Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Playing Zelda (In No Particular Order): Twilight Princess

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 unexpectedly controversial Twilight Princess.

Twilight Princess is either the worst Zelda game or the best Zelda game, depending on who you ask and on what day of the week. Even more than the formula-bending Majora’s Mask and the cel-shaded Wind Waker, Twilight Princess has become the most polarizing entry in Gaming’s Greatest Series. Which is a pretty strange thing, when you think about it, because Twilight Princess was supposed to be the Zelda game for everyone.

It had a similar visual style to The Greatest Game of All, Ocarina of Time. Pre-release hype began gathering that it was dark! and Link was an adult! which is really cool! and the game was so dark! and adult! that it was going to earn a T rating! Enough with all those danged kiddie Zelda games with their cartoon graphics and big-headed children as protagonists! Twilight Princess was going to be the biggest! and the best! and most epic! See? It even says so right on the back of the box! During previews, sentences like “If Wii Sports is for the non-gamers, Twilight Princess is for the hardcore!” were thrown around. IGN’s review was littered with drool-o-riffic statements like “Ocarina, your time is up!” and “this new method of [motion] control obliterates the former one and there is no going back!” and “the greatest Zelda game ever created and one of the best launch titles in the history of launch titles!” The game won approximately a billion Game of the Year awards (this was back when people didn’t arbitrarily hate Nintendo for “abandoning them” with their “casual games”) and was declared by a more than a few gaming outlets to be The Best Game Ever.

So…what happened?

Well, Twilight Princess is the first game I ever remember getting backlash. Now, Pre-release Backlash had always been around—the internet practically exploded with Nerd Rage when Wind Waker‘s cel-shaded graphical style was first revealed. But then people actually played it, and realized it was one of the greatest games ever. Twilight Princess, though, received a whole other type of backlash that wasn’t common at the time: It received a mountain of hype, won countless awards, was loved by players everywhere, and then suddenly critics and gamers alike went: “Hang on! Never mind. This game is actually a pile of garbage. Forget all that ‘best game ever’ stuff.”

So…what happened?

Read the whole thing over at Zelda Universe, and join in the surprisingly reasonable discussion!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Infinite Struggle

Bioshock Infinite is an astonishing work of imagination and storytelling until it decides to be a shooter instead. The introduction of the world of Columbia is one of the most stunning sections of gaming in recent memory. The haunting walk through spiraling stairs. An unexpected launch. A city in the sky. A baptism. The constantly surprising presence of two of my now-favorite characters in gaming: Rosalind and Robert Lutece. For the first hour of the game I was stunned at its beauty, its meticulous architecture and ability to so immediately create a compelling, dense fictional world filled with history and secrets. And then the game handed me a gun.

Michael Abbott over at Brainy Gamer recently wrote: “Bioshock Infinite is a shooter with a problem, but the problem isn't the shooting. The problem is that [it] has nothing to say about the shooting” and I don't disagree with him. After the game introduces its violent side (in an actually-rather-stunning scene featuring a mock slave auction) we are still graced with moments of brilliant art direction, memorable performances and intriguing storytelling, but we must look at these things quickly—we're only ever five minutes away from another violent set-piece. But my main issue with the game differs from Mr. Abbott's. Shooting is par for the course in a game about violent revolution, if not exactly original. Thematically, at least, it makes sense. What doesn't make sense is the game's use of “vigors”. And vigors have nothing to do with anything at all.

What are these things, anyway? About an hour into the game (depending on how much you linger—I'm the lingering sort) you come across a kiosk at a festival where a woman is selling a potion. A “vigor,” she calls it. You drink it and immediately get the ability to possess machines into being your ally. You use this new power to force a robot to grant you entrance into a locked gate.

Now think about that for a second. It is an incredible fact. You, Booker DeWitt, an old-fashioned, grizzled war vet, drink some random potion at a random festival that some random woman is just giving away for free, and you get the ability to control machines with your mind. The game looks at this and says: Eh. Not long after that you drink a similar potion—vigor, sorry—that allows you to shoot fire from your hands. Eh. Not long after that, you get a vigor that grants the ability to summon a murder of crows with your mind or something to peck your enemies to death. Eh.
This would be fine if the Eh were the point, but it isn't. The game isn't trying to create a world where everyone has access to crazy, mind-altering potions. Because apparently, everyone does not. Most people don't seem to be aware that these Vigors even exist. This creates a disconnect that threatens to distract from the whole danged experience. You have these abilities, and the enemies have these abilities, and that's it. But, why? How? These potions that grant people the ability to essentially perform witchcraft are just lying around like dirty laundry. Heck, I got my first one for free.

Why didn't everyone take a free sample of the Posession Vigor and trick that robot into opening the gate?

What's stopping one of the black slaves from picking up that Murder of Crows Vigor off the ground where I found it and starting a bloody revolution to free the slaves?

Why do we need these things? 

How are they making the game better?

The answer: because vigors are cool, bro. They're totally awesome. The ability to rip your enemies to shreds with crows is effin' beast. Brooooooooooooooooooooooooo.

The game is at a crossroads. It wants to be an intelligent piece of sci-fi that features commentary on the political and social issues of today. It wants to create a compelling fictional universe filled with dense mythology. It wants to tackle issues of gender and race. But it also wants to make money. Ain't no one selling games about the Tea Party and slavery without some good old fashioned blood and guts. Here's a game about slavery and feminism where you play as a boring white guy who shoots fire out of his hands.