True confession time.
I applauded loudly the day Nintendo made a million Zelda fans bawl with their cel-shaded Wind Waker announcement.
When I discovered that Solid Snake’s mission in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty was merely prologue to Raiden’s revelation, I tipped my cap to Kojima.
And in Halo 2, when Master Chief was kicked to the curb as we followed the Arbiter down some tricky, twisty paths, I saw the series in a whole new light.
Each one of these “controversial” decisions was a ballsy decision made to shake things up in service of the game, and I think gamers would be wise to embrace this outside-the-box game development. By definition, a game is a “problem” to solve. When you can predict every move it’s going to make, where’s the fun in that? So, I applaud any developer who seeks to throw us a wicked curve when we’re sitting on the fastball.
I raised those three examples for a reason. Each one of them led to incredible ire, igniting flame wars in the forums and gaming communities. In the case of Zelda, people decried the pretty pictures before they even had a chance to sit down and play the game. It was immediately dubbed kiddie, not the mature view gamers had hoped for when they first caught site of a lean, mean Link tussling with Ganondorf in that epic Spaceworld 2000 demo.
The only thing juvenile about it was that knee-jerk reaction. Hell, any gamer worth his salt should have looked upon The Wind Waker’s cartoon aesthetic and seen it for what it was: the first, full-blooded embodiment of those fabulous illustrations that dotted the original Legend of Zelda instruction booklets. That game, and its next few successors, used the booklets to voice a tale that the technology at the time could barely whisper.
Finally, the developers had the power to bring that vision to vibrant life. The result was a true work of art, the stuff of which my childhood dreams were made, stuff my adult self was mature enough to really appreciate. The cel-shading only served to render the game timeless, as its look would never go out of style. The same can’t be said of our current Gears of War and Call of Duty clones that live in the Uncanny Valley of current technology and will one day be doomed by it.
With Metal Gear, Hideo Kojima performed the unthinkable. He took that series’ major draw–Solid Snake–and removed him from the equation. And he did it all without anyone in the enthusiast press ever catching on until they sat down to play the game. If you take a look back at the wall-to-wall preview press, it all focuses on the game’s extended prologue–the insertion and takeover of a massive tanker steaming through the Hudson.
Sure, the game begins with players controlling Snake as he stealthily works his way through the imperiled ship, and all of the Metal Gear hallmarks are in place. But this is merely a master setting the chess table. Kojima aims to toy with us. By the time the ship capsizes and Metal Gear Rex is sprung, we’ve had the rug pulled from under us. Snake’s gone–first thought dead, then rumored to be leading the bad guys–and we’re in control of a whiny, golden-haired brat. We’ve lost Han Solo and are stuck with Luke, a trade no sane person would ever willingly make.
But I see the genius in the move. By seeing Snake through Raiden’s eyes, the character only grows larger in stature. He is Legend. And by the time Snake and Raiden team up, the myth of Solid Snake has been seared into memory.
That Kojima would then answer all that fanboy whining by giving us control of Snake, albeit Snake’s predecessor–and setting the action in the sixties–is the icing on the cake. As if that wasn’t enough, he capped things off in Guns of the Patriots by giving us a grumpy old geezer to control. The guy is a mad maestro with a wicked sense of humor.
Finally, there’s the famous Halo audible that left fanboys crying foul. After putting players in control of Master Chief for the opening salvo, we cut away to a Covenant tribunal, where an Elite named the Arbiter stands trial for Master Chief’s meddling in the first game. It’s in this sequence that the reality of his (meaning my) actions becomes muddied. What initially appeared to be a heroic act in the first game is viewed as heresy from the other side.
While the Arbiter might be swept up in a political conspiracy, as voiced by Keith David he is given great gravitas. He believes in what he’s fighting for. Suddenly, I’m rethinking everything I’ve done and seeing things through a new set of eyes. A change in perspective augments everything I thought was right. Any game that compels such cogent, questioning thoughts is doing something right. As much as I enjoyed Master Chief’s journey in that game, I couldn’t wait to get back to the Arbiter and learn more about this fascinating enemy.
Of course, fanboys kicked and screamed that if they couldn’t play with Master Chief, then they were going home. And that’s a shame, as it’s apparent Bungie took those criticisms to heart, with The Arbiter given much less to do in Halo 3. Sure, he was by your side, but he had certainly been sidelined.
I think that’s a tricky arena for developers to enter. Sure, you want to listen to what your fans like and dislike, but there is something to be said for the element of surprise. Sequels do well because people like comfort food; they love getting a second helping of something they enjoyed so much the first time. But as so many parents have found, embedding a sneaky little vitamin in the meal can bring about great benefits. When developers take chances and give us something we weren’t expecting, the rewards are vast. We grow as gamers.
This summer, the one film I’m looking forward to among a crowded field of genre fare is JJ Abrams’ Super 8.
With only six months left to go, Abrams has kept this one remarkably close to the vest. We know that it’s set in the 80s and pays homage to Steven Spielberg’s late seventies/early eighties work. When Abrams pitched the idea to Spielberg, the guy immediately jumped on as Executive Producer. Nobody knows the plot, although the trailer hints that it could be connected to Area 51. Aside from that, we know Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights) is in the cast. And that’s all we know.
As a kid, I stared in awe at Spielberg’s innate ability to marry suburban reality with supernatural and extraterrestrial forces. As an adult, I grooved to Abrams’ epic myth-building, fervently following Alias, Lost and Fringe to some fantastic final destinations.
It’s almost as if he made this movie specifically for me.
I’m going to remain dark on this one, and then I’ll be there opening night. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed the discovery of a movie–with next to no knowledge about what was about to screen–since I went with a neighborhood friend to see Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark in the summer of 1981. My fire was lit then, and I would later devour every scrap of info I could find on my most anticipated movies, to the point where the element of surprise was robbed. I did it to myself, and I’ve often proceeded to enjoy whatever flick I read all about, but there is real magic in my Raiders memory. Now, as I write this six months in advance of the Super 8 premiere, I stand to recapture a little bit of that spark. That’s a gift I don’t intend to spoil.
The rest of this year could suck at the cinema. Hell, this movie could blow for all I care. All I know is, as I write this now, I couldn’t find out any information about this flick even if I wanted to…and I don’t want to…and knowing that this dream union could create something special, delivered specifically to me in a little less than six months from now, well that just brings me back to that nine-year old boy I once knew so well.
And how can that not make Super 8 my most anticipated movie of the year?
We live in an age when the element of surprise is virtually non-existent. We can know anything there is to know about anything with the click of a mouse. And anything we can’t find, that Wikileaks guy or TMZ is sure to dig it up for us.
So that’s why I encourage game developers to take chances and withhold their surprises.
While I appreciate the fast ball, toss me a changeup from time to time and really challenge me. After all, isn’t that why we play the game?