Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The Elusive Art Of Video Game Engagement

I recently, with some trepidation, bought a Nintendo GameCube - "trepidation" because I squarely belong to that tribe of males that can get completely addicted to a game once it's loaded. I don't want to think too much about the money I pissed away in quarters when I was a university student, because it would certainly amount to a lamentable sum. I eventually learned to moderate, but then the PC game came into its own with "Wolfenstein" and I had to learn the lesson anew.

I'm happy to report that the GameCube does not yet pose such a threat to my time and energy. I don't play it when the girls (including my wife) are awake, and I'm quickly discovering that gaming institutions haven't much progressed beyond the rudimentary games we saw in the early 90s. The sole improvement seems to lie in the graphics department, and I'm starting to consider just what an imaginative deficit that amounts to.

I recently rented one of the newer Star Wars games. It offers a well-executed flight simulation, and some nifty tableaus, but after that - nothing. The overall look is cold and uninviting, even with all the detail. It seems to me the weakness of a game like that is it's graphic comparison: it wants to look real, but its precision of detail only serves to highlight the disparities. For an interactive medium, the final effect is surprisingly "cool", in the McLuhan sense of the word.

In contrast to that is the only game (thus far) to truly engage me: The Simpsons Hit & Run. The engineers have rendered the Simpsons and their hometown of Springfield in an impressive 3D format that attempts not to look "realistic" but "whoa - kewl!". Everything has the smooth edges of a Pixar film, but the artists cleverly include all manner of satirical touches to "rough" it up. Homer's nuclear powerplant, for instance, is a labyrinth of glowing radioactive breaches, which gradually mutate into comically absurd luxuriousness as the player gets closer to the plant's owner, Mr. Burns. Playing Hit & Run makes me wonder why anyone bothers with the "Super-Sleaze Me" Grand Theft Auto games: you run over just as many pedestrians (which usually prompts Lisa to groan, "Great: more liberal guilt!"), but the final effect is the guiltless laugh of parodic self-recognition.

The graphics are part of the magic that makes Hit & Run work, and I like the direction the artists took. I'm currently playing XIII, a first-person shooter based on a comic book, with darklined graphics to match. I've grown somewhat blase toward shooters, but again, the graphics give this one a more compelling feel than some of the "realistic" entries available. I'm told Viewtiful Joe is absolutely spectacular and utterly irresistible - and its platform is two-dimensional. I do believe when my wife takes her next business trip, I'll be giving Viewtiful Joe a try.


Tom said...

I played a demo of XIII on the PC more than a year ago, and absolutely loved the look and feel of the game. Multiplayer was tough to get into because of server latency, which made the game sluggish and jerky. Does David Duchovny do the voice for the main character?

Also, updated my blog!

Whisky Prajer said...

Duchovny is the primary character. I'm wondering if Martin Landau doesn't have a role as well.

Tom said...

You were close... it's Adam West, TV's Batman!