Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Playing Zelda (In No Particular Order): Skyward Sword

The Legend of Zelda is the greatest gaming series ever. Join me as I play through every last one of them in no particular order, and write mildly thoughtful ramblings on each. This week: the latest Zelda game, Skyward Sword.

It would be easy to view Skyward Sword as a game cursed by patterns: the patterns in the game's myriad of puzzles, for example, or the patterns of attack of every monster we fight; but of course, the biggest pattern of all is the structure of the game itself, in which we must help a tribe of strange creatures, solve many pattern-based puzzles, and fight many pattern-based enemies all in the attempts of finding a pattern-based dungeon; and then once we conquer it we must find a song, play the song, find the next tribe of strange creatures and do this over and over again until the game is done.

This, to be fair, could be said of pretty much every Zelda game these days, and perhaps you feel like Tevis Thompson, who recently wrote that Zelda games are fundamentally broken at their core, and have grown incredibly boring. Mr. Thompson claims that the series is broken, and I claim that the series has never been better, and this is okay, because Zelda is a series that means many different things to many different people. For some, Zelda is about exploration. For me, it's the the part that comes after it: discovery. And perhaps this is why I'm consistently enraptured by this series whose main elements are consistently the same, and whose structures are increasingly linear: because even in Zelda games with very little to explore, there is always much to discover.

When I first wrote about the game last year, I was struck by its emphasis on character development, and the same holds up upon a second playthrough. Like Majora's Mask and Wind Waker before it, Skyward Sword presents a world filled with people whose problems and personalities are so well-defined, unique and grounded in reality that despite their vibrantly over-the-top animations they feel distinctly more human and relatable than any technically-more-realistically-rendered character in Skyrim or Heavy Rain. The animation on display here is the sort that would make Walt Disney proud, the sort that allows for a wide-range of expressions, gestures and life that motion capture simply can't (*ahem*) capture yet.

Which brings us back to the subject of exploration and discovery: there are many, including Mr. Thompson, that feel that Zelda has strayed away from its original draw of the joy of exploring a world full of secrets. I propose that Zelda is still about that, but the secrets we discover aren't necessarily just in hidden caves and endless forests anymore (though Skyward Sword has both those things, and pretty, floating islands to top it all off): Zelda has become a series in which the characters are just as much fun to explore and discover as the world they inhabit. In the original Zelda, we were thrilled by discovering a bush we could burn to reveal a hidden stash of rupees; in Skyward Sword we are thrilled by discovering that the exasperatingly energetic flying-shop owner by day is actually a morbid philosopher by night, or that beneath our village, if we move a specific grave stone in the cemetery, we find a half-man, half-bat creature who literally feeds on the joy of others, or that there's a ghost haunting the bathroom in your school who desperately needs toilet paper. (So, fine, not all the characters are relatable.) Skyward Sword is a world filled with secrets, perhaps more than any other Zelda game before it, but its secrets aren't limited to blowing up holes in walls and discovering treasure chests (though once again, Skyward has that in spades, and also floating islands which are awesome); but to discover those secrets we have to be willing to look in new places.

These new places include the way we play the game itself. In Skyward Sword, all play is rewarding. And perhaps this is Skyward's the biggest source of wonder: the structure is the same as its ever been, but within that structure we find a level of tactility and interaction heretofore unseen in the series. Swinging your sword is no longer relegated to a simple button, which is good because its use is no longer tied down to simply slaying monsters. Controlled with nearly 1:1 gestures, your sword can be used to write symbols on walls, as a means to stab and carry pumpkins to then throw at people (which is unnecessary, but silly and fun) or to make massive eyes dizzy (which is necessary to solve puzzles, and also silly and fun), and we get to discover these and many more surprising secondary uses for ourselves. Your instrument is, like the instruments in most every Zelda game, really only necessary at specific junctures to unlock new areas, but you can also whip it out and strum along with the background music as you run around, should you feel so inclined, or use it serenade a floating bar full of lonely gossipers. And we don't just walk up to caves and treasure chests with our boring old feet anymore—we fly to islands floating in the sky on a colorful bird, and then leap off mid-flight and sky-dive to our destination. Every aspect of play has been enhanced to be as interactive and fun as possible; every item has countless unknown uses that we as the player get to discover; even something as mundane and tired as a “stamina meter” is used as the basis of countless clever puzzles. Of course you'll have to use motion controls for all of it, but at this point you know where you stand on them.

The level of interaction feels heightened due in no small part to the fact that this is an economically designed game, that upon replay, recalls the dense and compacted nature of the original Zelda or The Minish Cap, games where every screen had an army of monsters to fight or a secret to find. After Twilight Princess' vast yet largely empty overworld, Skyward's compact world full of secrets is a welcome contrast. Faron Woods feels as big as any Hyrule forest ever has, yet it's tough to walk five feet without running into an environmental puzzle to solve, an enemy to fight, a character to interact with or a hidden treasure to unearth. Yet whereas most Zelda games offer very similar sorts of puzzles and discoveries throughout their lengthy running times, Skyward Sword is constantly evolving, constantly introducing new ways to play, new means of discovery.

Yet the “Modern Zelda” detractors all seem to go back to the same thing: the first Zelda had you make your own path; you could explore anywhere on the map from the beginning of the game and complete dungeons out of order, and all these things are wonderful. But to use this argument is to assume that Modern Zelda games are trying to accomplish the same goal as the first, which isn't exactly the case: Modern Zelda games still want us to explore, they still want us to find secret caves with hidden treasure and talk to strange characters who speak in arcane riddles, but they want to do something on top of all that: they want to tell us a story. And if we've learned anything from Skyrim, it's that you can't have an involving, coherent narrative with a memorable beginning, middle and end, endless sidequests, well-written characters and a nonlinear structure that allows you do whatever you want whenever you want. Some of those things are going to get lost in the shuffle; usually it's the characters and story and writing.

Here the story is key. Ever since Ocarina of Time, the Zelda games have provided a series of incredibly well-written, whimsical and character-driven tales about growing up (though anyone who's read any of the brilliant essays of Dan Merrill knows the series is about a great deal more than that). Skyward Sword is indeed a game that starts us out on a linear path, but if we can look past the idea of the linear path we find that it's not a boring one: in the first hour of the game we are introduced to a wide range of hilariously well-written and stunningly animated characters, form a bond with a strange bird who serves as an important companion, and establish Zelda as a surprisingly human, atypical human being (rather than the stoic and boring Padme-esque caricature presented in Ocarina and Princess). Here is a game where we want to save the damsel in distress not because we're expected to, but because she's a three-dimensional human being with whom the game has allowed us to form a relationship before taking her away from us. Skyward is able to establish these character relationships and dramatic tension because of its first hour or two (depending on how quick a learner you are) of guided exploration, and the emotional payoff that we experience throughout the rest of the adventure prove that those hours were worth it.

But here we must discuss the formula; Mr. Thompson has argued that Zelda simply can't be surprising, can't evoke the same sense of wonder it once did when it sticks to the same old formula in every last game. Yet for me, the formula is everything; with the formula the game is able to create a sense of forboding and dread, which we see on Link's increasingly wearisome face before he plunges into every one of the land's many dungeons. He knows that he will find a dungeon, and he knows that dungeon will have brain-bending puzzles, and he knows that the end will house a terrifying beast for him to conquer. You can chalk it all up to laziness if you want, but I believe the series has earned a certain artistic credibility after 25 years of remarkable games, and for me, it is an obvious fact: the player's knowledge of the inevitable is what gives the dungeons their aura of unease and, at times, horror. It is what makes the brief cutscenes of Link staring down into the dungeons' abysmal entrances so effective: he knows that it is a trialsome dungeon, and he knows that it will be more difficult than the last.
And yet the formula is also a comfort; for fans, playing a Zelda game is like coming home. We know we will conquer trialsome dungeons, but we also know that we will be rewarded. We know that we will meet exciting and funny new characters, but we do not know who they will be, or what they'll be like. We know we will explore vast new worlds, but we do not know the puzzles that they will contain, or how they will look. I do think fans are ready for the series' next Majora's Mask; I think the formula has been refined time and time again, and perhaps here perfected. But if the formula goes unchanged, few will complain. Skyfall wasn't a great Bond film because it shattered a fifty-year-old formula, but because it executed that formula in a stylish and thrilling way. Such is the case with Zelda.

A depressingly few amount of games can claim to provide a satisfying, character-driven story with brilliant writing. Skyward Sword does all that and provides us with a stunningly crafted and colorfully animated world that begs us to interact with it, explore it and discover its secrets, be it a cave in the side of a volcano or a surprising character trait. It does all this with some of the most ingenious puzzle design to ever grace an action game, and with a control scheme that constantly amazes with its versatility. Which is to say that it is one of the best Zelda games ever. Which is to say it is one of the best games, period.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a beautiful film presented in the ugliest format imaginable. I'm talking about HFR, which means “High Frame Rate,” which means everything looks like it takes place on the set of a PS3-generated Spanish soap opera.

I'm not going to dwell on the format, here; so many negative things have been said about it, and so little has been said about the film itself, that it seems wrong to speak of it much further. But I can't not mention it because I don't believe a single minute went by where I wasn't utterly distracted by the camera, or the lighting, or the jarring disconnect between CGI and reality. Thankfully I saw the film two days later in good old 2D, 24 frames per second. As I suspected during my first viewing, this is a wonderful film marred mostly by the negative hype surrounding its length and format.

The Hobbit has a different tone than The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and you might not much like it. Tolkien fans know this going in, but general audiences, judging by the conversations I overheard leaving the theater, are likely to be surprised by the series' shift toward the lighthearted. It's a more whimsical story, with sillier characters, wordier wordplay, and slappier slapstick. It's also, as a result, a bit more warm and heartfelt than anything we've seen so far from Peter Jackson's Middle Earth. But you might not be coming for warmth and whimsy (the dude sitting next to me complained about the abundance of “cartoonish bull****.”). I was never of the opinion that Jackson's original trilogy was an unquestionable, flawless masterpiece (though I think it's very good) but one can't deny that the previous films contained a little something for everyone: fans of more lighthearted fantasy had the Hobbits to root for; fans of dudebro badassery had swashbuckling Aragorn; fans of attractive men also had swashbuckling Aragorn, and Orlando Bloom's abs, if that weren't enough. Here we have only one little Hobbit, thirteen pudgy Dwarves and a very old Wizard. Their battles are almost all comical and graceless, and the last one involves throwing pinecones. If you're coming for “cool” you're going to leave disappointed. But if you're coming for “A Delightful, Adventurous Romp!” or “Fun For the Whole Family!” you're going to have a grand old time.

I had a grand old time.

The film's greatest assets are its dedicated performances from Martin Freeman (Bilbo Baggins) and Ian McKellen (Gandalf), the former of whom is an immediately more likeable character than Frodo, probably because he has a wide range of emotion, is genuinely funny, and has a face that doesn't always look like this:

and the latter of whom pretty much had the entire audience applauding every time he appeared on screen. McKellen has tapped into something with Gandalf that I frankly don't understand, nor that probably can be truly understood. The man just commands attention and exudes wisdom, and his grandfatherly demeanor toward Bilbo gives us a genuinely affecting relationship that serves as the emotional core of the film.

We also have a great deal of Dwarves, who are not as fleshed-out as characters, but are always entertaining. One night, the sheltered, introverted Bilbo has his home unexpectedly bombarded by a group of no less than thirteen Dwarves, who proceed to drink all his wine and eat all his pastries and generally make a noisy, filthy mess of things. Unbeknownst to Bilbo, Gandalf (who is always up to something) has recruited Bilbo to accompany these thirteen Dwarves on an adventure to The Lonely Mountain, which used to be the home of the Dwarves, ages ago, before it was overtaken by the fearsome dragon Smaug. There the adventurers will slay the dragon, reclaim the gold he has stolen from the Dwarves of olden times, and make their leader, Thorin, king of the mountain, or something. That the film is called An Unexpected Journey is telling, because it is certainly the journey that is the fun part here, and not the destination.

And what a journey it is. The adventure proper starts off in appropriately ominous fashion, with all the Dwarves gathered around a fire, singing a grim, bellowed hymn about the trials they will soon face; and soon enough, with a stunning synthesis of practical effects, CGI and masterful set design, the fifteen adventurers (thirteen Dwarves plus Bilbo and Gandalf, for those keeping track) encounter a fantastical array of characters, monsters and set-pieces, culminating in one of the more thrilling finales in a blockbuster this year. By the time we reach the Rock Giants of the Misty Mountains and the Battle of Riddles with Gollum (Andy Serkis giving the best performance of his career) we've forgotten all about all those boring parts in between.

Ah, the boring parts. There are a few. The first at is the beginning of the film itself, which features an awkward bit of exposition that I frankly don't think was needed at all. We have one of those sweeping epic historical recaps that The Fellowship of the Ring started with, only this one narrated by Ian Holm, reprising his role as Bilbo. And then, after epic battles are recounted and the history of the Dwarves' plight is recapped, Bilbo ends with “And this, my dear Frodo, is where I come in...”

Except then the film lingers on a five minute scene where Bilbo actually doesn't come into the story at all. Instead of just jumping into the narrative we're forced to watch Iam Holm pretending to write There and Back Again while Elija Wood makes a distracting and unnecessary cameo as Frodo, and we're supposed to be thrilled as the two talk about nothing and generally waste five minutes of movie time before we really get to the story. It's weird.

Now, fortunately, this introduction is short, and then we're off to the races. Unfortunately, the races take a pit stop in Rivendale just as soon as they get interesting, and that bit's not short at all. It's very long, actually, and most of it involves Gandalf sitting at a table talking with characters whose relevance to the film we don't understand about mythology and Tolkieny stuff that most people don't care about. It all comes at the worst possible time; just as the film has settled into a steady, adventurous pace, we arrive at Rivendale and everything comes to a dead halt for what feels like half an hour. Aside from the very beginning and end of it, almost the entire sequence could have been completely cut out, and the film would be better for it.

With these two scenes removed the film would be about half an hour shorter, and that would still leave it as being pretty long. Much has been made about the film's length, and I must admit, despite my aggravations in Rivendale, I didn't particularly notice or mind the length at all. But I'm also a really big fan of The Hobbit. It's a simple truth that not all audiences will be willing to put up with a three hour movie whose action sequences are more comical than suspenseful, but the one I saw it with last night laughed at every joke and seemed generally pretty thrilled by the experience. (of course there was that one guy who wrote it all off as “cartoonish bull****.” Can't win 'em all, I guess).

Perhaps the oddest thing about An Unexpected Journey is that it currently has a 65% on Rotten Tomatoes. It can't say I particularly understand it. It has state-of-the art visuals, compelling performances, stunning cinematography and several of the more compelling scenes in Jackson's entire Tolkien series. It is a long film, to be sure, but not any longer than the other Lord of the Rings films; it is an occasionally digressive film, but not any more than King Kong. The truth is that some people just aren't going to be on board with Jackson's Hobbit trilogy, for the simple fact that it is a trilogy. I don't think it's a stretch to say that we're all a bit sick of trilogies at this point. We're franchised-out. The thought of another trilogy, even one by a considerable, Academy Award winning director, is just a wearisome thought for most.

See, the original Lord of the Rings trilogy came at just the right time: just when Star Wars: The Phantom Menace had come out and disappointed nearly everyone over the age of thirteen, Fellowship came along and captured the adventurous spirit of the original Star Wars in a way that Menace utterly failed. It was the right film at the right time. The Hobbit, unfortunately, is the right film at the wrong time. It is a three-hour, action fantasy epic in a movie-going world filled with three-hour action fantasy epics; it is a new franchise in a world filled with new franchises. In the end, many will be turned off by the very idea of it.

And yet to think like this is to apply cynicism to a completely uncynical movie. Once again Jackson has captured the wide-eyed, optimistic magic of the original Star Wars and applied his own personal stamp to it; in areas where he could have simply rested on the majesty of the set design and costume work and you know, New Zealand, he enhances already beautiful shots by doing something unexpected with the camera; he is able to apply what the original series taught about fight choreography to quieter scenes, resulting in an amazing scene early on where 13 Dwarves are rummaging around Bilbo's house in 13 different rooms, all doing 13 different things at 13 different times, and Jackson captures it in a single shot. Yes, this is an overblown franchise action flick, but that doesn't stop Jackson from trying to make it the best overblown franchise action flick.

So. There are a number of things that might turn you off about An Unexpected Journey, chief among them being the fact that it exists as the first part of a nine hour trilogy. But separated from the Hollywood landscape, separated from the darker tone of the original TLOTR trilogy, and separated from HFR projection (for real: just see it in 24 fps) this is another beautiful film in Jackson's Tolkien cannon, with all the things that made The Lord of the Rings great, and all of the things that made them flawed.