Friday, August 29, 2008

Number 4: Bioshock - "Welcome to Rapture" (2k Games, 2007)

The number 4 spot on my list belongs to the opening of last year's critically acclaimed Bioshock. The game takes place in the city of Rapture, an art deco underwater city built as an objectivist utopia by a megalomaniac of a man named Andrew Ryan (a sort of play-on-words/anagram for Ayn Rand). You play as a man simply named 'Jack', who is the sole survivor of a plane crash in the 1940's mid-Atlantic ocean.

Bioshock is a fascinating game because the game tasks you with hunting down and killing 'Big Daddies' - giant 'men' (we never get to glimpse who or what is inside) encased in oversized old-fashioned diving suits. You need to get rid of these Big Daddies because they protect the Little Sisters, small girls who walk around and harvest a material named 'Adam' from the dead bodies strewn around Rapture. You see, upon Jack's arrival you learn that something has gone horrible amiss in Rapture, leaving most of its citizens dead or so drugged-up that they've become ravenous killers. What you learn is that in this "anything goes" objectivist society, a new sort of drug/genetic modification was developed, called 'Plasmids', which gave its users phenomenal powers over the elements, allowing for such things as shooting electricity from one's hands, or the ability to turn water into ice. But something went wrong. It's a bit of a conceit, but is well implemented in the story. Plus it allows for some great old-fashioned advertising, like the old cigarette commercials from the '50's that look so silly and antiquated nowadays.

When you finally get to one of these Little Sisters you are presented with a choice, you can either choose to 'harvest' them, taking all the Adam they've accumulated but killing the Little Sister in the process, or you can choose to save them, removing the leech thing from their backs and returning them to normal, but sacrificing the precious Adam in the process. The first time you are confronted with this option it can be almost terrifying as you see a little girl looking at you in fear with the two options laid out in front of you. It seems that most people are unable to kill the little sister the first time, opting to save her instead.

The game also has one of the greatest twists in modern gaming, and in perhaps all of gaming. I don't want to divulge what it is here, but it's a great example of the reader-response school of literary criticism and really leaves the player to question what their role is in playing a videogame. I honestly felt that my trust hadn't been so much betrayed by the characters in the game, but that it was the actual game makers themselves who had betrayed me. I wish I could say more.

In the "Welcome to Rapture" segment we, as Jack, wake up from the plane crash to find ourselves floating in the water with the ruins of the plane crash around us. Water has never looked so damn good in a game. The fact that you don't have any sort of display at this point leaves a lot of people sitting there for a few minutes not realizing that the game has started. You swim a short way and see some sort of lighthouse protruding from the water nearby. You swim over to it and upon opening the front door are greeted with the statue of a scowling man holding a giant banner that reads: "No Gods or King, only Man". A short trip down the stairs brings you to the bathysphere (a giant diving bell). Upon pulling the lever the bathysphere closes and you are plunged underwater to begin your journey. Giant art-deco statues, straight from the cover of an Ayn Rand novel, appear outside holding signs which say how many fathoms deep you are. A movie screen pops up and a small "Welcome" movie begins to play. You are greeted by the voice of Andrew Ryan, who sounds something like Orson Welles, and he delivers his manifesto for why he built Rapture in one of gaming's great speeches:

"I'm Andrew Ryan, and I'm here to ask you a question:
Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his own brow?
No, says the man in Washington. It belongs to the poor.
No, says the man in the Vatican. It belongs to God.
No, says the man in Moscow. It belongs to everyone.
I rejected those answers. Instead, I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose...
A city where the artist would not fear the censor. Where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality. Where the great would not be constrained by the small. And with the sweat of your brow, Rapture can become your city as well."

After this little movie you are greeted with the city of Rapture before you. An art-deco masterpiece entirely underwater, like something out of Jules-Verne. My favorite part is the giant humpback whale slowly swimming between the massive skyscrapers. Soon you enter Rapture and find that something terrible has occured.

There's no specific endpoint to the beginning of the game, but for this piece I'll say it's when you get knocked out and see a Big Daddy/Little Sister slowly trudging past you, with the Big Daddy sounding like some sort of whale. This level is not only a great introduction to the game, but it effectively introduces you to combat, plasmids, and how to use your environment around you. I could go on about this game, but I'll stop for now. I highly recommend watching the intro to the game, you can find it here.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Can love bloom on a battlefield? - Metal Gear Solid Conclusion

It's taken me a while but I finally finished the original Metal Gear Solid. In terms of plot, so much has happened since our last outing that it's hard to wrap it all up. Hideo Kojima, the creator of the series, really enjoys large, complex plots. Essentially, Snake learns that he has to stop the Metal Gear from firing. He also learns that he's been injected with a genetic virus called "FoxDie" which is a virus programmed only to kill certain people. Snake learns that he was injected with FoxDie which would kill all of the terrorists trying to take control of Metal Gear, but he learns that it is designed to kill him also. Basically his whole mission was a setup by the government from the beginning - in order to cover up the secret of the Metal Gear project, which if exposed could cause huge tensions between the superpowers of the world, Snake was injected with FoxDie. When he came into contact with the various terrorists they would be exposed to it and die (thus why the DARPA chief died of a mysterious heart-attack, because he wasn't the DARPA chief at all, he was one of the terrorists in disguise! Still following?). Snake also learns that the leader of the terrorists, Liquid Snake, is actually his twin brother. You see, they were all part of a genetic experiment during the '70's called 'Les infantes terribles' which was designed to create the ultimate super-soldiers from the cloned DNA of 'Big Boss', the bad guy from the original Metal Gear games on the old NES. They share the same genetic code and that's why Snake will also die from FoxDie. In fact, we learn that Gulf War syndrome is a byproduct of the genetic engineering, because all those soldiers over there were injected with stuff that essentially caused their genetic makeup to change to that of Big Boss's. Oh yeah, that Ninja that Snake encountered earlier turns out to be the brother of one of the operatives on your team, but he's not really her brother, he's actually her parents' killer!!! If you're wearing your tinfoil hat at this point don't be ashamed.

So as we can see, Kojima likes his plots complexo-to-the-maxo. But ultimately (and thankfully) not much of the plot is relevant to our discussion. Metal Gear Solid deals with a lot of themes not usually found in videogames. At the end of the story Snake knows that he's going to die from the FoxDie, but he doesn't know when. In fact, Naomi (who's brother was the Ninja) tells him that he'll die when his time is up, but until then he should "live life!" Kojima explores destiny and fate here. If Snake could die at any moment, then what's the difference if he didn't know he was infected at all? Should he let that control his life?

Kojima also deals here with finding purpose in one's life. Throughout the game Snake is constantly asked "what are you fighting for?" If he's just a mercenary, does he have actual beliefs, or is he purely just a gun-for-hire? During one of his conversations with Master Miller (who ultimately turns out to be Liquid in disguise), Miller says to him "The only difference between a murderer and a soldier is that the soldier has a purpose." Do we need to give ourselves over to something greater to find purpose in life? At the end, Snake escapes from the compound with Meryl (the Colonel's niece) and decides he'd like to finally give his life purpose by giving himself to Meryl. Watch the final cinematic here (skip to 4:15 to get to the actual speech by Naomi addressing this topic).

Speaking of love, the scientist who Snake helped rescue earlier, Otacon, delivers one of the more awkward lines in the history of videogames. During his time being held hostage by the terrorists Otacon falls in love with one of them. Later in the game, after he's been freed by Snake, Otacon approaches Snake and asks him "Do you think love can bloom, even on a battlefield?" Though its hard not to chuckle when you hear this line, it's Kojima once again driving home the point that we need to live life for a purpose, that we can't just live for ourselves, but that we need to live for something greater. Watch the scene here.

So, is Metal Gear Solid art? It's hard to say. The game certainly has a strong message. While most other games in the same league (I'm looking at you Halo) have larger than life heroes and a sense of epicness, their messages are ultimately pretty thin. But with Metal Gear Solid Kojima is actually trying to tell us something. Unfortunately most of this message is conveyed during lengthy cinematic cutscenes which technically aren't part of the gameplay, but more like watching a movie. Perhaps as a compromise we could say that the game isn't art, but the story and message contained within is.

Until next time, I'll leave you with the closing song from Metal Gear Solid 4 - a cover of Joan Baez's "Here's to you" from the film 'Sacco e Vanzetti'. Oh yes - Kojima goes there.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Number 5: Doom - "Hangar" (id Software, 1993)

For the number 5 spot on my list of best first levels I've chosen the first level of Doom. A lot has been said about Doom. Though Wolfenstein was the first real first-person-shooter (also created by id Software) it was Doom that really grabbed people's attention and introduced them to the genre. Seeing everything from the eyes of the protagonist was a first for many people. But what really made Doom famous was its use of gore and violence. For its time it was an incredibly good looking game, and the blood, well, we thought it looked so damn real!!

I remember the first time I saw Doom I was blow away. Was this real? Could I really just walk around shooting zombies and other creatures, watching them keel over in disgusting death animations uttering a dying moan as I pumped another round into my shotgun?? Would I get in trouble for playing this game??? For it's time it was an extremely violent game. This was back in the era when Bart Simpson uttering "Eat my shorts" was pushing the limits and offending Barbara Bush. No one had seen a game quite like this before.

In terms of the actual level "Hangar" it's a great little introduction to the game. You start out with the wimpy pistol but in no time you get the shotgun, a highly effective weapon which also produced some of the more grisly death animations. Fighting through a small group of gun wielding zombies the player is soon introduced to the fireball-spitting Imps. An experienced Doom player can get through this level in under thirty seconds, but there's a surprising amount of depth if you take your time. There's a couple of secrets to be found, including access to the outside courtyard. This also makes this level the perfect level for the introduction of the "Deathmatch" mode.

Doom popularized Deathmatch mode for thousands of kids across the country. It seemed so revolutionary at the time - instead of shooting the monsters, you connected up two or more computers and shot your friends! The introduction of Deathmatch helped lay the groundwork for the online deathmatches that you can play today in hundreds of games, from Counterstrike to Call of Duty to Halo. In fact in most games today some sort of "multiplayer" mode is practically mandatory. But there was nothing like it at the time. In fact, once you got a taste for fragging your friends it could be hard to go back to the normal game. For all these reasons, this is why "Hangar" from Doom takes number 5. To take a look at actual gameplay footage click here.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Zrbo Presents: Top 5 "First Levels" of Videogames

As you probably know I'm a connoisseur of videogames. There's a certain enjoyment that comes with playing a game that can't be found through film or music. Especially when a game is new, there's nothing like getting home, ripping off the plastic and popping the disc/cartridge/floppy disc in and firing up that game for the first time, taking in the graphics, the music, and, most importantly, the gameplay.

The following posts will highlight those opening moments of videogames. More specifically I'll be looking at those great first levels of videogames. The top 5 "first levels" I've chosen are ones I believe effectively teach the player the basics of gameplay, give the players a taste of what the game is about and what's to come, and in cases where the game has a story to tell, introduce players to the story and leave them wanting more.

This list is not meant as a nostalgia trip, though you may find a whiff of it here and there. Also, my knowledge of videogames is not nearly complete and there would practically be no way for anyone to have played every single game out there, so please excuse me if "your favorite game" didn't make the list. The following list is composed of games that I have played, though that was not necessarily a criteria of mine. I hope you enjoy what's to come, and I'll try to make it as easy to read as I can for the non-gamers out there. Lad-, er, gentlemen, the top 5 first levels of videogames...

Friday, August 15, 2008

More Parodies

Back now with another round of gaming-related parody videos. Last year in the run-up to the launch of the Halo 3 videogame, a series of award winning ads aired for the Halo 3 "Believe" campaign. This series of ads was played out like a PBS World War II documentary, with "interviews" from "veterans" of the futuristic war between the humans and the alien Covenant depicted in the Halo series. This series of four videos can be seen here, here, here, and my personal favorite here below (the old guy in this last one really brings it home in my opinion):

In addition to these four ads, a huge diorama display was built and used in one additional ad (and was so popular that is subsequently toured the country). This diorama displayed a huge battle between the Covenant and the humans, with the commercial playing a piece from Chopin and containing a little twist at the end. Honestly I think it's an amazing piece. Watch it below:

There's a new Viva Pinata game coming out soon (Viva Pinata being both a game series and kids show on TV). The Viva Pinata ad campaign delighfully parodies the faux-gravitas the "Believe" ads try to achieve, with the cleverly titled "Believa Pinata" diorama parody taking the cake in my opinion. Watch both ads below:

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Top 10 Forge Art Halo 3 Screenshots

From Hawty McBloggy comes these great screenshots of stuff people have made using Halo 3's Forge (a sort of level editor). All of these were made out of objects in the game such as barrels, guns, power-up items, etc. Check out some of my favorites or click the link above to see them all.

Guitar Hero