Mother’s Day Special

kalanchoe

My mother reads my blog. I’m sure your mother does too, even if you think she doesn’t. You probably mentioned it to her once offhand, she laughed and told you what a clever name you picked, she secretly Googled the name after you left, she proceeded to read every article in your archive, she blushed at the language, and now she’s eagerly awaiting your next post. Despite your paranoia, she’s probably not doing it to keep tabs on your cyber-life; more likely, she has always thought you were a great writer, and she just wants to read some more of her beloved child’s creative output.

My mom would probably read my blog regardless of what I wrote about. It could be a blog dedicated to my favourite serial killers and she’d still come back for each new top ten list. However, because I write about video games, there’s a personal connection there for her. In addition to dabbling with Pac-Man and Pong during her university years, she’s been playing video games with and without me fairly regularly over the past few years. It’s given us a neat hobby that we can enjoy together, one that a lot of mothers and sons probably don’t share simply because there’s a generation gap there: we grew up in a time when games were incredibly popular and complex and they didn’t.

I think the very first time I watched her play a game was when I let her play the fishing minigame in Twilight Princess. It was calm, inoffensive, satisfying, and fairly easy to control, making it a good introduction to gaming for a non-gamer like herself. When she expressed desire for a deeper fishing experience, I went out and bought Hudson’s Fishing Master, which had the advantage of being a dedicated fishing game with more advanced controls and a wider variety of fish to catch (over 100 fish compared to Twilight Princess‘s 6 or so). If I remember correctly, it had a multiplayer fishing derby mode too. We played the crap out of it for a good while.

I think the first game that we played actual co-op together was Super Smash Bros. Brawl, of all things. We played through the entire story mode a few summers ago, which was pretty fun. I would take the lead while she provided support, running along behind me and beating the crap out of anything that crept up on me. Even without enemies, just making it through the treacherous platforming sections of the labyrinthine Subspace Emissary levels was a challenge in itself, and the game provided a helpful “cheater button” that would instantly warp her back to my side if she found herself stuck in a wall or falling into a bottomless pit. Although she liked Meta Knight and Pit because their multiple jumps reduced the chances that she’d land in one of said bottomless pits, Captain Falcon was her all-time favourite mainly because of his raw power.

Since she likes to exercise, I bought her Wii Fit as a Mother’s Day gift a few years back. Although we do the yoga and the strength exercises and enjoy them enough, she likes the balance board minigames a lot too. While I was at university one winter, she spent a good amount of time practicing the snowball fight minigame to the point where she owned the entire board of high scores, and even though I tried my hardest, I could not crack any of her scores. She is actually the best Wii Fit snowball fighter I have ever seen. To see her play this game is to suddenly feel great shame re: your own sluggish reflexes.

When I first started using Steam regularly, one of the first games I bought was Plants vs. Zombies. I showed it to my mom because I thought she’d find the character designs cute, and I forget exactly what happened next, but it ultimately ended up with her playing the heck out of the thing while I twiddled my thumbs and waited patiently for her to return my computer. I bought her a copy for herself, then another copy for the DS she would eventually inherit from me, then a third copy for the iPhone she would buy the next year. She still plays the game regularly, but I mean, the thing isn’t even a challenge for her anymore. She never loses. Her in-game wallet has long since stopped counting her money (it maxes out at $999,900, in case you were wondering). When I told her Plants vs. Zombies 2: It’s About Time was finally coming out in July, she was overjoyed, and she jokingly inquired about midnight launches in our area. At least, I’m assuming it was a joke.

It was in early 2011 that she began to show interest in Animal Crossing, so I gave her my DS Lite and treated myself to a 3DS preorder. I bought two copies of Wild World and told her that she could live in one town, I’d live in the other, and we could visit each other whenever we liked. Well, she got pretty good at making money pretty fast, and by the time she finally became debt-free, I was still paying off my second expansion. The thing is, she actually knows stuff about interior design, so her mansion actually looks like a coherent, smartly furnished work of art, whereas my shit shack is a glutted mess of indoor barbecues, lava lamps, and electric guitars. I’m finally on my last mortgage payment right now thanks in no small part to the fact that she likes dropping bags of money around my town, but boy, has she made me work for those Bells (she likes hiding them behind buildings, which, thanks to the game’s lone camera angle, means they’re virtually impossible to see). She once dug a ring of holes around a bag of Bells and then planted pitfall seeds in each one, creating an effective booby trap. I once visited her town only to find nearly every square inch of the place covered in Bells, almost as if she had paved the streets with her wealth in an egregious display of opulence.

Right now, we’ve got a few games on the go. She still plays Plants vs. Zombies often enough, but we also started Telltale’s The Walking Dead a few weeks back. She’s a big fan of the show and she already understands the lore, so this one was a no-brainer. Being an adventure game, the emphasis on story and dialogue means that we have fewer pointless action sequences to trudge through. We’ve also been playing Kirby’s Return to Dreamland, which I told her had the same basic gameplay as Brawl‘s Subspace Emissary. She’s become something of a boss-killer as Meta Knight; whenever a difficult fight comes up, I unchain her and she becomes a whirling dervish of barely contained fury while I just kind of whistle in the corner.

I’m glad that my mom has taken an interest in something that I’m deeply invested in. She sometimes worries that she’s a bad co-op partner or that she’s holding me back by dying too much, but of course that’s not what I care about. The important thing to me is that we’re spending time together, and although we have many other hobbies that we frequently enjoy together (gardening, for example), gaming always felt like one of the few things I could teach her about, rather than the other way around. I’m very grateful that she’s had the patience to play with me for these last few years, because games these days often have a high barrier of entry if you’re not already familiar with the medium. Even if, some day, we stop playing some of these games together, I can always go back and look at the perceptible marks she’s left on many of them: her high scores in Wii Fit Plus, her nametag in Smash Bros., her profile in Fishing Master (complete with dog custom-named “Hercules”). And if I want to look at something she personally did for me in a video game, I can read any of the dozens of loving, thoughtful letters she’s mailed to me in Animal Crossing, the kind that only a mother can write. I’ve saved every single one.

David Cage and Mature Games

beyond

Last weekend, David Cage debuted 35 minutes of Beyond: Two Souls gameplay at the Tribeca Film Festival. It was the second time a game had been shown at De Niro’s big ooh-la-la event after L.A. Noire was shown in 2011. Both games have been roundly criticized for being little more than interactive movies (and Beyond isn’t even out yet), which I’m assuming is why Tribeca thought it would be appropriate to “screen” video games at an event dedicated to passive media.

Cage has been in the media spotlight an awful lot this year for his outspoken thoughts on what video game designers can do to elevate their medium. His interviews make it clear what his stance is: truly artful games should be able to induce some kind of strong emotion in the player. Okay, you think, that makes sense. Quantic Dream’s portfolio, however, shows that Cage thinks he can only get this kind of reaction by shocking the player until they feel something, anything (usually horror or revulsion). Cage’s latest talks seem to reinforce this misguided sense of emotional engagement, as he has criticized the industry for shying away from the supposedly “mature” content that he loves to sprinkle around his own games.

To Cage, games can’t be emotionally engaging pieces of art unless they’re willing to explore “mature themes.” He has repeatedly challenged the game industry to move beyond the barriers of what’s politically correct and start representing stuff that has, for whatever reason, traditionally been considered too “taboo” for a mainstream audience. This means stuff that would earn a film a solid “R” rating, and stuff that admittedly very few video games have even bothered to look at in an artistic capacity because the medium is still perceived by the mainstream media to be some kind of Satanic murder-addiction simulator. So there’s one hurdle right there, but even if that was no longer an issue, I still don’t find the material in Quantic Dream’s games to be overly representative of this much-vaunted “mature content” that is supposedly going to fuel the emotional drive of games.

I look at Beyond and I don’t see a “mature” game. I see a developer ticking off every gritty, edgy shock factor on his checklist: homelessness, suicide, sexual harassment, prostitution, random acts of violence, domestic abuse, and, er, the graphic chaos of childbirth. Look at Heavy Rain‘s rap sheet: drug addiction, sexual assault, violent serial homicides, nudity, plain ol’ sex, being forced to cut off your own finger, frequent profanity. It’s the same style of design that made me roll my eyes when Hideo Kojima wondered aloud to a reporter whether Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes would be too “taboo” to release. There is nothing inherently wrong with depicting this sort of content in a video game or any other piece of creative media; there is certainly a place in the world for gritty realism and the uncensored ugliness of humanity. But Cage is using it as a shortcut to emotion because he knows it’s provocative and he knows that the player can’t help but feel a surge of something when he or she plays through these scenes. Whatever it is, it’s not the rich flavour of emotion that’s going to supposedly elevate our medium to Ebert’s notice, God rest his soul; no, it’s the cheap stuff, the drama equivalent of a Michael Bay movie.

We all know that Cage wishes he was making movies. Beyond is a game that plays like an interactive movie, uses cinematography common in today’s blockbusters, uses famous actors and actresses for voiceovers, and gives said actors top billing on the game’s cover art, just like a movie poster. He’s now attempting to play catch-up with the film industry, but rather than emulating the best, most meaningful material, he’s sticking with the stuff that’s firmly B-grade. I suspect that’s more a limitation caused by the quality of his writing than anything, but with Beyond, it feels like he’s aiming for something highbrow and thought-provoking and merely ending up with a collection of tropes centred around sex, violence, and poverty.

I’m not sure that true maturity is so easily achieved by slapping a pile of send-the-kids-to-bed content on your game. The concept is as hard to define in games as it is in real life (How can you tell when someone is a mature adult? At what age do they become mature, or, if it’s not a question of age, then what changes in their personality/behaviour/lifestyle identify them as “mature?”) For me, I think the best kind of maturity just kind of comes naturally to some games, as if they’re not even concerned with being taken seriously by that horribly self-conscious 18-25 year-old demographic. I’m in my twenties, and I just finished Super Mario 64 for the first time; to me, it’s an incredibly mature game. It’s unconcerned with pandering to an adult audience, yet it’s not entirely designed with children in mind (googly-eyed enemy designs aside). Several Power Stars are deviously hidden, with little to no clues as to where they might be sealed away; I’m not sure my six-year-old self could’ve found some of these Stars without outside help. Then there’s the controls and the camera, which provide a mechanical entry barrier as well. Mario 64 also exploited physics in ways that few games before it did; I wonder how many younger brothers and sisters were first introduced to ballistic trajectories via suicide-by-Bob-Omb-Cannon? The fact that many adult reviewers still consider Mario 64 to be one of the best games of all time is telling; it’s truly a game that can be appreciated by anyone, regardless of demographic. That, to me, is the true “mature game”: no pretensions, no cheap shots, just great gameplay that pretty much anyone can enjoy. If anything, I think a game that outrageously fetishizes sex and violence is just as juvenile as a cutesy, simplistic platformer designed only for five-year-olds; neither aspires to the naturally-acquired maturity of Super Mario 64.

If you want something a little more adult-oriented, something with a little more substance, then take a look at Half-Life 2. Yes, there’s a bit of horror arguably thrown in there for shock value, but I feel Ravenholm was intended to change up the gameplay style more than anything else (ie. a tense, survival-horror zombie level before zombie levels were cool). Other than that, we get a pretty good sci-fi story that deals with Cage’s “mature” tropes in far less heavy-handed ways. I would say Portal‘s probably an even better example, but that game is more of a living subversion of standard game tropes than anything else, whereas Half-Life 2 is the traditional, unironic, straightforward video game. Portal‘s slightly-edgy-but-never-truly-offensive humour combined with its self-awareness make it a game whose narrative could probably only be truly appreciated by adults. That being said, a pubescent could probably still complete all the puzzles in a few hours and, despite not fully absorbing the dialogue and its underlying implications, still feel like they accomplished a feat. These games, too, have a sort of all-ages appeal to them (albeit Portal moreso than Half-Life).

Perhaps I’m just sick of people like Cage assuming that gritty, hard-hitting tropes are cruise control for art. It’s not that easy, and even those Cage thinks he’s the only one doing it, other types of media are flooded with this sort of material. Every once in a while I do find it makes for a compelling narrative or provides a relevant backdrop, but more often than not, I just feel like I’m adrift in a sea of edgy content designed to make me uncomfortable on some level. It gets tiresome after a while, and in the worst cases, I actually resent the fact that these films/music/games/books think they can get a cheap rise out of me so easily.

Honestly, if we accept that David Cage’s writing and storytelling (which is really all we can judge his games on, since they contain little actual gameplay of note) are going to suddenly catapult games into the realm of serious business, then we’re giving him way too much credit. He named his homeless main character Jodie Holmes. Aiden is the mysterious entity who’s aidin’ her. Yes, Cage is a master of depth and subtlety. Seriously though, watch the Tribeca gameplay. Have you ever seen a more on-the-nose collection of homeless people?