Monday, February 06, 2012

Silence in the Shadow of the Colossus

Reviewing Shadow of the Colossus now, a full six years after its original release, is a bit tricky. What can I say about the title that hasn’t been said? The original reviews were overwhelmingly positive, and since then the game has been frequently referenced among the best this medium has to offer. Reviewing ‘Colossus now is like reviewing the rerelease of Star Wars (the 2001 re-release, of course, not the CG-enhanced 2004 edition)—what information can I give you, reader, other than, “IT’S STAR WARS.”

Like George Lucas’ once loved accidental masterpiece, the PS3 SotC remake is the same essential game that a generation came to adore and obsess over, just with an updated visual polish (Trophy support is also there, of course, but I couldn’t think of an appropriate way to fold that into the Star Wars metaphor). That being the case, I could review the quality of the game’s transition onto a modern, HD-capable platform—but that would consist of nothing more than, “It’s beautiful. It’s everything fans were hoping it would be, and the quality of the visual style makes up for any signs of age.” While I’m certainly happy to tell you that information, it makes for a rather short review. And besides, I think there’s a more interesting discussion to be had.

I suspect that the PS3 release will have many Shadow of the Colossus fans, like me, revisiting the game for the first time since they originally played and loved it. Like going back to a book you read in your youth, this new playthrough is an opportunity to see how years of experience have altered your perspective—the game hasn’t changed, after all, but we have. So what does my current self draw from Shadow of the Colossus that my younger self didn’t? Silence.

When I think back to what I loved about ‘Colossus on the PS2 I immediately go to the big, breathless moments fighting its (still impressive) enemies—dodging between enormous feet, hanging on for dear life as I got shaken around, standing up on the back of my horse and timing a jump onto a beast’s wing. But while those high-adrenaline segments are still incredible now, I find myself more impressed by the quiet beats, the long sections where your character is simply riding across the landscape.

Silence is a master’s tool in many art forms. Inexperienced creators often feel they need to generate a constant stream of stimulus, or else risk losing their audience. But a good actor knows when a line needs a moment to sink in, and a good writer takes a step back from the action to simply paint the scene. Using silence takes courage, though, and not every work is as bold with it as Shadow of the Colossus. Rather than manufacture a typical succession of change-ups (town, map, dungeon, boss, new sword!, side quest, another town) SotC gives us long sections of thudding horse hooves and exploration, then punctuates it with those awe-inspiring fights. All that silence serves multiple purposes, like making the combat seem more incredible by comparison, but one particular use stands out above the rest.

Perhaps the most subtle effect (and thus, one that’s rarely commented on) in SotC’s already nuanced experience is how the camera moves during travel. In most third person games, the avatar is always front and center, the camera locked directly behind him or her. But the moment you start galloping across the world of ‘Colossus, that rule gets thrown out. The camera shifts to one side, giving the player a full view of the landscape as horse and rider, now artistically offset, charge across it. I didn’t pick up on that change when I played SotC six years ago, but I did this time, and in a rush I understood something bigger that I’d missed.

Shadow of the Colossus is about loneliness. It turns those quiet moments into paintings so that the player drinks them in, and feels the solitude of a character who’s lost someone close to him. The loneliness doesn’t stop with the protagonist, either: the forgotten mammoth creatures roaming that sealed-away world, even the (spoiler warning) dark entity trapped within them—all of it goes back to the theme of separation.

Six years ago, I completed SotC and found it interesting that the main character wasn’t a noble hero, but a reckless, selfish person. Today I still think that’s the case, but mostly I just feel sorry for him.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Saint’s Row: The Third and The Open World Problem

Why does everyone seem to be talking about Saint’s Row: The Third lately? The series has labored for years in the shadow of similar Grand Theft Auto releases, and the latest incarnation hasn’t done much to change up the formula: an open world city, taking criminal quests from various characters, driving wildly and creating mayhem at will. But somehow the new edition has caught fire like none of its predecessors, leaving many critics with the sense that the franchise can now stand on its own two feet.

Saint’s Row: The Third has plenty of merits, for sure: the shooting mechanics feel as good as any open world game, the voice acting is solid and appropriately cast, the range of vehicle, clothing, and character design options are broad; in short, it’s a well-crafted title. But those features only let this game keep pace with Rockstar’s standards, they don’t set it apart. So why is everyone raving about “The Third” when it’s mechanically the same song and dance as always?

The answer lies in what I call “the open world problem”: the inherent conflict that arises from trying to place a defined narrative inside an undefined experience. When I piloted Niko Bellic (GTA4) and CJ (GTA3: San Andreas) through their respective stories, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off. Those games allowed their main characters to act in, not just criminal, but monstrous ways if the player so desired. Intentionally crashing a car into oncoming traffic or tossing a grenade into a crowd of pedestrians are not only possible in GTA, they’re activities that most players engage in casually. I’m not complaining about that level of freedom, mind you—it is, after all, what makes open world environments so compelling—but a problem arises when the player is done with his grisly playground and walks the same avatar into a pre-made cut scene.

Suddenly, the dangerous sociopath is gone. The time our character spent treating his world with reckless abandon melts away in an instant, and we’re expected to view Niko, CJ, and the rest as not only rational, but downright sympathetic. The game asks us to completely compartmentalize its two worlds, treating the character on the street as a separate entity from the one who tells us his story.

Think of it this way: Imagine an open world Superman game where you get to fly around Metropolis taking on side quests and progressing through a main storyline (a likely scenario, as the genre has proven a natural fit for superhero characters). Now, if players of that game were given the same freedom that they’re offered in the GTA series, they’d be able to fry police cars with Superman’s heat vision, crash through buildings at will, and drop pedestrians from 10,000 feet in the air. In short, players would have the power to make Superman behave in un-Superman ways, and thus break the internal logic of both the character and his story.

Even for those who don’t get especially invested in their virtual worlds, that’s a tall order. The disconnect between a defined character and player-defined actions is so great, it’s no wonder that many open world games focus on criminals: only when we accept the protagonist as a “bad guy” can we ever hope to swallow the things he’s capable of. And that attempt to contextualize player freedom is exactly why I think “The Third” has garnered such praise: where GTA attempts to solve the open world problem with a realistic crime motif, Saint’s Row succeeds with a cartoonish one.

“The Third” dismisses realism entirely in favor of over-the-top action sequences and ridiculous characters, and chooses humor over emotional at every chance. Rather than fight the playground spirit of the open world, in other words, THQ embraced it, and in doing so created a more consistent overall experience. But that’s only one solution to the open world problem. The narrative troubles caused by GTA’s setup don’t hit me in roll-playing games like Fallout 3 or Skyrim. Bethesda balances the equation by building their stories around a singular main goal, like finding your father or slaying some dragons—tasks that could be accomplished just as easily by a good person or a bad one, a madman or a hero. But no matter the solution, any game that tries to manage both freedom and narrative has to reconcile them somehow.