Monthly Archives: September 2013

Games as art – does silliness vs seriousness matter?

So a small while ago I picked up two shiny new games to play and enjoy, those being Bioshock Infinite (Yes, late to that party, I know) and Saints Row 4. One is a deep and compelling story about a relationship and hidden backstory between two people set in the beautiful vistas of a flying city, and the other is about… Well, kicking aliens in the testicles, amongst other things. It’s not hard to tell that they are vastly different games, and the sheer contrast between seriousness and silliness that they have has made me wonder about an age old question that provokes the ire of many when it is even mentioned – can video games be considered art?

You only have to look at Bioshock Infinite to see the argument for this being the case. It’s a stunning looking game, full of immense attention to detail, so much so that if you’re not taking time to explore and soak it all in you’re only ruining the experience for yourself. The relationship between the two main characters, Booker and Elizabeth, is also perfectly pitched, with each event they have to deal with making you feel more attached and invested in the characters. This attachment leads to one emotional gut punch after another when you reach the end of the game, where everything is revealed in a way that just leaves your head reeling, and also makes you want to discuss and read more about it long after the credits have stopped rolling. All these things are precisely what any good piece of artwork can achieve, no matter the medium – so why are people so opposed to games being art anyway?

bioshock-infinite

Well, a fairly strong reason for this might indeed take the form of Saints Row 4 itself. You only need to watch the trailers to see this is not a game heading for the goals or immersion or emotional impact, instead choosing to take the juvenile approach of sex and nudity jokes at every possible opportunity. There are giant sex toys that can be used as weapons, there’s the option to ‘romance’ every team member you meet, and it’s so far away from the realms of being tasteful it practically leaves a bitter taste in your mouth. How can games be art, the detractors argue, when stuff like this exists? A simple, dumb game that only tries to invoke a cheap laugh and nothing else?

But here’s the thing – Saints Row 4 isn’t trying to be seen as art. That much is obvious, but the fact is it doesn’t negate the argument games in general can be considered art. It’s silly fun, and the reality is I’ve been turned to it more than Bioshock Infinite of a night simply because the pleasure of kicking an alien so hard in the testicles he flies off into low orbit is more of a stress reliever after a long day of work than Bioshock will ever be. And there’s silly fun in every medium that has something people will consider artwork. For every Citizen Kane there’s going to be a film like Jackass. For every The Wire there’s another reality show clogging up the network. Heck, you have the millions of rude doodles channelling the same basic ideas of drawing and use of colour (amongst others!) that made the Mona Lisa. The point is, just because there’s something that can be considered a ‘lower’ form of the medium does not detract from what that medium can do at its very best – to consider that true almost seems to be foolish.

Of course, negating that assumption doesn’t instantly clear the murky argument of whether games are art. There’s millions of other arguments out there that could more validly argue they aren’t – from games being too bound in rules and regulations that other mediums avoid, or they don’t explore the idea of “being human” as other art forms may do so. Yet a reasonable counter argument to much of that, perhaps, is to merely turn heads back in the direction of Bioshock Infinite itself. There’s violence, sure, but there’s also drama, and mystery, and intrigue. There’s the desire to know and see more, to keep going until the truth is outed and you are left reeling. And there’s actual emotion, if not expressed by yourself by what you see, certainly expressed by the characters in the game themselves. These are all ideas present in any well established art form, and games are just taking them in a new and exciting direction. In short, if games can’t be considered art, I’m not sure what’s left that can be.

Not on my watch – why smart watches are a foolish idea

Smart phones! We’ve practically all got one, right? Hell, nowadays it’s pretty hard to see how we lived without them… The ability to pull a phone out and instantly look something up on the web, take a high quality picture or play a fancy new game nigh-on instantly is just so natural to us now it would be weird if it wasn’t there. And in the fiercely competitive world of smart phones and smart devices in general the real fight is always to pull out the latest hot innovation, the one that makes everyone drop what they are doing and rush out to buy it straight away. Up until now stuff like voice recognition and other such fancy features haven’t really succeeded in pulling that off. But never fear, because the brains beehind the gadgets say they have finally cracked it! They’ve created… The smart watch!

Shame the idea is a bit rubbish, really.

One tells the time quick and easy. The other's a smart watch.

One tells the time easily. The other’s a smart watch.

Allow me to explain my point of view; the point of a watch, to me, is to give you the ability to quickly and easily tell the time. That’s pretty much it. People in the market for buying a watch are buying a watch for that very reason. They aren’t looking for a watch that can take pictures, or make phone calls, or anything like that – especially when the smart phone that they most likely have easy access to in their pocket can do all that anyway. It’s the time we all want, and you don’t need a fancy display or anything like that to pull that off. True, it’s possible to argue that the point of phones was only ever to communicate with each other, but the reality is at their core that’s all they still do. It may be via texts or Twitter, but the very essence of the idea has not been changed. With a smart watch, the whole essence of the idea seems to be ripped away without a care in the world.

That’s not to mention the way smart watches seem destined to operate is all a bit weird too. For the easiest example of what I’m talking about I’m going to refer to the recently announced Samsung Galaxy Gear smart watch, the first watch truly revealed by one of the power players. It’s nice enough to look at, but you only have to start scratching at the surface to see the cracks beginning to show. For one, you have to press a button to actually see the time in the first place, nulling the whole “easy access to the time” thing that watches tend to do so well. This is only worsened further by the fact it’s yet another piece of kit that you have to plug in every night, which is kind of more hassle than it seems to be worth.

Yet then you start to go further into looking at it, and it starts to get even more absurd. My ‘favourite’ feature is the fact that when you go to make a call to someone you have to raise the arm you are wearing the watch on and act like you are holding an invisible phone, while is a gesture more suitable to a bad paradoy of phone calls than something you would willingly do in public to actually make one. The real icing on the cake, however, is that to access a lot of the features like making calls your need an actual Android device itself, making your fancy new smart watch a mere accessory to whatever other device you have to carry around. Therefore, really, what is the point in splashing out the money for one if that device does everything the watch does anyway? It just seems to be a foolish anf frivilous waste of money.

Of course, to be reasonable, the Samsung Galaxy Gear is but one upcoming smart watch out there, and the concept as a whole is still taking its first tentative steps out into the sunlight. Other devices such as the Qualcomm Toq seem to be tackling the issues of battery usage and convenience, and with the deep rumbling rumours of an iWatch heading our way who knows what devices announced in the near future may be capable of doing. But the whole concept still sits uneasy with me – I like my watch, and all the discussion about smart watches recently has only made me want to put on my old trusty timepiece ‘instead of making glances at my phone to achieve the same result. There may be a day in the future where everyone#s got a smart watch on, and you won’t be able to walk around without seeing someone tapping away madly at their wrist. Right now, though? I don’t think now is the time…

Great levels in Sonic History; Flying Battery Zone (Sonic 3 and Knuckles)

So imagine you’re playing the latest Sonic the Hedgehog game. You’ve blasted through the general formula every title follows by now – the lush, tropical Green Hill Zone setting that threw you into the adventure in a joyous burst of colour. Then came the obligatory water-logged zone, seeing you desperately seeking air bubbles before the ominous countdown started. You’ve probably raced through some sort of cave or underground system at some point too! Either way, you’re nearing the end and find yourself on Eggman’s flying airship. The music is pounding furiously, the action is furious and you’re enjoying that classic feeling of taking down the ship from the inside, overcoming all the odds in order to create that one spectacular fireball. It’s one of the highlights of the series – getting through everything else just to win in a true David vs. Goliath fight. Good, no?

Now imagine that entire scenario taking place at the start of your adventure.

That’s what the Flying Battery zone does in Sonic and Knuckles – just one zone in and you were met with the stunning site of the ship above, engines roaring, creating a truly imposing site. And then Sonic jumped up, and suddenly you were flung into battle upon this amazing ship – tumbling around it’s mechanisms like a pinball, defying the laws of gravity and causing all that mayhem that you would expect at the end of the game. It was even better if you had Sonic 3 attached, because even though that meant entering the ship was no longer one of the early zones, the ship had still menaced you from the very beginning with its barrage of bombs at the end of Angel Island. Therefore, to finally get up there and take on this threat, and not have to wait until the very end to do it, pumped you up before anything else had even happened.

The Flying Battery zone was an adrenaline fuelled slap in the face, not just for the sheer awesome design and feel of the place, but also for those tiny bits of level design that just stick in your head. Remember delicately hopping around platforms under the ship, where one mistake equalled death? Or weaving your way past spike balls being flung through the air by massive magnets? Or jumping on to one of those animal capsules for the first time only to find the sudden unexpected shock of an enemy ambush? The place was filled with little thrills like that in quick succession and accompanied by the most electric of tunes, not only making it feel like you were indeed battling against a mighty airship, but making you want to push on to see the conclusion…

Not pictured - actual flying batteries.

Not pictured – actual flying batteries.

…And what a conclusion. First up is a nice little nod to the sky fortress boss of Sonic 2, with Eggman desperately trying to blast you with a giant space laser in the ceiling, its charge-up sound being surprisingly menacing even to this day. With each shot your window of free space to move closes and closes, and with no means of destroying the thing all hope seems lost… Until the entire ship starts blowing up around you, and suddenly you’re in a mad dash to escape the floor rising up to crush you as everything rumbles like crazy. And then, just as you take a breather as you escape on said floor, the REAL boss suddenly drops in from nowhere, swinging around like crazy, spike balls and flame shots ready to end you a a moment’s notice. Beat that and it’s a mad dash out the side of the escape ship your floor was connected to and down into the next zone below. It’s just a cascade of moment after moment of excitement, cool moments and brilliance, and one that only those with a heart of stone could fail to enjoy.

The strange thing is, I never see many other singing the praises of this place. The the default choices of the Green Hill zone, the Sky Sactuary zone, and so on always seem to get the praise that they really do not need. So here’s one for that forgotten place – that coolest of ships and zones, and a level I will never forget and always enjoy playing – the Flying Battery zone!