Monday, January 25, 2010

Prime; To be alone

  An unidentified distress signal flashes across my screen and my gunship promptly traces it to a  ship orbiting the planet “Tallon IV”. In an instant I set the ship into motion, heading directly for the distress beacon. Upon my arrival I leap out of my ship onto Frigate Orpheon. Debris floats in space around the frigate, bits and pieces of the ship that were apparently torn straight from the hull. Noticing no signs of life in the immediate vicinity, I make my way through a series of force fields and blast shield doors, my Power Suit clanging as I take step after wary step.

While traversing the cluttered hallways I notice corpses everywhere . . . hanging wires and broken screens that spark and crackle as they slowly die. The only thing stirring are twisted parasites scuttling here to there, roaming through the air ducts and small tunnels that they’ve burrowed into the ship.

This leads me to believe that the mutated insects have been free for some time, and as I wander through the many passageways and rooms a feeling of claustrophobia sets in. After some time I stumble upon a room filled with imprisoned life forms; radioactive toxins litter the room, oozing from the crates that I can only assume encased them.
Growls and creaking doors vibrate the air with sound. Some of the cages shake as their inhabits seize in fits of madness and rage. Presumably the toxin was used for the mutation and experimentation of said creatures.

 I briefly change my optical visor to Scan Mode and confirm my suspicions. While examining the information with my scan visor, what I had previously thought were corpses begin to fire at me. The humanoids are greatly weakened, thus I easily dodge their shots and quickly dispatch of them, but they are obviously hostile. After inspecting one of the creatures closely I learn that they’re called Space Pirates. I know the name: vicious creatures that conquer planets merely to add to their riches and power. They’re a menace to the Galactic Federation and all peace-loving peoples.

It would seem that nothing on Frigate Orpheon is friendly, and despite the fact that I originally came here to help, I don’t believe there’s anything here that wants my aid. After weeding through the bodies and exterminating all of the Space Pirates I continue to explore the remainder of the frigate. As I slowly make progress I stumble upon the main reactor for the ship. Seemingly from nowhere, a massive parasite appears and attacks me. A hundred times larger than what must be its offspring, the parasite is quick and highly aggressive. With no help in sight, I face off against the behemoth alone. Somehow the doors have sealed and my only chance at survival is to destroy the monstrosity before me.

The battle is hard won, but I emerge victorious nonetheless. Upon defeating the creature it plummets downward and its hulking carcass collides with the reactor core, causing the reactor to go haywire and sending the ship out if orbit and straight into turmoil. The Varia Suit that I’m wearing gets a read on the ship and estimates a countdown before the reactor superheats and blows the whole ship. There isn’t much time, so I rush from room to room, hurriedly seeking an escape. With relatively no time left, I find an elevator leading out, but the ship rocks with explosions before I can safely reach it. The resulting blast sends me flying at breakneck speed and I slam straight into the elevator wall. As a result my suit starts to malfunction , downgrading my heat-resistant Varia Suit to a mere Power Suit. In the process I lose many of my abilities. Missiles offline, Space Jump offline, Morph Ball offline . . . in essence, I’m relatively helpless. Down but not out, I emerge from the elevator and rush towards my gunship. As I’m about to reach it I notice metallic flash out of the corner of my eye. I turn to get a full view and notice a dragon-like creature that is also fleeing the exploding frigate: Ridley, the leader of the Space Pirate army. More importantly, the one who murdered my parents. 

Hatred boils inside of me, and the need for vengeance is stronger than any rational thoughts I might have had. I jump into my gunship, fire up the thrusters and race after him as he escapes to Tallon IV. With total disregard for personal safety, I fly headlong into an atmospheric storm and my ship is struck by a stray lightning bolt. With my ship’s integrity compromised I begin to spiral out of control and the only place to go is down. I struggle to maintain control but my ship crash lands in a grove. In the chaos of the landing I lose sight of Ridley, and now I’m stranded on a planet that I know only one thing about: there are enemies afoot. 

This is the first hour of gameplay in Retro Studios’ Metroid Prime, and while no story is forced upon you like in most modern day adventure titles, the gameplay itself tells it. From the loss of your abilities to the hostile nature of everything that moves, the game leaves you vulnerable and alone. The forlorn tundras of Phendrana Drifts and the desolate temples of the Chozo Ruins scream desertion, which is exactly what the planet is. Everything about Metroid Prime lets you know that the world is against you. Being one of the few games that doesn’t have a conventional narrative, Prime does a remarkable job at telling a story, better than most. This is largely due to the fact that while the story is linear, the gameplay and the way it all unfolds is not.

To truly understand what’s happening the player must “scan” enemies and other objects. Doing so exposes the weaknesses and abilities of enemies, and it also displays a paragraph of data that one of the planet’s inhabitants may have recorded in a log. This way the history and mythology of Tallon IV is revealed at a pace that you choose; you’re never bombarded with more information than you can handle. The result is a much more organic feel. The story is never too slow or too fast because the majority of it isn’t triggered by unavoidable events (e.g. boss battles, entering new areas, etc.). Pacing is often one of the biggest factors in the generally story-driven adventure genre, but Prime neatly sidesteps this issue.

With that said, some players may find fault with it because they aren’t spoon fed, something that has become quite a common feature. Such players will quickly lose interest with the story as there’s not really anything “happening”. Generally when players dig into the plot they become more and more immersed, causing the way they play to be defined by spoken, but not necessarily forced, rules.

The tale told in Metroid Prime is one that resonates with many people, too. At one time or another everyone has had that rebellious “me against the world” mentality, and the game exploits it to great effect. When you’re playing out something familiar it makes it all the easier to become fully engrossed in a story, and once you’re in there’s no way out until you’ve finished. You just have to see the plot to its climax. That’s art at its finest, which is what makes Metroid Prime such a masterpiece.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Smoke it. Hit it. Forget it.

If you are reading this article then you are probably one of three things: bored out of your mind, hopelessly lost, or my mother. I created this grand waste-o-space to share my thoughts on the game industry and identify what certain games are doing right and what they're doing wrong. Is that new game really as amazing as reviewers "get paid" to say it is? Here I hope to reveal whether or not a game is all that you dreamed.

With that aside, let's dive head first into the matter at hand: video games and their cultural relevance. At times I fancy myself a philosopher of sorts, so bear with me!

There are a gratuitous amount of people that look at games and dismiss them as mere toys; on the flip-side, those same people constantly criticize games and even attempt to hold said games responsible for their own failings as a society. How could anyone even dream of holding a toy responsible for a murder (The Manhunt incident)? Or any act of violence, for that matter? And no, Chucky doesn't count. Truth be told, people are caught in the choice of acknowledging video games as an acceptable part of our society or dismissing them like every other childish fad.

The problem is they are already far beyond that: they're a direct reflection of the state of our culture. Upon the dawn of the sixth generation of hardware, there came about a subtle shift in western made games, and it reached its peak in the 2005-10 period. Grand Theft Auto IV, Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Gears Of War, Halo  . . . the list goes on. Violence has become the only creative element that really sales; well, violence and whatever has "Wii" or "Mario" pasted on the front of it and "Hero" on the back.

Why is it that shooters sell so well? I'll give you a hint: it has something to do with violence. What's that you say? "Perhaps it's because people are so violent"? Bingo! Now, I know, right about this time you're thinking "but people have always been violent, Malcolm!". To that I'd respond with a resounding "duh" and then choose to completely ignore you . . . . Anyway, the reason that the best selling video games are so violent is simple: rebellion. The whole industry is in rebellion, mainly due to a complete lack of respect and acceptance that gamers experienced in the mid eighties to the mid nineties. Gamers were usually portrayed as creepy, basement dwelling scum, or better yet, angry fat kids. Well guess what? Those scum are the ones designing games nowadays, and since society wouldn't accept them . . . why should they accept society's rules? So they lash out through their chosen form of expression.

My little theory still doesn't pan out quite yet, amirite? Well the people buying the games right now -that's me and [hopefully] you- guess who they look(ed) up to? Their predecessors, the angry fat kids and the scum. So we buy what they say is cool; we're already naturally violent, so it's not like this takes much stretching. Thus the industry as we know it is born! There's also the theory that as the "faceless generation" we're merely seeking attention, just like with the "emo" movement. From one extreme to the other, or so the theory goes.

One way or another, what we've learned leads back to one central point: video games effect, and even shape, our lives in profound ways. Anything that has the potential to have the message of a novel, the shock value a of film, and the emotional roller coaster of music should never be regarded as "less than" or a toy.

As horrible as it sounds, video games can change lives (for better or worse), while toys can only change moods.