Yeah, haven’t posted for a month now. Whoops! I hope to have something up soon, within the next couple days ideally. Right now I’m a bit busy basking in the 65-degree San Francisco weather (after 102 in DC, yeah, I’ll take it).
Unrelated to video games, but I’m still trying to decide whether I loved Inception or I want to punch Christopher Nolan in the kidneys.
Alyx Vance – The problem with Alyx Vance is that there are two of her. Interesting Alyx, co-star of the non-episodic iteration of Half-Life 2 (the full game), might be the best female video game character ever. A resistance leader among the humans fighting back against the sinister alien combine, Alyx didn’t fall into any of the standard pitfalls of a female video game character: she isn’t oversexualized, she isn’t another bland white hero, and when she faces a problem, she deals with it rather than whining for a big strong man to come help her. Sure, she gets captured at one point in the game and you have to go rescue her along with her father, but to be fair, her introduction in the game is when you get captured and she comes and rescues you, so turnabout is fair play as far as I’m concerned. On balance, Interesting Alyx kicks so much ass you feel like she should be issued a permit.
The problem is Frustrating Alyx. Frustrating Alyx is Alyx’s identical twin sister that replaced her at the start of Half-Life 2: Episode One when no one was looking, and has been with us ever since. Frustrating Alyx spends so much time needing to be rescued that I swear at one point a Combine soldier told me he was sorry my resistance leader was in another castle. I’m actually starting to suspect Frustrating Alyx is just Princess Peach in a very elaborate costume. I mean, the entire first third of Episode Two consists of a long, involved quest to obtain a magical healing salve for her when she’s on her deathbed, and that’s not even the worst example: near the beginning of Episode One, upon encountering forcibly modified humans, Alyx freaks out to the point where she is practically begging you to hold her and make the bad people go away. This is a woman who, in the game prior to this, casually and single-handedly picks fights with squads of the genetically modified secret police and wins easily. She’s the only character in the series who is equal in badassery to the main character himself. So why, all of a sudden, does she need rescuing all the damn time? Once I can live with: having it happen over and over and goddamn over is just insulting. I liked Alyx a lot more when she was my equal rather than someone I could feel big and strong for saving. Interesting Alyx makes brief re-appearances during the sniping segments of both Episode One and Episode Two, but on the whole, she’s a character that ultimately let me down. But it’s a sad truth that despite that, she’s still one of the best of this bunch.
Samus Aran – Samus is the most unusual entrant on here. For starters, she’s probably the most popular character on this list. The Metroid games have sold a ton of copies, and for good reason: they’re about an intergalactic bounty hunter with more gadgets and powers than a James Bond/X-Men crossover who fights space pirates, sentient macroviruses, and a very persistent gigantic space Pterodactyl. Really, what isn’t to love? Yet, for the first few games no one had any idea she was even a woman. Most likely, it is because she is as talkative as Gordon Freeman and dresses like this:
But you know what? We were fine with the revelation when we learned it. We were more than fine with it – we thought it was great. Hey, this badass character we already love is actually a woman? Cool! We can totally respect that! It seemed like a brand new day for women in video games, a day when a female character wouldn’t take a backseat to anyone and needn’t be defined by her physique, but on the same standards by which we judged her male counterparts: namely, how much ass they could kick and for how long.
Then we started perpetrating shit like this:
Godfuckingdammit! No! Those would not fit in that suit without seriously and irreparably damaging her internal organs.
Look, I’m fine with Samus being blonde and attractive. Ms. Marvel’s blonde and attractive, and she’s still an intelligent, thoughtful character without giving up the fact that she’s a badass. But why, when the gaming community finally discovered that Samus happened to possess a different chromosome than we had initially realized, was there a sudden, desperate rush to oversexualize her? I don’t like to believe the stereotype about most gamers having never seen a woman naked, but really, when we as a community do shit like this it’s not helping. It wouldn’t be so bad if it was just desperate fans who were drawing these things, but Nintendo are the ones who elected to give one of her iterations in the Prime games a skintight turquoise cat suit. Really, Nintendo, you’ve only got three properties you actually produce games for, I’d prefer it if you’d stop encouraging people to ruin them for me.
The other problem with Samus is even worse: sure, she’s a female character…which means what, exactly? The character literally has no personality beyond the fact that she can contort into a tiny ball and shoots explosive bolts of energy out of her arm. Now, to be fair, those are desirable character traits, but they really don’t mean much. She was a woman, yes…but ultimately they did nothing with it. It was like saying she had blue eyes; ok, it’s true, but it doesn’t mean anything within a larger context.
This is just getting depressing. I mean, my God, is there any female video game character who doesn’t have some major presentational flaw? Is there anyone who could possibly…
Jaina Proudmoore – …holy crap. Holy crap! There IS one! I can’t believe I didn’t think of the Warcraft Universe’s Jaina Proudmoore sooner. In Warcraft III, she’s the only human character both prescient enough to see the writing on the wall concerning the Undead plague of the Scourge and courageous enough to assume the mantle of leadership and lead her people across the sea, saving her civilization in the process – which means she is different from literally every single male human leader in the game, all of whom ignore the dire warnings despite being told by the Prophet Medivh about them in no uncertain terms. In fact, Medivh only comes to her after first going to the reigning king of Lordaeron, the crown prince of Lordaeron, and Jaina’s mentor, the Archwizard of the kingdom of Dalaran. All of them categorically reject him. He must’ve been kicking himself after the fact that he didn’t just go to Jaina in the first place if she was the only one with enough common sense to see reason. Later she’s the only one of the human higher-ups to put aside the old racist hatreds and work together with the other races towards the common goal of peace. In Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne, she ultimately sides with those same other races against her own father when she realizes that his plans would include the systematic genocide of everyone who isn’t human. In World of Warcraft’s meta-story (it has one, I promise, and the game designers care about it quite a lot – which makes it a shame that 98% of the player base doesn’t), she has consistently been the only voice on the Alliance side calling for peace, moderation, and maybe the tiniest bit of common sense (which, again, makes her different from every male character on the Alliance side). Also, during all of this, she is the most accomplished and powerful mage in the world, and we haven’t even talked about the fact that when her love, Arthas, begins to fall to the dark side, Jaina pulls an anti-Padme Amidala and gets the hell away from the psychopath, ultimately working to end his reign of terror (and serving an instrumental role in doing so). Her very first appearance in the game even mocks the damsel in distress trope; when two male characters encounter her being pursued by a few monsters, one of them suggests that they need to go rescue her. The other (Arthas before he went darkside) tells his friend that no no, she doesn’t need any help…after which Jaina proceeds to calmly obliterate the monsters like it’s nothing. Ok, so chalk up one for the good guys; I legitimately cannot find a single thing to dislike about the way Jaina Proudmoore is presented.
End Conclusion – It’s honestly difficult to tell if progress is being made. Game writers (and gamers) usually don’t seem to be the “them damned ladyfolk, let us put them in their place” sort of sexist, but rather in a way that comes from what appears to be a lack of practical experience. Some of them are at least inconsistently good; the Half Life 2 writers are the best example of this. But then in that case (and some others) it seems to oscillate; Interesting Alyx was great, while Frustrating Alyx started the cliche hoedown and only occasionally looked back. And since Bayonetta was released within the last year, while the original Metroid games (you know, the ones before the cat suit debacle) were released over a decade ago…I mean, I don’t even know what to think. I have to consider, in the end, that maybe the issue isn’t so much that video games consistently fail to present complex, interesting, and non-stereotypical female characters, but that they consistently fail to present those characters of either gender. I mean, hell, most male video game characters are rage-fueled, hormone-driven psychopaths.
Still, there are a small number of male characters who do succeed…and there are one or two female characters who also pull it off; Jaina Proudmoore is evidence of that. Since games are a new medium by comparison to other forms of storytelling, maybe they do just need to be given more time. I’ll continue to be hopeful. What choice do I have, really? I love video games, and that’s not going to stop any time soon.
A good friend of mine recently wrote a two-part article for a quite enjoyable blog, the second part of which focused on Hollywood’s depiction of female superheroes. It got me thinking: how do we evaluate some classic female game characters, from the perspective of how do they stack up as role models, how fairly are they treated compared to similar male characters, and how many traditional female character stereotypes do they fall into? Hey, since I loudly espouse the virtues of video games as a storytelling medium, it’s only fair to judge it by the same standards we’d apply to film or literature. In doing so, I was aware I’d probably encounter a lot that didn’t make me happy, but the more I thought about some of these characters, holy crap the more depressing it got. The following is that journey of discovery.
Also, no, dammit, Cortana and GLADOS do NOT count as female characters. They are robots. Although it’s possible I could be persuaded on the matter of the Companion Cube. Anyway, here we go:
Princess Peach – Princess Peach is a walking stereotype. Quite literally her only purpose for existing is to get kidnapped so her overweight Italian plumber boyfriend can come rescue her. That’s not an epic saga, that’s a romantic comedy centered around the Staten Island Mafia. Aside from getting kidnapped, Peach doesn’t even have a character; if Bowser was instead repeatedly stealing Mario’s favorite plunger, it would literally make no difference whatsoever to any Mario game. I don’t think there’s anything else you really need to say about Princess Peach, nor is there anything I particularly want to. Yes, I’ll play Mario Games and enjoy them, but it damn sure isn’t because of the story or the characters.
Unless we’re talking about Luigi. There is always something compelling about heros who are inherently cowards.
Princess Zelda – Zelda, despite also being a princess, is a step up from Peach in that at least the game series is named after her. Also, her outfit doesn’t look she had an unfortunate accident involving a lawnmower in a bubble gum factory. See, look:
I guess those things count as progress, but her cause isn’t aided when she spends the first several games repeatedly being kidnapped by a large green and red individual (this and Bowser from Super Mario Brothers lead me to believe Shigeru Miyamoto may have been assaulted by a Christmas tree as a child). She was ultimately reinvented as somewhat of a badass action hero in Ocarina of Time…only in order to pull it off, she had to pretend to be a man. This could be a scathing social commentary about the standards of how we judge differing genders in identical roles, but given that Miyamoto is the same guy responsible for Princess Peach, I’m inclined to believe it’s less broadminded than that. On balance, since Zelda is pretty much the only character in any of the games who seems to have the vaguest notion as to what the hell is actually going on, I guess she’s ok. Not great, but ok.
Bastila Shan – You know, as bad as Princess Peach is, and as much as I love Knights of the Old Republic (the first one – THE FIRST ONE), Bastila might ultimately be worse than Peach is. Sure, Bastila’s a Jedi, and sure, she’s intelligent and assertive, but I can’t help feeling like the character was intended as a Bioware writer’s passive-aggressive way of getting back at his wife. Christ, in practically every image you can find of her, she looks like she’s about to start berating you for forgetting to take out the space garbage…which is pretty much accurate to the way she acts in the game itself. She spends almost the entire game nagging at you, actually, and that only stops when she gets kidnapped (are we noticing a theme by now?) and then develops Sith Stockholm Syndrome and turns to the dark side (sidebar: if I had a dollar for every time this exact scenario happened in the Star Wars expanded universe, I’d have enough money to hire someone to follow George Lucas around and shout obscenities at him all day). Bastila is so many negative images of women rolled into one that you could have a field day picking all of them apart. Kreia in KOTOR II is just as bad (only she’s the “crone” stereotype rather than the “priss” one), but since we’re all aware KOTOR II was written by people wearing their underpants on their heads, it doesn’t count.
Lara Croft – Oh God, where to begin. You know, the problem with Lara Croft isn’t that she’s more physically unrealistic than a Barbie Doll. Sure, her hips would instantly explode were she to try to stand up, and that’s definitely a problem, but it isn’t the real problem. The real problem is that she is a complete and utter sociopath. I’m serious: if I were forced to confront either Lara Croft or Ted Bundy in a dark alley, I would have to seriously consider Bundy. Lara Croft either murders or threatens to murder virtually everyone she comes across, usually with little to no provocation. Is this really the nascent male fantasy of most video gamers? Look, I’ve dated a sociopath before: I don’t care how good she looks in a corset, it is ultimately a terrible idea that will end with her threatening to make a wallet out of your skin. And if that’s not the fantasy, is that what game developers really think women are like? Sure, there are a few of them out there like that, but you’ll get crazy terrifying people in any race/religion/gender/shoe size; ultimately what equality means is that everyone on the planet, regardless of any of the aforementioned categories, is equally capable of being an asshole. Lara Croft is thus so far from an accurate representation of a human woman that she might as well be a male iguana.
Capcom Games – Bayonetta, Devil May Cry series, Resident Evil series – Get out of my office, Capcom. You’re fired.
First, Bayonetta. If you’re not familiar with Bayonetta, this is her:
Be aware: that is the least sexualized image of Bayonetta I could find. Her special attacks involve her tearing off her clothing. When a game bothers me so much that I can’t even try to mine its achievement points, you know there’s an issue. And I’m not even a member of the gender being objectified.
The Devil May Cry series, meanwhile, is just one hundred different kinds of fail, so the only thing I’ll say is that in the half hour I played Devil May Cry 4 before I finally declared it beneath my dignity, I encountered only two female characters: one whose entire purpose was to stand there and look frightened before running away to where the big strong men could protect her, and another whose every single move in combat involved her doing the splits. I hate you, Capcom.
Then there’s Resident Evil characters. At first it seems like they’re trying with main characters like Claire Redfield (who kicks ass) and Jill Valentine (who kicks ass, although her costume also frequently makes her look like a prostitute). Hell, even RE: 5’s Sheva Alomar, despite having the AI programming of a lemming under time constraints, isn’t that bad of a character under the standards by which we’re going: she’s a successful Africa-based agent for an international group that works to stop bioterrorism. Ok, I can go with that, she seems pretty independent and intelligent and-
…holy crap, Capcom, are you fucking kidding me? That’s Sheva’s unlockable alternate costume. Leave it to the Japanese to multitask with both sexism and racism in one go (the racism in video games article will show up at some point). And we haven’t even discussed RE: 4’s Ashley, who’s basically Princess Peach if Peach couldn’t stop shrieking at you like a harpy. Just…fuck it…I give in…
Every Female Metal Gear Solid Character – No. NO. We are NOT discussing Metal Gear Solid’s characters in ANY capacity. Why?
Coming up in Part 2 – Alyx Vance, Samus Aran, and Jaina Proudmoore
I have this problem as a gamer (yes, I know I have more than one, but shut up).
In addition to the fact that I waste hours upon hours upon hours engaged in an activity whose only net benefit from my perspective is that it’s given me the World’s Most Powerful Thumbs, I will often go back and replay, from start to finish, old games that I particularly enjoyed. I feel guilty for doing so (unless there’s achievement points involved), but I still do it.
I mention this because I recently, and for the fourth time, picked The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion back up. My rationale was that there were still a few achievements I hadn’t unlocked, but though I’ve been playing it heavily for over a week, I haven’t yet sought out a single one of them. As I’m playing through basically everything this game has to offer, I realize that I’m doing it for the pure love of gaming.
Oblivion isn’t a perfect game, and I’m not going to pretend it is. They apparently had five voice actors for the entire goddamn thing, it’s buggier than anything not made by Obsidian Entertainment (two days ago I spent three hours in a fight with two separate but consecutive quest-breaking bugs – I eventually won), and all the characters are from the same Uncanny Valley where Alan Wake’s wife grew up, but at least Bethesda gives a shit. While I’m certainly wasting my time while playing Oblivion, I never feel like I’m wasting my time. But I had, given its flaws, wondered why. I mean, goddamn it, I’ve played it mostly through four times now, they must’ve been doing something right. So what was that something? It took me a while to figure it out, but when I did, it made perfect sense.
It’s the story and the writing. You never hear it as one of the games mentioned for this, but I think Oblivion proves Roger Ebert wrong when he says video games don’t count as an art form. I mean, ultimately we shouldn’t care what Roger Ebert has to say on the matter since it’s like listening to a janitor discuss nuclear physics, but still, Oblivion’s story and setting are an excellent refutation. Fallout 3 is even moreso (there’s going to be an article on here some time soon about games that prove Ebert wrong, and Fallout 3 might head the list), but it’s a post-apocalyptic setting, which is an immediate turn-off for me. Oblivion’s fantasy universe of Tamriel, though, is just so rich and deep, with not just so much existing and well thought-out backstory but so much potential for further growth, that I can’t help but be riveted every time I find myself once again entering that world.
That’s the thing. Most video games are, like the Faulkner quote, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Sure, there’s pretty explosions and lots of shooting/stabbing/bumfights if you’re playing Condemned/etc, but most video games aren’t art; not in any valid sense, anyway. From the perspective of a story-driven medium, they’re utter, worthless dreck.
The big franchises are the worst offenders. There are things I enjoy about the Halo and Gears of War games, but both are ultimately about big muscly guys mowing down legions of beings that look different from them, and the story is there only as a vehicle to let you shoot more dudes. Sometimes games actually do have an interesting story behind them, but it still serves primarily as a vehicle for shooting aliens, getting shuffled to the side for the vast majority of the game (I’m looking right at you, Half-Life series). JRPG’s like Final Fantasy and Star Ocean don’t have that issue, but their plots appear to have been written by people under the influence of heavy narcotics, and in the rare case that a game is smart enough to stick to what it is and not cock up its own story (like Skies of Arcadia), the story will be usually functional but inherently simple. The Metal Gear Solid series cares a great deal about its story, but it gets disqualified because I’m pretty sure it was written by an unfathomably long-winded and self-important chimpanzee. It’s very rare for a game to have a real, complex, and interesting story as the driving force behind it.
Out of those few occasions, there are also times when a game fails so miserably from the standpoint of being a game that it’s all for naught (Vanguard will forever be the poster child for this) – just like a movie with cinematography and camera work so awful that its wonderful script goes completely to waste. Worse, sometimes when it’s a great story with an actual good game attached to it, half (or more) of the gaming community just outright rejects it.
Take Psychonauts. Psychonauts is a game about a psychic adolescent who runs away from the circus (nice twist right off the bat) to join a summer camp for psychic kids. The game leads you to jump through a series of wildly differing minds in order to ultimately save the camp from the sinister machinations of a dark figure intent on using the campers’ psychic abilities for their own ends. From a story perspective, it was a work of genius. The art direction may have been the best of any game I’ve ever seen – different enough to be new and interesting without being so avant garde that it hurt to look at. I could not possibly have been any happier with the story presentation of that game. I mean, inside the mind of a giant sentient fish you’re basically Godzilla, for fuck’s sake, and inside the mind of one mental patient (there are several) you encounter a world that I can only describe as M.C. Escher meets suburbia meets paranoid conspiracy theorists. How the hell do you criticize things like that?
Of course, it didn’t sell well, because despite the fact that game critics lavished it with virtually-universal praise, many gamers complained about the control scheme, the graphics, and virtually every other nitpick they could think of. The control scheme wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t a disaster; the early Resident Evil games had far more issues, and I don’t recall anyone throwing a shit fit about them at the time. Too, I suspect it wasn’t the graphics that bothered people but the fact that the art style wasn’t the same gritty and realistic shit we’ve become accustomed to (so the very thing I loved about it turned some people off). I mean, I for one thought it was nice to see a game with more colors than brown, gray, and muzzle flash, but maybe I’m the weird one.
That’s ultimately the issue here. I don’t blame game companies for churning out games with no plot, because frankly, a good portion of the gaming community doesn’t deserve them. I don’t care if someone wants to ignore the plot of a good game to their own detriment, but I have an issue when assholes like these are the people that ultimately keep Psychonauts 2 and games like it from ever getting made.
Tell you what, gamers who don’t care about story. If you just want to fire a gun, go to a shooting range and let loose. You’ll have your power fantasies satisfied, your tiny penis insecurities temporarily mollified, and you won’t shit on the gaming experience for the rest of us. I think it’s win-win all around.
Prince of Persia: The Warrior Within
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was brilliant on so many levels. I mean, time manipulation had been done before, but never with such…such rampant pizzazz, for wont of a better term. The fact that it successfully incorporated free-running elements put it over the top in my and virtually every other gamer’s view.
<tangent>: you can’t have a bad game that nevertheless gets free-running right. An excellent representation can and has single-handedly saved a game. The simple rule is that if you work out free-running, your game will at least be worth playing. </endtangent>
The point is, Sands of Time is one of the greatest games ever made, and passes the “can I still play it today and have fun?” litmus test with flying colors.
So what the fuck happened to the sequel?
I could come up with any number of outlandish theories for our mutual amusement. I could discuss the possibility of Paint Chip Souffle becoming all the vogue at the offices of Ubisoft. I could talk about space aliens stealing the developers’ common sense in order to fuel the dying star that gives light and warmth to their homeworld. I could kick Obsidian in the shins again (OH GOD, IT’S JUST SO TEMPTING). But we know that the truth is far more depressing than any of those possibilities.
The reality is that the failure of The Warrior Within was due to the same factor that caused a lot of the failures on this list: marketing appeal. The producers of the game decided the original Prince wasn’t “cool” enough to “jive” with enough of todays young “hep cat” crowd (this despite the game selling something like a metric fuckload of copies worldwide). They needed a prince who was “edgier,” more “rad,” and more of a “shithead.”
Let’s do a study in comparison, shall we? The original Prince was a wisecracking, slightly superior, yet somewhat self-conscious character; in other words, a lot like a real person. The revised prince was a hostile, angsty whinypants who enjoyed stabbing things in the face and probably had “Crawling” by Linkin Park on infinite repeat on his iPod (you just KNOW he had an iPod); in other words, a lot like a real person, only the sort of real person you see on the subway who you wish someone would curb-stomp just to make the gene pool a little cleaner. Where the original prince would manipulate time in order to cleverly solve a puzzle facing him, the revised prince would manipulate time in order to cleverly knife someone in the balls a few more times. Where the original Prince might have made light of a dramatic situation, the revised prince would grimace and possibly spout a menace-laden one-liner about pain or blood or how no one reads his livejournal. Where the original Prince loved kittens and unicorns, the revised prince ate live puppies and hunted sweet old grandmothers for sport.
What I’m getting at here is that the revised prince was kind of a dick. Having main characters who are kind of dicks is actually ok in most games (see: War, God of), as long as there’s 1) something redeeming about the character, 2) another character in the game you can sympathize with, or 3) the character had always been like that. But there was NOTHING to like about the revised prince, and apparently everyone in the world of The Warrior Within had fallen victim to the Angst Pandemic. We’ve already discussed the prince’s shift in demeanor (by contrast, Kratos was ALWAYS a dick), but he wasn’t nearly the only victim of it; I swear, the entire game was like being trapped in a Linkin Park video. The story and characters of The Warrior Within were so unredeemable that the game’s vastly improved combat and graphics didn’t matter; the series was officially dead to me.
This is one of the few times my opinion and that of Yahtzee Croshaw diverge pretty drastically. He loved The Warrior Within despite its identity crisis; I wanted to find every developer involved with it and punch them in the face. It was shitty enough that when the third game, The Two Thrones, rolled around, I couldn’t even be bothered to care whether or not it was good. That’s the most depressing thing to me; I didn’t even care if it sucked.
Apparently, I missed something important. I couldn’t bring myself to play The Two Thrones at the time, but I decided to give The Forgotten Sands (the latest iteration of the series) a shot. While it’s by no means a perfect game (and not actually interesting enough to merit a full review), in terms of tone they’ve moved right back to their wheelhouse and kicked the shithead Prince to the curb. Amen, I say.
That’s why this is the last entry, actually; Ubisoft, alone among all of the companies on this list, seemed to recognize their mistake and backpedal from it as quickly as they could. Frankly, I like to end on a happy note, and this is it.
Deus Ex: Invisible War
There are sequels on this list that failed because they crumbled under the weight of their own ambition, the scope of their grand dream ultimately crippling them (like MGS3). There are sequels on this list that failed because of outright laziness in story and character development (like KOTORII). There are sequels on this list that failed because the developers were deliberately trying to sabotage their own creation (like Devil May Cry 3…and possibly MGS3). There are sequels on this list that failed because the game was so hideously ugly to look at that even if it had a great personality, it would be impossible to tell because most gamers just can’t get over the fact that the game has a harelip, a hunchback, and an extremely unfortunate skin condition (like Wind Waker).
Then there is Deus Ex: Invisible War, a game for which the developers at Eidos deserve to be on trial for crimes against humanity.
I’m going to come out and say right now that even though this list is not in any way ranked (because then I would be obliged to make the list conform to some arbitrarily numbered format, like The Top Ten or The Top Five, and fuck that noise), if it were, Deus Ex: Invisible War would be first. It’s not just a terrible sequel; it’s legitimately one of the most horrendous games ever made.
What made it so awful is the fact that the first game was unequivocally brilliant, quite possibly the most unique and well-crafted game of its generation, for any platform, the Portal of its time. The fact that it managed to pull this off while also being a first-person-shooter is doubly incredible, since in lieu of original thought, most FPS developers simply decide to build another “shoot man in head make face go boom” clone of everything that came before it. Deus Ex was, more than anything else, different. It managed to blend elements of fast-paced FPS gameplay, intuitive and well-constructed stealth sequences, and a surprisingly involving RPG element pertaining to the character’s skills and bionic augmentations. You had a wide variety of options to solve nearly every obstacle you faced; it was the incredibly rare sort of game where Player Choice wasn’t just a buzzword. It was pretty much the game Peter Molyneux’s been trying to make for the last seven years, only if it was made by someone far less incompetent than Peter Molyneux. The player’s combat style could, through specialization, range from picking enemies off at range with a sniper rifle, to mowing them down with assault weapons, to carrying a giant rocket launcher, to specializing in stealth takedowns with the crossbow, to rushing enemies and beating them to death with a laser sword (it’s worth commenting that any involvement or iteration of the phrase “laser sword” automatically increases the quality of a game by about triple). The fact that this was a game that allowed the player to jump twenty feet into the air, become invisible, and have flashlight eyes didn’t exactly hurt.
Yeah, maybe the graphics weren’t exactly spectacular, but they weren’t awful, and if I have to sacrifice some pretty pictures in the name of fantastic gameplay and a killer story, I’m perfectly happy to do so…and if you aren’t, you’re the sort of knuckle-dragging three-toed ar-tard that deserved the likes of MGS3 and both of the first two Halo sequels. The point is, the first Deus Ex was good enough that you can replay it now and still love the hell out of it.
But I’m completely convinced the makers of Deus Ex: Invisible War were on a heroin binge, because that’s the only explanation I can come up with for the tragedy they inflicted on such a wonder of creative and intelligent game design. The only other one (which is more likely, but a lot less fun) I can think of is that company executives at Eidos saw that the first game hadn’t been particularly popular in the mainstream (for more on this, see my next article series, “Games You Bastards Never Played, Goddamn You”), but had a rabid cult following. They thus hatched an insidious plan to create the most insipid and unoriginal mainstream FPS-clone they could to attract a mainstream audience, only they attached the Deus Ex name to it to ensure that the first game’s small but potent group of fanboys stayed onboard. Then they rushed it through production like a racehorse on amphetamines.
This had an interesting effect. Normally, when a game gets rushed through production and doesn’t receive proper playtesting, it winds up possessed of innumerable bugs and glitches. That didn’t quite happen with Deus Ex: Invisible War. See, in order to have a game that involves lots of bugs and glitches, the game must also involve aspects of it that aren’t glitched or bugged. The game was effectively just one gigantic glitch, straining and crying for someone to kill it like a nightmarish genetics experiment gone horribly wrong. What I’m trying to say is that the lead developer of Deus Ex: Invisible War was Dr. Moreau.
There’s really no adequate way to list the things that are wrong with this game. You have to start by saying, “Everything,” and then work your way backwards from there. And the conversation just gets so depressing you don’t want to continue after five minutes. That’s the most appropriate word for the game: depressing. Speaking of which, I’d write more, but at the moment I find myself parched, and there’s a bottle of Drain-O with my name on it.
Onimusha: Dawn of Dreams
The Onimusha series follows a really unusual track, as far as series (and especially survival horror series) tend to go. The first game was good, but suffered from Capcom’s pathetically inept early Resident Evil control scheme (seriously, to this day the only explanations I can think of for that unwieldy thing are syphilis-induced madness and an incredibly elaborate game of Double Dare). The second game was a walking pile of ass, and every copy of it should be thrown into a fire. Then they came out with Onimusha 3, and somehow managed to fix every single problem I had with the first two games, throwing in an intuitive, helpful control scheme along with voice acting and character modeling by Jean Reno. I like Jean Reno, and a game that allows me to actually play as the only living French badass is difficult for me to criticize. Sure, the game wasn’t particularly deep, and the story was as laughable as anything Capcom has ever produced, but it was fun and engrossing, and if you didn’t enjoy the frenetic combat, I don’t know what the hell to tell you. After Onimusha 3, I was extremely excited for Dawn of Dreams, thinking that the makers of the series had finally figured it out, and we would be treated to more of the same for years to come.
I’m not sure what the hell happened. Maybe the development team went on a year-long bender. Maybe Obsidian employees snuck in the day before launch and completely re-wrote the game. Maybe the makers of the Silent Hill series kidnapped the lead dev’s daughter and threatened to murder her if the dev didn’t submarine the entire franchise. Whatever it was, it wasn’t good.
Dawn of Dreams completely abandons the game’s survival horror roots. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing; Resident Evil 4 was only loosely “survival horror” at best, but it was still a great game (albeit one written by chimpanzees with typewriters). But while Resident Evil sacrifices survival horror in the name of interesting and well-crafted gameplay and controls, Dawn of Dreams sacrifices survival horror in the name of squirrel turds. There is absolutely nothing enjoyable about the combat system implemented in this game. It’s not just the combat that’s the problem, either; the entire concept of an interconnected series of smaller maps so integral to any survival horror game has been thrown right out the window in favor of an inexplicable old-school mission system with an over-the-shoulder scrolling camera that effectively transforms Dawn of Dreams into a third-person shooter with swords. I don’t think I’d have that much of a problem with this if the missions didn’t all consist of “walk down street, hit monster in face” and the levels didn’t look like the same standard recycled crap you’ve seen over and over and over, but as it is I’m left wondering why God hates me so much.
The weird thing is that the character designs really aren’t half-bad. It’s obvious that a lot of thought and effort went into them. Evidently, though, the developers were only interested in drawing pretty pictures, and when it came time to actually design the gameplay, they couldn’t be fucked to make a half-decent effort. In honor of their laziness, I’m ending this article now so I can go get a sandwich.
Devil May Cry 3
Like Yahtzee Croshaw, I’m convinced the makers of the Devil May Cry series are filled with hatred. They hate themselves for creating a series they can’t seem to kill no matter how hard they try, they hate the games they create, and they hate their miserable, pathetic existences. Most of all, though, they hate us for continuing to play the damn games, and for perpetuating the vicious cycle.
This is the only explanation that makes sense to explain the existence of Devil May Cry 3.
It’s been a while since I played them, but as far as I can recall, the first two Devil May Cry games weren’t that bad. They weren’t great, of course, but they weren’t vomit-inducingly terrible like the third installment.
It’s not that the game is absurdly difficult. I mean, it is, but that’s not the core problem. I’ve played difficult games. Ninja Gaiden for the XBox was difficult (often absurdly so), and the XBLA version of Super Street Fighter II Turbo is comically difficult, but that’s not the same thing as what Devil May Cry 3 suffers from. Devil May Cry 3 is afflicted by a particularly nasty case of Fake Difficulty. The individual fight sequences, while challenging, are not impossibly so…as long as you know how to do them. Therein lies the problem: the game does not ever deign to give you hints at how not to die when faced with an absurdly difficult, seemingly-impossible to kill boss. They just throw you at it and expect you to pick it up through, I don’t know, ESP or something. Then, when you inevitably die, do you get sent to a convenient checkpoint to try again? Haha, go fuck yourself. Checkpoints are for sissies that don’t have months on end to spend playing the same level over seventy-eight fucking times. You have to do the level all over again, right from the beginning.
Ok, let me take a moment to make something clear to any future game developers who might be reading this article: this sort of thing is NEVER a good idea. It has never been a good idea in the entire history of video gaming. If you do this, and I find out you at one point read this article, I will come to your house and force you to play Devil May Cry 3 for months on end. And no jury in the world would convict me.
I haven’t played Devil May Cry 4 (I like to think I’m not the type to enter back into an abusive relationship), but from what I’ve heard, it supports my theory to a T, especially considering the developers have deliberately gone the MGS2 route and decided to replace their main character with a bland copycat possessing all the lovability of a bag of diseased rats. Not that Dante wasn’t a ginormous tool in the first place, but at least you knew where you stood with him. The new guy, whose name is, I don’t know, Caligula or something, is apparently just like Dante, except with even more of a belt fetish. If that’s possible. I’ll never know for sure, though, because I’d rather shove a plunger up my nose than ever play a Devil May Cry game again.
The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker
I don’t know if there’s another game in this series that causes as much disagreement as Wind Waker. Plenty of people think it’s a masterpiece in both design and execution, a lavender-scented jewel that lovingly graced the GameCube with its majestic presence. Then there are people who think it’s a lead-plated semen sandwich of awfulness, the ugly, unwanted step-child to the Zelda series that should, in a just world, fall off the face of the Earth, never to be heard from again. I don’t think it needs to be explicitly expressed to which group I belong.
The most frustrating thing about discussing Wind Waker with people who actually like it is that they always make the same assumption about people who hate it: “oh, you just don’t like it because you don’t like cel shading.” Wait, wait. When it is done right, cel shading is my absolute favorite form of video game animation. Games like Rogue Galaxy and Tales of Symphonia feature some of my favorite visual designs ever. The problem is, prior to making Wind Waker, the developers at Nintendo had evidently heard of cel shading without ever actually seeing it. What they came up with is not cel shading; it is a dark window into a world of unending horror.
It’s as if you told me you loved Snickers bars, so I took a dump in a brown wrapper and handed it to you, telling you to enjoy your Snickers bar. Yeah, when you squint it kind of looks like a Snickers bar, but really all you’re holding is a turd. That’s Wind Waker: a giant, steaming turd. Only less visually appealing. It’s a dramatic departure from the rest of the Zelda series, too, considering that the game does not in any capacity involve Link. Oh, sure, they TELL you Link is the main character, but they’re lying. Instead, the main character is a tubby, largely-amorphous blob thing with disembodied eyebrows that kind of looks like Link. If you squint. And drink an entire bottle of tequila. Even then, you’re probably going to notice that something isn’t quite right.
Here’s the real kicker: ordinarily, I don’t give two shits about animation quality. As long as its playable, I can forgive a game for having sub-par graphics, because pretty pictures are worthless if the game doesn’t possess great gameplay (I’m looking at you, MGS3). But Wind Waker was so unbelievably hideous that I simply couldn’t (and still can’t) bring myself to climb into bed with it. Also, it was kind of a bitch to my mom and it ran up the water bill. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to take this analogy out back and kill it with a shovel before it mutates any farther.
The unforgivably stupid animation and visual design is only one problem in the greater whole, though. Even the game’s supporters will admit that the overly long sailing sequences are painful at best and unconscionable at worst. It’s doubly mystifying in that Nintendo left this feature in for the sequel, Phantom Hourglass, which is itself sadly disqualified from this list for being a terrible sequel to an already terrible game, and if I were to open up the list to include those criteria it’d wind up as nothing but Mario Party and Army Men games.
I’d been told by friends Wind Waker was much more enjoyable if you didn’t think of it as a Zelda game and just played it for what it was. I tried this, and I can confidently say that after careful consideration and much soul-searching, I can only come to the conclusion that my friends are full of horse shit. Wind Waker is a rancid pile of ass no matter how you slice it, and the fact that it’s not mentioned in the same breath as Wand of Gamelon is a fucking travesty against common sense.
Final Fantasy X-2
Oh Lord, this one. This might be the only game in this series where I can be absolutely sure no one will alive disagree with me. This game was crap in so many ways it’s difficult to categorize them. But I’m going to try.
FFX2 is unique in that its a case of an actual sequel to an FF game. Maybe I’m wrong on that and there was some continuity happening with two of the Tactics games or something (and I know there’s a connection between FFXII and FFTA2), but I’m far too lazy to bother to check up on that and they don’t count because I say so. Anyway, I honestly can’t recall another time they’ve done this, and if FFX2’s any indication, there’s a very good reason for that. The graphics are alright, I guess, if you’re really into avant garde fashion design, but in every other way the game falls apart like a Jenga tower made of whipped cream. The gameplay mechanic is shoddy at best, the characters are cardboard cutouts, and the story, never exactly spectacular in Final Fantasy games to begin with (or, indeed, in nearly anything produced by the Japanese since the death of Akira Kurosawa), is like getting a root canal with a rusty spoon and no anesthetic. Worst of all, you never feel like there’s any point to anything to game makes you do. You just do it, and wonder why the hell you were stupid enough to buy this game in the first place.
It seemed like they were trying to craft Final Fantasy For Girls, but what they forgot in the process is that Final Fantasy For Girls already exists…in the form of every Final Fantasy game ever. Most gamers I know don’t have deep-seated man-on-man fantasies (that we talk about, anyway), so the consistently and absurdly androgynous main character trope isn’t one that most guys will generally go for…then again, these games are first released in Japan, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s a common sexual peccadillo in the land of the Rising Sun (after five years and a degree in East Asian History, I think I’d actually be more surprised if it wasn’t). This was exemplified in the person of Tidus, the main character from (of all things) the original FFX, the FF-universe’s first representation of a whiny, emotionally insecure Emo Kid. Tidus, even though he’s not in existence any more at the start of FFX-2, is still the driving force behind the plot, such as there is of it, as Yuna, Rikku, and some crazy Marge Simpson-haired goth bitch (whose presence Square never saw fit to explain) are journeying around the world changing outfits and singing songs because they think Tidus might still be alive somehow. This begs the question of why they’d even want to find the smarmy little git in the first place, but hey, Final Fantasy characters don’t exactly have a stellar track record in terms of life choices.
Its worth talking about the plot (or lack of one) a little bit more, because that’s the biggest part of what makes this game such a failure. I mean, the gameplay is same-y and thoroughly uninteresting, yeah, but really, when you’re dealing with a game that has such a giant gaping hole where a plot should belong, it gets difficult to notice its other flaws. That might have been the developers’ strategy, actually: they realized how crappy most of the other aspects of the game were, so they decided to surgically remove the plot so people would be so blinded by the lack of anything resembling a cogent narrative that they wouldn’t notice all the other things wrong with the game. If that was their aim, it worked, I guess, but in the end it just means they made a crappy game even crappier.
I won’t bother to talk about it any more. I think everyone who’s a fan of the Final Fantasy series has agreed to pretend this game didn’t happen, and that levels a harsher criticism than anything else I could say.