Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Imaginary reviews

In keeping with this blog's theme of starting things and going nowhere with them, apparently, I wrote this review I'd like to see of a videogame I'd like to make, if I could program, model, sound, music, graphics and all that.

The definitive videogame?

We open on an alien sky, burning with dancing bands of lights in gold and green in darkness – clouds, nebulae, maybe an abstract impression of neon signs covering a city, maybe stars under a strange sky seen by eyes not like ours. A negative space moves into the light as a muted electric guitar builds, like mounting excitement. A dark shape not entirely unlike a human stands out against the sky. Close up we do see a head, harsh and angular, with a handful of jagged horns around the temples or forehead. It tilts forward, in deep thought.

This all happens so slowly, gracefully. Then, very quickly, by some subliminal cue the subconscious recognizes as "flashback", we dissolve to a room bathed in gently pulsating yellow light and a softly humming cello string. Our angular, pitch-black friend is here, locked in an embrace with a similar creature, larger, wider, with rounder corners, and that yellow light shining through a spiderweb cracks in her carapace, and a pair of big round eyes in the middle of her face. They have torsos and arms like us, but their joints aren't like anything seen on earth, and they have only three pointed claws on each hand.

Back in the night sky, head still hanging in introspective melancholy, our hero jerks back as a spark lights in her face. She opens her eyes for what is clearly the first time. These people express so much with their eyes. They glow with a pale red light. The electric guitar leaps higher. She jumps, the camera turns to follow her and we see her falling along the side of a thin, white structure disappearing into a grid of city lights far below. Cracks grow across her dark skin and the red light spills out as blue lights rise from below to meet her with siren sounds and growling engines; blocky flying cars hover in a half-circle around her, pointing their flashing blue lights menacingly.

This is where you gain control over Crash, as the stats screen calls her – all the characters are described with feminine pronouns in the game manual, though otherwise it'd be hard to guess – and the exploding begins. Holding down Y, sorry, the “blue” button if you're using an Xbox style controller, okay, let's go with Square, slows the game to an almost complete stop and you hover in mid-air while moving a targeting reticule around – the over-the-shoulder perspective moves close enough for the camera to literally sit on your shoulder for this – and build up for a Crash. The projected range grows fast as you hold down the button, reaching a maximum after about two seconds, and the build-up is more a formality to let you control the range.

And then you let go of the button and it's glorious. The Crash mechanic is the core of the game, and it would be terrible if it got old after the five or six thousandth time you do it, and they know this and make sure it doesn't. To “Crash” means to teleport, violently, spectacularly, in a satisfying on a deep level rush of absolute, instant destruction. Imagine the shotgun in Doom, except you are the pellets. Or a railgun slug. Or Miracleman, shooting through air and concrete with the same blinding speed, the same unstoppable force.

You actually can't crash through the level walls, which the manual justifies as Crash being unwilling to travel blindly, which I'm willing to buy. But you really do get the sense that you could if you wanted to. Nothing can stand in your way.

So how does the game challenge you other than putting level geometry in your way? Boy am I glad you asked, imaginary reader. First of all, the game gives you souls – sorry, “experience” - for fighting fairly and for reaching some hard-to-get spots on foot. I'm pretty sure there may even be some combo thing going where you get a few more points the longer you keep doing things without stopping. But crashing interrupts everything you're doing. So it's a balancing act between the fun but skill-demanding activity of fluid graceful movement and the fun but less long-term gainful crash. I admit I couldn't decide on either doctrine but did as much as possible of both.

Oh, and when you think you've got things figured out the game starts throwing Bullet Hell fights on you where crashing between safe spots alone becomes difficult. It is a demanding game, obviously heavily inspired by the infamously difficult Dark Souls, though we could say it's more flexible – I made it to the end in less than six hours, struggling desperately and abandoning all dignity and grace in service of just getting there (all to bring you this review, dear reader), though the game can reward an even degree of skill and patience than Dark Souls can through the ingenious way the different story endings are determined.

Which, this is spoiling a great big twist that you may want to discover for yourself to make your first playthrough “authentic” and whatnot. So why don't you go ahead and play the game now and I'll see you in six hours?

No? Don't say I didn't warn you.

Not to get too involved in the technicalities, but Crash uses the aforementioned experience points you collect – correction, just “experience” - to allow you to customize your player character to suit your play style. Well, mostly your combat style. On the menu screen you see those vital attributes Resistance, Poise, Sense, Self, Strength, Mass, Will, Force, Skill and Speed. (And a little bit further down, apart, “Fallingbright”.) Of those eleven, six are related to the damage output and knockbackness of your three different weapons and two your own defenses against those things, but Sense and Self are a little more interesting: “Self”, the manual tells us, “reinforces the integrity of your presence, making you harder for others to sense”.

Let me just take a moment to gaze in bewilderment at this deep-cutting slice of worldbuilding.

But, yeah, basically this is the stealth stat. “Sense”, conversely increasing your ability to see other people, and also points of interests for that sweet exploration XP, and enemy HP and weak spots, and also hidden things inside walls which I think extra ingeniously ties together with the aforementioned restriction against crashing through level boundaries – when you can in fact sense an empty space and/or absence of innocents buried under a layer of stone, then and only then does it make sense for you to crash in there. (And I usually deep-hate games that won't allow you to figure out puzzle solutions until your character has the right information.)

But what was I talking about? In the nameless world you explore – you get knocked out and transported into a more desolate low-fantasy kind of place early on in the game, watching the lady with the yellow lights be roughly taken away by some scary lady with murky purplish-brown lights – you encounter what you might call trainers: NPCs who let you buy stat points for experience. At first I was pretty confused when I encountered in a dull cavern one of the black carapace creatures, my people, with a deeper red light in her eyes who prompted a menu to open when I interacted with her, one with Crash's stat screen on the left and a blank one adorned only with Red Eyes' portrait on the right, and the option to choose my Strength stat and increase it at the cost of experience. This confusion was not so much over what was happening, but why the level-up process was presented in such a way. Choosing to increase my unarmed damage a little bit, I was delivered a small cut scene of Lady Red Eyes moving towards Crash in that deliberate, alien way the aliens move, overflowing with her dark red light. Crash started shining too, their lights merged, there was a musical cue with drums and electric guitars, I think they were embracing as they disappeared in their lights and at this point it occurred to me I was probably watching some alien mating ritual.

After which I tried to speak to her again, opening the menu and only now noticing it said “Strength” on the top of her half of the screen, in the same space it says “Crash” on mine. Strength is her name! This alien people define themselves in such ways. And this mating/romance/psychic exchange/whatever intimate process I just underwent is how they grow as individuals, by taking on traits of each other. Sharing “experience” with each other through a merging of bodies, minds, emotions, colors or whatever it is this people without mouths do that we recognize as “communication”.

There are severe cultural barriers here. The manual does the bare minimum to explain things and you'll note the game has said exactly twelve words so far, and they're written on the menu screen. Okay, thirteen if you count the “and” in the title. I feel like a stranger in this world, afraid to make even the slightest assumptions based on my own culture and straining, I mean working really hard with a bucket of Snickers bars to fuel my brain, to conceptualize what is happening.

I also run into three items I can pick up and equip, changing my jump and dodge moves and in lieu of descriptions containing small stories, just a sentence or two, relating (in the third person) how these items remind Crash of Fallingbright in brief glimpses that don't tell us much but seem fully focused on the physicality of their relationship – the smell of Fallingbright, the weight of her arms, etc. Maybe it is a purely physical relationship. Maybe it's how things work on this planet. Maybe Crash doesn't know what it is. The mystery pulls me deeper.

Until, and the interface did actually give it away when you stop and think about it, you dodge or explode all the bad guys and reunite with Fallingbright and level up your “Fallingbright” stat with what experience you have left. This did not end well for this reporter. The manual is decidedly unclear about how many different endings there are, but implies it works on two or more axes – how much experience you collect and how much of it you save to share with Fallingbright, presumably, and maybe how much you rely on violence – most enemies, even bosses, can be escaped by well-timed jumping, dodging and crashing, but killing them is usually easier.

This reporter is in love with this game. The simple, striking art direction, the flawless combat/exploration systems that make just moving across the room such a profound joy, the utterly alien yet perfectly believable world it presents, the confidence of that presentation – without a single word beyond those to give the interface names for things, without any recognizable humanity amongst any of the characters – their gloriously expressive eyes and body language I assume is universal, without at any point even suggesting that you should be able to or even need to understand what is happening or why, the game invests you entirely in the personality of these people rather than their politics, and manages to tell a deeply personal story about fear and love and struggle and peace and hostility and intimacy and discovery and innocence and grace and brutality, seamlessly integrating the player's own actions with the narrative.

If Crash and Fallingbright has a weakness, it is perhaps just that surety in itself. It doesn't go out of its way for the player, but assumes you will dig deep and try hard before it yields its treasures. It lacks what the marketing departments are calling “mass appeal”. It will almost certainly not sell in large numbers. But then, those of us who do play it will likely never forget it.

Final score: 13 shining rainbow-colored clouds out of 12.

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