Lewis Denby gives
these poor, crippled gems the attention they deserve...
A short while ago, on The Guardianís technology blog, one
writer criticised games reviewers for rarely praising
enough, the piece drew on the somewhat negative reception of
Mirrorís Edge, which scores 67% in this very issue.
While Iíd stand by Jonathanís review, and point
out that critiquing a product must go further than lauding
new ideas, the blog post did spark up that little part of my
brain that wants to talk in length about certain games.
Games that, otherwise, you may have skimmed over.
The Ďinnovationí link may be a little tenuous in places.
This isnít necessarily about novel games that
donít quite work. But
it is about games
filled with brilliant ideas, but ones that Ė for whatever
reason Ė didnít quite warrant the universal praise they
were edging towards. These
are sullied gems: the games we love despite our frustrations
and shagging. I was probably too young to be playing The
Nomad Soul at the time...
Itís funny, but many of these are games that didnít particularly work
for me when I first played them.
Games that suffered from stretches of tedium, moments
of design idiocy, or game-destroying bugs that ruined my
experience at the time.
But theyíre games that still mean something to me
today; games I still reminisce about, misty-eyed, with
others who played them too. The
tainted masterpieces. The
Since I was rather young, Iíve always sided with Ė for
want of a term better than this insufferable nonsense Ė
the Ďart gamesí: titles that trigger more than just a
visceral, gleeful response of Ďenjoymentí, and instead
deliver something emotionally and intellectually engaging. So,
edging slowly away from childhood in the late nineties, I
scoured the gaming market for something that would challenge
me a little. Raised
on the run-and-gun values of iD Softwareís early titles, I
longed for something a little more stimulating; a little
more Ė in my youthful pretensions Ė me. I remember having
heard whispers of a dancing David Bowie, seedy strip-clubs,
a wry yet complex narrative and a hybrid of the action and
adventure genres. The
Nomad Soul sounded right up my street, and I
dancing David Bowie..."
Hidden away beneath its shoddy camera, fiddly controls, essentially
linear gameplay and ferociously awful combat sections is one
of the most intriguing, creative and intelligent adventures
of its time. Ahead
of its years in so many ways, The
Nomad Soul melded action, stealth and exploration in an
often open-plan, hub-based environment.
Thatís the new trend nearly a decade laterÖ
Itís horrible to
even attempt now, but in my memory rests the incredible
world of Omikron: high-rise towers, buildings over
buildings, unfamiliar architecture, hyper-technology.
Itís a fascinating and wonderful vision of the far
future, with only the disappointing lack of credible
characters bringing it down a peg or two.
Thereís so much to see and so much to do.
It makes me go all fuzzy inside when I think about
Predictably, many of my favourite games draw heavy
inspiration from Quantum Dreamís ambitious title.
Some were successful Ė Deus
Ex is a title that undoubtedly borrowed heavily from
such genre-mashing Ė but the two that immediately spring
to mind for this article are Ďimmersive simsí from
consecutive years: Troikaís last gasp Vampire:
The Masquerade Ė Bloodlines, and Bukaís oddball
released in 2004 and 2005 respectively.
and bodies again in Bloodlines. Is there a
running theme here?
Bloodlines is one of the most
obviously Ďbetterí games here, but its release alongside
Half-Life 2 and its horrific instability meant it passed by largely
it isnít working, itís infuriating, be it as a result of
game-breaking bugs, nasty combat, or simply a clearly rushed
and unfeasibly difficult second half of the game.
When itís at its prime, namely the middle five or
ten hours, itís beyond words.
Itís the script and characters that stand out here, some
of the most memorable outside of Planescape:
and thoughtfully written, these NPCs feel like genuinely
real people, providing an effective and engaging commentary
on social systems and prejudice.
weaves its story beautifully around these people, tackling
issues that few games dare to venture towards, and supplying
twists straight out of a Chuck Palahniuk novel.
I reviewed Bloodlines
for another website. I
awarded it 9 out of 10 and, in retrospect, that was a little
a game that will be adored by the patient, and those with a
love of deep storytelling; but itís a deeply troubled
title despite its merits.
Still, it remains one of those tarnished games that I
would love for
everyone to play. Sadly,
since the demise of its developer, youíll be hard pressed
to find it in the shops.
straight out of a Palahniuk novel..."
You can still find Pathologic
rather easily, especially since itís available in digital
download format. This
is a much more abhorrent game, one thatís incredibly hard
to stomach. With
a difficulty level somewhere in the region of post-grad
physics, a wild unpredictability and probably the worst
translation job ever, most will be put off within minutes.
But I love it for
its ugliness. For
me, its problems only serve to heighten the warped beauty of
this Russian gem. Set
in an early 20th Century Soviet village, Pathologic
tells the story of a vicious and unfathomable plague, which
is slowly eradicating the entire population.
The town has been quarantined from the rest of the
world, and youíre trapped inside; but, playing as one of
three healers, you must work closely with a range of in-game
characters to cure the diabolical illness and, moreover,
keep yourself alive during the process.
cancer,Ē someone once called it.
Thatís a perfect description. The
atmosphere is so relentlessly bleak that itís difficult
not to come away from the experience feeling utterly
minute you start playing, people start dying.
They never stop, right up until the climax.
Each day becomes more desperate than the last, and
the whole thing plays off against a time limit of just under
two weeks. Itís
a tense, involving, moving and beautifully told narrative,
hidden deep within an overly-complex and often unforgiving
and In Memoriam share a similarly warped atmosphere.
Thereís a theme developing here. Perhaps
what we should be praising isnít technological innovation,
like the ability to place a free-running game in the
Perhaps, instead, we should be exploring the notion
of videogames as a valid art from, a profound and versatile
platform for unique storytelling.
Itís a certainty that I engage better with
videogames if they make me think, make me feel,
and this is a medium that has the capability of developing
immersion factors beyond any other.
I hadnít thought about this one for a while, but in
preparing for this article and organising my views, it
struck me as the perfect case study.
Memoriam, released by UbiSoft to zero fanfare in
2003, blurred the lines between fiction and reality.
In a manner usually reserved for alternate-reality
gaming, this French masterpiece forced players to live for
its story during their time with the game.
On the surface, In
Memoriam was a relatively straightforward murder mystery
concept, but with an added real-world component.
Given a series of clues, in the form of text, static
image or video, players must quit to desktop and fire up an
internet browser, scanning the reams of faked websites, as
well as an abundance of genuine ones, for any new leads.
Itís so involving, so addictive and intriguing,
that itís impossible not to get completely caught up in
the gameís world. When
I played, I couldnít tear myself away, always prodding
around for that next piece of vital information.
Then, on the third day, something
incredible happened. I
got an email.
the art do the talking..."
At first, I thought it was spam.
When I looked at it more closely, I noticed the email
same email address that had cropped up as part of a clue in
the game. The
email address of a fictional character.
From then on, this happened regularly.
Genuine contact with fictional people, albeit through
the joys of auto-responders.
It struck me as such a fantastic way to engage with
the player that I overlooked its many flaws.
Like the ridiculously out-of-place mini-games that
cropped up from time to time, for example.
Or the fact that people posting bloody walkthroughs meant I often chanced upon a cheating answer online,
when all I actually wanted was a necessary clue.
This isnít necessarily the way forward for storytelling in
games, but it does illustrate the wide range of exclusive
methods the medium has at its disposal.
In a film, or a good book, the closest to full
immersion itís possible to achieve is to create a real
empathy with key characters.
In videogames, you can be
these characters. Why
so few even attempt it is baffling.
Maybe itís because these sorts of game so often go
broken beauties didnít receive particularly high praise
upon release, and itís not difficult to understand why.
But, equally, they feel like the sort of games
weíre owed, as dedicates to the intelligent gaming cause.
If we donít stand up and demand to be swept away by
this sort of beautiful, ambitious release, weíll receive
mindless action game after mindless action game as our
reward. As much
as I enjoy a good blast as much as the next guy, Iíd
rather have more.
So do your bit. Play
these games. Discuss
them. Buy them
for your friends. Have
patience, take your time, and let the art do the talking.
Hopefully, in times to come, we wonít be talking
about broken beauties. Weíll
be talking about creative gaming perfection.