same estrangement. I see elements of this inevitability in the sentiments of others; one only need look at the anger and venom that plagues the members of the NeoGAF forums to see these feelings manifested. And the things is, I only have myself to blame. Not because I buy an abnormal amount of videogames; I maintain that getting burnt out on videogames as they are currently planned and constructed is an inevitability only accelerated by my frequency of purchase. But I place the blame on myself and others like me who continually, by our pervasive purchasing decisions, indicate to publishers that we absolutely love the current status quo. It's the buying community that told Ubisoft to give us two Ghost Recons (and a Rainbow Six: Vegas to boot) in one year. It's the buying community that encourages publishers to annualize any (and nearly every) successful game franchise. It's the buying community that said, "Hey, I really like these game elements, and I will blindly purchase any other game that emulates these same game elements," thus creating these prematurely formulated game genres - comprised of arbitrary properties like camera perspectives and the odd gameplay mechanic or two - in which all games are now carefully packaged. It is the buying community that places more value on games as cutting edge technology showcases than as a thought-provoking medium. And invariably, once this same community grows weary of the monsters that they create, they characterize the publishers who provided these services as being greedy and opportunistic for giving them what they once wanted.

This behavior goes way back, pretty much to the rise of the Super Nintendo. Successor to the NES, the SNES was really an evolutionary machine, and its games reflected this. Super Mario Bros. begat Super Mario World, and thus the template for iterative design was not created, but at the very least was most loudly celebrated (this happened before Mario of course; Pong begat Pong Doubles, Asteroids begat Asteroids Deluxe, Pac-Man begat Ms. Pac-Man, but I doubt many of you readers were even alive when those games were created). More and more publishers saw the success afforded to this trend, and sought to accommodate the public's insatiable thirst for sameness. To this day, the trend continues. It's why you still have new Marios sitting alongside new Sonics sitting alongside new Ratchet & Clanks. And the trend is wholly based on the buying public's bullishness with regard to accepting unproven concepts. Pick the worst, most derivative, broken game that I've ever worked on ( in your opinion of course; you can see them on this page). No matter what you choose, every single one of them has outsold Killer 7. And Meteos. And Gunvalkyrie. Depending on your choice, you may have selected a game that outsold Katamari Damacy. And Shadow of the Colossus. Nintendo is still shamefully guilty of this iterative development (and they rewarded heavily for it), and yet most people seem to give them a pass, preferring instead to attack companies like EA - I guess because EA doesn't have stock in our collective childhoods - for doing nothing more than engaging in largely the same practices. But again, I'm not here to attack Nintendo or EA; if people didn't buy the iterative and shun the new, the iterative wouldn't get made. It's an entirely cyclical event.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to play God of War 2.

Thanks for reading.