Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Realism, Horror, Pulp

Disclaimer: I am not responsible for any loss of innocence occurring while reading this.

    I was chatting with a friend last night and he made mention of playing Half Life until he had reached the part where “the military shows up and tries to kill you and you have to pick them off,” and he lost interest there, explaining that “somewhere between Wolfenstein 3d and Half Life, people in video games got too realistic for me to want to shoot in the face.” Now personally, my experience with Half Life is the first seven minutes I can play of Half Life 2 on the X-Box without having to run to the bathroom, nauseous from motion sickness but I can understand where he is coming from. The question of shooting someone well rendered enough to pass for a human being usually brushed off by saying that it's just a game. As with any other media, the question posed is not whether such an action is right or wrong but instead “what is the game trying to say here?” Furthermore, does realism in a game, either in character design or in situation, lend the game literary merit?

    Before we begin, Bioshock does not count for this one because while its own narrative is based on literary and political criticism of moral objectivism (because that has not been pointed out by every single person to touch the box by accident), its art style is Art Deco pushed to mad extremes with a bit of steam-punk influence as well, replacing the cyber-punk ethos of System Shock 2.
    At this point then, prudence dictates that realism be defined. Specifically for gaming, this involves two criteria: a) mostly realistically rendered human beings and b) simulations of situations that, more often than not, actually happened in one way or another or are just within the realm of possibility. The former is the most common trait in “realistic” games while the second reserves itself to certain historical situations or paranoid special operatives versus terrorist pulp fiction fantasies played out like Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 with its controversial “No Russian” mission. 
    World War II has overall been the biggest gold mine for realism as a game movement. Looking at the wikipedia list of games based in and around World War II, one would think that the war itself existed to create entertainment franchise after entertainment franchise and not, of course, to stop a series of madmen dictators from completely taking over Europe and parts of Asia. The games simulate the films about the war, or at least strive to with the cinematic shots and angles used. The first person camera angle means that the player sees what the character sees, there is no extra terrain around, just what's clear in vision and cloudy in peripheral vision in either a 4:3 or 16:9 contrast ratio. Provided that the point of the game is to kill the Nazis or be killed by the Nazis, the player is killing blank, evil representations of people that actually existed. While the games themselves are not history lessons, they are significant not because they tell “the story of” but rather “stories of”, via a number of characters. How well they do this, well, that depends on the game itself.
    The proliferation of World War II games seems to say that there were great battles with clear cut good and clear cut evil, not mentioning that had the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I footing the entire bill to Germany not done so in such a blatant manner that the whole country ended up riddled with shame, economic hyper inflation and suspicion of anyone different then a certain one testicled, psychopathic, failed art student from Austria might not have nearly acquired the amount of power that he ended up gathering, nearly wiping a race of people off of the earth and these games might not exist. One question I have though, and if any Medal Of Honor or Call Of Duty or Battleground enthusiasts can help me out with this one: do any of these games make reference to the concentration camps?
    On an added note, Panzerkraker from Medal Of Honor: Underground and Nazi Zombies from Call Of Duty: World At War may be a fun diversion but World War II was decidedly undead-free. Of course, I don't recall any textbook chapters on the death of Mecha-Hitler, so I'll let those slide from the argument. That said, the horror genre as a whole benefits from the realistic portrayal of humans, locations a la Silent Hill as well as human-like monsters. Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem benefits from using realism, a sort of Lovecraftian form of realism by using multiple lead characters during plausible times and locations through history to tell a story that, while it may be a complete and utter fantasy, is still plausible in its presentation without becoming an interactive film.
   While games that are promoted more as interactive films like Fahrenheit (or Indigo Prophecy) or the upcoming PS3 title Heavy Rain can set themselves as experiments in the genre. That said, only the first half of Fahrenheit counts as realism before its dependence on the purple and orange cults as plot devices derails an otherwise incredibly interesting narrative. For the first half of the game though, you play a man who committed a murder, the cop trying to find the murderer and the puppeteer holding the strings and trying to find a little, mute girl. There are creepy houses, well decorated loft apartments, and New York City abound. It is chilling, interesting and rooted in the real world before it heads into quick time event based psychic powers. That's where it stops being realistic and starts heading into ancient warring cults territory, but the presentation itself has the makings of a good, uncomfortable story. What both Fahrenheit and Eternal Darkness have to say with their use of realism as a jumping off point is that the world is not as tangible as it appears.
     Then there is Half Life which uses a scientist, Gordon Freeman, and realistic portrayals of humanity in a dystopian, science fiction environment with the now standard smattering of futuristic special ops/black ops marines who would eventually become the stars of nearly every first person shooter imaginable, and the need to shoot not just creatures but people as well. The medium itself is dictating that these representations are blank representations of a military force and not people with backstories, families or what have you. Unlike the glut of World War II themed games, this is true, they are not based on people any more than the Koopa Troopas of Super Mario Brothers. The story and setting may be enough for some to disconnect the idea that they are shooting anything more than a mass of polygons designed to look and move like a person, but it is the realism in the artwork that asks for a suspension of disbelief.
    The problem with the games that commonly tout realism then is a complete over-saturation of the market, leading to more space marines that look more like the realistic moving adaptation of pulp novel covers going to more settings that are typically a dirty brown or cold gray or if someone was ambitious with the pallet, both. You'll notice that I referred to the genre of pulp fiction in referencing these games. There are distinct parallels between the two: hyper-masculine bordering on homoerotic main characters, war torn terrain, and Nazis or Nazi-esque soldiers to punch or bombs to disarm. The games are rote genre exercises to the point where the characters may well be interchangeable as proven by the Gears of War leads showing up in Lost Planet 2.
   As far as story and character are concerned, I would say that Persona 4 for the PS2 has more going for it on the Realism front than the aforementioned pulp-realism genre even with its pop-Jungian expressions of the self-as-constantly-shifting-maze because of the interactions between the main character and the people around him. Unlike tackling opposing soldiers on a rugged terrain battlefield, instead the player is introduced to people who are coming to terms with things like their sexuality, family pressure and societal expectations on top of a very interesting murder mystery. The characters are well rounded and interactions with them are based on the player's actions, much like in real life. Unlike the games that tout realism, Persona 4 boasts a colourful, visually interesting experience and a story that could well be novelized. It is a different form of realism from the horror and war games genres, and a form that gaming itself could benefit from greatly.

Next Time: Persona 4 And The Self -In Depth-

Perhaps the point should be made that the Persona series is an offshoot of Shin Megami Tensei which was in and of itself based on a Japanese novel back in the 1980's.

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