Flicker flames and haunted faces
Shuffling feet find empty spaces
Moving shadows, someone's hurting
Huddle closer, campfire burning.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Help the Aged

So I suppose I should say a little bit about video game addiction. About how vile they are, how they isolate kids from their loved ones and cocoon them in a phantasma of sound and flashing lights? Or I should take arms with my brethren and fight against this unjust crusade, smug in the knowledge that games can’t possible be addictive - you know, even though we all frequently describe this or that game using exactly that word.

Are video games addictive? Well, no - not if you take ‘addictive’ as a word for actual physical dependency. Nobody gets cold sweats after having their DS taken away. Sure, they might get a little twitchy if they can’t play games, but that’s only to be expected, right?

Actually that’s not true at all. They’ll want to play games the same way a reader deprived of his or her book collection might pine for a novel or two to tide them over, or a gardener in a big city might turn to a window box or houseplant in order to get his or her fix. Does this make them addicts? Or does it simply mean their current circumstances make them miss taking part in a hobby they enjoy?

Nobody ever complains that books are addictive, much less decries them as ‘evil’ in the same way video games are often vilified - and how many times have you heard the same TV show hosts that claim to hate games describe a summer read as ‘unputdownable’? Are you saying you actually couldn’t put down the book? You had to keep reading it or what, you’d shiver, suffer convulsions, go cold turkey and suffer the associated withdrawal symptoms? No? So why do you think going without video games would have the same effect?

Of course you wouldn’t. You’re just repeating this mantra to get your OAP audiences all riled up in indignation, the kind of indignation that keeps them watching your show. You’re saying what they want to hear and rewarding their viewing with a deep-down sense of self-righteousness and Alan fucking Titchmarsh’s moronic seal of approval. Stay tuned, because coming up we have Julie Peasgood talking shit about something she knows nothing about. Yeah, applaud that, studio audience. If your wrinkled, nicotine-stained, arthritis-twisted claws can still applaud anything then clap, you senile grandmotherfuckers.

Which is pretty much the same thing that makes video games so addictive - or compelling, to put it more appropriately.

While gamers mightn’t be dazzled by an impromptu live performance from special guest Daniel O’Donnell, we’re uniformly impressed with strobing lights and graphical fireworks. Our satisfaction comes from completing this level, overcoming that obstacle and gaining a high score. We’re rewarded with achievements, points, new areas and new levels, new challenges to face - and what about all those graphical flourishes and carefully engineered sound effects? The tinkling sound of Sonic collecting rings, or his invincibility theme when he collects a certain power up, or how a little fluffy animal scampers out when we release it from robotic captivity. All of which were designed to compel us to keep playing, of course. All of which help to addict us, if that’s how you wish to see it.

And when we complete a game, oh man! We sit back and smile at a job well done. We watch the end credits roll and think about the game. If it’s a particularly intelligent game - a Longest Journey perhaps, or a Planescape: Torment - we might think about the plot, the themes and characters. Maybe we think about all the cool shit we’ve done, or all the places we’ve been. Or maybe, just maybe we think “That was amazing. I want to do it all over again” and we hit start to do so.

Which is something that nobody’s ever going to do once they’ve seen a daytime television tirade on video game nasties. So I guess in that sense they are more compelling than your average TV show.

Not that TV shows don’t do their best to hook viewers with the promise of guests and features still to come, because they do, although when they come along it’s very rare they offer the same satisfaction as, say, filling an experience meter in your favourite RPG.

But then that’s the big difference between the function of video games and the function of daytime television. Video games have to entertain the player, otherwise they’re going to get up and do something else. Daytime TV watchers, well, sad as it is, they’re much more likely to sit and watch whatever shit’s on TV because most of them are old, most of them are lonely, and most of them really don’t have anything better to do. Daytime television doesn’t have to entertain. Daytime television’s there to pass time until the viewer dies.

Here’s the thing. My grandmother is old. She’s in her eighties, and she recently suffered from a series of stumbling falls. Over the past few years she’s become increasingly confused by the world around her; something inside her head was slowly wearing down, and after her recent illness it had worn through completely and dropped her into a world of frightened disorientation. A couple weeks ago her next-door neighbour telephoned me to say he’d found her clinging to a counter top in her kitchen, standing and shaking, not really sure of where she was or what was going on. He’d called for an ambulance and a paramedic was at her house to examine her and make sure she was okay.

Which she wasn’t.

I travelled there by taxi and spent the day with her, although she didn’t seem particularly aware of my presence. I made her a cup of tea and tried talking to her - there wasn’t really anything I could do but wait for another doctor to arrive and another series of tests to be run, but I had to do something. That night she fell again, just as the doctor was about to leave. He said she should go to hospital, and despite her stubbornly wanting to stay at home, eventually she did.

There’s more story there, more to be said about how long it took for the ambulance to arrive and what the hospital did and didn’t do, but at the time that was still ahead of my family, and still ahead of me. At the time I just sat and watched her watching daytime dross on TV, watched her searching for the TV Choice magazine she referred to in time-honoured tradition as the TV Times, watched her wrinkle her nose in distaste as she mistook an advert for A Bug’s Life on Channel 5 for the actual film, and watched her settle down in her lost and lonely world with the only upper she had in her life, the only fix available to people like her: Her television.

The television feeds her poison. It tells her the world outside is a terrible place filled with violence and anger. It takes cuddly public figures and turns them into deceitful cobras spitting nonsense, fear and propaganda. Buy this book. Buy this record. And for God’s sake, think of the children whose minds are rotting from too much Space Invaders, whose minds are rotting as surely as yours is right now as you get your daily dose of daytime drugs.

I wish my grandmother liked video games. I wish she wasn’t so scared of modern technology, so she could play them and discover that even though she can’t leave her house there are entire worlds out there she can explore, puzzles and activities that can help keep her mind active and alert, and people - so many people! - the world over she can play with, and talk with, and befriend. Those social clubs for the elderly just aren’t good enough. They’re chicken farms we throw our pensioners into so we can pretend they’re still having fun while their minds are dying, where bitterness and resentfulness and isolationism form and harden, and God, no wonder we think these old people are set in their ways if this is all you’re going to offer them, you television execs, you poison peddling scum. How about not cutting old folk off from the world in this, a glorious age of global communication? How about having your shows teach them that technology isn’t something to be scared of but something to be embraced, and something that could enhance their lives? Or is there a reason why you’d prefer to have your presenters reminiscing about the good old days, talking about what’s wrong with the world today, talking gardening tips and giving middle-aged mothers makeovers, and here’s some fucking Donnie Osmond to get your juices going if they haven’t already dried up. Do you give them all that terrible fucking shit because that’s what old people want? Or do they just want it because that’s all you ever give them?

I wish it wasn’t like that. I wish instead of my gran burrowing into her armchair to watch an afternoon of antiques auctions, home makeovers and Doctors; instead of struggling to her club to find out who’s in hospital or who’s in a home or who’s dropped down dead she was in a World of Warcraft guild with other people her age from half-way across the globe, where they could share their lives and cultures and get the same kind of fun from video games as gamers do. and maybe that’s not ideal - maybe that’s just replacing one addiction with another - but wouldn’t it be better? Something to actually and actively enjoy; something to be interact with and be passionate about, rather than some slowly seeping off-beige poison cloud to marinate her bones in, to keep her settled and silent and barely aware of anything except Ainsley Harriot and David Dickenson. At the very least she wouldn’t be so damned scared.

It’s not going to happen. She is too scared and too stubborn, and daytime television programming has made her like that with shows not fit to mention video games, let alone hold laughable discussions on their nature.

But you, reader. Let me talk to you, now. Because fifty years from now we’ll be gaming, you and I. I can’t say we won’t become set in our ways, and I can’t promise we won’t sometimes reminisce about what we - falsely - consider to be the good old days. Hell, I full expect us to be terrified of modern technology. Imagine our cyberpunk future. Age reversal! Cranial implants! Nano-woven skin fashions!

But whatever happens, as scared and as senile as we might become, we’ll be gaming. We’ll still be commanding armies and conquering worlds; we’ll still be fighting bosses and jumping on toadstools; we’ll still be playing, we’ll be playing together, we’ll be active for God’s sake, and we’ll be having fun.

When Alan Titchmarsh and all those like him are dead and buried; when they’re dead and their smug, poisonous hate-mongering is dead alongside them, gaming will still be alive. And if that means so-called video game addiction will still be alive then I’ll proud to be an addict. The alternative is so much worse.

Monday, 6 December 2010

100 Minutes With . . . Darksiders

Darksiders is the kind of game that gives games a bad name. It’s infantile and crass, and appeals to the part of a gamer’s mind that’s stuck in adolescence - in heavy metal fantasies, cartoons and comic books. It’s not the kind of game you could present to Roger Ebert as evidence that yes, games are art. It’s not the kind of game you could show your mother, or your non-gaming better half. It’s the kind of game you sit with in a darkened room, and feel slightly guilty about booting up when there are worthier, more intelligent titles lining your shelves.

It’s the kind of game that, after five minutes of play, makes you forget everything I’ve just said because you’re having so much damned fun with it.

Yeah, you know the kind of game it is. It’s God of War, it’s Dead Space. It’s part of a new generation of games that takes an old genre - the Zelda-styled action adventure in this case - and reinvents it by slinging bucket loads of blood and angst and over-the-top violence in your face so you’re spitting it out, letting it dribble down your chin, and having the time of your life. It should be laughable but every so often it tips you a wink to let you know it’s in on the joke, too. It’s Commando. It’s Deep Blue Sea. It’s ridiculous.

The game starts with the end of the world. Crowds gather in the centre of Metropolitan City USA to watch news broadcasts of meteors falling to Earth, smashing the continents, killing thousands - then one of them strikes the massive LCD billboard everyone’s watching and all Hell breaks loose.

I’m hooked before the opening cinematic ends. There’s something primal about storytelling that presents you with a load of arcane back story about gods and demons and then jettisons you into modern day society. The word ‘epic’ gets bandied about a lot these days, but this is a great way of setting up an epic story. It’s the same thing James Cameron did with The Terminator - we get the back story, we see the future war, and then we’re in familiarly modern surroundings and it’s here the shit’s going down, it’s this moment that’s pivotal.

With Darksiders you’re not given much opportunity to make sense of what’s going on. You are War, one of the four horseman of the apocalypse, called upon to fight in the climactic battle between, well, everyone. So you tiptoe through a city that’s disintegrating by the second. Windowpanes shatter, buildings topple, the sky falls and you beat up angels and demons alike, using cars as clubs, turning into some shadowy smoke monster, smacking puny humans around as collateral damage. The occasional cut scene or scripted moment shows the war raging all around you - you see a winged monstrosity snatching a helicopter out of the air and flinging it to the street below, and you see this through a hole torn through the upper floor of a tall building. As far as the apocalypse goes, it’s crazy apocalyptic. And somewhere along the line - shortly before your first boss tears the damned road up from beneath your feet - you realise that something’s not quite right here.

Then you get squished between the boss creature’s monolithic fingers and wake up in Hell.

Darksiders wears its influences on its sleeve. There’s a pervading air of familiarity about it - it doesn’t quite feel like a rip off, but there’s just enough deja-vu for it to feel comfortable yet disquieting at the same time. The action mechanics fall somewhere between God of War’s manic elastic band chain-swinging and Devil May Cry’s dashing about. I’m no connoisseur of these kinds of action mechanics but it all feels solid enough, with mid-air dashes and reflexive counters, and with a few carefully-timed button presses even I felt like an unstoppable killing machine. Enemies can be pummelled for a set number of hits before a finishing move is made available to you, and as you’d expect from such a game these moves are kind of things that make you want to yell “Did you SEE that?” A particular favourite was one where you pin a villain to the floor by driving your sword through his hand, and then you punch him about a bit while he struggles to get free - although I must admit even that pales in comparison to the move where you slice a monster’s arm off and use it to beat him into submission, all the while yelling “Stop hitting yourself!” at the flickering screen. If that doesn’t say ‘God of War’ to you, nothing will.

There are plenty of other familiar elements scattered throughout the first one hundred minutes. At times the game feels very similar to the Legacy of Kain, with its pompous post-apocalyptic setting, but there’s just as much of its era-mates Shadow Man and Spawn at play. Your sidekick - a shadowy being who lives inside your gauntlet - quips on your events and surroundings, and frequently goads you about your circumstances. At one point you’re whisked away to a shadow dimension in which you partake in a number of challenges - kill 50 monsters within the time limit, defeat 30 monsters only using mid-air combos, which recalls the arena challenges from the Ratchet & Clank games. . Even the Council - a trio of immense talking, blazing stone skulls - bring the Quintessons from Transformers: The Movie to mind. It’s all maddeningly familiar.

And it’s all ludicrously over the top. Characters speak in portentous riddles, the actors wringing every last drop of drama from their voices, reading from a script that’s a hodgepodge of names and clich├ęs drawn from the book of Revelation. Hell, even the locks gout blood when you stick keys in them.

But Darksiders’ main influence isn’t one you’ll necessarily feel for much of the game’s opening. For all its God of War moodiness Darksiders is a Zelda clone, and it’s not until you reach the first dungeon 90 minutes into the game that you’ll realise this. The gore-splattered action is tempered by puzzle solving straight from Ocarina of Time, with bomb-chu and boomerang analogues, block-pushing, treasure chests and hidden exits. Zelda-clones are such rare beasts that it’s something of a surprise when you realise that all the gore is disguising a more-than-competent take on this beloved, underrepresented genre. It’s even more of a surprise when this Zelda dungeon comes after an elongated tribute to Sega’s Panzer Dragoon series. Somewhere in the middle of that level, riding my demonic steed through waves of angels, blasting them all with my mouth lasers I realised that this was the kind of game I’d have made as a teenager - and I don’t in any way mean that as a slur. The developers have taken all the things that would have thrilled me and my mates as teens and whirled them into a title that’s more than the sum of its parts. It would have been all too easy to lean heavily on the more parodic aspects, or to abandon the levity altogether, or to make the minigames ragged and unsatisfactory.

It’s easy to judge Darksiders based on its ludicrous finishing moves and preponderance for gore, but it’s the love that’s gone into this thing that makes it shine. You get a real sense that the people who made it are people like you and I - people who love video games and pop culture, and wanted to mash them together in a whole that makes you smile instead of wince. Maybe Darksiders is the kind of game that gives the hobby a bad name, but it’s also the kind of game that spawns a loyal following who’ll shake their heads and tell you you just don’t get it. If you don’t get it it, it’s an adolescent mess. But if you’re one of those guys who can browse through Games Workshop catalogues and Iron Maiden album covers, or who still laughs when the bad guy in a zombie movie gets his entrails torn out then trust me, man-child, this game was made for you.