Another game suddenly cuts into the queue:
• Shadow of Destiny (2001, for PlayStation 2): Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo (Tokyo, Japan) [4 hrs]
I had never heard of this game until the moment I happened across a clip of it on Youtube, and I immediately felt the urge to play it because I got the strong impression that it might be bonkers.
Friends, it is BONKERS.
Part of the bonkers is in the localization from the Japanese, as is common, but just as much of the bonkers is in the original localization from the land of dream.
The apparent premise of the game is that a plane passing over Uncanny Valley accidentally drops a copy of “Back to the Future,” and the confused denizens there, who have never seen a human movie before, become obsessed with it and begin performing their own interpretations of the story. As is the way in Uncanny Valley, their voices, bodies, and thoughts are not actually linked internally but only through an interdimensional game of Telephone.
Of course that’s all a joke. In fact my fascination lies exactly in the fact that this is not an artifact from another world or a primitive society: it’s a video game from a large corporation, sold internationally. All the more to marvel at. Human culture is a vast fungal mass and this is one of its infinite fractal tendrils, and that’s all. I’m just noting that from my personal Mandelbrot perch, this particular tendril is, weirdly, both nearer and farther than it appears. Fractals can be that way.
I think that’s a deeper way of understanding the “uncanny valley.” The near side of the valley isn’t “realism,” per se, it’s just whatever way your personal culture has trained you to see the world. “Realism” — yes, even “photorealism” — is always a convention; the question is whether it’s your convention. This game neither belongs to my culture nor doesn’t belong; it’s too foreign to be familiar and too familiar to be foreign. It’s both and neither. It is, in a word, bonkers.
“Uncanny” and “comical” are two sides of the same bonkers. I laughed a lot while playing. Which is to say while watching — about 95% of the game is non-interactive puppet show. I’m fine with that, at least when the show is so distinctive.
I can’t find any other people online reacting that way to this game — to the contrary, it seems to be a sort of cult classic, very highly regarded by those who know it, but not widely known. Well, that’s fine. My amusement was my own and it was real.
When I was done, I thought I’d watch a little with the original Japanese audio, to see if it somehow made things feel more dignified or sensible. Turns out there is no original Japanese audio; the original Japanese version has the same English voices, just with Japanese subtitles. These are their real and only voices. So that particular thread of the absurdity isn’t really an issue of localization; it’s just another example of the longstanding Japanese compulsion to make like a Westerner, very charismatic, it’s the big time, ready to rock and roll!
I should also note that the voices are hopelessly American but the game seems to take place in Germany and the characters all have Germanic names. I think from the Japanese point of view, Germans might be second only to Americans in terms of the cachet of being compellingly non-Japanese. And perhaps somewhat interchangeable in that role. The protagonist’s name is “Eike Kusch,” which he pronounces as “Ike Kush” (rhymes with “mush”).
Only a few days later and this has already become one of those “did I make up this memory? did I dream it?” experiences, like a weird TV special I might have seen once 30 years ago and never had corroborated by another person. Some things seem destined to be felt that way; this game really hits that nail right on the head. It’s like they deliberately designed it to be one of those. This game is not corroborated. It’s just you and it, alone together, and it drills deep down into its own weird outlook and doesn’t look back. I was about to type “I can’t ask for more than that”… but of course I can ask for more. What I mean is: that, by itself, is worth a lot.
• Ico (2001, for PlayStation 2): Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. (Tokyo, Japan) [8.5 hrs]
In the course of investigating my options for playing Shadow of Destiny, I learned that the laptop I’m using is capable of faithfully emulating the PlayStation 2. This came as a surprise. I had thought that the PS2 (launched 2000, superseded 2006, discontinued 2013) was too recent and sophisticated a system for emulation to be an option. Having learned otherwise I suddenly got excited about finally experiencing a few much-talked-about “PS2 exclusive” games from 15 years ago that I had never gotten a chance to play. So I dove in with this one.
Ico is first and foremost a mood piece. The mood-building extends into every aspect of the design and is handled with great care. The game successfully casts a gentle spell of supernatural poignancy, and I’m not inclined to ask any more of it than that. Video games simply aren’t good enough yet — not 15 years ago, and not now — for a game with this degree of taste and sensibility not to be celebrated on that basis alone. Just the animation of the boy tugging the girl by the arm already contains more human insight than most other games in their entirety.
The gameplay itself is a bit rigid and limited, which is fine with me; somewhat repetitive and tedious, which I can bear; and quite obtuse about checkpoints and deaths, which I must admit I found truly annoying. At least an hour and a half of my play time was spent on redoing whole scenes I’d already completed just because the checkpoints were so damn few and far between. In this respect it reminded me of Heart of Darkness (as logged in August), and got to me to thinking about all the other ways it resembled Heart of Darkness. Both games use the mechanics of the platform adventure as means to an end, where the end is a distinctive cinematic ambition, and both games succeed despite themselves, because their bold pursuit of that ambition is compelling in itself. The player gets a taste of the dream and starts rooting for it.
I’ve always been drawn more toward eccentric games that pursue their aesthetic visions down rabbit-holes than I am toward games with robust rules and systems but nothing to show me. I’m much more excited about the fact that a video game can offer me what animation offers me than I am about the fact that it can offer me what a deck of cards offers me.
This is undoubtedly because I still have hardly any real-life experience of video games as social. I simply haven’t had those sorts of friends.
Back to the list for one game.
• Mirror’s Edge (2008): EA DICE (Stockholm, Sweden) [played for 3.5 hrs]
This is an admirable game that is also an infuriating game. Admirable, infuriating, admirable, infuriating, back and forth like that for three and a half hours, until I’d had as much as I could take and had to stop. Maybe I’ll return someday, but why, when there are so many worlds left to conquer?
Admirable because it’s an original concept done with care. Infuriating because the punishment to reward ratio is much much higher than it needs to be, to no end. At least “to no end” for someone like me, who’s just here as a tourist. I guess if I was in it for the self-esteem I’d feel it differently. But isn’t it a good thing that I don’t want these games to offer me self-esteem? I just want them to offer me entertainment. Falling yet again, because I still missed the jump, because I still haven’t mastered the unforgiving controls after 3 hours, is not entertaining enough. It’s close, but not quite enough.
Parkour appeals to a certain psychology that isn’t mine. I don’t go around feeling so humiliated by lacking “mastery over my environment” that I fantasize about being able to vault over it all. Our hero, Faith, is a “real badass” who “doesn’t take shit.” It’s a different hero complex from the monster truck military version that pushed me out of Crysis 2, but it’s still a hero complex. This one is more for people who fantasize about being as lithe and emotionally untouchable as a puma. I don’t personally identify with apex predators.
I’m really sick of badasses, and hearing people envied for being badasses. BADASS. BADASS. BADASS. Public service message: there’s no such thing as a “badass,” so you should be very suspicious of any you encounter.
My personal hero fantasies more have to do with e.g. discovering a secret will in an old trunk. Luckily there are plenty of games that target me.
And back off the list again.
• カエルの為に鐘は鳴る [Kaeru no Tame ni Kane wa Naru] (1992, for Game Boy): Nintendo / Intelligent Systems (Kyoto, Japan) [6 hrs?]
Browsing lists of Game Boy games to see what should go in my little retro box, I came across mention of a game with the title For Frog the Bell Tolls.
For Frog the Bell Tolls.
I of course had to try it out. I wanted to meet it and thank it for introducing this splendidly surreal sequence of words into my life.
The Japanese title is indeed exactly the title of the Hemingway novel with the words “for whom” replaced by “for the frog.” Since this is not actually a Dadaist game, I am going to assume that in Japanese this substitution reads as silly but more or less smooth, and that therefore “For Frog the Bell Tolls,” though literal, is a less than ideal translation. The game was never released outside of Japan, but one of its developers recently referred to it in an English-language blog post as “The Frog For Whom the Bell Tolls,” which preserves the reference and the silliness but irons out the Gertrude Stein. So we should probably take that as the best version of an English title.
The version I played was translated by fans in 2011 as “For the Frog the Bell Tolls,” with a sensible but somewhat disappointing “the.”
It’s okay: the purity of “For Frog the Bell Tolls” will live on in my heart.
What the title means: you play as a prince who gets turned into a frog, a spell which can be lifted by the sound of the ancient magic bell. See?
I started For the Frog the Bell Tolls purely for the novelty, but then I stuck with it to the end because it turned out to be an engaging and amusing game, and quite a well-made one. It wasn’t until after I had begun playing that I really registered that this was in fact an A-1 top-team production from Nintendo themselves, and basically the highest-profile Game Boy game not to be released in the West. I guess someone must have thought that the extremely goofy tone of the thing wouldn’t travel well — Japanese comedy often doesn’t. But assuming the translation I played was really as faithful as I’m led to believe it was, I think they were wrong about that. The sugary-sweet land-of-make-believe goofiness was accessible and perfectly palatable even for a Japanoskept like me.
It was in fact the game’s strongest suit; it kept me in a good mood even as ungenerous choices in the game’s design wasted my time. There’s not really any meat to the game; it’s just a matter of doing the obvious thing in a succession of cutesy scenarios — and yet there are quite a few “one-hit” deaths that cruelly set you way too far back, resulting in many tens of minutes spent grinding back through tasks and territory whose interest has already been exhausted. Irritating.
Otherwise, a real charmer. Nice music, too: a relatively tasteful, thematically cohesive score. By the end, the “bell” leitmotif heard in nearly every cue actually manages to feel like it’s accrued some kind of emotional meaning. Which is a lot more than can be said for most video game music, and is especially high praise for something composed entirely for the greeting-card tinky-tink instruments of the Game Boy. “Relatively” is a key word here, of course.