Monthly Archives: October 2010

Raise a Glass to … Colin

Continuing the entirely irregular column wherein I sip a few gin and tonics and loudly proclaim my love for various aspects of the games industry, before fighting with some scallies and throwing up in a bin. This week: a young lad whose destiny will never be to save the world.

Twilight Princess had its share of memorable characters. The chap selling lamp oil in the woods, with the birds nesting in his barnet and the obvious entheogen habit; the girl in the fishing shack who was hot for Link’s tilt-ball skills; the sinister bug princess; that postman who can only be described as fucking nuts… But none for me had the charm of Colin, the shy boy from Link’s home village who hated violence and looked up to Link not for his sword mastery, but because of his devotion to animals.

Here was a character who felt real, a quiet and sensitive child, excluded from the other kids’ games because he didn’t share their rough and tumble sensibilities — a boy who would rather be alone tending to horses than perfecting his aim with a slingshot. Here was a video game character I could identify with.

His visual design was exemplary. Although Twilight Princess was a generation behind the competition upon release, the nuance and emotion expressed through its characters proved there is a deeper magic in modelling and animation than pure processing power. The game’s occasional muddy textures and empty field design may have betrayed its Gamecube-era tech, but the richness and subtlety of its characters was not matched by any other game at the time, and few since.

Colin, with his downcast eyes, his hands clasped behind his back and his foot digging awkwardly into the ground, showcased this better than anyone. The talent of Nintendo’s artists at evoking empathy through their work brought to mind the heartfelt warmth of Miyazaki’s films.

Which is not to say Twilight Princess always got it right. The game’s plot had a tendency to cross the line from sincerity into saccharine sentimentality, and cut-scenes could sometimes be mawkish and confusing. But with Colin the balance was maintained beautifully. He wasn’t a stereotype or a cliché, nor did he feel like he’d been designed from the character-trait-diamond video game writers so often use (“timid but brave when pushed” … “arrogant yet withdrawn” — that kind of paint-by-numbers bullshit). There was a seed of consciousness within him, a spirit and lifeblood that went beyond mere pixels and shader techniques.

Sure, his eventual character arc was predictable, but the bravery he exhibited was a standing up for what was right, a strength that had nothing to do with fitting into the egotistical mould of hero the other children so admired. When he won their respect he did so on his own terms, and the compassion he showed for those still in danger was entirely in keeping with his personality.

Colin embodied everything I play RPGs for. He drew me into the new, peculiarly melancholic Hyrule, he brought Link’s world to life, and he gave me a desire to believe in it. He is the reason I love Nintendo, the reason I continue buying their games.

So here’s to you, Colin. Salud.

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess is an action adventure game developed and published by Nintendo. You can buy it on the Wii, or the southpaw purists among you might want to check out the Gamecube edition. It’s no Ocarina of Time, but then what is?

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A Little Story

It’s 2005 and I’m at university. I’m also lying prone in the undergrowth of some godforsaken battlefield, cradling my sniper rifle to my chest, watching an enemy helicopter descend out of the blue sky. There are three men in the chopper; I’m entirely outgunned.

But it’s cool. I have a line on those bad bitches. The three enemy soldiers are my housemates, sat in their rooms beneath me, and I’m listening in on their voice chat server. That’ll teach them for not waiting to make sure we’re all on the same team. Off having fun without me, are you? We’ll see how much fun you have.

I hear them talking and I get a weird frisson of excitement as I become aware of the power I hold over them. It’s fascinating, inferring from their radio chatter the aerial view of the battlefield they posses, then watching the same events on my monitor from an entirely different perspective. This is one of my first incursions into large-scale online multiplayer gaming, and my mind is still being blown a little bit by the possibilities. A shared world of objectivity, with these little threads of subjective first person storytelling being woven through it, crossing now and again, entwining, ricocheting off one another.

“Undefended base,” yells Mark, one of my so-called-friends. “Take us down.” In the nicest possible sense, Mark is the kind of guy who spends his evenings off browsing military databases, memorising the calibers of different guns. He likes war.

“I’ll land the chopper; you two claim the flag,” Robin yells back.

It’s ace in that helicopter, I wish I was with them. Robin, the eldest, has been gaming forever and leads the squad. He has a super-duper, turbo-charged joystick — probably a replica of one they use in real aircraft — and he flies helicopters like they’re an extension of his being. Me, I just power the things up and crash them into the nearest hillsides, but Robin could pilot one up the arsehole of a wasp, though I doubt he’ll ever be called upon to do so.

Off he’ll leap into the cockpit at the start of a game, and you all go barreling towards him, screaming to him not to take off until you’re inside as well. The first two to arrive get to be side gunners, controlling these mounted cannons that spit a thousands bullets a second and make you feel like God on a Bad Day. Everyone else clambers aboard where there’s room, pokes a rifle out, and prepares for the show.

Then you lift off, and it’s great. The ground shrinks below you and the whole level comes into clear focus. You can see all the way to the river winding away down there, and into the valley with the enemy tanks trundling through, and over the rooftops with the little ant-men scurrying across, and your left-brain knows you’re only watching a two-dimensional image made up of pixels of light on a screen, but screw it, it feels so real, and you experience actual giddiness.

At this point, if it’s your first time flying, you start shooting indiscriminately, empty cases zinging off the roof of the chopper and you laughing like a lunatic, lost in the crazed bliss of height and speed and power. “Get some, bitches! GET SOME!”

But the experienced soldier holds back. Relaxes into the groove. Difficult to hit anything at this level, with the chopper banking wildly, and no point wasting ammo. So you pick your target, and you wait, and when the pilot turns and you’re face to face with the enemy, in that one instant you let loose a motherfucking barrage like it’s Judgement Day. And whatever your sandal-wearing, Guardian-reading, left-leaning political tendencies, it always feels good.

At least, that’s what happens if you’ve been allowed on the right team.

Because, otherwise, you jog and crawl and puff your way over mountains and across lakes and through solitary forests, utterly alone since those thirteen-year-old jerk-offs you’ve been teamed up with have decided they’d rather ride away from you in their jeep, honking as they go, than play the damned game properly.

And you end up in some backwater grasslands, miles from the main thrust of the battle, checking your supplies for cyanide tablets and cursing your friends and the game and the world in general.

… And then you see the helicopter.

It’s not fifty yards above me, now. They’re going for the usual plan. The aim of the game is to capture bases, or “flags” — each one gives your team a respawn point for when people die, and helps deplete the enemy’s score. Get their score to zero and you win the match.

So my housemates’ tactic is to commandeer the chopper and fly it around all the out of the way bases, capturing them without encountering resistance, overwhelming the map before the enemy team realise what’s happening. It can be a little dull, winning points by avoiding the thrill of combat, but it certainly works.

The helicopter touches down on the grass in front of me. An expert landing.

“Good landing,” says Mark, over voice chat. Him and Robin take this war seriously.

“U-S-A! U-S-A!” chants Alex, the third housemate. He’s pretty much along for the ride. I think they bribed him with crisps to make up a full squad — although with me on the wrong team it doesn’t much matter — and, yes, if I listen carefully I can even hear the inimitable crunching of Monster Munch in the background.

I’m watching them through the sights of my sniper rifle. I try to gain control of the adrenalin rush making my mouse-hand shake.

“Looks quiet,” says Robin.

“Everyone ready?” asks Mark.

“Chomp, chomp, chomp,” says Alex.

I take a breath in, and hold it.

KAAAAPOW!

The crack of my rifle echoing through the valley is satisfying, but nothing to the sight of Robin slumping forward onto the cockpit of the chopper. There’s a circular hole in the windshield where my bullet has pierced the glass.

“What’s happening?”

“Something is happening!”

“Was that–?”

KAAAAPOW!

Mark’s limp body drops from behind the mounted cannon and onto the soil below.

“I’m down! Get the hell out of here!”

“I’m down, too!”

“Shit.”

Only Alex left. He makes a dash for the lake. We’re best friends; not two hours ago he was in my room listening to Janis Joplin records and watching Dylan Moran clips on Youtube.

KAAAAAAAAPOW!

I shoot him in the back of the head. He falls at the water’s edge, the lapping waves enveloping his lifeless corpse.

“Man,” Robin says. “Where’d they come from?”

“Dunno,” says Mark. “But they’re good.”

If anyone was watching the foliage sprouting beside the concrete bunker, they might see it wavering slightly, as if a figure hidden inside was giggling quietly.

Alex comes stomping up the stairs to my attic bedroom. I Alt+Tab out of the game and pick up a book from my desk.

“Battlefield is so shit,” he says.

“Tell me about it,” I say.

He sits down on my bed and throws me a half-eaten pack of Monster Munch. Pickled Onion, my favourite flavour.

Video games are great sometimes.

Battlefield 2 is an online multiplayer shooter developed by DICE and published by EA. It’s pretty old now and everyone will be better than you if you play it, but you can fly helicopters into hillsides, and that’s still so worth it.

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A Gaming Education: Fallout 3

FADE IN:

… On the Wasteland. It hasn’t been ironically named. Picture the foulest shit-heap of a world imaginable, multiply by about twelve, and you’re still not close. Monstrous, flesh eating creatures and gangs of vicious scavengers battle it out over the ephemera of a long dead civilisation, fighting and dying for junk metal and dilapidated weapons and lumps of rotting, irradiated food.

In the town of Megaton, life oozes along. Its inhabitants are a broken and weary bunch, eking out an existence, of sorts, amongst the filth and decay. Those with money to spare will likely be found in Moriarty’s Saloon, where they can get hard booze, a room to hole up for the night and a few hours in the company of Nova.

Yes, Nova — daughter of the Wasteland, resident whore; the one port in an endless storm. She’ll do anything to help you forget the horrors outside of Megaton’s walls, providing you have the caps to pay for it.

Unless, that is, you’re Gob. Poor, pitiful Gob, hit with such a king-hell dose of radiation poisoning his hair has fallen out and his skin is gooping and sliding off his bones. Gob would love a night with Nova, but she refuses because she “won’t work with Johns squishier than she is.”

… And this is where Fallout 3 loses me. Up until now I’ve accepted the jilted dialogue, the glitchy scripting and the barrage of confusing stat choices. I’ve watched dead bodies jerk across and even through the floor, listened to appalling voice acting, hacked a computer terminal while the owner sat at it … but this business with Nova and Gob is a step too far.

The coyness, first of all, is insulting. Nova is a prostitute who can never be referred to as such, a scantily clad woman who “works” with “Johns”. The game allows you to hire her services for the night, yet all that happens is she follows you up to your room and lies down fully clothed on the bed. Interacting with her causes her to sit up and repeat the same dialogue options she spouts at any other time.

Why are Bethesda so embarrassed by sex? There is something nasty and cynical about an 18 rated product that can revel in decapitation and bloodshed, yet will only allude to sexual intercourse with blushing nudges and winks. Which is the more repugnant: eviscerating a woman with a high powered shotgun, or having sex with her [and for the love of God, "eviscerating a woman with a high powered shotgun" is NOT a euphemism. We have our serious faces on today, people]? The answer that Fallout 3’s writers provide says much of the skewed morality evident in many mainstream video games.

Language wise, we find the same template. Fuck, in the context of “fuck off,” or “fucking die you shit eating fucker,” is perfectly acceptable game dialogue, yet not once will you find the word used in terms of “do you want to fuck me?”

This is a cop out. Art should be about exploring limits. Like Bill Hicks, I want my artists to bleed for me. I want pain and beauty and despair and, above all, truth. My writers have to mean it, man.

But Bethesda don’t mean it. The caricature that is Nova says nothing of truth. She isn’t a questioning of stereotypes, only a reinforcement of them. With her curvaceous body and leather outfit and upbeat, sassy attitude, she is a teenage boy’s fantasy of a hooker. She flirts with and arouses the player, and the tacit assumption behind it all is that she actually quite enjoys being fucked for money.

And this, essentially, is the crux of the matter. Nova won’t let Gob fuck her because she has standards. You, the player, are a buff, muscled hero, and she’ll take you wherever you want to go, big boy. But Gob is a walking freakshow and Nova is repulsed by him.

Well here’s the thing. Prostitutes are very seldom picky. They don’t have the luxury.

Picture yourself as a teenage girl in the Wasteland, living on the edge of destruction. Ugliness and suffering and death around every corner. The only way you can survive is to agree to let half crazed men with the stench of whisky on their breath ejaculate inside you. You’re paid for the ordeal, but not well. A few coins thrown your way, almost as an afterthought. If you’d refused they’d probably have done it anyway, for free. Might as well make what you can. Every now and again some drunk or badly wired guy will get violent with you, though it’s the same either way. You’re distanced from your body by this point, it is a bag of flesh and blood and doesn’t belong to you. It gets ripped open then it heals. Perhaps it doesn’t. You carry on for a few years — just carry on, continue, run out the same patterns — not feeling anything on the surface, so institutionalised to the pain it becomes synonymous with “life”. Eventually the toll is taken on your body. You lose what looks you might have had, your sexual organs begin to wear out. You exist only to satisfy a need, and you cannot do that anymore. Maybe the saloon owner, if he has any traces of empathy in his black heart, keeps you around to wash stained clothes and mop blood and jism off the bedroom floors. Otherwise you’re probably thrown out the back door, finally broken and utterly defeated, left to rot in the mud and the shit and the rain. So it goes.

Or perhaps it doesn’t. Perhaps you develop a strange sense of attachment to your owner, like Swearengen’s whores in Deadwood. Perhaps you wind out your days with the wry, blasé humour of Martha in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. There are many stories floating in the ether, many lives waiting to be written. But what links the good ones is their ability to pierce beneath the surface, to reveal to us the burning diamond at our cores, the diamond of existence that we all share.

The writing in Fallout 3 floats on the surface. It could be that Bethesda were afraid of what lies beneath. It could be they were just lazy, or rushed, or their best work was cut for some reason or another. Whatever the case, their world is not lit with a burning diamond. Nova would fuck Gob. It’d all be the same to her. And if not, I want some reason that I can believe in, some reason that lights within me the flame of recognition, of shared consciousness.

Bethesda do not give me this. I cannot believe in Nova as a character, and so — despite everything the game does well — I cannot believe in Fallout 3 either.

Fallout 3, developed by Bethesda Game Studios, is a first-person role-playing game set in a post-apocalpytic dystopian etc etc etc. It has a third person mode but don’t bother with that.

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