Friday, December 19, 2014

On "Comprehensive Game Criticism" and Plastic Ghosts of the Past

"we need more comprehensive game criticism" is something i remember seeing a lot of people say on the twittersphere a couple years ago, partly in response to me writing some of my Wolfenstein 3D level design posts. mostly this call seemed to come from dudes who were really into first person shooters. as such, i was already skeptical that they even really understood what i was trying to get at in the first place. this was not about looking like a "serious critic" or raising videogames' cultural clout, just offering some new ways of looking at something strange from the past that interested me. Brendan Keogh's Killing is Harmless seemed to embody the exact opposite of the kind of criticism that i wanted to do - something that fetishized details in the story or game world while willfully ignoring admitting to the bigger picture. the point was to be acutely aware of all the shortcomings while still giving respect to the stranger and more resilient parts of a game, not to pick for little details until i've created an interpretation that i can disregard the overall experience with completely.

ok, i admit that i generally feel anxiety about writing nuts and bolts criticism of things like level design because it never really seems to appeal to anyone outside of a niche audience - namely, people who are fans who are already intimately familiar with the source material, or other game designers. and videogame insularity has become increasingly tired and boring to me.

not to mention writing this kind of stuff gets you immediately lumped in with all other writing of this kind done of the past, even if it's only vaguely related. the biggest problem with many of the level design critiques i've read online is how undiscerning they generally are, and how unwilling they are at interrogating decisions made in the games as anything other than examples of "good design" or "realism" or "atmosphere" or any other vague concept that usually never gets articulated. there's generally no real point of view in the analysis beyond a bunch prescriptive, cliched assumptions you've heard a million times before. detailed game analysis usually just serves the purpose of reaffirming the status quo, through the old traditional (and highly stale) modes of thinking about games.

fact is, videogames have that ineffable "magic" thing for its players, that thing that makes its faithful start to tear up when they think about those grand old game campaigns they took part of. that thing that makes them think they are greater. that make us think we can fix everything. well okay, only if we're the type who hasn't had very many experiences outside of them. but nevermind the outside world, it's about the games, man. it's about the technology. that's the magic key that'll fix everything. we say this as people on the outside watch as we continue to stare endlessly fascinated into these unchanging flat computer-generated approximations of crystals on the TV screen, wondering what's so hypnotizing about it all. and when we can't come up with any new or more decent argument about why we keep staring so intently, it sure doesn't make us look like we know what we're talking about.

the presence of things like level design pieces all end up just feeding back into the same kind of nostalgia tourism - it's a curiosity. it's not the kind of writing we're doing regularly these days. it's boring, it's "necessary", it's a chore, but it's not something that feels altogether very relevant. broad generalizing statements about game culture are in, nuts and bolts are out. maybe a big reason for that is because people doing nuts and bolts writing don't know how to make it feel relevant to the current cultural climate. or maybe it's because most people still just don't really respect games that much. maybe they still have a good reason for that.


i never really expected that i'd be writing anything about Perfect Dark. Goldeneye is much more memorable to me now - it's more streamlined, and much better evokes the feeling of freedom that comes from old smeary lo-res 3d geometry and elegant compromises that arise from awkward technological limitations. on the contrary, it's hard for me to even think about Perfect Dark without thinking of slow framerate and awkward aiming with the N64 controller; or the bizarrely long insta-fail missions with equally bizarre and cryptic mission objectives. strange that so many resources got poured into making something on a system that seemed to be fighting it every step of the way.

the first word that comes to mind when i think of Perfect Dark: "bloated". it wants everything, it awkwardly grasps at achieving more robust and serious and weighty storytelling than its predecessors, yet its still unhappily caged within its smeary, lo-res plastic shell. it's also highly hypocritical, game design-wise. you have detailed mission objectives to follow, you have voice acted cutscenes, it seems like you should understand how to proceed intuitively but things are still not really clearly communicated. often it seems like the game is punishing you for no real reason, just MISSION FAILED because you didn't insert an item correctly into the right slot. and this might be interesting if it felt in any real way intentional. it mostly just feels stressful and tense, and like the game wants you to conform to its arbitrary and quite frankly poorly-conceived design to proceed. the Goldeneye-esque no save point missions make even less sense here, as they are much longer and harder and full of bizarre details you must keep track of. it just seems like that format was imported unthinkingly, without much attention paid to how it affected the game.

yet if you look past the game constantly hitting you over the head for not meeting its largely un-telegraphed expectations, there are still some moments of beauty in there. i guess that's what Zolani Stewart senses in his "Let's Crit" videos of Perfect Dark. there are spaces in between the bloat that manage a kind of levity, that feel very intentionally constructed.

Zolani eschews some of the usual prescriptive analysis and mostly tries to focus on the game's strangeness. he talks about how Perfect Dark oscillates between being disorienting in its design in an interesting way, and just being obscure in a bad way. he also asserts that Perfect Dark isn't really a shooter, or really best looked at as a shooter anyway, but instead is more interesting as a place to explore strange spaces. i would be less generous, as a lot of the spaces often aren't really strange in an interesting way, just awkward series of hallways that add nothing to the missions at hand other than adding a more "realistic" or robust feel, and as such feel antiquated in a way that something like Mario 64 with more overtly abstracted spaces don't. i will say they do feel much more alive with detail and colorful than Goldeneye, though. their range certainly isn't something i've seen attempted in similar kinds of titles.

it generally feels like he's letting some nostalgia tint the game in a softer light. i mostly can't agree with him on Perfect Dark not being a shooter either, for example, as the game does try to reassure you pretty consistently that it is a shooter, often throwing an absurd amount of guards to shoot as meatwalls to your progress. i will agree with him in part, however - the variety and construction of environments, particularly some of the Area 51 levels, or the final Skedar level, does achieve a sort of abstract but highly detailed sense of place you definitely don't see in games these days. and the juxtaposition of these environments with all the bizarre requirements thrust upon you give Perfect Dark a feeling unlike other games, for better or for worse.


but let's compare and contrast. my favorite Goldeneye mission is called "Surface 2". a snowfield thoroughly shrouded in a disturbing red fog. it's like a bad omen swept over Surface 1 (an earlier level)'s bright snowy fields. there are more security cameras planted on buildings that and lots of enemies will wander in and out from your view, but both the fog and the N64 limitations make it difficult to make either of these things out until you're really close to them. even the indoors are shrouded in this dark fog. inside a big satellite building (still seemingly shrouded in the same red fog) where you previously had to shut down a satellite dish in Surface 1, you now have to blow it up. hitting B will just cause you to activate it, failing the mission. no remorse. just a big feeling of evil.

or Statue - a graveyard of abstract geometry filled with smudgy greys and brownish greens, and shapes you only half-make out, and sometimes unwittingly get stuck on. the actual design of the map is linear and feels too long for what it is, especially when there are plenty of places to get lost in which becomes especially infuriating as you have to run back through with a time limit and shotgun guards are flooding in. it's like a disturbing train ride into a deep and dark part of James Bond's past. looking back there's something bizarrely beautiful and singular about it.

both of these missions precede your character getting captured and held prisoner in the next mission. it's as if these missions exist as a dark omen clouding over the rest of your story.

the closest parallel in Perfect Dark is the "Chicago" mission (Zolani also acknowledges this as well in his video on the level). you're in a Blade Runner-esque perpetually raining neon cityscape at night, except it's only a block of a cityscape. and you can't even enter any of the buildings (except as an Easter egg), they're just a weird-looking backdrop. as a piece of grand ambitious realism this mission fails. but somehow the little world in it also feels a lot more robust and dangerous than other missions in PD. FBI spies that will report you that look nearly identical to civilians you're not supposed to kill, which almost seem to outnumber the actual guards in the level. also there's a security drone wandering up and down the block that somehow knows who you and you alone are and will start shooting with lasers and shout "STOP WHERE YOU ARE" in a scary robot voice when it sees you. when trying to remember details of mission, the robot felt like such a strange part that i thought i must have made it up completely.

the mission objectives also don't seem to make much sense and force you in uncomfortable and awkward positions, like a taxi you have to scan for several seconds to create a diversion that happens to be right in the street where the robot patrols. but because of all the elements at play there, there's a palpable feeling of tension to the mission. because the environment is small you can visualize it and develop strategies for how to deal with it. the feeling of anxiety and lack of control you experience feels very intentional and fitting for a futuristic dystopia, not arbitrary like other missions.

and i mean, i can still think to the aforementioned hallways of Area 51 which kind of have a lost, forlorn feel to them even as they're populated by guards or annoying drone guns. or the aforementioned final Skedar mission, which is highly linear but has a much stronger and more unique sense of place clearly constructed to work within the limitations of N64 hardware than anything else in the game - and also features very tense fights with the Skedar aliens. their different anatomy and behavior make for a much more entertaining enemy to fight than the same old meatwall guards. these environments work when they work in tandem with, and not against, other elements of the game.

contrast that with a mission like Air Force One, which is filled with awkward hallways, triggered story events and empty dead-end rooms. the level certainly looks a lot more like the actual Air Force One might look like, but not really to its benefit. or the Pelagic II, which is just a series of pretty but boring hallways. or the even more generic green alien hallways of Deep Sea. or even the Carrington Villa, which might be a fun place to explore if the game ever let you and meaningfully interact with anything else in the environment aside from shooting guards. the game often seems afraid of its abstraction, desperately grabbing for more detail and gravitas to lift it out of its abstract, formless shell. it has to be a shooter, it has to try and justify itself to you, it has to be taken seriously. it's an awkward adolescent, trying to do so much more without understanding what made it work in the first place.

mostly (and rather unsurprisingly) Perfect Dark just feels like a combination of half-realized ideas with mixed levels of execution made within the genre limitations of a FPS game made in the late 90's. it's sad, but beyond that, i don't know if there's really anything else to say about it


Goldeneye was regarded by its development team as a crappy licensed game until its surprise success. by contrast, Perfect Dark was hyper-ambitious, hyper-resourced, hyper-followed by eager fans.

around 2007 i remember sadly peering through the glass case in a corner at my local videogame store that contained the N64 cartridges. there was something sterile and empty feeling about all of them. all the life and possibility that sparked within me from seeing N64 games when they were new seemed all but left behind, only their husks remaining, like little ghosts. still, i remember seeing Mario 64 sitting gleaming at the top of the pile, or an occasional copy of the original Super Smash Bros that would usually quickly disappear. and then there were the multiple copies of Perfect Dark sitting at the bottom, all labeled for 5 dollars. it was almost eerie.

i spent a whole summer with Perfect Dark back in 2000 when i was young, and a whole year prior to its release on Perfect Dark forums feverishly checking for any new info about the game that i could. it seemed like something i could get really lost in. it was the newest, greatest, biggest experience. but now all that content, all that time and energy, all that had built up to the release, was now sitting at the bottom of the shelf in its plastic grey shell for 5 dollars. the newest and greatest never seems to be as new or great the second time around. that bloated, awkward monster of compromises made just for us - the fans, now looks like nothing more than a little glimmer of the past. but now the fans are elsewhere. they've moved far, far beyond it. and meanwhile those grey shells are still somewhere at the bottom of the pile, collecting dust, sitting next to Madden 98, or Ridge Racer, or Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, or any number of other husks of disposable grey plastic that look just like it - all neatly sealed-off and lined up in a row, as if they were gravestones.


(note: you can support my work on Patreon here:

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.