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Let's Play!

  I have a bit of writer’s block this week. I blame the five day weekend. I tell ya, there’s nothing like a national holiday to throw a wrench in your plans. Rather than bore you with advice you didn’t ask for or review something no one cares about, I’m going to tell you one of the things I do for fun. Not that you asked or anything, but tough.

  A few years ago on the Something Awful forums, I came across something really entertaining: a Let’s Play. Now, at it’s most basic, a Let’s Play is essentially watching other people play a video game so you don’t have to. Yup, it’s kind of a silly concept. But, depending on who’s doing what, it can be really entertaining. My personal favorites are the Resident Evil and Drakengard series by the same author – both pretty terrible games that are made infinitely more enjoyable watching someone else play through the lamer aspects of it. Other LPs are more straight-forward, and led me to discovering the likes of Cave Storyand Nier.

  The thing about this particular author (a gentleman who goes by the screen name The Dark Id) is that he really tears into the game’s plot, adding dialogue and pointing out the silliness of everything. He has a terrific sense of humor and is prolific enough to be self-referential in his later LPs, rewarding long-time followers with little hat-tips to previous entries. It’s really good stuff.

  Fawning praise aside, I’m not quite sure why I like Let’s Plays as much as I do. I’ve often criticized sports for being spectacles that the viewer has no real engagement in other than the act of watching – like watching others play a video game. Perhaps what interests me in these displays of gamery is that, by removing myself from the act of playing, I can more thoroughly enjoy the story and atmosphere (or lack thereof). Maybe it’s the historian in me watching these ever-evolving forms of entertainment and trying to make sense of them in a cultural context. I don’t know.

  What I do know is that video games can be really, really silly and in profoundly mind-boggling ways. I’ve been making my way through Egomaniac’s Siren series. I played the original on my PS2 yonks ago, made it about... I dunno... a quarter of the way through... and then shelved it. Not because it was bad, per se. It was Japanese horror done really well, full of creepity monsters and a plot so dense you could flatten peasants with it. It also had fairly decent (if intensely British) voice acting, which was a minor accomplishment in the dark days of 2003/4. One reason I didn’t get very far in it is because I didn’t have a whole lot of free time that wasn’t taken up with staring at pictures of kittens or watching terrible movies over and over again (don’t ask). The other reason is that the game was really, terribly obtuse.

  Siren dealt with a town disappearing off the face of the planet, the populace being turned into the shambling undead, and a collection of jerks trying to survive the horrors over the course of three days. According to Wikipedia (as of 11/25/2012, at least), it’s also based off of a real-life serial killing in Japan – because there’s nothing quite like taking someone who butchered a bunch of people because women didn’t appreciate him slipping into their beds at nights and saying “Yeah, that’s pretty good. But we need more monsters with bug-heads and uncontrollable laughter.”

  The game is intense if nothing else. Everyone you control is underpowered and usually unarmed. The grunting and laughing monsters are relatively fast, strong, and unkillable in any legitimate sense. And there are a lot of them. The only thing you can do, aside from waving a poker or umbrella at their faces and hoping for the best, is to hijack their sight (sightjacking, which may sound touch pornographic, depending on who you ask) and evade the beasties. But where things get really hectic are in the goals. In the midst of running away from all the abominations, each stage gives you a specific objective, typically focusing on survival. On top of that, there are little things that you have to do in order to unlock additional stages and objectives in previous stages. These, in turn, will unlock more things for you to bugger off and do. All while not having your face bitten off.

  If it sounds convoluted, you’re absolutely right. Siren, especially when you’re watching someone else play it, is a great example of what’s termed Adventure Game Logic. Adventure Game Logic usually refers to the concept that, in adventure games, you will be tasked to do something from the startlingly mundane to the complicated. In order to succeed at this task and move onto the next plot point, you must abandon paltry notions of “reality”. Instead, you enter into a world where insanity is the only constant, and the more ludicrous a puzzle’s solution, the more likely that’s the answer.

  Think Rube Goldberg if he were dangerously unhinged and you’ve got it.

  To pull an example of this amazing attempt at a thought-process from Siren: in one of the first couple of stages in the game, your character – with no prompting – must collect a face towel. Then, the towel must be moistened in a sink. Then, a freezer must be opened up, turned on, and the towel placed inside so it can freeze. The only clue is a slight camera angle change showing the closed freezer. Gameplay!

  And in case you’re wondering why someone would do this, it’s in order to use the frozen towel as a bridge between counter tops. That way, when you place a piggy bank on top of it and exit the room, it turns said piggy bank into a time-delayed distraction as the towel thaws and drops it onto the floor. This will lure a beastie into the kitchen so you can bludgeon it to sorta-death and nick a student ID it stole from a different character. Duh. What other way would you suggest doing such a thing?

  And it’s not that other games didn’t do such weirdness on a frequent basis. Resident Evil is deservedly mocked because it has a system of plaques and thematic keys for all 300,000 hallways but not a single bathroom. Silent Hill gets a pass because reality is constantly shifting because the plot demands it. Either that, or someone keeps a spare key to their front door in a dog house and their back door is pad locked with three heavy metal tablets they handed out to different people around town. I don’t know, and neither do you. Video games!

  Back to the point! All things being equal, Siren has a pretty decent story that gets bogged down in a lot of really unintuitive logic. Further, the gameplay itself is a bit of a slog. Since you’re controlling a bunch of average people, they control and fight monsters like... well... average people. I’m not entirely sure that’s a bad thing, though. I mean, the game’s about atmosphere and tension and horror – Resident Evil isn’t scary because you can Rambo your way through that shit (also the plot’s garbage and takes itself too seriously – but is still better than the movie). Everything after the first play through in Silent Hill can be made into a hilarious joke – you can boost your ammo to nine goddamn times the intended amount and murder the entire town. I know – I’ve done it.

  Ultimately, then, the original Siren is a game that I think the average gamer would enjoy watching LPed, while horror fans and adventure game buffs would appreciate the actual gameplay. You can watch an experienced player do all the silly shit while still enjoying the fear of the unknown – one of the central tenants of good horror. Although the remake, Siren: Blood Curse is a better game and takes the plot and... you know... remakes it, the original has a much richer story with a more characters.

  Of course, the remake also has its share of silly moments, for those who enjoy such things. Like a sequence where an eight year old girl finds an insect trapping kit in a monster-infested house and uses the molasses in it to capture a horned beetle. Then, in a later stage, after fleeing from shambling, flying, and spider-crawling former humans, she ties a piece of yarn to the beetle in order to use it as an organic grappling hook to get a cassette tape. All this while being bright and chipper like nothing in the world is wrong.

  Huh.

  I suppose LPs also really highlight the sometimes bizarre difference between gameplay and cut-scenes. Like the example above, the little girl in question saw her mother immolate herself and giant maggot/human zombie-thing just hours earlier. How she manages to do anything with a smile – let alone speak in anything other than the guttural screams of the mad – is beyond me. Maybe it’s just that children – especially this one – are stupid.

  But there are other examples as well. Final Fantasy games are predicated on player characters and monsters having the shit kicked out of them constantly with very little, if any, lasting damage done. And yet, if there is wound received in a cut-scene, it’s fatal! Oh, no! Resident Evil trots out the “Zombies! Scary!” every time one pops up even though you have more ammo than the army and have effectively found the best for zombie-ism is simply shooting them 4-7 times. Or aiming upward with a shotgun. Doom 3 is hilarious whenever it shows your fellow badass marines getting their shit wrecked by low-level creatures while the same attacks on you in-game have about as much effect as an awkward huggle.

  And then there are the games with pretensions of a great plot which fail to deliver on just about everything. You know, like Chrono Cross, which had the potential to be a super-mega-awesome cross-dimensional mystery-adventure sequel to one of the best games of all time, but instead turned out to be a mellow piece of watered-down fan-fiction. Or Dirge of Cerberus, which wants you to desperately believe it isn’t a terrible Metal Gear Solid rip off.

  Or there’s the utter failure that is Limbo of the Lost, which is terrible mish-mash of the worst of everything gaming has to offer.

  I admit it. Video games are weird. But I still love them to pieces, damn it.

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