My coffee warned me about this blog.

First, we know by now I like literary mashups.  I also like Bret Easton Ellis.  I therefore direct your attention here.

Read it?  Good, good.  Now, switching tracks, play the music below while you read the rest of this post.

Let’s talk about Deadly Premonition.  It’s old news, yeah, but I’m always behind on games anyway.  This saves me the trouble of recapping a lot of stuff about it, since it’s been covered extensively elsewhere.  Basically what you need to know is that this game looks horrible, sounds horrible, and plays horribly.

It’s also probably the best game that will come out this year.  It’s my pick for GOTY, anyway.

Now of course there’s a lot of people going on about just HOW DAMN TERRIBLE this game is (I’m looking at you, Giant Bomb) and it’s pretty cool currently to play this game and be entirely ironic about it.  Hipster gaming, if you will.  And I’ll admit, when I bought the game I expected to be counted in this camp — the camp camp, if you will, the so-bad-it’s-good camp.  And I will also admit that this approach got me through the first hour or two of the game, with its clunky controls and awkward animation and basically excruciating gameplay.

Except at some point, some mysterious juncture, the game stopped being so-bad-it’s-good and became actually good.  I want to say that it’s due to the quality of the writing — which is odd, since the writing is usually pretty bizarre and awkward and the dialogue needs trimming.  But the characters are so vivid and, if you play long enough to get oriented, the storyline becomes unbelievably compelling.  The ridiculous elements of the game (the fact that the main character is talking constantly to an imaginary friend no one else can see, demonic dogs drop out of the sky at midnight, etc) together achieve some sort of weird gestalt where your disbelief is suspended almost indefinitely.  When the narrative actually picks up and that for all its peculiarities the game is internally logically consistent to a remarkable degree, you know you have something special on your hands.

It’s a mystery.  This is notable, because it’s hard to write good mysteries, and a lot of games that try to be mysteries (most things that try to be mysteries, even) tend to fall back on last-second details that basically tell you everything you need to know to solve a case.  DP is a good mystery; not only is it a good mystery, however, but it also gives you everything you need to solve it almost from the beginning.

And it’s not only a mystery, but a mystery populated with oddball yet recognizably human characters.  There’s a frustrated young aesthete stuck running a small-town diner, an old woman named Sigourney who is deathly afraid that the casserole dish she carries at all times will get cold, and a doctor named “Usha” who is obsessed with chess.  There’s no gruff space marine or evil dictator here; all of the stock-elements of modern gaming are pretty much completely absent.  One might think that the quirkiness of the characters might ring hollow, like Suda51’s takes often do, but it doesn’t.

You see, Deadly Premonition is probably the most sincere game to come out in a long, long time.  Irony is the completely wrong stance to take with it.  There’s more heart and feeling and humanity in this thing than the entirety of Gears of War 1 and 2; it is an example of what games can and should be, something not at all reproducible in another medium, and contains the sort of wild, nonsensical creativity that characterized games of another generation.  A plumber travels through giant green pipes to a subterranean kingdom of mushrooms and fights turtles to save a princess from a particularly nasty, fire-breathing turtle; an FBI agent with an imaginary friend travels to rural Washington to solve a murder case, but takes time out of his busy schedule to fish farm utensils out of a lake, predict the future with his coffee, check the Weather Channel 50 times a day, have tea with a crazy gas mask-wearing old man in a wheelchair and his manservant who speaks only in rhyme, peep through townspeople’s windows while they sleep, and discuss the Tremors movie franchise with the player/his imaginary friend.  And that’s only a fraction of the stuff that can happen.

Is the game fun to play?  Most of the time, no.  Does it look like ass?  Most of the time, yes.  But somehow it is more engrossing and compelling than any game I’ve played since Portal.  As gaming becomes more profitable and more homogeneous, more cinematic and more predictable, more focused on multiplayer capability and achievments than on storytelling, we need games like Deadly Premonition to remind us what we can do with the form.  It may not be the best it could, but it’s certainly better than nothing.  Hopefully its legacy is a rich one.

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So, right, it’s been a while.  Since I last blogged I’ve done a number of things, such as finish up that research project I’ve been blathering about, babysit 75 teenagers while also helping a dozen or so of them learn philosophy and write papers, and I turned 22.  Hooray!  I suppose much of that could be used as fodder for any number of blog entries, but no, I am going to do something else because I am tired.  You see, also since I last blogged, I played two videogames.  I am going to talk about videogames, okay.

The two games I played happened to be sequels.  They were Bioshock 2 and Mass Effect 2, and it should be noted that I loved the first installments in both of these franchises.  Currently, of course, there are a lot of people complaining about whether or not games are art or can they be or BLOO BLAH BLOO BLOO.  It’s beside the point.  Question: Can games be art?  Answer: Yes, I don’t see why not.  Second question: Are they art right now?  Second answer: No, ever so slightly, no.

I bring this up only because neither of the games I mentioned are art, but one of the predecessors — the original Bioshock — got so damn close to it that I was practically salivating.  Other people have outlined it better, but essentially Bioshock is a tightly woven comic book-philosophy story about what happens when Ayn Rand is a dude who actually has money and gets things done.  That’s standard videogame fare, but in its execution (and I abstain here from spoilers) Bioshock functions as an astounding deconstruction of its genre, the FPS, and of gaming pretty much as whole.  Then, after this marvelous apotheosis, it stumbles around for two more hours, negating everything it’s achieved, and then putters away into whatever ending you’ve earned.

This sometimes obscures exactly how smart Bioshock actually is on the level of the plot, however — it’s basically a Greek tragedy, but with an underwater city and crazy-ass X-men powers.  The weird thing is that, as a tragedy, you (which is to say, you the player) are not the main character.  You’re peripheral.  The tragic protagonist is someone else entirely, and once he’s off the stage, the game pretty much falls apart.  Imagine a production of Oedipus Rex where Oeddie blinds himself and then spends two more acts trying to run Thebes like nothing’s happened.

This is why Bioshock failed.  This is also why Bioshock 2 fails.  Which is not to say it is a bad game, because it isn’t really.  It’s just that the first game set such a lofty goal that, even though it failed to achieve it, there’s a lot for a follow-up to address; the difference is essentially that while the first game did indeed fail, it failed greatly.  The second game just flounders.

I am not against the concept of sequels per se; even Oedipus Rex has Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone, to stick to our models.  So by all rights, Bioshock 2 should be the Colonus — except it isn’t.  It’s hardly about the tragic ant/protagonist from Bioshock — hell, it’s not even about the actual literal no-kidding antagonist from Bioshock.  For a sequel, there’s actually very little in terms of overlap — you don’t revisit any old locations and you only meet one old character, who promptly disappears into a dangling plot thread, never to be heard from again.  The game’s mechanics are in place and certain currents in the story make me think that the new writers were at least a bit aware of what went on in the first game — specifically the themes of family, since almost all tragedies are about family — but in the end it just doesn’t work.

It’s like going to your old hometown, say, fifteen years after you moved away, and you meet a high school pal at the grocery store.  Only you don’t recognize him, he recognizes you, and he comes up to you and says “Hey buddy how ya doin’ how’s it been” and you’re all like “What, wait, excuse me, who are you” and he tells you and you’re all like “Oh” but when looking at this guy (maybe he’s gotten bald or skinny or fat or prominent scars or hell maybe he’s now a she) there’s some sort of cognitive dissonance at work, and no matter how much he insists he cannot bring you to believe that he is in any way related to the person you once knew.

Mass Effect 2 is a sequel to Mass Effect.  Duh.  Neither game is art or came close, but the first one remains one of my favorite gaming experiences (even in spite of its ham-handed exposition) due to the sheer wonder its fictional world inspired in me.  The second game is about as good, and overall a worthy successor.  Why does it succeed as a sequel?  Well, there are a handful of obvious reasons.  The first ME was intended to have sequels — two, in fact — to finish the plot arc, even though the first stands reasonably well on its own.  Bioshock, by contrast, is spectacularly self-contained and never really ‘needed’ a follow-up.  ME2 also allows you to keep certain things from the first game: your player character, for starters, and a handful of environments.

The end product is much more successful as a sequel than Bioshock 2.  Sure, it’s not art, it’s silly stupid pulpy sci-fi, but it’s fun and the story is solid without reaching for the stars.  It is entertainment; it is what videogames are currently best suited to do.  Does that mean we should make all games silly, pulpy fun?  Well, no, we should try for art sometimes, at least.  It’s what makes the first Bioshock so important, and in the future we’ll learn from the ways it and games like it stumble.