The Tyrannical Pixel Monsters
I suck at time management. My friend Merlin has built an online empire based on getting organized and Getting Things Done, and here I sit in my home office trying to juggle the various projects I find myself committed to, in addition to trying (I really do try) to get some new stuff going here and on my other various online endeavors, including a return to audio — authentic Grimm’s Fairy Tales, anyone? — more video stuff, putting some updated Design-O-Rama pages together and actually writing an actual book that, godammit, I’ll probably just self-publish so I can say I did it.
Unfortunately, I also own an Xbox 360 and a Wii, and now my boyfriend has done me the rather dubious favor of sitting his PS3 in my overheated electronic living room so I have access to not one, not two, but all three next-gen gaming consoles.
And I don’t even like video games!
I take that back, I didn’t think I liked them. I’m 45 years old, boys and girls, and I’m supposed to be settled and staid and sitting in my bathrobe doing the New York Times crosswords over a hot mug of Folgers crystals and looking up over my bifocals at the CBS Evening News starring some chick with an outdated hairdo. The bathrobe part I have down pretty good, I drink Blue Bottle Coffee espressos from my Briel pump espresso machine and the only news I see is delivered by Jon Stewart. But the bifocals thing is almost here (I am now forced to use reading glasses while sitting at the computer or going over a couple of chapters in the latest Robert Jordan yawner) and while I enjoy my daily scan of NYTimes.com, the crossword puzzle is not among my interests.
That said, do I actually have any business killing Locusts in Gears of War at 2am? Should I be obsessing over getting an elephant to visit my garden in Viva Piñata? Does the fact that I can’t get the motorcycle around the curve but can manage to drive the big rig over the rest of the drivers in Motorstorm make me any less, you know, grown up? And why the fuck can’t I figure out the secret to the fast serve in Wii Sports Tennis?
The game that shoved me into this new era of teen-aged quarter plunking was The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion on the Xbox 360. I’d owned a PS2 and had roamed the streets and alleys of Vice City and driven the brain-damaged destruction derby intersections of Burnout and killed my share of underworld demons in God of War, but the free-roaming medieval Renn Faire D&D ethos called me back to my halcyon days spent sucking on cherry Coke Slurpees and gobbling Slim Jims and M&M’s while my cleric healed light wounds and avoided gelatinous masses on many an adventure. The high-def visuals on a wide screen HDTV and the surround sound Dolby digital soundtrack sealed the deal. It was a “had to have” item.
I’m embarrassed to tell you how many hours I spent (and continue to spend, thanks to The Shivering Isles) in Cyrodiil killing Fort-dwelling zombies and wild roaming bears and those blasted and annoying wood sprites who giggle and cavort and mock my every turn! My palms grew sweaty and my brow grew more wrinkled as I passed every test and finished every quest and then just wandered the land spending my copious purse of gold on houses and armor and magical weapons. God, I’m a nerd.
Then came Gears of War. If Oblivion was my introduction to Next Gen gaming and its possibilities, Gears sealed the deal. Sure, I was awed by the reality of the blasting gas tanks in Burnout: Revenge. Yeah, I admit that it was pretty cool to see the gritty streets of Saint’s Row, but nothing could have prepared me for the sheer beauty and satisfying game play that this instant classic from Epic Games and Microsoft presented.
I’m not generally into first-person (or third-person) shooters. I know that ever since Doom, the FPS has become the Holy Grail of gaming to most true fanboys. It’s all about the killing and the machismo and the ever-more-powerful weapons that fire laser bullets that burrow into enemy brains and explode inside their heads. Auto-targeting million-round grenade launchers and belt-mounted power saws that rend flesh from bone in excruciatingly graphic detail.
But I am either not coordinated or talented enough with a hand-held button-encrusted piece of plastic to handle it all. How anyone remembers from one game to the next which button makes them jump, or run, or pirouette is beyond me. I loved Burnout for just that reason. Pull down on trigger make car go fast. Hit things. Fun.
Gears of War still relies on heavy weaponry and overwrought testosterone, but they managed to include two fabulous gifts that make it much easier for me, The Casual Gamer, to play a game like this and enjoy it so much that you want to go back and do the entire hours-long campaign again. Over and beyond the incredible graphic detail of the environment and the better than average vocals attached to these walking mountains of muscle, the game play and controller lend themselves to more easily figuring out what to do and how to do it, based almost entirely on one simple new action attached to the beloved green A button on the 360 controller: When you’re near a flat surface designed to provide cover, press A and your character plasters himself to it and peeks around the corner or over the top to shoot.
No more forgetting how to walk or “why did he back up into that mine?” or “now, what the hell did I do that made him do that extremely stupid move?” You hit A, you slam him against the wall, you move him back and forth to shoot the enemies on the left or right and presto, I’m a Third-Person Shooter.
Gears opened up the possibility to me that maybe I wasn’t a complete loser after all. Do I venture into online play to challenge the hardcore killers intent on showing me up for the loser faggot I so clearly am in this arena? No, I do not. I am content to sit on my comfy couch in utter darkness, the Denon turned up to 10, the 42″ LCD glowing mayhem and destruction at me as I sit alone in my apartment for hours and hours pretending that I am that behemoth of strength and bravery, Marcus Fenix, defending my world from those scurrilous, scabrous scalawags the locusts and their need to kill everything they come in contact with. Yay, me!
Gears, for me, unlocked the possibilities of the 360, and I started to follow the gaming community and game announcements and development with the same fervor I used to have for the film industry before they started making and remaking nothing but shit, with a very few exceptions. Games and movies are a lot alike in that way. There are certainly more misses than hits, and even the hits get to be derivative and predictable when you start spending time with your new expensive toys. I’ve made mistakes, sure I have. Saint’s Row? I am no gangbanger, that I knew, but it suffers from the problems I mentioned that Gears resolves, namely making it easier and more fun to kill stuff. A similar problem infects the almost incredible Dead Rising, in which the zombie mall of Dawn of the Dead (no relation) comes to pixelated life and you’re the guy with the Kitana and the power mower. It’s joyful fun until you realize that actually winning the game is an exercise in frustration just because you can’t ever save your progress until the end of every very long session of mayhem.
But there are shining examples of surprises, too. Lego Star Wars II turns your memories of the original (good) trilogy into a harmless and hilarious joyride populated entirely by the little column-headed Lego people you ate as a child. Viva Piñata takes a forgettable and noisy children’s program and turns it into a beautiful and relaxing day in the garden, only this one is populated by a veritable Noah’s Arc of colorful, edible piñatas you coerce to mate and live in your carefully cultivated Eden.
So I had a 360, and I was enjoying the hell out of it, but all anyone else could talk about was their Wii. Me, I considered Nintendo to be the kid’s table at the gaming feast. The games on their platform always seemed to me to be harmless, dreary, candy-coated sugar pills of Hello Kitty princesses lamenting the fact that their plumber boyfriends couldn’t collect enough gems to defeat the funny little dragon puppies standing in their way. It wasn’t a Man’s Gaming Platform. It was, you know, for kids.
And sure I’d seen the videos of hapless owners thrusting their remotes into their TVs or gyrating wildly at seemingly nothing while attempting to go fishing or something like that, but how was it any fun? And didn’t it look like crapola? C’mon, I have a $2000 giant screen TV in my living room! Am I really going to taint its high definition grandeur with such a jagged-edged lowlife?
And then I played it. I went bowling on a Wii. I played Tennis. I attempted to hit a ball with a bat and another ball with a gold club. I went fishing and rode a horse and flung my wicked sword at a giant riding a warthog and I was hooked. I get it now. It’s not about the visuals, it’s about the fun.
What the Wii does that’s ground-breaking is that it succeeds in making gaming for everyone. You don’t need special skills or a memory bank of button choices or an instruction book to study in order to figure out how to get out of that place you’ve become trapped in. It’s simple, it’s easy, it’s fun. It’s even kind of stupid, in that awkward puppy fashion that’s so endearing.
If the Wii is your little brother who comes over to play, the PS3 is your pipe-smoking know-it-all uncle who eats all the dessert and goes on and on about how more more he knows and all the better things he’s done than you have. It’s glossy, it’s slick, and (for now) it’s completely devoid of fun.
The 360 had its growing pains, too. And I have to admire Sony for doing an awful lot of things right. Well, one thing right: the system interface is gorgeous. It makes the 360 dashboard look like last year’s county fair after discovering Disney World. An orchestra tunes up as it boots. A pleasant and subtle click accompanies your movements through its somber yet satisfying background as opposed to Microsoft’s overblown whooshing and shoving and glowing glass bubbles.
But the joy of using the PS3 ends when you actually want to do anything except explore the menus. The games available so far are pale and annoying. They’re just not all there, yet. Motorstorm has its moments, but they happen over and over again without much surprise after about three races. Resistance: Fall of Man starts with an interesting premise and the promise of being another Gears of War, but the plot is thinly wrapped around the set pieces rather than integrated with what you’re trying to accomplish, and the visuals simply can’t compare to that other title’s glorious decay. The cut scenes are just incredibly boring, and the character you’re playing lacks any personality whatsoever.
All that would be forgivable if the action and game play managed to be inviting and fun, but they aren’t. New weapons appear randomly and seemingly without any reason for being. You may see your alien enemy using some cool red laser-flashing gun, but kill him and it disappears. You may be able to pick one up later gift-wrapped for you in a box under a stairway, but how does that make sense? I know, I know, all that ammo lying around in Gears isn’t exactly logical, either, but why be such a tease, Sony? Give me the fucking gun!
On top of all that, the PS3 has the annoying habit of simply not working from time to time. My TV is capable of running 1080p via the HDMI plug. It does so with my Mac Mini. But when I hook up the PS3, I get weird sparkles and discoloration, with Sony and the TV manufacturer (Westinghouse) pointing fingers at each other. At least I got to actually speak to a tech at Westinghouse. Sony support consisted of a guy reading instructions off a screen — poorly — and asking such questions as: “Did you try turning it off and turning it back on?” Even when I downshift to 1080i, the video signal will sometimes just go black. It’s not my TV because it happens on my boyfriend’s Sony LCD, too. And if Sony can’t get its own hardware to successfully talk to each other, why should I believe them when they want to blame Westinghouse?
My less-than-stellar experience with the PS3 has certainly not turned me off gaming. 2007 promises to be an exceptional year for Next Gen consoles, with such promising titles as the undersea steampunk horror fest Bioshock (August), the expansive RPG galaxy of Mass Effect (May), the 3-disk Japanime-inspired Blue Dragon (August) from the original creator of Final Fantasy, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (November) and Indiana Jones (November?) coming with a few wild new interactive real-time biomechanical capabilities to play with, the long-delayed but incredibly immersive Assassin’s Creed, the fourth chapter in Rockstar Games’ successful Grand Theft Auto series (October), and perhaps the superstar of all, Bungie’s Halo 3 (November), which is looked forward to with such voracious desire that I wonder if any game could possibly live up to the hype. There’s even a couple of dark-horse candidates in there, too, like the aliens and guns shooter BlackSite: Area 51, the odd but intriguing Greek Gods from the future combatter Too Human and last but not least, the first-person Stephen King-inspired Alan Wake, where you’re a horror author trapped in a shodowy Pacific Northwest town trying to find your way out of the nightmare — or words to that effect.
If you’re not gaming now, you soon will be. Trust me. There’s no going back….
March 30, 2007