October Terror Story #15 Super Mario Bros. 3

by Alva Chua

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Super Mario Bros. 3
Nintendo Entertainment System

The Super Mario Games are tautly structured sets of rules. That’s what makes them enjoyable and even beautiful at times.

You see objects you can jump over them. Blocks you can smash. Enemies that affect other enemies. Within minutes, the order of things is set.

You’re bounding through a world of systemic cartoon beauty. Every symbol is clear to you--if something has eyes, it’s probably sentient, and although that’s disturbing in its own way, it fits into the world and you move on.

It’s a desert. You can tell it’s a desert because of the sun that is literally glaring down at you, frowning. You can tell the desert is hostile because even the sun hates you. Cartoon logic made manifest. There are rules, after all.

There are supposed to be rules.

Rules that are willfully broken when the sun itself untethers itself from its perch in the sky, and defying perspective and logic, charges at you. It hunts you, and kills you with its deadly touch.

There are many moments of tension in the Mario games. But for the mind-bending terror of a celestial body bringing things to a personal level, few things in the 8-bit era match this moment for terror.

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October Terror Story #03 Katamari Damacy

by Alva Chua

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Katamari Damacy
PlayStation 2, 2004

Cosmic horror tends to be about the scale of indifference the universe presents to humanity. The dreadful yawning void of existence that renders human consciousness irrelevant.

So how does this make the candy-coloured Katamari Damacy literally one of the most terrifying games in existence?

What if that void was conscious, what if it knew and understood about sentience, but it was still indifferent? What if it wore fabulous tights?

The King of All Cosmos in Katamari Damacy tasks you, one of his many princes, with the task of gathering up matter in the universe in big balls. For childish reasons justified by idiotic whims. He doesn’t care much about his son, and he certainly doesn’t care much about you, insignificant human. At best we are a mild annoyance to him.

The game paints the Earth and its inhabitants like crude wooden toys, cheerfully bereft of actual anything beyond a cartoon existence. The Prince rolls up all the objects on the planet eventually--even continents get accumulated into a huge ball of stuff. You are an inevitable agent of Entropy, making stars while being nagged by a disinterested parent. Everything operates the same, no matter how much you zoom in or zoom out on the universe and ultimately it’s all part of the same dung-ball.

If that doesn’t fill you with existential dread, I’m not sure what could.

Index

October 3rd - Katamari Damacy
October 2nd - BASEMENT
October 1st - Lights Out, Please

Assassin's Creed: A Film Review

by Alva Chua

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Assassin's Creed

A Film Review by Alva Chua

I’m not quite a fan, but I’m certainly familiar with Ubisoft’s game series Assassin’s Creed. Despite negative reviews, I wanted to watch the new Michael Fassbender branding vehicle for myself to find out how someone who had enjoyed some of the games might feel. Video game adaptations are a tricky business, and there’s something to seeing how they get adapted, which is often more interesting that the films themselves.

This is not the case with Assassin’s Creed.

There’s a bit of vague promise in the opening, in that there is little to criticize at first and the smoky lighting seems to have something to hide. Then characters start out curt and reserved, only to remain that way. Video games with less technical power behind their visuals tend to rely on starting with good-looking character models, built with faces designed to express the emotions they are meant to contain over the duration of the story. What they lack in the ability to act they compensate for with lighting and camera angles. Assassin’s Creed does this with competent living actors.

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Worse still, the camera seems to cut away every time someone is about to emote. Fassbender’s Callum Lynch gets to look “Angry” or “Concentrating”. Marion Cotillard gets to look “Scientist”, and almost gets to cry for a split second before the camera cuts away again.

If they had somehow managed to squeeze some emotion out of the split seconds everyone seemed to get, the script would not permit it. Video game films can be full of the worst exposition and pointlessly descriptive prose and clunky one-liners imaginable. I longed for such things here. The Templars are a secret society that runs the world, and are dedicated to eradicating free will. We know this because Jeremy Irons and his superiors say this repeatedly, but never emphatically. There is no statement or sense of motivation, they simply say “We are dedicated to eradicating free will,” pretty much without inflection, over and over. Looks like someone got to you first, buddy.

Every other character simply makes statements that are descriptive of their character, or instructions to other characters. If you’re one of those geniuses who wanted Objective Video Game Reviews, here’s Objective Character Dialogue. For the first twenty minutes I thought that the protagonist’s catch phrase was going to be “I’m hungry.” because it was the most personal thing he said. I guess he really was just hungry.

The most spectacular thing in this film was how they managed to waste a close personal scene with Brendan Gleeson and Michael Fassbender. Although if I was Gleeson I might have just punched Fassbender in the face.

Which brings us to the action. The action in Assassin’s Creed is just fine. There is definitely enough of it, and the Animus VR rig turns out to be a high tech excuse to show Fassbender fighting both clothed AND shirtless simultaneously. I hear some people like that kind of thing.

The complete lack of any character definition, especially in the historical sections, robs the action scenes of there intensity. I don’t know enough about these characters to care, and nothing is surprising enough for me to notice it otherwise. I don’t want to ruin any twists, but there is a surprising moment when violence breaks out in a facility that happens to be full of medieval weaponry that just happens to be lying around everywhere.

There are a couple of novel moments where you see crossbows fired from a first-person camera view, but these feel wrong for the setting, and echo mechanics that the source game doesn’t have. Seeing these moments made me think of Dwayne Johnson in the terrible DOOM adaptation, which added a feeling that video game films often have. That sense of being sneered at or patronized. I hope that Assassin’s Creed is simply a terribly dull film, and not one that has been stripped down and simplified to talk down to a perceived audience. Even the very first game in the series had more character than this.

Mass Effect: Andromeda, and What’s in Bioware’s Basement

by Alva Chua

I’ve had a great time in the first twenty hours of Mass Effect Andromeda, and want to see it through to the end, but part of me was tired of it before I even began playing.

It wasn’t the return of painstaking mineral collection, or the haphazard driving on planetary surfaces. I happen to share the designers’ affection for those parts of Starflight and Star Control 2 that we really should be done with referencing by now. Sometimes I’m up for literally mining the content out of a game.

The game world was spread out larger than any previous game in the series but I still felt confined.

It wasn’t always this way.

Back in 2003 I played Knights of the Old Republic for the first time, and was impressed with how they managed to make the cinematic pulp story arc fit into a game with that amount of player freedom. I knew I had seen that structure somewhere before though, perhaps in a somewhat simpler form.  

My protagonist waking up into the game world, finding some companions before moving on to series of hub locations, each potentially featuring a new companion character and quest line, before getting in my ship to travel back and forth between these hub locations to complete the main story. A racing mini-game. Multiple endings.

Similarities between Chrono Trigger and a Star Wars game aren’t that surprising. Japanese RPGs have been cribbing from Western pulp since before Darth Vader was a scorpion, and Final Fantasy had been taking inspiration from George Lucas for years. But Knights of the Old Republic positioned its party members and locations in the same kind of connected progression that Chrono Trigger did. I don’t mean to trivialize their achievement in any way. Bioware expanded the formula into a more cinematic world with 3d models, added voice acting and branching conversation trees that changed plot outcomes. They achieved the mammoth task of taking aspects of their earlier Infinity Engine games and moulding them to the breezier, more flowing pace of console RPGs.

 

Fourteen years later, they’re taking that formula from 2003 and moulding it to the pace of MMOs and open world games. I’m not going to critique those gameplay elements; it’s the plot and characters that have a creaking familiarity to them. You don’t exactly wake up with amnesia, but you wake up, and the computer in your head has amnesia. You slowly learn to come to terms with your new powers. It turns out the authorities that you rely on may not be trustworthy. Tropes can work, and Mass Effect 2 was a high point because it made its characters huge walking tropes (like a literal femme fatale who could sex you to death. Ugh) and narrowed its stories down to walks through exploding corridors lined with interesting Codex entries.

Andromeda doles out similarly patterned characters in very similar intervals. Does the pilot have a very personal relationship with his spacecraft? Sure he has! It tries to give these characters more nuance and subtleties, but in the same old framework it just ends up seeming quieter than the previous trilogy, in a way that lets the tired bones show in an unflattering way. It feels like more work has been done, but to less effect.

There is great writing in Mass Effect Andromeda. Hidden jokes are woven into the backstories of the characters, and most of the contrived plot points often get called out and reasonably questioned. I love, for instance, that there is a sense that the Andromeda Initiative itself is a foolhardy endeavour, and everyone is putting on a brave face through an impossible task because they all have no choice.

I just would have found it easier to enjoy if this game about exploration had a real sense of discovery and something new.

Chrome Oscilloscopes: The Sci-Fi Trappings of 80s PC gaming from Game Arts and Exxos

by Alva Chua

A transforming mech in a contemporary game is often seen as an anime trope, and comes with associated baggage. Although Game Arts’ 1985 release Thexder may feature a transforming mech, it was closer to the science fiction roots of the concept at the time, and less of a cultural signifier.

Sierra Online may have ported and published the game in the West because transforming robots were in the zeitgeist, but Thexder had its own character.

Thexder (Game Arts, 1985)

The main sprite’s particular strut and the cinematic flair of the music, with increased gravitas from Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, made the protagonist a kind of robotic Errol Flynn.

Speed and agility were more than just Thexder’s primary verbs, they were required skills. Limited reserves of energy and shields felt like tangible science fiction concepts more than mere game conceits, and the instant escape afforded by transforming into a spacecraft was crucial. Darting in and out of conflict, your ship’s pixel-thin laser beam could slice through swarms of enemies if only you could manage its manoeuvrability in 360 degrees.

Thexder (Game Arts, 1985)

The simplistic geometric enemy designs and grid-mapped levels felt an appropriate reflection of the technology you were playing on. In 1986, a computer hobbyist playing a game on a PC was already using an exclusive piece of high-tech equipment. That in itself was enough to evoke the jump to imagining the control of a robot space fighter not being all that different from a home computer. Films had been and would continue to suggest the same thing, from The Last Starfighter’s arcade machines to Robocop’s DOS-like operating system.

Game Arts fully embraced these technological aesthetics a year later in Silpheed. Vertically scrolling shooters were hardly new, and we had seen polygons used in video games for years. Arguably, a richer, more detailed environment for such games could be done with sprites. But these polygonal graphics, wireframes in particular, had an air of austere military competence. Polygons themselves seemed like advanced technology. Your spacecraft was no longer a drawing; it was the blueprint of a weapon.

Silpheed (Game Arts, 1986)

Silpheed leaned into this with schematic intro sequences for the player’s ship, and even the massed enemy fighters that would fall to single shots. Standard shooter gameplay was dressed as dogfighting, and fighting reused boss models between levels was now facing different variants of enemy capital ships. Instead of the colourful shop interface of other scrolling shooters, you would dock at military outposts to retool between levels. It almost made playing on a cyan and purple CGA monitor immersive.

Silpheed (Game Arts, 1986)

Silpheed (Game Arts, 1986)

It was more than just polygons that made ‘80s PC games aspire to being science fiction artifacts. Baroque interface presentation, like the messy onscreen circuitry of the IBM PC version of ASCII’s Psychic War, attempted to dress up your computer as a futuristic interface device. Although sadly, with a bit of added cheesecake.

Psychic War (ASCII, 1987)

French development group Exxos proved to be masters of this conceit, with titles like Purple Saturn Day featuring sections where the gameplay was literally focused on managing an obscure alien technological interface. Par for the course for a group who claimed at a press conference to represent a being from “outside the universe.”

Purple Saturn Day (Exxos, 1989)

Prior to the somewhat obtuse space Olympics of Purple Saturn Day, they had created Captain Blood, a game that integrated its interface aesthetics into its plot and gameplay. The Gigeresque organic forms of your spacecraft interior represent a prison for a protagonist who can only interact with an alien galaxy by firing clones at fractal landscapes. The wasted arm that serves as your cursor seems to evoke Spielberg’s E.T. but makes you the alien this time.

Games like these made the act of interacting with them the part of their fantasy, arguably obscuring weaknesses in gameplay, but possibly enhancing their immersion for those willing to buy into the pantomime.

Some of the simplest games today are played on mobile devices with interfaces that exceed the imagined functionality of these games from the 1980s. In some modern games the reverse of the technological fantasy becomes true, and we are convinced to believe that their interfaces are part of something ubiquitous or mundane, often with apps integrated directly into devices we use in our daily lives. While this does present interesting new opportunities for immersion, it doesn’t always seem quite as shiny.