Fuzzy Horribleness: Pervasive, Worrisome

These are the edited highlights of a three-way Twitter rant, simplified for flow and structure. Note that some of the features I lament here may well be present in the remake. I don’t really remember; it has been ages since I’ve played it, and I’m speaking to my vague, blurry memory of the game. If the remake retains the exploding eyeballs, which without checking it may well do, then… okay. Good job. How astute of you to notice. Here, bring this note to the old woman and she will give you a medal for your trouble.

Freezing Inferno: The Castlevania Adventure is not very good, but parts of it have a strange charm. When you play the patched version, I mean.

EJR Tairne: I don’t know what the patched version is, but where the game falls down on mechanics it truly excels in atmosphere.

I’ll never argue that it’s a good game, exactly, but I love the feel of being in the game.

It has sort of a neat silent horror, crackly expressionist tone that feels just right. That’s sort of the tone I get from the best Game Boy games. Gargoyle’s Quest, Return of Samus. Silent horror.

It’s a curiously appropriate side-step, considering the Universal monster movie tone to Castlevania NES. Instead of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, on the Game Boy we have Nosferatu. Sort of. Maybe a blurry print of Nosferatu, lacking a few intertitles and exposition scenes, played at the wrong speed.

It’s full of neat, weird ideas, some of which are creative workarounds to limitations; others… just odd. Had the game a billion times more checkpoints, I might call it playable. Still worth experiencing, though.

The Wii remake missed the boat by ignoring everything good and distinctive about the game along with the bad. The result is just about the most generic action-style Castlevania game ever, with the odd shout-out to TCA.

At least keep the game’s basic structure! Keep the ropes and the EXPLODING EYEBALLS and bounce-spit… things. Keep the weird upgrade path. Keep the most interesting setpieces. Keep the goddamned amazing soundtrack!

Why even call it a remake or reimaging if you’re going to throw away everything that defines the original?

ReBirth is like every shitty retroactive fan bullshit scenario of ignoring or “fixing” the oddball chapter to match. See the fan remakes of Metroid II, that try to make it more like Super Metroid. Or, well, Zero Mission. Except those had much more thought put into them, as misguided as the thought processes might have been.

In this case it’s more like some asshole looked at TCA and said, “That’s not a Castlevania game. But THIS is!” Then he ripped out random hunks of a half a dozen more-popular Castlevania games, and taped them together. I mean, of everything to replace, the music? Seriously? TCA has one of the best ever Castlevania soundtracks!

I mean. ReBirth is a polished videogame, if you’re looking for one of those. There are many out there. It just doesn’t have anything to say except, DUDE! THIS IS TOTALLY A CASTLEVANIA GAME! SEE! IT’S GOT ALL YOUR FAVORITE CASTLEVANIA MOVES AND MUSIC AND STUFF! IT’S ALL IN HERE! DUDE!

Fuckin’ gamer culture bullshit, that thing is. But it is a polished videogame, correctly made.

I mean, if you want to play that game, go play one of the games it’s tearing apart instead. Castlevania: Bloodlines is a good replacement. A near-era pastiche of the NES stuff, but weird. Or just play the NES games. Or Rondo of Blood.

Or… don’t. Go, feed the cynical meta-machine.

But… anyway. Yeah, I like The Castlevania Adventure.

Freezing Inferno: I remember being wowed by ReBirth, but I agree; there’s hardly a lick of any atmosphere.

EJR Tairne: Or originality. Or purpose. Everything in there is just repurposed from an earlier, better game. And unlike, say, Gradius V it doesn’t have anything new to say about the elements. They’re there solely to say, LOOK! HERE THEY ARE AGAIN! SEE! IT’S TOTALLY A CASTLEVANIA GAME!

The remake falls into the trap of thinking a game is defined by its content rather than concept. Gradius V is a game built on concept. It strips away decades of cruft to dwell on one idea. I don’t think there are even any moai in the damned thing. Just setpieces built around Options. It spends a whole game trying to break down and define the series’ defining mechanic: Options.

That’s just about the best ever reason to revisit an old concept: to better explore its purpose. The worst reason is to dwell on and fetishize past notions for their own sake. HEY REMEMBER THIS?

That latter path is the one that has dragged game design down its own anus since 1985 or so.

Freezing Inferno: [So] Rebirth is basically a piece of dread NOSTALGIA in [your] eyes. It references things and incites memories of old Castlevania things in the name of lighting up those neurons that remember Castlevania… but it lacks the atmosphere.

EJR Tairne: It’s not nostalgia per se that bothers me here, though I’m certainly no big fan of nostalgia in its own right. (Nostalgia is zombie thinking, out to devour the present and the future.) It’s more the regressive mindset of objective design — the idea that there’s some perfect game out there to be made; that design is all about doing things right, putting in all of the elements that people expect from a game. That’s as opposed to having a core idea, and then doing what is appropriate to conveying that idea to the player.

I’m being reductive. There was an idea to ReBirth: to “fix” Adventure and make it match all the other games. That, though, is the other thing that bothers me. It’s not much of an idea, but it’s troublesome in itself.

It’s one thing to look at the game and say, “Okay, what was it trying to do, and how did it fail in that?” and then to adapt all that, and try to accomplish those goals from a modern perspective. That’s cool and all.

It’s another thing to say, this sucks and it was wrong, because it didn’t match all of these other things. So let’s tear pieces off every surrounding game and fill the hole left by this unmentionable piece of shit.

That’s… I mean. It doesn’t affect me personally, but conceptually I find that kind of offensive. You know?

Freezing Inferno: Nostalgia in place of innovation. That’s the killer.

EJR Tairne: I don’t even really know what innovation means. It’s nostalgia in place of a distinct idea or voice or theory. It’s like people who instead of thinking problems through rely on quoting famous, semi-respectable people. No, I don’t really care all that much what E.B. White said here, cool as he is. Think it through yourself.

By the same measure, all these quotes from other games — I’m sure they were great in their original context. How, though, do they apply to the present conversation (not our conversation here; you know, the design’s)?

In a good design, every decision, every game element comes from within the basic thesis of your design. It comes pragmatically out of what you’re trying to say with the game, and what that logistically may imply.

This stuff that ReBirth is grabbing from everywhere, by nature it’s not coming from within but from without. That right there is the crux of my irritation here. It’s a prime example of contemporary design vapidity.

ReBirth is a well-made game that has nothing to say, and borrows ideas to serve little but a priori expectations. In its own right I don’t mind it. If it didn’t claim to be a remade, improved version of another game, then… okay. Whatever. It would just be another generic, low-rent Castlevania game. With a series like this you’re going to repeat yourself and borrow from the past continually.

This, though, is more than a case of a series caught up in its own increasingly rigid myth. It’s an empty-headed piece of rote repetition that holds this formula as superior precisely because of its familiarity. In the process it discounts every idea that doesn’t fit the template, precisely because it doesn’t fit the template.

This is a shitty way to think about anything creative.

It’s an attempt to make an individual game fit the series, rather than to explore what the game has to say — which is both a pointless exercise and a tremendous missed opportunity to do something genuinely cool.

Deny the outliers. Sanitize the dissodants. As opposed to helping them better achieve their ambitions. It’s a kind of intellectual fascism.

There is a fine line between this mentality and all of the shit that women put up with from Gamers. There’s this enfranchisement of extremist reactionary entitlement bubbling below the surface of Gamer culture. It shows in subtle ways, and in totally disgusting ways, but it’s all the same process in the end.

This all is a big reason why I hate Gamer culture and why I’ve backed away from game writing as of late. I realize that it probably should be a reason to write even more, and even more infuriating pieces. But. Well. I just don’t feel the responsibility anymore.

John Thyer: Yeah, when you’re approaching every game as an imperfect permutation of some non-existent ideal, of course you’ll react with hostility to experiences outside the norm, often games by marginalize authors.

Like, Gone Home really isn’t that radical all things considered! But it still falls outside the closed mindset. And it’s ultimately what leads to the creator of Depression Quest being bombarded with rape and death threats.

EJR Tairne: “Yeah, when you’re approaching every [woman/person] as an imperfect permutation of some non-existent ideal,”

It’s all the more raw and disturbing with games, compare to other media, as games are bottled perspectives. They’re not just a narrative that you follow. A game is a thesis about the way the world works. “If I do this,” you say, “then this happens.” Then you hand this to people, and let them see the world by your rules.

And in response, they get fucking furious and want to kill you.

Anyway, there’s something about mainstream game design that reinforces, rewards this way of thinking. It’s a small stimulus, but it feeds into this entitlement and pettiness, normalizing it as a thought process.

It’s not even the deeply ingrained violence that I’m talking about. It’s the Pavlov factor. Keep hitting your head on that button until you get the shiny reward. No means maybe, which means yes.

I’m being simplistic here regarding cause and effect, but there’s a fuzzy horribleness to game psychology — and that it is so pervasive is worrisome, especially when you consider the number of people who obsess over videogames, who make them their lives.

Because of the way that our brains work, everything that you do becomes a part of you, just a little bit. Learning is all about reinforcing those pathways between nodes. And the pathways that videogames reinforce… well. It’s not much of a mystery why gamer culture is host to such a population of irredeemable fucking monsters.

And that concludes my review of Castlevania: The Adventure ReBirth.

Reading The Thing

Every human endeavor, someone had to study the world, think about it, make a decision, and act on it. It’s a crystallized perspective. Every bridge, hammock, swan boat, film, boot, can of cat food, it reflects the life perspective of one or more people. Deliberately or not.

Videogames are discrete and deliberate functioning models of worlds, defined by the rules of cause and effect set down by the designer. It seems reasonable to imagine that they have as much potential to convey human perspective as any other conscious endeavor. Say, carpentry.

Of course what you get out of any medium depends on how you interface with and respond to it. There is a certain base line of literacy. I am going to suggest that those who refute, even anger at the suggestion of, the artistic potential of games are functionally illiterate.

And that’s fine. I don’t know how to read Chinese opera or David Bowie songs. I just know enough to keep my mouth shut and my mind open. You don’t have to understand a thing to like it a hell of a lot. But ignorance breeds possessiveness and fetishism of the thing as a thing.

This to my mind is the origin of fan cultures, religions, and other inanity: the diminishing of literate entities to glorious things. Any divergence from the rote thing as a thing is not the thing, and is thereby wrong. You do not adhere to The Thing! You are not one of us!

Philosophy is especially ridiculous. What should be an exchange of well-considered perspectives becomes a stratification of idea camps. In practical application it’s all about memorizing who said what, figuring out your ideological alignment, then defending yourself with it.

A whole lot of reading for such scant literacy. Gamers sure play a lot of games to be so limited. What do popes have to do with Jesus?

Sue me; this is a long car ride.

Reposted from Twitter, November 30th-December 1st, 2012

A Slime for All Seasons: Videogames and Classism

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Part twelve of my ongoing culture column; originally published by Next Generation, under the title “OPINION: Yuji Horii was Right to Opt for DS”.

You’ve probably heard this Dragon Quest business; in a move surprising to professional analysts everywhere, producer Yuji Horii has decided to go with the most popular piece of dedicated gaming hardware in generations for the next installment of the most important videogame franchise in Japan. If people are bewildered, it’s not due to the apparent rejection of Sony (whose hardware was home to the previous two chapters). After the mediocre performance of the PSP and the bad press regarding the PS3 launch, Sony has become a bit of a punching bag for the industry’s frustrations. Fair or not, losing one more series – however important – hardly seems like news anymore.

So no, what’s confounding isn’t that Horii has changed faction; it’s that he appears to have changed class, abandoning home consoles – in particular, the sure and sanctified ground of the no-longer-next generation systems – for a handheld, commonly seen as the lowest caste of dedicated game hardware. Continue reading “A Slime for All Seasons: Videogames and Classism”

Tomb Raider: Legend

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Expanded from my weekly column at Next Generation, and posted on the game’s release date.

Something that people keep bringing up, yet probably don’t bring up enough, is that the first Tomb Raider was a damned good game. The last few levels were thrown-together and buggy; still, at the time it was Lara and Mario. Lara was your 3D update to Prince of Persia – all atmosphere and exploration. It had a snazzy, strong female lead, when that was unusual. (At the time, I had a friend who wouldn’t stop complaining that the character was female. He couldn’t understand why they’d made such a dumb move, since the rest of the game was so good. Go figure.) The game felt fresh and new, and – right or wrong – just a little more sophisticated than what Nintendo had to show.

Then, immediately, Core and Eidos started to listen to the fans. They listened to the media. Posters on the original Tomb Raider message boards kept complaining of a lack of thumping music. They kept asking for more human opponents to blast away, instead of these stupid animals of the first game. They wanted more and more outfits for Lara. And of course, there was the whole “nude code” business.

So a year later, there’s a sequel with the same engine – fair enough – with most of these concerns addressed. It was less interesting, less atmospheric, less intimate than the original game. Still, not too bad. Then a third game, and a fourth, and a fifth, with barely an update to the game engine – since, hey, who has the time for that with a yearly schedule – and less and less focus on what made the game so appealing to start with. The game became the Lara Croft franchise, and everything else became secondary to her new look, her new abilities, her new weapons – because these are the things that fans yammer about, so therefore this was the feedback that Eidos got. Continue reading “Tomb Raider: Legend”

This Week’s Releases (April 3-7, 2006)

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Week thirty-four of my ongoing, irreverent news column; originally posted at Next Generation.

Game of the Week:

Tourist Trophy
Polyphony Digital/SCEA
PlayStation 2

Back when the PlayStation was new, Ken Kutaragi asked all his employees for new game ideas. It didn’t matter how silly; he just wanted input. In particular, he wanted a mix of input from people who were deeply invested in videogames and people who barely had anything to do with them. Kazunori Yamauchi’s response was that he wanted to be able to drive his own car on his television screen. Kutaragi thought that was sort of clever, so he put Yamauchi in charge of producing that game; what Yamauchi turned up with, of course, was Gran Turismo.

Gran Turismo is, as these terms go, a very hardcore game – not necessarily in the “hardcore videogame” sense, except as far as a person who is hardcore about anything technical can usually apply that to something else hardcore and technical; it’s hardcore in the sense that it is an ode to the motorcar in all the layers of obsessiveness you might ascribe to a Gundam. Each game incorporates an increasingly disturbing number of makes and models, each tuned to as close an approximation as possible, given the current state of videogames – all for the ultimate goal of allowing the player to reproduce his exact car (or perhaps his dream car) and drive it from the safety of his living room.

That’s an impressive effort for an idea that, on the surface, sounds so pointless. Continue reading “This Week’s Releases (April 3-7, 2006)”