Friday, June 29, 2012

Foes of Merit

From the headcrabs in Half-Life to the psychic monkeys in System Shock 2 there are some enemies in video games that burn a lasting impression on our minds. I've seen a lot of posts on message boards talking about terrifying adversaries like the haunts in Thief: The Dark Project or the regenerators in Resident Evil 4, but I want to take this oportunity to focus on some oft overlooked foes. Here are three I've picked out ranging from easily recognized to incredibly esoteric.


These black knights have made appearances in several Zelda games over the years. Unlike regular mooks that Link cuts down by the boatload, Darknuts can hold their own. Heavy armor allows then to soak up the hits while their sword and shield fighting style is more guarded than any other opponent. Don't be fooled though these guys can change tactics by throwing their big sword at Link and use a faster and thinner blade to continue the fight. Did I mention it's possible to run into three of these guys at once?


Only appearing in Silent Hill: Homecoming, these things look vaguely like pachyderms, but are actually a disturbing fusion of a human male and female. What made a lasting impression on me was the way they move. I got the strange impression that such a combination looked almost plausible. More unnerving is the fact that they react to physical trauma much the same way a real living creature would. Hence, when your character shoots them with a shotgun they stagger and bleed. Shoot them again they collapse like a slain mega-fauna.


I should start this last entry by apologizing for the lack of a video link. This game is fairly obscure so bear with me. Back in 1988 a solo programmer named David Smith (with some publishing help from Mindscape) put together what was a first person shooter four years before Wolfenstein 3D. It involves (get this) an exoplanetary colony designated "5-Δ-5" performing experiments in teleportation only to unintentionally summon hostile interdimentional aliens bent on absorbing all energy. The player takes control of a "Space Marshall" attempting rescue operations only to end up stranded on the exoplanet before the opening cut scene has finished. Psssst....This came out six years before Doom. Can you believe it?

Getting a game like this to work on the hardware of the day was not easy. The fact that it worked at all is a testament to David Smith's genius. Unfortunately I think he was a bit of a madman too. The game features all sorts of bizarre stuff; 256 "pseudo-degrees" of rotation, a planet buster bomb switch next to (and identical to) the light switch. A smoldering cigarette that kills you as soon as you pick it up, a jail cell with potentially lethal electrified floor plates, fatal vertical shafts in the ships reactor room that have no safety railings, and that's just the tutorial area!

Enemies consist of googly-eyed geometric shapes that attack the player on sight but flee if they are backed into. They come in different types too; warriors, scouts, workers, queens and so on. The worst of these is the "Snooper", a kind of invincible ground crawling critter that appears if the game is played for more than two hours in a 24 hour period. Even if the player takes a break it will continue to appear again and again at ever shorter intervals. It stalks the Star Marshall and drains a large amount of life if it manages to catch him. Sound bad? Here's where it gets truly insidious...rather than trying to explain I'll just quote from David Smith's memoirs regarding the game:

The system would ultimately crash even if you just stood in one place and didn’t do anything at all. This made me realize that it probably wasn’t something that the game player was doing, but perhaps one of the autonomous creatures that inhabited the world. Finally, I created a real-time map of the world where I could track the movement of the creatures. What was supposed to happen was that the creatures would wander around the world, pretty much at random. When they hit a wall, they would simply turn in another direction. The same thing would happen if they hit another creature… except one of the creatures was special. There was a slow-moving slug like creature that knew how to follow the game player’s trail. When it came across another creature, rather than bouncing off and risk losing the trail, I made it so that it would destroy the other creature and stay on target to find you. This worked great, except that on some rare occasions, this slug could do to a wall what it did to the other creatures. That is, it could delete it. This meant that the virtual door was now open for this creature to explore the rest of the RAM on the Macintosh, deleting and modifying it as it went along. Of course, it was just a matter of time before it found some juicy code. In other words, the bug was a REAL bug.

You might be wondering why this game wasn't more popular. Well, it basically boils down to the game very easily ending up unbeatable. This was intentional design in many cases. A pair of inescapable 2001 A Space Odyssey tribute rooms being one example. Ostensibly the player was supposed get his ship repaired, rescue six cryogenically frozen children (colony survivors that the aliens missed) via power loader and teleportation pods, then blast off and hit the aliens with an implosion weapon (remember they absorb energy!). Needless to say doing all that is incredibly hard. So much so it makes completing Dark Souls look like a piece of cake by comparison. Regardless, the Snooper will stay in my that is a foe of merit!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Skin Deep

Lightning, Jade, April, Zoe, Nariko...just naming some of those rare fresh faced 21st century female protagonists to appear in the world of video games. Sadly, none of them did particularly well as far as selling games go. Hence the reason most marketing departments demand that the main character be a 30 something short-haired white males. Not that this is unusual or anything. Movies and TV tend to strongly favor similar leads. "Doomed to be the sexy" seems to be a common complaint brought up now and then with female video game characters as well. Yes, I agree that throwing in a pair of tits is a sleazy (and all too often used) way to try and sell more copies of an otherwise crap game. No, I don't agree that it's necessarily unfair that heroines in games look beautiful while their hero counterparts are often depicted as short, fat, ugly etc. One could argue that the mildly unattractive Mario paired up with Princess Peach is symbolic of the huge amounts of effort some males go through just to get (and keep) an exceptionally hot girlfriend. Honestly though I think arguing about appearances in video games is an overly shallow viewpoint to take.

The upcoming Tomb Raider game has taken a lot of flack for it's depictions of violence against women, as well as strong hints at rape culture. Every time I hear this kind of claim I find myself thinking that the originator's sense of scale might be off or at the very least they didn't study much world history. Pre-modern first world society was (and still is) a bad deal all around for both men and women. Do you think all those ancient torture devices were just for show? Racks and Brazen Bulls have been around since antiquity. Certain forms of legally enforced mutilation such as "crucifixion" and "drawing-and-quartering" were used so extensively that they had their own terminology. Castration for the purposes of making eunuchs was also common in many parts of the world. Records from the Ottoman Empire indicate that only 1 in 10 boys recovered from the procedure. Yet in popular media this violence against men is often depicted as a joke. I could go on, but it's a divergent topic, back to video games!

Rather than nitpick over the details of physical appearance I'd much rather see titles that explore gender themes and the social aspects of relationships such as marriage and having children. Very rarely are these fundamental parts of humanity given any attention in gaming. Even in warrior dominated societies weddings and the production of heirs was extremely important for political reasons if nothing else. Only a handful of obscure Japanese titles have even tried to delve into this territory to any degree though. Worse yet one of the most recent entries brought over to the west, Record of Agarest War, suffered from pandering fan service and poorly implemented gameplay. I'd love to see a game which has procedural generated offspring based on the (possibly customized) appearance of the parents. Multi-generational stories are also something sorely neglected by developers and storytellers in general.

Sorry if this is a bit rambling...I'll try to finish with a focused conclusion. The video game industry does need to grow up with regards to it's handling of human sexuality, but from were I sit I'm not seeing a lot of ideas being tossed out there. Instead forums and message boards typically get filled up with petty arguments over hip, waist and bust ratios or more annoyingly whether Fat Princess is objectively offensive to people with weight issues or not. Quit being so vain people and focus on the stuff that matters!

Friday, June 8, 2012

Uncharted Disconect

Having  finally experienced the entire Uncharted trilogy (a video game mixture of Romancing the Stone and Jewel of the Nile) I feel compelled to speak up about something that bothered me the whole way through.  What's with the huge body count?  Indiana Jones' personal kill scores (in his four movies) are chronologically as follows; 12, 21, 13 and 18 respectively.  That's a total of 54 individuals some of which were largely unintentional.  Compare that to Nathan Drake's most recent outing on the PS3 (only one game!) in which he ends the lives of over 700 people.  Yes, we are made to believe that they are pirates, mercenaries, thugs and other assorted bad men.  Regardless, how is it this mass murderer is not wanted internationally for crimes against humanity.  Is he going to claim it was all in self defense?

Granted, all video games have a degree of internal dissonance between cut scenes and gameplay, but these are usually lamp-shaded by the setting.  If your playing a battle hardened borderline psychopathic marine in some futuristic sci-fi war zone, butchery is a lot easier to accept than if your game is taking place in modern day well researched real world locals.  Add to this the fact that good old Nathan never seems to be phased by any of his acts of homicide.  He just makes wise cracks and keeps on going with a sympathetic light painting his difficult to justify methods.

What about the families of all the people he's slaughtered in the name of treasure hunting?  None of them seek vengeance?  No reporters or international agents trying to track him down?  Also, why don't any of the people facing off against Drake exercise an ounce of self preservation and run?  Especially after Drake and company have shown that they wipe out pretty much anyone or anything sent against them.  Don't tell me it's because Lazarovitch (or whoever the big bad is) is that intimidating because lets face it, fragging isn't exactly a secret among violent types.  Maybe Naughty Dog Studios should have considered making the main antagonists of each game robots, demons, zombies or a combination of the three.  Ironically, I think it would have made the series more plausible.

Obviously things really come down to suspension of disbelief.  Some people have higher levels of tolerance than others.  Genre conventions can only take you so far until narrative coherence breaks down though.  Especially when you consider that the ancient ruins Drake destroys constantly are far more valuable (from an archaeological standpoint) than whatever lost artifact everyone is so desperately searching for.  Not to mention the fact that orbital satellites have mapped every square mile of the Earth.  Which leads me to believe the main thing left uncharted in the Uncharted series is verisimilitude.

Dead men tell no tales...
I don't want to conclude mindlessly ranting about this though so let me toss one final thought out.  I am Alive tried to give a more humane take on the third person shooter, but for a variety of reasons didn't manage to pull it off.  Instead, lets look further back to Sir Fracis Drake, a real life person of history who is a playable character in Sid Meier's Pirates!  I can testify that this game lets you be a massacre inducing scourge of the Caribbean sea or a relatively peaceful trader.  Yes, that's right you can sail around with a small crew in a cargo fluyt exchanging goods while looking for buried treasure and do quite well for yourself actually.  So, what it really comes down to is if a 20+ year old game can have some choice over life and death why can't a highly polished "triple A" title in this day and age do the same?

Friday, June 1, 2012

Less is More

Aliens, Xenomorphs, Bugs...I should start by saying these creatures are essentially a combination of tarantula wasps and Shub-Niggurath.  That in itself can be pretty terrifying, but what really sells the concept is their stalking sexual predator like nature.  Remember everyone can be implanted with alien eggs so to them anyone is fair game.  The first film pioneered the concept.  The second sidestepped it a bit.  I won't fault James Cameron for it though since his take on the franchise was largely responsible for the birth of the survival horror genre.  The rest of the films (excluding Prometheus) missed the point....mostly.  So what is the point?  In a word - dread.

Enter Aliens: Colonial Marines, a FPS in the works by Gearbox Software that has been delayed so much it was though to be canceled at one point.  I suspect that the themes relating to sexual assault, birth anxiety and threatened motherhood (link) that were so prevalent in the first two films are completely absent in this video game foray into the Aliens Universe.  Lacking those fear inducing concepts, what we're left with is basically a game of Whac-A-Mole where the mallet is swapped out for a pulse rifle and the moles are replaced by Aliens.  There's nothing wrong with this in and of itself, but with the video game market filled with so many FPS titles with analogous action what separates Aliens: Colonial Marines from the rest?  Yes, it has iconic imagery from the lovingly recreated exterior of the Sulaco to hand welders and sentry guns...but that's just cosmetics.

No disrespect the the developers, but if your going to make an Aliens video game in which the focus is more bugs and more guns then it's game over, man. Instead your better off visiting Frictional Games' blog page for ideas. These guys know how to make a horror game and frankly being a space trucker hunted by an Alien (or three, but not cubed) in the isolated bowels of a poorly illuminated star ship armed with a motion tracker and sputtering flame unit sounds ten times more intense than blasting hordes of xenomorphs with a heavily armed squad of wisecracking interstellar jarheads to back you up.  No offense, I like Hicks, Hudson and Vasquez but if all we're looking at here is a elevator trip down nostalgia hell then the whole concept should just be nuked from orbit.