Monthly Archives: April 2012

A Gaming Education: Tomb Raider: Anniversary

Come close, let me tell you a secret. No, not the one about what I did with the carrot and the hand cream. Or the one about what I did with the toothbrush and the hand cream. Or the one about what I did with the fully-poseable Incredible Hulk action-figure and the hand cream. How do you know so much about my undergraduate Chemistry thesis exploring the effects of hand cream on household objects anyway?

This secret is darker, more shameful, than such nonsense. Before last week, I had never played a Tomb Raider game. GASP and/or SHOCK, with appropriate measures of HORROR. I know.

Actually, there’s two caveats to this: in 1996 I did watch my neighbour play the first game for half an hour or so — hazy memories of underground pits and Lara Croft being eaten by wolves; then a few years ago I beat a boss-fight my friend was stuck on in a Tomb Raider she had for her Wii. Apart from those toe-dips though, nothing.

I should have dived in earlier. If Tomb Raider: Anniversary, a Crystal-Dynamics-developed reimagining of the original adventure, is anything to go by, tomb raiding is a blast. Slow, thoughtful puzzling is the order of the day here, with that ungainly “combat” malarkey relegated to brief staccatos of action that enliven play without *cough Uncharted* bogging down the *cough Uncharted* flow. See how I bogged down the flow of that sentence by referencing a game whose primary failing was its reliance on repetitive combat that bogged down its flow? That’s what they pay me the big bucks for.

Tomb Raider: Anniversary, then, mostly has the self-assurance to present you with its buried temples and lost cities, then sit back and let you scuttle all over them at your leisure. If Uncharted is the young seductress, sleek and sexy and eager to please, Tomb Raider is the middle-aged divorcee down the street, well aware of her talents, lying there patiently as you build the confidence to … ransack her catacombs. Then, just when you think you’ve got it figured out, you have to fight a T-Rex. Ain’t that always the way?

The drawback to this veteran’s approach, however, is a move-set that feels clunky and counter-intuitive when contrasted with the context-sensitive fluidity of today’s videogame sirens. We’ve moved away from games designed with pre-determined, inflexible animations that layer over level geometry; watching Lara have to jump to her full height, with arms outstretched, before she can grab the ledge just above her on her descent is antiquated and laughable.

Lara’s famous bouncy bazoombas look silly these days as well, though to be fair to the old gal there is something iconic about her appearance. She’s more archetype than stereotype, really, and she doesn’t make me cringe with embarrassment as so many female games protagonists do. Perhaps because she stays mercifully silent during much of the game. (Oh Christ. Not that I’m implying my idea of a good woman is one who shuts the hell up. No. She should also be good at cooking, and … like … tapestry, and … long multiplication, and getting DVDs off those central rings in their cases, and stuff. Banter LOL.)

I like Tomb Raider: Anniversary. I like how lonely and even wistful it often is. Put it down to the age of the underlying template, but it reminds me of the emptiness videogames embodied when they first made the transition to three dimensions. There were no crowd scenes back then, no waves of voice-acted enemies or chatty cohorts. Your experience came down to wandering wondrous yet abandoned worlds, solving puzzles left by — whom? –, marvelling at the bittersweet, yugen-like emotions these solitary adventures conjured within you.

Yes, Indiana Jones rip-off starring big-titted bimbo as Zen satori instigator. I really can do that with anything. It’s a talent.


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A Gaming Education: Bulletstorm

Stuffy intellectual types periodically point to the naming systems employed by popular videogames as being evidence of their lack of artistic worth — asserting that no cultural artifact of any value would refer to itself by a moniker as gauche and tawdry as “Assassinatortron Reckoning: The Juxtaposition“, “Corpse-Humper 4: Tea Bags at Dawn“, or “World of Tanks”.

Well, ladies and ladies-with-penises, as a counter-argument to such blanket dismissals of our beloved industry, I present you with Bulletstorm. How could a name of such lithe, velvety texture, of such evocativacity (yeah it’s a word) represent anything other than a work of pure, transcendent splendour?

I mean, look at it. Bulletstorm. A storm of bullets. While playing this paean to the destructive capabilities of man, bullets will literally hail down upon you. Other bullets will zigzag across the sky in bullet-shaped lightning forks. Bullets will clog up your gutter and start leaking through that weak point in your ceiling that you always meant to get a man out to look at but never did. The bottoms of your jeans will soak up bullets as you walk, and your ankles will be all bullety for the rest of the day. Your cat will dart in through the cat flap, shaking bullets from her whiskers, and spend the next two hours treading bullet-prints across your quilt and that hand-penned letter to your childhood sweetheart you were writing.

Then, one morning, in a Kafka-esque twist, you will awaken to find you have become a bullet. Your family will disown you. The world will be repulsed by you. Your father will load you into a giant rifle and fire you into the sky, for you to fall back, in some distant land, as an unnoticed fragment in another player’s bulletstorm, thus illuminating the circulatory and melancholic nature of existence.

Videogames, man. Videogames!

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A Gaming Education: Batman: Arkham City

"Shit, I left the hob on."

I’ve noticed videogame articles containing bullet points are a lot more likely to get commissioned on big sites these days, perhaps because the editors of places like GamesRadar recognise that the repetition of stark black holes boring through the fabric of reality draws the attention of readers towards the inescapable futility of our existence, reminds us that nothingness rests at the base of our experience, and that, far from fearing it, we should embrace this Taoistic interpretation of zero as the root of our creativity and love.

As such, I’m going to adopt the approach for this Gaming Education about Batman: Arkham City, and maybe GamesRadar will pay me the £15 and loss of all journalistic dignity that they bestow upon their other writers. Huzzah!

Here are some memento moris explaining why Arkham City is a game to keep you playing through many a Dark Knight. Which is a pun, which Gamesradar will enjoy, perhaps because they’re cunts. To the bullet-point cave! (that one wasn’t as good):

  • Batman: Arkham City provides a searing and heartfelt glimpse into the life of an average goon. They don’t have it easy, those goons. For they must stand on very dirty street corners, warming their hands against tragically clichéd trash-can fires, muttering the same string of oddly informative explanations of the evil plans of their super-criminal masters. And then, just when they’re tiring of the exposition, and wondering if they could maybe start talking about something useful, like where to find a good greengrocer’s in a city that is literally a prison, some caped bastard swoops down from the shadows and uppercuts them in the goolies. The poor lambs.
  • Arkham City is loved by girls, such as my friend Grace. She says she likes “flying around the city and whatnot” — which is endearing, because as every comic book geek knows, Batman doesn’t actually possess the power of flight, but rather employs squadrons of tiny RC helicopters hidden in his boots to give him the illusion of flight. Girls, huh? Trying to muscle in on our hobbies but always getting it wrong. Though maybe I’m just cross because Grace completed the game and I keep getting killed by goons while searching for the remote for my helicopter-boots.
  • Most importantly, Arkham City is a good game because it lets you punch people really hard in the face. Punching people in the face is what videogames are for. You always want to punch people in the face in real life, but you’re not allowed. Like the time in a maths lesson when the teacher hadn’t turned up yet and Josh McMuscles (I changed his name) got me in a headlock because his parents hadn’t bought him a car yet, and my cheeks turned beetroot, and my spots became even more visible than usual, and all the girls stared at me with this mixture of pity and revulsion, which is a look I’ve become so familiar with in the years since. If that maths lesson had been set inside Arkham City, I could have punched Josh right in his stupid, classically-attractive face, maybe breaking a couple of those perfect teeth, before grappling up to a gargoyle on the ceiling and brooding darkly as I watched as pandemonium ensued below. That wasn’t the best way to end that sentence, but try saying “pandemonium” without saying “ensued” right afterwards. An impossibility.

Well, then. If GamesRadar has taught me anything (it hasn’t), it’s that videogame articles shouldn’t outstay their welcome. The audience-surveys conducted by GamesRadar suggest readers tire of bullet points after the third bullet point, returning to their usual pursuits of homophobia and banging their heads repeatedly against walls, trees, sparrows and babies’ prams, looking to comprehend the world through the only method of interaction they understand. So on that note, I’m outtie. Fingers crossed for the call-up from GamesRadar, eh?


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A Gaming Education: Year Zero

By Chris Phillips

I considered renaming it. I was going to call the column “Educating Rita”, until I remembered my name isn’t Rita. Then I got excited that I could call it “Educating Peter”, before I remembered my name isn’t Peter, either. I get no breaks in this life!

Anyway, a change of name would mess up my post-tagging, and you know how seriously I take my search engine optimisation. Everything else, though, is evolving.

I started my Gaming Education series out of a sense of embarrassment for not having played enough games. I’ve long identified myself as a gamer, but for many years I wasn’t actually playing much. And looking back, even in my youth I tended to stick with a few favourite titles, loving the Mario 64s and Half Lifes, rarely venturing into the more obscure esoterica. This is like trying to be a film critic because you enjoyed watching The Shawshank Redemption and American Beauty. Embarrassing.

So the idea behind the Gaming Education was that I would start investigating all those games I should have known about, but didn’t. I’d post articles detailing my adventures, discussing a certain game-system here, telling a story there, basically having fun. But two years later, the reality is that this hasn’t really happened.

The problem is I don’t like just diving in. I’m a perfectionist, unable to send my work out into the world until I’ve drafted and redrafted and edited and polished, and it represents the best possible version of myself. This has its advantages, of course, but beneath it all sits a terrible fear. I fear not being respected, being “found out” as a bad writer. My sense of self is entwined within my work — I want articles I write to be seen as perfect because I want to be seen as perfect.

The energy needed to create such polished articles has meant that relatively few have been completed. Spending months on posts, I’ve had to choose my subjects carefully, discussing only issues I feel strongly about, usually picking games that will illustrate my arguments, rather than classics that will broaden my awareness.

And always, the fear is there. It is beginning to stifle me, choking the spontaneity and joy from my writing. I love creating the longer pieces, thinking through complex problems affecting the industry, telling meaningful stories — but it’s so tiring having no other outlets for my thoughts. I’ve become used to the deep depression I feel upon hitting that “Publish” button, aware of the myriad ways the article I’ve finished hasn’t achieved what I wanted it to, realising all that awaits me is another climb up that lonely mountain, amassing my thoughts, building yet one more tower from the sludge and slippery eels of my thoughts. It’s hard work, and too much of that gets boring.

The answer, then, is another style of writing — not replacing, but running parallel to the larger posts; writing where I just do, and learn through doing. Sketches, if you will, that don’t have to be perfect, that I can use to mess around with, to experiment with, to play. That’s what this blog is about, after all.

The polished pieces will still be coming. But now the long gaps between them will (hopefully) be filled with shorter, bite-sized posts that I’m going to have fun with. That’s the plan, any rate — but as this whole endeavour is supposed to pull me back from obsessive over-planning, I’d rather just start, and see what happens.

Publishing stuff on here always reminds me of diving into the sea as a kid. And I’m the boy on the pier going, “Yeah, gimme a minute! I just need to check the straps on my goggles again, and re-read the diving manual, and go over my arm and leg movements in my head.” That pretty much symbolises my whole life, in fact.

But sometimes you’ve just got to leap, inexperienced and ungainly, and not worry about getting a bit of water up your nose. Anyway, in that limbs-splayed belly-flop is contained all the elation of why kids jump into water in the first place. It’s about learning to love life, innit?

[Image courtesy of Chris Phillips. Used with permission.]

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