Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Tourist review

Upon arriving at the cinema I had to decide between watching The Tourist, starring Depp and Jolie, and Faster – an action movie starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Billy Bob Thornton. Amongst all those big names Thornton is the only one I actually don't like. For that reason and others I decided to go for the Tourist.

The movie was quite watchable. I was happy to see Paul Bettany, who I rather like, and it was interesting to me to see him with Rufus Sewell again. Johnny Depp was convincing as an awkward schoolteacher out of his depth and Angelina Jolie played her part well. There were a couple of action scenes that, while not particularly gripping, worked. The plot was reasonably interesting and I have no complaints with the pacing.

However, the movie does have one big problem. First of all, this is not an action or comedy movie, it is described as a drama (I would say suspense, although that's probably a given). That means the pay-off for watching is really all in the ending. To put it bluntly, in this kind of movie we are expecting a twist at the end. Perhaps we shouldn't, I don't know of any rule that says a drama has to have a surprise ending, but the fact is it needs a bang at the end and that usually means a twist. This is where the movie fizzles out.

The problem is everyone saw the twist coming. I saw it coming but dismissed it as too far fetched. There's a bit of a contradiction there; if the twist ending makes perfect sense it risks being too predictable, telegraphed even. However a twist with no hints that it is coming usually has no impact because it feels divorced from the story. The real art is to write a twist ending that does tie in with the whole story, answer all the questions and shed new light on events we took for granted, without being obvious and predictable. This usually means that it cannot be straight-forwards, however if it is too convoluted it risks being contrived and unbelievable – especially since the more convoluted the writer tries to make it generally the more plot holes and logical shortcomings it ends up with.

Take the end of The Usual Suspects. The beauty of it was that there were no hints so the end was not predictable, yet it was completely intertwined with the entire movie, and it achieved this without feeling forced. The twist at the end was so integral to the whole movie that it made us question everything we had just seen – how much of it was true, how much was subtly altered, and how much was outright fabrication?

Most of the time movies and TV shows err on the side of being too predictable or too contrived. This is just conjecture, but I suspect the predictable ones were written with the final twist in mind from the start while the contrived ones are more concerned with the drama inherit in the mystery and the end is written later to try to tie things together (this I believe is more often seen in TV series that are less about the plot and more about putting the characters in to new situations every week). To be honest I cannot decide which category the Tourist falls in to. It is predictable partly because we are expecting a twist and the plot is not particularly complex so there aren't many possible outcomes, and the actual end is not so hard to imagine that it never occurs to us or so hard to believe that we dismiss it as soon as it occurs to us.

Now I've just contradicted myself, if you recall several paragraphs ago I said that I saw it coming but dismissed it as being too far fetched. Well, yes and no. It feels far-fetched during the movie if you make certain assumptions, which I did, but even so it was so obviously the “best” ending that I halfway expected them to do it anyway. Which they did. So I was not surprised. Other people did not make the same assumptions I did and were fully expecting it the entire time.

But the end wasn't just predictable, it was also disappointing. You see, the entire movie built this image of Alexander Pearce as a genius who had formulated and elaborate yet brilliant plan, that he was the puppet master and he was pulling everyone's strings. So when it turns out that that wasn't the case at all, that he had no idea what he was doing and it all worked out by luck, it's quite a let-down.

I will admit that the end makes sense (mostly) and does not, once you've thought about it a little bit, feel too contrived. It all hinges on the assumption that Alexander did not expect Elise to pick him on the train and that he didn't know how to react or adapt his plan once she did, and that he didn't expect Shaw to find them. Interpol does come across as slightly incompetent, but that is clearly established at the start of the movie anyway.

This does however mean that there was a lot of luck involved, but more importantly begs the question: just what was his original plan anyway? It's never explained. It might be that we are expected to believe that he did want her to pick him on the train and his plan was basically similar to the final result except for the presence of Shaw, but I cannot accept that as it is never explained how he knew she would pick him and his behavior makes it seem much more likely that he was caught by surprise and didn't know how to react. I'm not even going to bother discussing the decoy used to try to divert our attention from “Frank”.

To me it just comes down to poor execution of what probably sounded on paper like a cool twist, but in execution is too predictable and has too little impact on the story as a whole. The movie was watchable, but the end is so weak you'll walk out feeling disappointed. And as a personal note, I don't really see why a criminal getting away with millions of pounds is supposed to be a happy ending. He knew Shaw was a crook when he worked for him, that makes him a criminal. The fact that the money was taken from a criminal does not mean that it's OK for him to walk off with it; that money was dirty from the start and he has no more right to it than Shaw did. I guess that makes it a “Heist” movie.

Overall I give it a 6 out of 10 - not bad, but not a must-see either.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Alan Wake Post-Completion Reactions

As stated in my last post, I wanted to try to write about this game before and after finishing it to see how my opinion would change. It turns out I wasn't as close to the end as I had thought - I had assumed episode 5 was the last because the "manuscript pages" menu had room for five episodes, however as it turns out there are six and the menu simply expands after you finish the fifth. I've also had a few busy days and I lost internet access for a few more, but I suspect the real reason I'm posting so late is just that I've mostly lost interest in the game.

My original fear was that the ending would let down the rest of the game. It turns out that fear was not completely unfounded. The end certainly isn't bad, in fact I would say it mostly works quite well. However, I found it a little ambiguous - I wasn't quite sure exactly what happened.

Was the Dark Presence dead, or merely banished back to whatever dark place it always existed in, ready to emerge once again? Admittedly, while we feel that we want to know the answer to that, it's perfectly legitimate not to tell us - after all, how exactly could Alan Wake know for sure himself? Trying to explain it may very well feel forced, showing us what Alan Wake saw and leaving us to draw our own conclusions was probably the best way to do it.

However that's not the only question we are left with. Zane left a single page behind, written some thirty years ago, on which he wrote about Alan as a child. What does that mean? He picked Alan thirty years ago to finish what he started, that it's because of him Alan became a writer and ultimately came here and became the center of all this? Or perhaps he actually wrote Alan himself into existence? Again this is better left unanswered, but it does add to the questions.

Wake himself is left in the cabin under the lake to... write forever? What is he writing? If the dark presence is gone how can he still be alive under the lake, and why must he stay there? Once Alice is safe he can't write himself an escape? And the last thing we hear is Alice saying "Alan, wake up". What does that mean? Is it just a random memory running through his head? Because it seems to have been deliberately chosen to suggest that perhaps this is all a dream, in other words to keep us guessing.

Alice climbs out of the water... and that's it. After Wake leaves Barry, Sheriff Sarah and Cynthia Weaver in the "bright room", we never see them again. And hey, what ever happened to the Tor and Odin? I found a manuscript page saying they were heading back to their farm (leading a group of patients as I recall), so why didn't we see them there when Alan Wake arrives (and spends the night)? The way I read it they shouldn't have had trouble with the Taken, and yet we never hear from them again. These at least are things I would like to know - I would like to see Barry and the Sheriff find Alice, see them searching for Alan, realizing that he is gone (or is he?), see the fates of some of the other secondary characters we've encountered. It would have provided a sense of closure.

Yes, there's that word again: closure. Perhaps not everyone feels the same way, but when I invest myself in a game or movie with a strong narrative and story, I want to walk away feeling a sense of closure - I suppose you could say that I've enjoyed it and I can put it to rest now. It's not a TV show, 40 minutes and the cliffhanger gets resolved next week - if it feels incomplete I just walk away feeling annoyed.

Hang on a second... TV show... episodes? That was the plan all along wasn't it! To leave us with questions so we eagerly snap up the DLC. The main menu of Alan Wake has a "downloadable content" option, where I found two additional episodes are available for purchase. So like Borderlands, the story has been compromised to make way for DLC. You know what that means? DLC is starting to do more harm than good. What a surprise, art is being compromised for the sake of profit.

It's really not fair of me to say that; making games is very financially risky these days. When you've got over a hundred people relying on the game making a profit, if DLC helps mitigate the risks then you include DLC. I won't get into the problems games developers have turning a profit right now; that's a huge issue that I personally have mixed feelings about. The point is, I wish the end hadn't left us with so many questions. I personally don't want to download the extra episodes right now, partly BECAUSE I feel unsatisfied with the main story, BECAUSE we were not given closure. And also because I personally don't have that much time and there's a lot of other games I want to play, so I was happy for the game to end where it did.

But back to the question of whether my opinion changed: contrary to what it must sound like at this point, it did not change very much. The fact that the end disappointed me slightly means that I'm not left with a sense of how amazing the game is, satisfied yet somehow wanting more. It's a hard feeling to describe, but after finishing each of the Sands of Time trilogy and Halo 3 I was left with a lasting desire to immerse myself more in their worlds, to experience more I suppose. To an extent I felt that way during Alan wake, but not after finishing it. Never the less I still like the game, I would certainly recommend it to just about anyone, I still appreciate how good it is. Perhaps that also has something to do with the length and pacing; it never really dragged on or felt too long, so I still enjoyed the basic game-play all the way to the end. And to be honest, the fact that I spent time solidifying my thoughts when I wrote my first reaction, and then re-read it after finishing the game, is probably helping me to remember the good points.

I do have some thoughts about the game, I think the best thing to do is just put them down in no specific order. For the most part they are not meant as criticism, rather just an attempt to analyze the game.

I stand by my earlier assessment that collectibles were a bad idea. Even at the end of the last level when the game was reaching it's climax I was making sure I checked every little wooden shack inside and out, searching every little nook and cranny instead of worrying about saving my friends, wife, and possibly the world - and I still didn't find every manuscript page and thermos. They probably add replay value, if you ignore them first time you can play a second time and hunt them out. But I don't replay games, I'm just not willing to spend the time. Every time I finish a level and see that I failed to find some pages I feel as if I've missed out on something, that the experience was less complete. Of course that's a deliberate way to reward players who invest the time and effort into really exploring the game; but some pages can only be found in Nightmare mode, which you cannot play until you finish the game, so I'm really not too happy about that.

In a later level, perhaps level 4, I noticed some cans stacked as a pyramid. I realized I had seen this before, so as an experiment I decided to waste a precious bullet to knock them over. As soon as I did the auto-save icon appeared - clearly this was another "collectible" with an achievement to be earned. But of course by then it was too late; after finishing the game I checked my statistics in the extras menu. It turns out I only shot 4 out of the 12 can pyramids needed for an achievement. Dammit. I also found out that I:
killed 48 Taken with a rifle,
killed 13 Taken with a flare gun,
killed 999 birds,
used 8 batteries (proof the game is too easy),
found 76 of 100 coffee thermos,
watched 13 of 14 TV shows,

... and much more. Wow, I feel like Big Brother is watching me - everything I did was measured! A quick look at the achievement list shows I did manage a good number, but I missed out on:
killing 50 Taken with a rifle (by just two Taken - dammit!),
killing 1000 birds (by just one bird? You've got to be kidding me!),
using 100 batteries (shouldn't you get an award for using less, not more?)
watching all the TV shows (again, just 1 short), etc.

It's nice to know I got a number of achievements (including some cool ones like killing 4 Taken with one flashbang and killing 2 Taken with one shotgun blast), but I'm glad I didn't read the list before playing or I would have payed even less attention to the plot! Unfortunately this is expected in a console game these days - in fact, it's practically mandatory, so I cannot fault Alan Wake. Again I understand the appeal, I did enjoy finding out that I had "earned" an achievement for running down 20 Taken with a vehicle, or listening to every radio show. I suppose I don't really have an answer to the problem except to try to overcome my obsession with playing the game "perfectly". Perhaps it would help if they didn't award you the achievements mid-game and instead waited until the end, so that you get less distracted by the prospect?

Again, the guns are very satisfying. The revolver feels reasonable powerful and yet can be fired in quick succession when needed. The hunting rifle is the most powerful firearm in the game (obviously this excludes the flaregun and flashbangs), I would have thought it would be the shotgun, at least at close range. Not that I'm complaining, the hunting rifle's one shot kills are particularly fun. I'm glad they stuck to just a revolver rather than upgrade it to a pistol; revolvers are more atmospheric, the reload trick was cool, and the limited ammo capacity works better in this type of game - likewise for shotguns and hunting rifles rather than SMGs and assault rifles. Actually, I'd say all the weapons and tools in the game were very well implemented, even if Alan had an amazing inability to hold on the them through cut-scenes.

Luckily people leave a lot of guns and flashlights (and flashbang grenades?) just lying around the place in Bright Falls. The truth is I enjoy the whole "scrounging for ammo" element, in fact I still think they actually gave you too much - but then when you run out you are completely helpless (while that never actually happened to me, it got a little close a couple of times). This is particularly problematic with the auto-save system that saves the single last checkpoint; as convenient as it is it creates a possibility that a player can get stuck without the necessary supplies to pass a game section and have no choice but to start from the beginning of the whole level, which may have been hours ago, so the designers have to make sure that can't happen. Besides, as Alan notes himself, "it was like someone was deliberately leaving the tools I needed in my path where I would find them" (or something to that effect) - another example of how the plot allowed gameplay elements to add to the story rather than detracting from it.

There were a couple of sections where you're briefly unarmed, and once you didn't even have a flashlight. I found these to be the scariest bits of the game, and I think they should have been longer (or possibly there should have been more of them, but then they would lose their novelty, so probably making them longer is the better option). Those were about the only times after the first level when I was actually scared of the Taken.

Possessed objects were scarier than the Taken in some ways, especially when they are first introduced. Possessed vehicles are pretty cool, the Corn Thresher especially is pretty scary when it's bearing down on you.

Lights are so bright that you can't see sometimes. Normally this works very well, for example "safe havens" are hard to see out of, which helps make them feel like a different place where you actually are safe, and makes you reluctant to leave them. Flares really feel blinding. The only real problem was the lantern you can replace your flashlight with; it was so bright sometimes you couldn't see what you were looking at, mainly the yellow writing on the walls that is only visible under the flashlight was saturated to pure white so it became very hard to read. A minor quibble at best; lighting is an art-form after all.

Sometimes when you're trying to back away from a large Darkness-shrouded Taken with a chainsaw as you desperately reload, you stop moving backwards as if you had hit a wall, only to find later that it was just a small rock or a six-inch-high platform or some other minor obstacle that you feel it should have been possible to stumble around or over. Giving Alan a more aggressive navigation ability would have helped, but most likely would have made his movements somewhat "floaty" and less convincing overall - which would have done far more harm since this game thrives on immersion.

Some of the "Night Springs" episodes were interesting, I especially liked the one about the quantum suicide. You don't seem to be able to view them from the main menu though, which is a shame. Speaking of which, the ability to view the cut-scenes again and listen to the music from the main menu is a nice touch, it's the kind of thing I wish more developers would do - along with giving you the ability to fully configure all the controls and to raise the volume level of speech separately from everything else. Luckily I had no trouble here; the default control scheme was just fine and I didn't feel the need to change anything but there did seem to be some room for customization, and Alan Wake does give you the option to alter the different sound elements individually.

I quite liked some of the music. In one radio show the host comments that "Poets of the Fall" remind him of the old local band "Old Gods of Asgard" - not surprising since the Poets actually played the music for the "Old Gods". I thought that was a nice touch and I really liked their songs.

The "End of Episode" screens were too long and static. For several minutes you see nothing but the "end of episode" message while a song plays. You can of course skip, but I was never sure if I was supposed to be waiting for something or not (not, as it turns out). I feel that it would have worked better with some sort of "mini-credits" or a themed slide-show - perhaps aged sepia photographs of the characters in that episode or of Alan and Alice in various stages of their lives (which might help form a connection with the audience), or maybe snapshots from various scenes of that episode.

Alan is not a very likable character. This is initially due to the stress of writer's block and later the stress of, well, fighting for his life against terrifying horrors while trying to save his wife. And while we are given a few glimpses into his life when he's not annoyed, terrified, angry, or just being a jerk, these are too few (and perhaps not deep enough) to make me actually care about the character. Similarly I didn't really care about Alice and wasn't too bothered, personally speaking, about saving her. I suspect the slightly poor facial animation was partly to blame.

On the other hand I actually cared more about some of the secondary characters. Barry was around long enough and had enough of a personality for me to actually care about him - surprisingly I didn't find him as annoying as I initially expected to, rather I found his reactions to the circumstances to be perhaps the most human of anyone in the game (not counting Alice's screaming and all that). Sheriff Sarah impressed me with her courage, level head and quick no-nonsense acceptance of the situation, I was quite worried she would die and grateful she didn't. I felt sorry for Cynthia, living thirty years in fear of the dark. How is she going to deal with life now that it's all over? Agent Nightingale didn't do much but wantonly fire his gun and call Alan names, but there was always a suggestion that he was struggling with some huge and terrifying secret, enough to make me curious about him and how he got pulled in to all this. The point is that there's probably something wrong when I care more about the backup cast than the guy the whole game is named after. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that they don't get as many close-ups in the cut-scenes so the wooden facial animation didn't alienate them from the viewer?

In conclusion, it's a great game that, like many other great games, brings something new to the table and provides plenty of enjoyment but stumbles a little when the time comes to wrap things up. It has a better story, and it does a better job of integrating it with the gameplay, than most games I've played. The few problems that it has are nowhere near troublesome enough to ruin it, and won't even necessarily matter to every player. The gameplay was better than I expected and I really enjoyed it - for many people that's all that really matters. While the story itself impressed me, there were some issues that prevented me from being drawn in too deeply, but many people don't care at all about stories in games. Finally, it wasn't particularly scary, which might disappoint if you were hoping for a proper survival-horror game. Hopefully the rumored sequel will do a better job of drawing the player in, and make it a little harder for him to fall asleep at night afterward.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Alan Wake Pre-Completion Reactions

I've been playing Alan Wake for a few days now. So far I am enjoying it, in fact I would say I am enjoying it more than I had expected to, even despite the good reviews raising my expectations. A lot of that has to do with the combat. It's quite satisfying. Unlike traditional cover-based third person shooters, it's fast and fluid, your enemies react to your shots and don't take multiple magazines worth of bullets to kill - even a single shot can stagger most of them for a moment, so your weapons really do feel powerful. Using the flashlight to aim feels natural, tapping to reload faster makes it feel more engaging somehow, and desperately ducking under a swinging axe with the dodge button is enjoyable. Enemies disintegrate in a burst of light, which makes killing them even more satisfying.

Don't get the idea that's it's easy, though. Well, actually, it is kind of easy. That's mainly because you can't select the hardest difficulty setting from the start, only the medium setting. Even so, there's tough moments, but if you explore a little you'll find enough flares and flash-bangs to fight your way through most of the toughest parts. Personally I'm extremely conservative and somewhat egotistical, I always try to stick to the regular weapons and save the strong stuff for "when I really need them" - which generally means that I play the tough parts three or four times, too stubborn to even slip new batteries in my flashlight, and then episode ends and Alan falls off a cliff or something and I lose all my lovely flare-gun rounds without using them.

Part of the reason for that is that the game is not actually all that scary. Perhaps it's the low difficulty, or the fact that single enemies are usually not hard to deal with and even the tougher ones are quite slow, or even just that the enemies are basically human. Personally, I think the third person perspective has a lot to do with it. First person games that drop you in the dark are very claustrophobic, and things like the muzzle flash lighting up the monster that's RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU really get your heart racing. In Alan Wake, not only do you have a better view of what's around you, the fact that they are attacking the guy on screen rather than coming straight at you just makes it less engaging. Also, the consequences for dying are minimal, you fall over and then the game loads up again - there's just not much impact there.

Personally I don't really mind though. It would have been better if it was scarier, but as it is I'm loving it. The story so far is very good. It's told piecemeal; scattered manuscript pages gives hints of the truth and snippets of the future, random television sets lighting up with views of Alan himself pacing and rambling, strange conversations with crazy people, brief flashbacks. While the story does start to take shape, it still keeps you guessing until the forth episode, during which enough is explained for you to finally understand what's happening. And it's a pretty cool story.

In fact, I would say that the story is brilliant because of what it allowed the creators to do: make a game that takes all the elements of a horror novel that can work in a game and use them without worrying about the bits that can't. Take for example the trigger-happy FBI agent. We don't need to worry about why he's chasing Alan; he's there because it makes a more exciting story, that's all there is to it. It also explains some of the questionable logic; why does the kidnapper keep setting up meetings at night? Because it makes a more exciting story. Why is there ammo and weapons scattered around the middle of the forest? Because in a book, the protagonist is often helped by fortunate coincidence, perhaps almost as often as he is caught by unfortunate coincidence. The use of the scattered manuscript pages works very well, in addition to foreshadowing future events, they give glimpses into the other characters that would be hard to fit into the normal narrative. And the fact that they are obtained one at a time and narrated by Wake makes them easier to read than the blocks of background text some games have hidden in their menus.

The setting works well too. A small village, isolated, surrounded by dark forests, mountains, cliffs and rivers. The scenery is quite beautiful sometimes, dark and scary others. Broken down wood buildings, winding forest paths, old abandoned mines, all lend themselves well to the horror setting. The abundance of weapons and survival equipment does not feel out of place either.

I had heard that some of the characters and dialog did not fit with the rest of the game. Personally, I didn't really experience that. That characters were lively and had character, sometimes they talked too much but it's probably better than talking too little. Sometimes people were quite quick to accept strange things, but it's not a TV show, we would get bored if we had to watch every character react in a completely realistic way. Sometimes I worried specific people would die, and I hoped they wouldn't, I guess that says it all really.

Sound plays a big part in a game like this, and Alan Wake seems to get it right. Audio cues do a good job of warning you of danger, making you feel that an enemy's protective darkness is really burning off, etc. Background music and sound sets the scene, and there's some nice audio tracks at the end of episodes.

Gameplay is divided into episodes that even have mini recaps at the start. At first it seems extraneous, but after a while it seems to make sense, dividing the action and story into arcs that keeps the game moving without making it feel drawn-out, and also makes it easier to jump in and out without feeling that the immersion is broken. It can also give you a moment to contemplate the previous chapter, which I suppose can put your mind in a better position to appreciate the next one, perhaps helping to keep the story in mind so you don't get confused or just miss anything. Plus it just fits with the whole "fiction" idea.

Graphics are good. There's a lot of light bloom that helps emphasize the importance and power of the light. Sometimes it's a little overpowering and makes it hard to see, but this is rarely out of places and usually feels natural. In contrast the Darkness twists and flows like it's alive, looking very sinister. Characters and animation look good, except for facial animation which is quite wooden. The environment looks great, with some beautiful scenic views.

So what's wrong with the game? That's just it; very little - even the driving mechanics are solid. That's another one of the things I really like, there nothing to get in the way, to break the spell. Well, very little anyway. There may be a few plot holes, I'm not sure yet, but like I said they whole nature of the story means plot holes are easy to ignore (most can probably be discounted as holes in his story, not in THE story). Alan himself acts a bit like a jerk sometimes, but that also is part of the story. The facial animation is rather poor compared to some other games, which hurts a game like this a bit, but it's not too bad.

My biggest criticism really would have to be the collectibles. I always feel a strong narrative-driven game (along with fast directed action games) should not have collectibles. I've just been told my best friend is in mortal danger, I can hear him yelling for help, calling my name, but all I can think about is that there might be a coffee flask just down that path and if I go to help him I'll miss my chance to get it. Well, he can wait, it's not like the game will kill him if I don't get there in time. And that's the problem; it breaks the immersion, lessens the impact of otherwise powerful scenes, distracts you from the story. I know that collectibles have many advantages, perhaps some people will just ignore the collectibles and focus on the story, but I just can't seem to do that. I firmly believe I would have enjoyed the game more if it weren't for the coffee flasks. The pages are slightly harder for me to rule on because they are brilliant themselves, but searching for them distracts me in the same way. Perhaps just handing them to the player would work better even if it is less immersive?

My other main issue is that my AI-controlled allies actually get on my nerves in a fight. I'll be aiming my flashlight at an enemy and suddenly my friend steps in the way of the beam - sometimes they insist on staying there, whenever I step to the side to try to aim past them they just step right back in the way. The same thing happens when I'm trying to get a shot with a gun too. Sometimes when they start to shoot at someone, I turn my attention to a different threat, and as I'm lining up for a shot, suddenly my target gets blown apart by a shotgun blast, my friends deciding to ignore the threat I trusted them to handle (and usually the enemy has run past them and is now coming at me). Basically, they make the fights much more chaotic and out of my control. But that's not too surprising, friendly AI is always difficult, and it's really a minor part of this game; you're alone far more often than not.

I guess the most important thing is that it's quite different to the standard fare. Combat is not completely unique but certainly different enough to feel new, and it is enjoyable. The story is interesting and certainly a change, again I quite like it. The episodes help control the pace, making it easier to jump in and out without it feeling disconnected. And all the "old" stuff just works. In conclusion, it's a polished game that has a good story, good gameplay, good graphics, good music, good voice acting, with very little wrong with it.

The trouble with endings

In my last post (or my first, English is a funny thing) I discussed Sintel. After mulling it over in my head for a while, my interpretation of the ending changed somewhat. Initially I was so stunned that I had a hard time understanding it. But now I see that she was insane. She had become so obsessed that she had lost her grip on sanity, though we did not see it until the end (or in my case, sometime after that). I feel that there's meant to be a moral in there somewhere, but I can't really see it because the object of her search was her best and only friend. The idea that you shouldn't become too obsessed with something is undermined by the fact that the "something" in question is a friend, that she she never gave up searching out of loyalty. So what then is the lesson? That we must even let people go sometimes? I don't know, I don't really see it.

But that's not really why I'm writing. In a way Sintel serves as the perfect introduction to what I want to talk about today; the way our - or at least my - opinion towards a movie or book or game can completely change in just a few seconds. The ending is the always the most important part, it makes or breaks the whole piece. That much is known... or is it?

The reason I ask is because lately, I've run into a string of bad endings. Let me clarify that I'm not talking about the end of Sintel here, I'll get back to that in a moment. First I'll be incredibly self-indulgent and actually discuss each bad ending on my mind.

First there was Untold Legends: Dark Kingdom. I finished the game several months ago, but I hadn't been playing for some time before I finished it and haven't finished many games since. Now, the game itself was not bad, or so I thought at the time. Combat was more advanced than previous games of the type that I had played, yet your blows had more impact on the enemies than in God of War 3 (the other game I was playing at the same time), as a result I found it more satisfying. The problems really started near the end.

There are three characters you can choose from. I don't believe the story changes depending on who you choose (I played the first three levels with each just to check), the characters simply swap roles. I played as the Scout, who's speed was most fun in combat. Near the end of the game, however, one of them simply dies in a very disappointing way. A short time later the other betrays you and you have to kill them. Not very cheerful stuff, but OK. Finally you reach the end and kill the one responsible for it all. At this point you have single-handedly killed tens of thousands of demons, necromancers, and undead. Entire armies by any measure. So the protagonist is happy that they have finally... got revenge? What happened to saving the kingdom? Apparently that wasn't really the point. You see, after all that you are told that the kingdom has been all but destroyed, and in it's current state of disarray the neighboring lands will be see it as easy pickings - it's only a matter of time before it is invaded and occupied. That your in your efforts to kill the King you have unleashed a dangerous magical entity who may cause as much harm as the Kind himself did, if not more. That you yourself have absorbed a dangerous amount of evil demonic energy, and you don't know what will happen to you.

So not a very happy ending then. But that's not the problem. The problem is that it's not a satisfying ending. It made a mockery of all my efforts. After personally slaying every single evil creature that sacrificing an entire kingdom could summon, you would think that perhaps you'd get a pat on the back and a "job well done". But no, instead you're laughed at, taunted with the knowledge that it was all pointless. By the end of you even hate your own character. So did I feel happy that I had spent some twenty hours or so playing? No, I only regret wasting my time, and I certainly won't waste my money on another Untold Legends game. Nice job, Sony.

My point is that even though I more or less enjoyed playing the game, the end ruined all that. Borderlands also had a poor end, thankfully though it was not nearly as bad. The game itself is fun, especially played with friends. Thank God, it has split-screen! But as well as playing it with a friend I also played through the story on my own. I fought everyone, bandits, wildlife, mysterious aliens and evil corporations, all for the the chance to plunder an ancient Vault that can only be accessed once every two hundred years. After an extended final battle, the vault finally opens, revealing a hulking monstrosity that you must kill. Following that, you're told that the vault just closed, sorry, maybe you can try again in two hundred years.

It's not that it's terribly written, rather I can't say that the end actually was written, you just reach the end and nothing happens, the story stops. It's not writing, it's a cop out. Normally I would have blamed bad writers or limited budgets, but in this case I assume the reason was to sell down-loadable content. The thing is, I don't want to play any DLC because I feel the game was pointless. I may not regret the experience the way I did with Dark Kingdom, but the previous urge I felt to play the game is completely gone.

Now lets talk about some movies. A few weeks ago I saw a poster at the local cinema for Icarus, starring Dolph Lundgren. I was pretty excited just to see good old Dolph again; as I had been when I heard he was in The Expendables. It was only showing at 11:30 at night, not ideal. Still I dragged a friend with me to go see it at the earliest opportunity, fully expecting it to be mediocre at best (I figured I would have heard of it if it was particularly good) but hoping to be surprised. Actually, that's my standard attitude towards movies these days, sometimes I am pleasantly surprised, sometimes not. Anyway, the movie was alright through most of the run-time, and the end was average except for one thing: we didn't actually understand what had happened. I don't mean what happened at the end, I mean that we were expecting the end to explain why everyone was trying to kill him, but somehow it didn't - or if it did then we didn't get it. In the end I walked out confused rather than mildly entertained.

And finally, I just watched Repo Men. Interesting concept, but I didn't think the movie itself was particularly good. The "surprise" ending might have been interesting, except that it was almost exactly the same as the end of Brazil. The fact that I personally didn't like the end of Brazil doesn't really help either.

But it's not only a bad ending that can change how we feel, a good end can elevate an experience to much greater heights. Take perhaps the greatest example, The Usual Suspects. I watched most of the movie out of inertia; there was nothing to stop me from watching, although there wasn't very much keeping me watching either. And then it ended, and suddenly it was awesome. The entire movie shifted; things you had already watched changed and took on new meaning, or raised new questions.

And here we come back to Sintel. Sintel is a short movie, and, like The Usual Suspects, it's all about the end. The end gives the whole thing meaning, throws it all into a different light. And, in this case, punches you the gut and leaves you speechless. Until I saw the end, I was enjoying the movie. Afterwards, I hated it - for a while at least. Now I respect it, I think it's an amazing piece of art, but I don't want to watch it again. Not for a while anyway.

Moving back to video-games, the Sands of Time had a brilliant ending, the perfect complement to a brilliant game. The second game generally was not as well liked, mainly I think because of the tone, but in terms of game-play I believe it was superior, and it had some story moments that were simply amazing. The third game, however, wrapped up the trilogy an a way that I would say is one of the best endings ever. I must have been ranting about how amazing it was for three days, boring anyone who would listen.

And then there's Halo 3. The game was good, the end was fitting, but the "Legendary" ending after the credits? Before I saw it I liked the game, after I watched it suddenly I loved the game. Does that make sense? Probably not, but there it is.

The reason I talked at greater length about games than movies is because games require a much greater investment, in terms of money, time, and effort. Furthermore, they potentially have the capacity to draw you in deeper, at the very least the end feels more like a result of your own personal efforts. And yet most games have endings that are just adequate - you've saved the day, everyone lives happily ever after. In all fairness, one reason for this is that the big dramatic reveal that happens in the end of some movies actually happens a level or two before the end of a game, to allow you to experience the results and deal with them, rather than just watch them. The final "ending" then is usually just the few moments after all the action has taken place.

I suppose that's one of the challenges in writing for games. All the rules are different; writing in games is an emerging art-form, it's still evolving, writers are still just starting to learn what works and what doesn't.

So the real question that I have is, if I enjoyed playing a game, if I like it while I am playing it, is it fair to decide that I don't like it after I finish it? Is my previous enjoyment erased somehow, retro-actively written out of my own life story? Does that really make sense? So I've decided to try something. I believe I am near the end of Alan Wake right now. So I am going to write a review of the game now, describing my opinion of it up to this point, and another after I finish it. Then if the end disappoints me, if my opinion of it changes, I can at least try to understand why.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

In the beginning there was Sintel

I have been thinking about posting movie reviews and the like for some time. I suppose I was partly inspired by The Escapist. Now the Escapist is a website, predominantly about computer and video games, that takes a much more mature approach than most of it's peers, which differs from mainstream media with respect to gaming in that it actually knows what it is talking about. The articles are thoughtful and usually provide a deeper viewpoint of the discussed topic, which I feel helped me to adopt a more thoughtful approach to my analysis of, well, everything. Perhaps that is why I no longer enjoy many things the way I once did. Ignorance is bliss, after all. But regardless, I find myself often thinking rather complex thoughts about matters of little consequence, such as movies, and thinking that it's a waste to have such thoughts, to construct such arguments in my head, only to forget them in short order.

However I did not want to "dilute" my existing blog, preferring to leave that to discuss what could loosely be termed my "work", obviously the solution was to start a new blog. I put it off for a while, unsure if it was worth the effort (and, to be honest, afraid that I would commit too much time to it, drawn by the lure of venting my bile in any form outside of my own internal monologues, only to become disenfranchised by the inevitable absence of listeners). But today I finally watched Sintel, and I was so overcome I finally made my decision to write, if only for myself. And so, I shall begin.

Today I watched Sintel. If you don't know what that is, it's an animated short movie from the Blender Foundation:

The poster is a masterpiece. It invoked in me a sensation that is very hard to describe, a longing for something I had long ago lost and never realized until now. Do you remember when you were young, and you watched some animated movie, a Disney perhaps, full of magic and wonder? You saw the protagonist, perhaps a dog or stable boy or baby elephant, and you were drawn into their world, humble though it was? And before long you cared for them; you smiled when they did, you felt sad when they cried. But then the movie took you to a dark place, a place where, young as you were, you forgot that every movie has a happy ending and you feared for your new friends. Things grew darker and darker, and finally it seemed all hope really was lost. And then, glorious victory! The sun rose, the evil was vanquished, the hero proved his virtue, and everyone lived happily ever after.

I don't have a word for the sensation, for the heady mix of many emotions, or a description for such movies. The closest I can come is "epic". That at least suggests the dramatic arc, though it also brings other attributes to mind which may not be relevant (these days when we talk of epic movies we generally refer to the scale of events and visual spectacle, vast armies clashing on the battlefield and such like, rather than how they affected us personally). But regardless, I have not felt the sensation in some time. I have read some brilliant books, but as vividly written as they may have been, books lack the sights, the sounds and music, that can play such a big role. Some video-games came close, the Sands of Time trilogy for one, but recently games have disappointed me more often than not, on the story front at least - something I'm sure I will discuss in the future.

The question is, who is the culprit? Is it the media industry? Have they changed, targeted new audiences, or just forgotten how to craft such a story? Or is it me? Have I become jaded? More demanding, less tolerant of anything that doesn't fit my exacting expectations? Have I just "seen it all before", and nothing moves me anymore? Well, I know I have become jaded and I am less tolerant, and I have seen so much that there's little now that feels new, that much I know for a fact. But does that really mean it's all my fault, that the old movies aren't as good as I remember them to be, if I watched them now (bearing in mind that I am no longer of the age they were written for), would I see how terrible they really were?

I honestly don't know. I fear that it is true, that I don't feel the same way about movies because I can't, because I am incapable of enjoying them in the same way. I'm not using the term "fear" lightly; I really am afraid that I have lost something that I can never get back. It shouldn't be important, but somehow, for me, it is. For that reason I have been putting off watching Nausicaa for well over a year, though it's only recently that I'm starting to understand why. You see, I have very vague memories of watching Nausicaa a very, very long time ago. Yet those memories seem to carry with them echos of a strong emotional experience. Somehow, I'm scared that when I watch it, the timing won't be right or I'll have too much on my mind or be too worried about work or will be interrupted halfway, and I just won't feel the same way again - then I'll have lost something, something intangible but somehow important, forever.

Still, I have hope. Recently The Rescuers was on television. This is a very old animated movie about a pair of mice who work for the UN (OK, I could be mistaken about the international coalition of mice that they take orders from being the UN), who are dispatched to help a young girl who is essentially being used for slave labor. I didn't watch the entire thing, only bits, but I enjoyed what I saw, in a nostalgic way at least. In fact, I found some of it to be very impressive, though not perhaps in a way I would have appreciated when I was young. So perhaps it isn't me, perhaps it is what I'm seeing. On the other hand, some modern CG movies are also very inspiring. The Incredibles was very well done, it took you through that arc of despair and triumph that I tried to describe above, and it inspired some strong emotions in me - though not all good ones, I feel somehow bitter about it today. Up was similarly epic and emotional, and I felt had a much better story that incorporated those fantasy elements of old - talking dogs piloting biplanes for example. Wall-E, was perhaps the closest thing to what I mean in the last few years, though my unwillingness to feel emotions for mechanical objects may have interfered with my enjoyment somewhat. How to Train Your Dragon I think met all the "criteria", I really enjoyed it and I cannot help but feel that I should have felt as much for it as I did for the old classics, but I didn't, not quite. I guess the last movie I can recall really feeling this way for was probably Titan A.E. - not a perfect movie, but under-appreciated in my opinion.

Regardless, and I know I am repeating myself here, lately I have been missing that sensation. And, I suppose, I have been desperate to reclaim it, and afraid that I just might not be able to. Something about the poster for Sintel made me feel it might be the first movie in a long time to bring back those emotions. It clearly shows a desperate struggle, two unlikely souls trying to stay together as the currents of a cruel world rip them apart, an immense, seemingly indomitable evil looming over all.

So, feeling a sort of desperation to enjoy the movie, I kept putting off watching it. I didn't know whether to watch it on my own, with no interference, or with someone, to share the experience. I didn't know whether to watch it at night, when it would be dark, or in the morning when the house would be empty. And so on. But today I finally watched it. I pulled the sofa closer to the TV, grabbed some snacks, closed the curtains, and watched it.

I was very disappointed.

This is entirely my own fault. In my own mind I had built up my expectations: it would have the epic journey across a dangerous world that the original Land Before Time did so well. It would have a terrifying, evil and seemingly unbeatable antagonist, like Jaffar at the end of Aladdin. It would have characters who I would love and care for as I watched them overcome adversity to form a powerful bond while discovering the magic in their own world. It would single-handedly recapture the former glory of the media industry and prove to me that I had not lost the capacity to truly enjoy cinema.

This is a cardinal sin for me. I always try to avoid preconceived notions and expectations - if there's a movie or game I know I'm going to watch or play, I avoid even the previews. Only if there's something that I've no idea about do I watch previews. That, and I read the reviews for remakes and adaptations - I'm sick of people making money off me by exploiting something I once cared about. But I digress. The point is I always try to approach movies with an open mind, but this time I utterly failed.

I'm not going to say too much about Sintel, other than the fact that it could never have been what I hoped for. And while it was perhaps very good, I am having a hard time appreciating that today. Why? Because it stabbed me in the heart. It was a short movie, a little too short I think to really draw you in, but still it caught me and made me care, and then the end arrived before I realized it and it stabbed me in the heart.

I literally didn't know what to do after watching. I thought about complaining to the makers, but eventually I was able to accept that it was stupid to try to blame them for not making the movie I wanted. I tried talking to a friend, but I couldn't really tell him how it had affected me and I still felt hurt afterwards. I tried to ignore it and wait for the feeling to pass, but I just kept going over it in my head. So finally I decided I needed to write about it, and I opened this blog and got started.

They say that if you can make your audience feel an emotion, whatever it is, then you have succeeded. Sintel certainly succeeded by that measure, and perhaps by tomorrow I will be able to look at it more objectively. Perhaps that's what I need, objectivity. Perhaps this vague feeling that I claim to remember never truly existed at all, just a product of nostalgia, a yearning for the good old days, and my search to reclaim it a fools errand. I hope not, but sometimes I wonder if it really matters, and if the very idea is holding me back, drawing my eyes to the past rather than the future.

Now, for my own sake, I want to discuss Sintel in a little more detail. PLEASE DO NOT READ THIS IF YOU HAVE NOT WATCHED THE MOVIE! Spoilers abound, you have been warned. Also please note that this is not meant as a formal review, much of what I say will be a matter of taste, I hope that such things are not taken as criticism and I hope not to cause offense.

First, a bit of rationalization on my part. This is a defense mechanism I suppose; when I don't like an event in a movie, such as someone dying in a stupid way, I often reject it, arguing that it is not possible and therefore not to be taken seriously.

When Sintel killed Scales, it was tragic. I keep imagining the poor thing, the sense of betrayal it must have felt, the horror that must have filled her as she realized what she had done. It hurts me to think about it, even now. But I can't accept it. Going by her face, she must have aged twenty years. How can she travel for that long and not realize it, never think about what happened to Scales, about how he(she) must have grown up by now? Yes, I realize that's not the point of the story, that point can be rationalized or not if we choose to, but for me, I cannot accept it. Having said that, the moment when she sees the scar, then truly sees her reflection truly and realizes how much she has aged, that has to be one of the most dramatic eye-opening (and certainly horrifying) moments ever, rival to the end of The Usual Suspects.

The movie as a whole was not given the time it deserved. The back-story, about how Sintel met and lost Scales, was too brief. It got the job done, but it would have been better if it was longer. The "journey" montage was even more compressed, that really needed to be longer. It was over before I had finished processing the fact that Scales was gone. And the transition to "current" time was perhaps too explicit - while seeing the bandit's view was interesting, I felt it made the journey seem shorter, perhaps if we just faded from the various travel scenes straight back to her face as she sat in the hut (without revisiting the ambush) it may have helped the "a long time has passed" vibe. But that's just my suspicion, I have no idea if it actually would have worked better or not.

On the animation front it was very impressive, the environments were brilliant and I especially liked the interior of the dragon's cave. Some of the animations were a bit stiff - Scales' first flight especially felt quite wooden, I thought perhaps slowing down the wings or using some motion blur might have helped? Sintel herself was well done, for example I was quite impressed when she was shown with wet hair - we tend to forget how much of a change that can make. Having said that, what was up with that single shoulder pad? Why would a street urchin have a single piece of armor strapped to her shoulder? Or is it supposed to be decorative, like jewelery or something?

Finally, I felt some brilliant design elements were underutilized, which (almost surprisingly) makes me feel they should not have been so well designed in the first place. I suppose that doesn't make sense, but when we see a lot of creative effort put into something we feel it should be made use of, otherwise we feel there was not point. Specifically I'm talking about that weapon she holds. It was clearly very carefully designed, receiving for example much more attention than her knife, and we get camera close-ups and everything, yet somehow it didn't seem to merit the attention - in the end it was just a spear she happened to pick up and use? And the symbol with the tree, that apparently signified dragon country, I felt there was more story there that we should have been made privy to.

In the end, even though it was too short for the story it was trying to tell and didn't have the end that I wanted, I feel that the movie is great in it's own way, and it showed a tremendous amount of promise. And when we consider what it is, an open movie made with open tools that tells a mature story a big studio wouldn't dare to and that succeeded in making me feel such strong emotions that I had to open a blog just to talk about it, then I guess it is quite amazing.