Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Resident Evil 5

Oh Resident Evil 5, why you gotta make me hit you? I understand that in Japan, there just isn't the sort of racial sensitivity common in the US (at least, not regarding people of African descent---I don't know how they deal with their legacy of brutality to Chinese and Koreans). But some of the recent leaks from Resident Evil 5 confirm that the game is, if not the interactive Birth of a Nation some feared, at least a bath in some ugly stereotypical oogedy-boogedy.

And that makes me sad. Not just because, like, racism is bad, but because I had really hoped for RE5 to be good.

Africa is a great setting for a Resident Evil game, or any kind of zombie story. Areas like the Congo have been torn apart for a decade by armed groups that operate somewhere between an army, a cult, and a Buffy-style gang-on-PCP---much of the climate of almost incomprehensible atrocity in Africa's civil wars is due to the heavy use of drugs to get its militias revved-up, not to mention extensive recruitment of children (child-level reasoning skills + heavy drugs + social pressure = bayonet rape as lifestyle). It's a level of brutality and hive-mind evil that's hard to wrap one's head around, and that's exactly where literature of the fantastic can step in and make us capable of at least looking it in the face. Using zombies as the stand-in for the large-scale Manson families ripping across the continent is a terrific metaphor, especially when you have the series' Umbrella Corporation acting as a stand-in for the colonialist history that got Africa into this mess in the first place. Done right, this could have been the most cogent use of horror as parable since Dawn of the Dead, or at least Ginger Snaps.

Which is why its so disappointing that the design team seems content with King Kong style bushwa. This is a touchy subject, and in order to get it right, you have to go in armed with perceptiveness and original thinking, exactly the things that prejudice and stereotyping make impossible. When you start throwing around images of natives in grass skirts, I start thinking you're not engaging with contemporary Africa at all, just throwing around a images from Tintin comics, and the story's whole reason for existing crumbles right quick.

But even if RE5 does turn out to be just as bad as we all feared, I hope someone takes up the challenge again. American sensitivity towards racial stereotypes is really not a bad thing much of the time; we're a country that's trying to overcome some ugly habits, and a certain amount of awkward self-monitoring seems a small price to pay for that. But video games, like animation, are a medium that thrives on caricature. And the (entirely valid) sensitivity towards caricatures of people of color often results in simple locking-out of black, Latino, or Asian characters in games, as designers think "What with the stylized art direction we're using, do these African-American characters end up looking too much like R. Crumb characters? Ahhh fuck it, just make 'em white guys---then no one will complain."

So far, interestingly, the only games that seem to be really taking the problem head-on are games adapted from other licenses, like Afro Samurai, the Def Jam games, and Fifty Cent: Blood on the Sand, which are the gaming equivalent of blaxploitation flicks---unapologetically lowbrow, but at least offering some kind of representation. Gaming's still a long way from sensitive representation of anybody, much less historically underrepresented groups, so I think gaming's Citizen Kane will have to happen long before its She's Gotta Have It.


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Friday, March 13, 2009

Splinter Cell: Double Agent

Well that was *terrible*!

When the fourth game in a previously solid series goes so terribly awry, it's tempting to imagine all kinds of scenarios that might explain what the hell happened---Ham-handed corporate interference? Breakdown in production process? Designer going through a nasty, highly distracting divorce?

Sure, this is the first Splinter Cell game for the 360, and there's bound to be some production tangles created by the hardware transition. But the problems here aren't technological at all---they're strictly design problems. And it's hard to understand how the company that got the previous Splinter Cell game so right could get this one so wrong.

I only got through three levels before turning the game off. But in all of them, the level design was disastrously bad, every time. The basic problem is that every step of the way, it was almost impossible to determine what your goal is. And for a stealth game, which is fundamentally a puzzle game wrapped up in a realistic skin, that's a fatal blow. The basic dynamic of a good stealth game is: Step 1: Survey situation; determine goal and obstacle. Step 2: Come up with a clever way to get to goal. But if you can't figure out where the goal is, as I couldn't over and over, you're left to wander around aimlessly, shooting guards and looking for buttons, and then you're just playing a slow-paced Unreal Tournament mod.

What makes it really sad for me is that I've really loved previous games in the Splinter Cell series. The highlighyt has always been the genuinely physical interaction with the controller, in which you have to push the sticks v-e-r-r-r-r-y gently---long before the Wii, this was a great way of analogizing avatar action through player action, as your digital delicacy translated to the character's delicate movment. Combined with the series' excellent visual design and strong, albeit Clancily Red-baiting storytelling, the series provided some of the most immersive playtime I had with my Xbox.

But this time around, everything's a muddle. The controls are still fine---screwing those up would take an act of deliberate sabatoge. But the art design is way too enthusiastic about throwing more objects on screen, with no consideration for whether those objects make clear what you should be doing, further compounding the problem of level layouts that make it impossible to get into the groove of gameplay because you're constantly wondering what the hell the designers want you to do here, instead of focusing on the mission.

And most surprisingly for a Tom Clancey series game, the storytelling is a disaster. I mean, I know that Clancey doesn't really oversee the writing process in any substantive way, but previous games have had solid pulpy plotting. And the basic idea of Double Agent---Sam Fischer, traumatized by the accidental death of his daughter, goes undercover to infiltrate a militia group---is a perfectly fine adventure story. But Double Agent gets its storytelling autistically wrong every step of the way. The cutscenes highlight irrelevant details, but skim over important facts; information is parceled out in all the wrong ways, with important things skimmed over or dropped in the middle of scenes focused elsewhere; there's completely arbitrary shifting between cutscene and in-game storytelling; and even the basic rules of the universe, like who's got the walkie-talkie, never get settled. It's as though someone wrote a decent video game story, then applied William Burroughs' cut-up technique to it---it's hard to imagine that anyone who's ever described anything to anyone could get the basics of narrative so consistently wrong.

And actually, I sort of doubt they did. The sheer every-step incompetence of DA suggests a game that was subject to some kind of crazy rushed revision process, with things being shoehorned into the story and the design at many last minutes. I can't even blame the design team exactly, when it's clear from the game that something went profoundly wrong in the production process. That doesn't mean it's worth playing, of course---oh christ no!---but I just can't hate 'em.