January 12th, 2011 — comics
Knock me over with a feather. Right-wing fanatics find a Muslim Batman just too much to bear. I don’t have much to add other takedowns of this insipid argument except to point out that Muslims weren’t behind the French riots this fall. And, yes, Mr. Huston, neo-Nazis are part of what is ‘really going on in France’–attacks on soldiers’ graves, a Nazi sympathizer in Jean-Marie Le Pen, and an assassination attempt on Jacques Chirac.
Riots are happening across Europe, including when a dictator is elected. And to say that the riots are based on religion is to badly misread what’s happening in Europe.
September 14th, 2009 — 360, wii
I’ve spent too much time of late on blogs and forums where gamers have talked about “deep” games, with too often the dark, moody games getting most of the acclaim and recognition. I’ve been enjoying Batman – Arkham Asylum, but I was a bit tired of it one night and went back to playing LostWinds, a simply marvelous game. And then I couldn’t resist a good deal on Muramasa.
It’s quite interesting to juxtapose these games, especially one that has the acclaimed depth of Arkham Asylum. The reason is that they all have game worlds that you can immediately identify and jump into. I find Lostwinds and Muramasa no less engrossing and immersive than Arkham Asylum. Yes, it helps that they have distinctive art styles, but LostWinds and Muramasa are 2D platformers. Partly, as familiar as I with the world of Batman, it’s not as new to me, especially as it’s based on a graphic novel and atmosphere from 20 years ago. What’s engrossing about Arkham Asylum is the ability to feel like the Batman, from the fights to the detecting to the gadgets.
You could say the difference is immersion through the character or the world. So far, Muramasa has two characters that you can play as, but in my initial choice of Kisuke, the ninja who has lost his memory. Besides being generic, gamers run through several stages in one level before getting anything resembling a story and character information, all told through exposition. In contrast, Arkham Asylum tells several stories in different ways–expository diaries, recreated memories as cut scenes, dialogues.
Yet, I find Muramasa no less compelling of a game world because of the rendering and the obvious folklore that it invokes. Unlike Arkham Asylum, I’m traveling through many different settings–woods, cities, fields. In Arkham Asylum, as with many Batman stories, I feel that I’m in an externalized world of the Batman’s psyche–it’s dark and brooding, with dangers around all corners. Arkham Asylum and even Gotham by extension are what you imagine a man obsessed with having witnessed the criminal murder of his parents. [It's a Batman story I've long wanted to write--how Batman sees a much different world than the rest of us.]
In Muramasa, even though dangers lurk around, it’s in a beautiful world. The world is not the scary extended worldview of the character but of a much different view, one of wonder and even delight. Supposedly the game is placed during the ‘golden’ Edo era in Japanese history, in contrast to many games set in the Sengoku era, a time of civil war. This contrast of beauty and fighting creates its own tension, in a much different way that the reflective environment of Batman. [I don't pretend to know Japanese history, outside of my paltry readings and work in oriental art class.]
In LostWinds, we have another fictional setting rooted in windy cultures of Tibet, Inca, and Maya. In LostWinds, gamers play two characters simultaneously–Toku with the nunchuk primary and Enril the wind spirit with the Wiimote. Like Murasama, the characterization is not deep, but as we know from good stories, characterization doesn’t have to be deep to be interesting or captivating. As in Ico, gamers play a bonding relationship in which Enril can do some pretty neat things. At times, Toku seems like he’s merely along for the ride, yet he’s essential to Enril.
Lostwinds‘ world is beautiful–many times, I enjoy drawing the wind through the trees to see the blossoms flutter. Between the art and the music, Toku and Enril wend their way through the world, allowing the player to interact with it to solve puzzles. While the puzzles might not be terribly innovative, they are nonetheless satisfying.
I think that, like Arkham Asylum, Toku’s world is something of a reflection of the character’s view. For the most part, it’s happy and bright, but it has its darker aspects, with the caves and mines. The over and under world is a staple of fairy tales and children’s stories. So, the structure is familiar while the presentation is fresh.
Yet, the 2D vs 3D and standard vs high def resolution has no real bearing on these games’ ability to pull players in. An interesting world is far more important than these aspects that we spend far too much bandwidth discussing.
August 27th, 2009 — 360
One reason that Batman – Arkham Asylum is getting high praise is that it is a deep game. I initially feared that it would be a beat ‘em up and would get tiresome. But the game throws different ways to keep you engaged while playing.
- Choose among different ways to take out enemies [straight-up fistfight, silent takedown, glide attack, tech toys].
- Select proper timing for different combat moves for certain enemies.
- Solve riddles along the way [part of exploration].
- Collect trophies [part of exploration].
- Work combos to improve experience so that you can upgrade your weapons, armor, or moves.
- Learn about different characters, and listen as they interact with each other and you.
This could sound like a recipe for a mixed bag, but there’s a focus to the game, which you might suppose is the story. While the story is a kind of tether for all the elements, it’s not really the focus. Instead, I think the game is centered on characters–be it Batman or the villains. Rocksteady went to great detail to provide each character their own story within the game. Yes there are the character bios that you pick up, but that’s just a part of it. You see the characters interact within the game, continue to develop what’s provided in the bio and even enrich it.
In the comics, Arkham Asylum itself has its own character, at least in the hands of the better writers. I think this game is trying to do the same, although I’m not quite far enough along to judge if it’s successful. Regardless, the asylum provides the focal context, so that there’s a reason to examine and to have such interesting characters.As someone who has worked [albeit briefly] with mental health/mental retardation patients, I think these problems provide great insight into even the ‘normal’ mind. At least, I came away with a great change in my values and a greater appreciation for many things, not the least of which is the very real and sincere emotions of these patients. Each patient had an interesting life and perspective. This game seems to realize this, although it’s dealing with criminals. In this respect, I think the game is very much in the spirit of the Arkham Asylum graphic novel. Maybe I have a preference for character-driven stories, but I think that this game succeeds largely because of the characters. [The action part of the game, especially the fights, does get a little repetitious after a while.]
Because of this character focus and detail, because of the variety of gameplay, and because of the art direction, the game is very immersive and deep, an excellent example of game design. I disagree with reviewers who talk about this game’s innovation because I’m not seeing anything I’ve not seen before. Instead, I think the vision, attention to detail, and focus with variety that is innovative.
I wish game developers and publishers could learn from this game, especially for the Wii and DS games. I don’t think it takes any particular power that the 360 or PS3 have to pull off this game. [Well, the graphics are a part of it, but hardly the whole.]
August 16th, 2009 — 360
I’ve kept my interest in Batman: Arkham Asylum at bay, largely because I thought it would be bad. I was even reluctant to download the demo, but I did. At first, it confirmed my worst suspicion, that it was just a high-def beat ‘em up. As it turns out the game is more than that. Still, I’ve now gone from wondering about its quality as a game to wondering about its quality as a Batman story.
Written by Paul Dinni [Batman: The Animated Series], the game is influenced by the graphic novel by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean. The dialog seems better than most games, especially comic book games, but even in the demo, I see some weak motivations and conveniences to advance the plot.
As a game, I was enjoyed the different modes, namely because the combat was itself as bad as I expected, a button-mashing affair. Fortunately, the game relies on more stealth than frontal assaults. You must find ways to isolate one of the many enemies from the others so that you can swoop down [and you will] to take out the goon silently. You might have kevlar armor, but you’re not invulnerable and will die fairly quickly if you stay exposed. Even trying to attack using the batarang and from hiding behind a corner, I was killed rather easily when I encountered the first group of thugs with guns. The detect mode allows you to see possible egresses and clues. This is an invaluable mode, as you can see through walls.
Still how much detective work and actual puzzle solving the game offers is hard to tell from the demo, which really offers none. My fear is that this brain-operated part of the game will have to slog through riddles of the worst and most obvious sorts. But at this point, that is only a possibility, not indicated by the demo.
The problems the demo reveals is that the game could be repetitive, even with the stealth, and that the camera is annoying. The camera seems almost always perched over the Batman’s right shoulder, which felt awkward at times. True, you get to watch the cape physics from that angle. But it felt off to me throughout 2 run-throughs of the demo.
Yet, I’m now pestered with the expectation that the game fails to reach with the story. In the original graphic novel, the focus is more on Arkham Asylum and madness. In the comic, the asylum isn’t a place of rehabilitation. Even as the doctors attempt it, it seems to take the patients, like Harvey Dent, to even worse places. While madness can drive some to great horrors, madness is still a human quality. Can we really shut it up in the darkness and pretend that it’s not real? In the original story, we see what happens when one characters tries to ignore reality. As the Batman says at one point, ‘It’s only that madness that makes us what we are.’
Morrison and McKean create an interesting story, though not an entirely satisfyingly coherent one, which might be fitting. Nonetheless, the questions that the graphic novel poses are worth asking, about the role of madness, about its origins and qualities, about its presence even among the sane. We collectively to try suppress the nature and even necessity of madness, which is what sometimes we call up to do what consider immoral but necessary.
The game appears only losely based on the graphic, so my hope of an interesting dramatic treatment is probably pointless. The game may have some interesting stealth aspects, but in the end, it could very well still be little more than a good action game.