Archive for December, 2008

Prince of Persia’s Touch of Orientalism

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on December 30, 2008 by geminibros

A couple weeks ago I reviewed Prince of Persia for Nerve’s 61 FPS blog, a site well worth checking out for their decidedly atypical video games coverage. Back on Persia, it’s a fun sort of spectacle-heavy game, though it did ultimately leave me dissatisfied with the distinct imbalance between risk and reward. In my final assessment, I characterized the game as a massive dynamic Quick-Time Event with environmental signifiers replacing the usual on-screen button prompts.

It also became increasingly clear as I played that the game’s newly reworked Prince – transformed here into a loudmouth wisecracker – contains the DNA for the likely character to be played by Jake Gyllenhaal in 2009’s summer adaptation of the franchise. The in-game avatar bears more than a passing resemblance to the movie star, especially when he opens his mouth and the snark begins to flow. Had Prince of Persia (the game) dropped a good six months later, I’ve little doubt that we would have seen Gyllenhaal credited for likeness and voice acting contributions.

This brings me in a very roundabout way – I promise, I’ll get back there – to New York Times video game correspondent Seth Schiesel’s Prince of Persia review. I missed this piece when it was published on Christmas Eve, but I have Destructoid’s Jim Sterling to thank for bringing it to my attention in a post published late yesterday.

In his write-up, Schiesel explains that the Prince comes off to him as a “17-year-old American mall rat,” which he regards as a problematic characterization. The Prince’s “blue eyes, Anglicized facial features and what looks like a tan he picked up on spring break” are all indicators of an irresponsible treatment of the real-world culture referenced in the game’s title. He further claims that this Americanized Prince speaks to a general ignorance of Eastern cultures in the West, invoking theorist Edward Said’s notion of Orientalism.

Breaking it down into the simplest terms, “Orientalism” refers to a general misconception that the “Orient” – a dated term of reference relating to the peoples of the Middle East and Asia – represents a single cultural body rather than the diverse groups actually residing in those locations. Said theorized in his 1978 book Orientalism that the West’s fetishization of Eastern culture during the early 20th century was primarily a sort of subconscious “political doctrine” rooted in a perceived Western dominance over foreign cultures, particularly the East. More contemporary examples of Orientalism, which have cast the “Arab” as a menacing figure, are an extension of this idea.

The essential point Said was making with Orientalism was that in creating a Them, you – meaning we – define an Us. That’s about the quickest and dirtiest way to break it down for y’all. Schiesel states that as a result of these underlying tensions, he has “never been fully comfortable approaching the Prince of Persia games simply as a diversion.” He might well be onto something here, but I’m still going to cry mountains out of molehills.

The Prince of Persia franchise is now almost 20 years old. Perhaps there were traces of that old Orientalism in Jordan Mechner’s original inspiration for the series, but I would argue that more recent entries – starting with 2003’s The Sands of Time – have simply cashed in on brand recognition. The latest game, which intentionally spins off in a new direction from the Sands-Warrior-Two Thrones trilogy, does indeed sport a decidedly more Western flavor. However, I would argue that this is predominantly the result of Hollywood’s newfound involvement with the franchise as opposed to any ongoing cultural ignorance.

Our brand new wisecracking game-Prince is the stuff of movie posters and action figures. The upcoming Gyllenhaal vehicle looks to feed into that as a pure Summer Blockbuster, a glossy, spectacle-heavy fantasy-action flick. See? I told you we’d be back here.

Hollywood blockbusters cater to the broadest possible audiences by design. Particularly for a spectacle-driven release like Prince of Persia, star power and culturally relevant tropes are requirements for building mainstream appeal. The game may or may not directly inform the plot of the film, but I feel that the game will at least lay the groundwork for the film’s tone.

I also wonder if it’s even fair to castigate this individual game when the medium at large hasn’t evolved to the point for distinct national identities to have developed. In today’s world of gaming, there are two basic types of mainstream games: Japanese works and Everything Else. The latter category tends to be targeted primarily at American and European consumers.

Schiesel states in his conclusion that “simply being a video game is no longer sufficient to earn a pass from being held to account for shaping…perceptions and attitudes.” While he’s certainly correct there, I would counter that his criticisms in this particular case are misdirected.

Prince of Persia has become a Product of the mass media entertainment culture. Even if underlying biases continue to shape the tone and feel of the game-world, I don’t get a sense that the “perceptions and attitudes” which Schiesel references are being shaped in the execution. It’s clear to me in the playing that Prince of Persia is a work of pure fantasy, influenced first and foremost by its run through the Hollywood blockbuster mill.

I don’t entirely disagree with Schiesel, but the unwritten message between his lines seems to be lobbying for a name change. Perhaps there’s an argument for abandoning the Prince of Persia title in light of ongoing cultural tensions, but it’s just not going to happen. This is a brand that’s been established over the course of two decades. Building on that pre-existing popularity to sell a new product… hell, that’s capitalism defined.

What do you readers think of Schiesel’s indictment? Did you pick up on any of those underlying tensions as you played through the most recent Prince of Persia? How about its predecessors? Would a name change extinguish these concerns? Can you even see that happening? And finally, what do you see as the primary justification for the shift in tone as the series has moved from the Sands-Warrior-Two Thrones trilogy to 2008’s Prince of Persia?

R.I.P. Josip Idromeno

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on December 28, 2008 by geminibros

Nothing in video games this year filled me with more respect and unbound enthusiasm for the medium than when comrade-in-arms Josip Idremeno died in my arms. It was dark, late in the evening, when I found him buttoned down by enemy fire on a starlit African hillside. I immediately opened up with my AK, drawing fire away from my Buddy and eventually turning the tide of the battle.

I didn’t see Josip again until the last body fell, a few short meters away from his prone, writhing form. I rushed over to help, feverishly pumping syrette after syrette of healing fluid into my wounded friend. Alas, my efforts proved to be in vain. Josip expired a short time later and I could do no more than watch helplessly as my in-game counterpart gently brushed his hands over Josip’s eyes, closing them for the last time.

A strangely hollow feeling overwhelmed as I followed my map to the nearest safe house. Not quite raw grief, but something considerably more powerful than disappointment that my African adventure through Far Cry 2 would continue on with one less ally at my side. In short, I had somehow come to care for my virtual friend’s well-being.

Prior to his death, Josip and I had collaborated on a number of operations. I saved his life several times before his untimely passing, often throwing myself into greater danger than I normally would simply to draw fire away from him. He in turn offered me multiple opportunities to build my reputation, making my search for the notorious arms dealer known as the Jackal that much easier. A real emotional connection had been established through these shared experiences.

Even the creeping presence of gameplay constructs didn’t diminish the impact of Josip’s loss. It was clear after I hit him with the first healing syrette that a happy ending was not in store for Mr. Idromeno. Normally a guaranteed life-saver, the syrette did nothing on this occasion. So I hit him with another. And then another. I knew they wouldn’t work – especially since my stock of three syrettes did not change after each injection – but it didn’t stop me from hoping they would.

When it was at last clear that nothing could be done, a final syrette was used – this time depleting my stock by one – to ease Josip’s passing. The only difference between that final injection and the failed life-saving attempts which preceded it was that I’d elected this time (with a button press) to send my Buddy into the sweet hereafter. Despite this very obvious element of artifice, I just couldn’t shake that hollow feeling as I trudged to my safe house save point.

It’s the strongest emotional gut-punch I’ve experienced from a video game since the death of Aeris in Final Fantasy VII. Only this time the choice was left entirely in my hands. Artificial or not, my connection with Josip was one I had actively cultivated by choosing to work with him and coming to help when asked. Far Cry 2 isn’t exactly being hailed as the year’s ultimate gaming experience, but I don’t have to think for more than a second or two when asked what the standout gaming moment of the year was for me.

Did anyone else out there in the ‘Sphere have a similar experience with Far Cry 2? Or any other game? If you had to pick one standout gaming moment for 2008 – not a full game mind you, but rather a single memorable event – what would it be?

Review Symposium in Review

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on December 20, 2008 by geminibros

Hmmm.  I’ve been walking the razor’s edge these past few days, teetering between opening my big yap or just letting things play out as they will.  Seeing as how I’m off to parts unknown tomorrow – meaning the haters among you will have to find me first! – I figure now’s as good a time as any to speak my mind.

May as well get straight to the point:  I’ve got some issues with Shawn Elliott’s Review Symposium.  I have nothing but respect for the assembled players, but I think the indigestible length of Part One proves there’s a real need to re-examine the current approach.  I can only hope Elliott is treating this as a constantly evolving entity, so that we might see some changes implemented before this golden opportunity to explore the divisive topic of video game Reviewing-Slash-Criticism reaches its end.

For starters, I think there are some conspicuous absences in the roster of collected speakers.  The participating players are almost exclusively professional critics/journalists.  Necessary cogs no doubt, but the end result after Part One has created a decidedly limited perspective on things.  I find it incredible, for example, that Part One of this Symposium – in which the value of review scores was questioned – never once touched on the distinct aura of mistrust surrounding mainstream game criticism.  That example isn’t even my observation, but rather an idea presented by a commenter on the Neogaf gaming forums.  I had a nice little facepalm after I read that; of course there’s a lack of trust.  Look at Barrington Harvey.  Gerstmann-Gate.  Any number of other, similar incidents.

And that’s kind of my point.  I think this discussion would be strengthened considerably by a more diverse selection of speakers.  People like theoriticians Espen Aarseth or Henry Jenkins.  Industry analyst Michael Pachter.  A ranking PR/publisher rep or two.  And definitely some articulate gamers, as in people with no connection to the industry beyond an intense love for its output.  All of these people spend a significant portion of their days thinking about games in some way, but not necessarily with the same point of view.  Having their input would provide an invaluable counterpoint to the generally like-minded roster which is currently in place.

I also think the straight-up presentation of the Symposium is far too imposing.  There are nearly 15,000 words in the wall of text comprising Part One, the first of eight sections.  There’s no convenient way to navigate through individual responses in the current setup and a single comments section at the bottom is hardly ideal for granting readers a place to respond and discuss.  Perhaps the Symposium should have been broken up into a series of smaller posts?  Maybe even posted piecemeal on a range of different blogs, all linking to one another?  Hell, each contributor could create their own Symposium-specific blog – it is free after all – and share thoughts in a discussion staged across a whole network of web pages.  It’s rough idea and I’m sure that plenty of holes could be poked in it, but it sure sounds like a more approachable arrangement doesn’t it?

Again, I have the utmost respect for the assembled players and I really do think they’re pushing a solid agenda.  The fracas over video game reviewing/criticism has been raging for far too long; clearly, a large group of people are not content with the way things are.  That said, I think the current format of the Review Symposium has so far accomplished little more than pushing the dead horse ideas around in a vacuum.  Even if you put aside the unwieldy presentation, the absence of input from the full spectrum of the video game industry has thus far condemned what could have been an enlightening, provocative discussion to a whole lot more of that same-old, same-old.

What do you readers think?  Did you walk away from Part One with any valuable new insights, ideas which haven’t been discussed at great length over the past year or so?  Were you able to read the entire thing?  Did you skim, or perhaps skip around to read your favorite writers’ words?  What do you think is lacking, if anything, in the format or design of this ambitious Review Symposium?