Video game, 2010
Here’s yet another DS adventure game that beat me. I could dedicate a lot of thought dissecting the things about this game that don’t work, things that I believe are objectively bad, but instead I’m going to talk about one moment that stuck out to me as particularly awful, and from which you can draw your own conclusions about the level of sophistication at work here. In it the protagonist asks his love interest (and their characters have no depth past what I just described) to repeat herself after she said the words “It’s really hard”. Several times. He didn’t do this to laugh at her accidental innuendo, we’re told that after she repeated herself he blushed. I guess he asked her to say it again so that he could overload on how sexually exciting that is? Right in front of her? And the third party that’s present? It’s this mortifying immaturity and emotional tone-deafness that informs all aspects of this game. The shallowness of thought here is overwhelming, despite some good puzzle design. I’m surprised by the amount of positive attention this game has received, and can only speculate that people either wanted to like it because of its interesting gameplay mechanics, were fleeced into thinking its brooding atmosphere actually possessed depth, or have loose standards due to the low bar set by poor storytelling in the majority of video games.
Video game, 2010
This is the video game that finally made me realize that I have no interest in traditional adventure games of the mystery solving variety. This is a genre that I had been intimidated by what I perceived to be an intimidating amount of complexity and depth. After playing two of the genre’s most beloved classics, Broken Sword and now Secret Files (both in the form of their DS ports), I can now rest easy with the revelation that these games are shallower than a puddle. They’re boring, bland affairs, devoid of any intrigue, insight, or excitement. Secret Files in particular is unintuitive in every way. The interface is garbage, requiring up to three click to simply look at something. The puzzles make no sense, requiring near constant trips to a walkthrough. And the story reads like Indiana Jones fan fiction. I will say that Secret Files brushes right up against being fun in its incompetence, but not to an extent that is capable of holding your interest for more than a couple of chapters.
Video game, 2010
As a big fan of the Ace Attorney series of games, I’ve looked forward to playing Ghost Trick, a new property by Ace Attorney creator Shu Takumi, for a long time. And it was quite a while into playing Ghost Trick that I was still viewing it through the prism of Ace Attorney. There are a lot of reasons for this beyond the fact that they have the same creator. Not the least of which is because they are both the same type of unique game. A “visual novel” (which is, let’s be honest, just another way of saying “comic book”). What this means is that for the vast majority of the time you’re playing Ghost Trick, you’re simply reading. The beauty of this genre, or perhaps just the way Takimi treats it, is the way it marries story and gameplay. Only by paying attention to the story, and anticipating the story, can you determine the correct course of action. Many people find this unappealing, preferring the arcade style thrills of Mario Kart, Fruit Ninja, or Call of Duty. That’s fine. Although those things make a fine distraction, there’s nothing like a good story. And that’s not to say that there’s nothing visceral about Takumi’s games. The man knows how to dole out clues to a mystery better than JJ Abrams ever will. The answers, and new questions, you’re given are paced out at near perfect intervals. Close enough in proximity to each other to be rewarding, and not so far apart that it feels artificially lengthened. Okay, the third act may be guilty of that. And the beginning of the game holds your hand for way too long. But! For the most part you’re following a loose trail of crumbs, realizing where it leads right along with the protagonist. This, combined with crazy characters and unique dialogue-centered sound effects, are the tantalizing special sauce on Takumi’s works. (Sample dialogue: “Fool! Don’t you know women are can make themselves appear thin through fashion! To this day I still don’t know how much my wife really weighs!”)
But all of this could be said about Ace Attorney as well. And while Ghost Trick doesn’t have the “crazy Japanese lawyer” weapon in its arsenal (a tough gimmick to top, to be sure), it does have a number of strong qualities that has me seriously considering if it’s even better. Most notable is the art. The totally unique, lush animation is striking from the moment you see it, and a pleasure to drink in for the entire length of the game.
In addition to differentiating itself from Ace Attorney, Ghost Trick actually improves on its predecessor’s formula in a number of ways. One shift that I really appreciated is from the court room to the scene of the crime itself, and in progress at that. The fact that you’re present at the time the crime itself is being committed gives the proceedings a sense of urgency, excitement, and danger that Ace Attorney’s sterile courtroom setting just can’t compete with. Ghost Trick also magnifies Ace Attorney’s dichotomy of dark themes wrapped in a silly package. Death, although it rarely ends up sticking, is a real thing in Ghost Trick. The fact that you’re seeing it happen to excitable, talking Pomeranians and big, chicken-loving galoots only makes it more disturbing.
Ghost Trick’s biggest problem is the video game cardinal sin of making players sit through the same dialogue tree multiple times, although its interface attempts to circumvent this. Tough to avoid for a video game that most of what you do is read and involves time travel. This is likely to make it even less appealing to people turned off by its basic mechanics.
I’m most interested in Ghost Trick as a feat of storytelling. Regardless of the story itself, which is practically beside the point, I’m interested in the ways it tells its story. I think Takumi is a master of finding fresh, vital ways to make his stories engaging, and I’m endlessly entertained by them.
I heartily endorse all of the following films as standout ways of spending an evening being enthralled by an overabundance of dark, strange imagination and also wtfing.
Encounter at Raven’s Gate (It bears stipulating that this is actually a very good film.)
“I would never live in a house with dirty windows” said Constance Blackwood. This is her response to her sister Mary Katherine’s suggestion that they let their windows get dirty to the point of opacity, as a way to prevent the townspeople from seeing into their house. Her response turns a blind eye to the fact that there are closed rooms of the house filled with broken things, the top half of the house has been burned away and the townspeople regard them as inhuman creatures. But as long as their windows are clean, they are leading a proper life. Some people are like this. They can ignore massive, fundamental problems in their lives by focusing on keeping up appearances. Constance’s aversion is to the situation of her family, who are outcasts due to the suspicious deaths of almost all of them six years prior. What grows between the remaining family members is an insular system of love and devotion, each protecting each other in their own disturbed ways. It creates a reassuringly justified agoraphobia, the “castle” of the title, perfect except for the gleefully ignored fact that they are actually serving penance.
I picked up Drop Edge because its author, Rudy Wurlitzer, wrote two of my favorite movies; Walker and Two Lane Blacktop. I had always heard it was also linked to another of my favorites, Dead Man (it turns out Dead Man was “unofficially inspired by” Drop Edge in its original screenplay form). Drop Edge lived up to all those expectations. Its passive protagonist greets the kaleidoscopically surreal world he inhabits with a shrug of acceptance, navigating from one disarmingly strange and oddly stirring scene to the next with such frequency that you feel like he must have lived ten lives (as is appropriate- we’re in tall tale territory here). That protagonist, Zebulon, is trapped between the worlds of life and death and is compulsively drawn to a woman in a similar situation, each hoping that they can help free each other from purgatory. But if there’s a through-line in this story, it’s lost in the tornado of wild mountain doin’s that question whether or not those big questions really matter. Drop Edge drifts back and forth from addressing its themes, to not, then back again, like a dead leaf lackadaisically drifting to the ground.
I tried really hard to not love Dementium II. Eventually I failed. It has a lot of marks against it; it’s by some rinky third-party developer, it has a completely generic horror aesthetic, no (and I mean NO) regard for story and the box art is a painfully transparent attempt to attract people who enjoy, or are shopping for people who enjoy, the wave of Japanese influenced Hollywood horror films of the last decade. Much of the above are normally deal-breakers for me, so I was really surprised that I not only finished but completely enjoyed Dementium II. How did this happen? Well sometimes, despite it’s own shortcomings, a piece of entertainment is just plain old solid enough to be good. Dementium II is more than enjoyable enough to play, despite being, well, kind of bad. I attribute this to two factors; game design and atmosphere. It bears noting that I am not a serious gamer, and to say that I have literally no first-person shooter experience outside of the original GoldenEye would not be a stretch. Dementium II was made for the DS, which is not a “hardcore gamer” system and has very few titles of this type. I wouldn’t be surprised if the game was produced with this fact in mind; a bit of a gentler, less complex FPS for casual gamers like myself. It couldn’t seem more like it; I always knew where to go, but didn’t feel herded and was rewarded for exploring around, and always had enough ammo to do what I needed but not so much that I was able to breeze through by mindlessly blasting everything in sight. (Although, the boss fights were almost certainly too easy.) And I’ll tell you something- bring Dementium II into a dark room by yourself, and you can get a little creeped out. Admittedly, that’s not the way most people play their DS’, and I almost never played it like that, but I did come to respect the games atmospheric power. This is due to a number of factors; the very effective sound design, the alarmingly detailed graphics and the fact that the visual designers cribbed more from Clive Barker than The Ring. What this all adds up to is that in Dementium II, for the casual gamer at least, it’s a joy to walk around, breathe in, and blast monsters. 3.5
I think that Ace Attorney is one of those series that no matter which game you played first, that one is going to be your favorite forever. (Unless you’re like REALLY into this in a very straightforward way, in which case don’t talk to me.) My first game was Ace Attorney: Apollo Justice. For that reason my saying that Apollo Justice is better than the original Phoenix Wright may not hold any water, but I will maintain that Apollo Justice had crazier scenarios, weirder characters and better art, and if you’re not playing Ace Attorney games expecting those three categories to be maxed out, then I don’t know what you’re doing with them. I got a little bored with this one from time to time- the stories and characters were too mundane, and the puzzles were crazy easy. Still good though, and the case that they added at the end for this re-release is much better. 3