Lewis Denby's KERRAZY webthunks.


Posted by Lewis Sat, April 04, 2009 23:46:23

I think I am becoming a modern gamer. Shit.

That's two elderly classics now that I just can't get back into. Planescape and Baldur's Gate, both outstanding on release, now feel awkward. I worry for myself.

Not a review: Yume NikkiVideogames

Posted by Lewis Thu, April 02, 2009 15:45:41

Understanding Yume Nikki really involves knowing what happens at the end. It's almost impossible to talk about with any authority without this knowledge, and without making numerous references to the finale. Writing about it, then, is going to involve a pretty severe spoiler, and if you're completely ademant that you're going to see this incredibly strange adventure through to its conclusion, you should almost certainly do so before reading another sentence of this analysis. Not even this one.

The thing is, it's a game that doesn't really lend itself to any meaningful discussion until you start to analyse its central character, and gaining that insight is only possible when you view Yume Nikki back to front. Otherwise, all you have is a series of explorable dreams, which make little or no sense out of the context of Madotsuki's mind. It's all very abstract and psychedelic, and some may be turned on by that alone, but it's not really poignant in any way until you realise that this is the story of a deeply troubled young lady who ultimately goes on to commit suicide.

It's a brave decision to end a game with the primary character's demise. It's often an approach that leads to complete frustration, something that serves to remove you entirely from the experience. If there's nothing you could have done to prevent such a tragedy, why were you even playing the game in the first place? But here, the sense of hopelessness carries with it an extreme weight. If someone like Madotsuki is so unhappy, so isolated and so alone, is there anything anyone could have done?

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This bleak inevitibility struck a particular chord with me. Yume Nikki is incredibly sad, an emotion I'd really like to see games incorporate with more frequency. We're all guilty, to some extent, of assuming games should be played for fun. Feeling decidedly upset is not fun. But it can also be an invigorating experience, one we can learn a lot from. As the medium matures, perhaps we'll see more developers - not just the tiny independents - taking risks in this area. There's a huge field to explore.

So, knowing this unsettling truth about Madotsuki, we can begin to take a more educated look at the preceding game. We start in a bedroom. There's a bookshelf, a broken television, a games console, a desk, a bed and two doors. One door leads out onto a desolate balcony. The other door leads out of the apartment. If we try to open the latter door, Madotsuki shakes her head. She'll write at her desk, she'll sit on the balcony, she'll play games, or she'll sleep. She will not venture outdoors.

Immediately, the outlook is thoroughly depressing. A person without friends, without any usual healthy activities. That her only real hobby is playing games makes a pretty big statement about the medium itself, particularly when it's a statement made in a game.

So she spends much of her time sleeping. And it's while asleep that we experience Madotsuki's dreams: warped, disturbing nonsense visions that completely defy logical explanation. They're aesthetically hallucinagenic - not typical sixties acid culture, but more in line with shamanic ritual; colours and shapes, but organic, patterned meaning. They sprawl endlessly, agorophobically, looping back round on themselves. There are items to collect, which grant new abilities - the game part of Yume Nikki, basically - and while these initially seem unrelated, they do give us a certain insight into Madotsuki's mindset. At one point, she collects a bicycle, allowing her to ride at speed around the nightmarish landscapes - representative, perhaps, of a yearning for the freedom she's so afraid of in waking life? It's certainly striking how open these dream worlds are, when her own reality is constricted by such a suffocating, self-imposed closure.

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Despite these collectables, there's a real, tangible aimlessness to Madotsuki's sleep-wanderings. The areas are so vast that it's often impossible to search for anything in particular - especially when there's never any instruction as to what you should be searching for. So, instead, you find yourself getting lost in the glorious technicolour. Initially, the environments are frustratingly arbitrary considering their scale, but as you try to piece everything together with that knowledge, you can start to make some warped sense of it.

Because there's plenty of allusion in Yume Nikki. Occasionally, characters called the Toriningen will approach Madotsuki, trapping her and constricting her in her dreams. At one point, a colourful, smiling phallus strokes a metal pole, before a terrifying Aztec face flashes up on the screen, causing your avatar to wake with panic. As you progress through Madotsuki's dreams, you begin to wonder: just what made her this way? Why does she dream of such things? What caused her deep, psychological torment? What happened before?

These questions are ultimately endless and yield no concrete answers. But they do go some way to providing some insight into a tragically tormented mind. In a way, the story of Madotsuki's life is irrelevant: she's a poster-girl for the world's tortured souls. There's nothing aspirational about her, because she doesn't aspire to anything. Any goals and ambitions she may have once had have completely evaporated, and all that's left to do is to sleep, to dream, and to eventually give up.

Yume Nikki is a genuinely upsetting game. It's never any fun, it's painfully slow, and your efforts only amount to the biggest tragedy of Madotsuki's life. And once you realise that in itself is the overriding artistic statement, there's an eternity of psychological perusing to be done. It's the tale of a life that was never to be - but there's more to her existence than almost any other videogame character you'll ever meet.

As a further thought, since I initially scrawled all this down, I've found a fansite for the game. Browsing it, I come across a section entitled "What this game is about." The body reads: "...Really now. This is a pointless question. Its so random and meant to spook you out it HAS NO POINT!" - which I found quite upsetting in itself. There can't be many people who are enthusiastic enough to set up a fansite for the game, and the ones who are haven't even realised what it's trying to say.

Download Yume Nikki for free - Clicky!


Posted by Lewis Tue, March 31, 2009 10:41:06

Some people may be aware that I am currently working, alongside a reasonable number of impressively talented individuals, on a single-player Half-Life 2 mod called Neptune.

Let's get the plugging out of the way first: www.neptunemod.com

Lovely. Right.

Since we went public with it in... when was it? September or something? Well, since then, we've been fortunate enough to get a lot of very nice press and kind words from followers. We've been regularly in the top ten most viewed mods on ModDB (usually around the time of a new media release, but still) and have a sizeable number of people "watching" our development over there. But in amongst all this has developed an interesting trend for responses along the lines of:

"So it's like BioShock, then?"

Which in a way is to be expected. It's listed publically among our influences (alongside a number of more reasonable coparisons, though), there's a few similarities in the period art design (mainly because, well, it's set around the time Rapture was being built and that's just what stuff looked like) and the narrative delivery is certainly comparable. So we can see where it's all coming from. But there seems to be an assumption that, because of these vague links, we're just trying to rip that game off.

That game. Instead of any of the other games we're far more blatantly plagiarising. Fucking hell, in essence it's one enormous pastiche on the original Half-Life, almost completely stealing its narrative and gameplay structures. Only with Penumbra's chilly level design. And Shock 2's omnipresent mocking. Those games, yeah, I'll hold my hand up and say we're nicking the fuck out of them. But BioShock? Really?

I've stopped responding to these sorts of comments, because my replies were degenerating into "oh for fuck's sake" answers each time, which isn't exactly the best PR. But in the run-up to GDC, where our scriptwriter Nick DiMucci was heading to plug the arse off the thing (I still have no idea why he was there. We clearly didn't have an official stand or keynote. I think he was just running around thrusting the web address at people and trying to recruit character animators), our sound designer and webmaster Jesse Harlin took the opportunity to revamp the website. In doing so, he drafted up a rather lovely FAQ section which responds to the BioShock accusations in a far more measured, reasonable and sensible way than I ever could, while simultaneously saying exactly what I would say if I weren't such an angry man.

What started as a puzzling (and silly to us) yet recurring question we are now taking seriously. For some reason, most readers see a boat and survival gameplay and instantly associate the game with BioShock.

The question has come up enough that we felt it merits a formal responce. To put it simply, no.

Now to put it not-so-simply:

Like any game, we are standing on the shoulders of giants. BioShock owes much if not all of its gameplay to System Shock 2, which owes its gameplay to System Shock. Thief, Deus Ex, Fallout 3, Obilivion and a host of other games also share similar elements. Furthermore, virtually every action shooter owes its roots to the Doom franchise, and inheritably to Wolfenstein 3D.

For some reason, some elements of modern gaming are so ubititous that we take it for granted. Did Painkiller rip off Serious Sam that ripped off of Doom that ripped off of Wolfenstein that ripped off of Commander Keen that ripped off Pong?? Well... in some sense, yes. But really? No.

With no leveling system, no "magic system" (read: gene splicing) and a completely different story, cast, weapons and feel, the only thing that Neptune shares with BioShock is the fact that the ocean is involved at some point (marginally) and there is some era music from the thirties and forties. Thats really it.

Technically, the game has much more in common with Half-Life, if anything, but for all practical purposes its signifigantly different from any of the above.

In other words, shut it, or else I'll force you to stare at our BioShockiest screenshot:

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Blast From The PastVideogames

Posted by Lewis Wed, March 25, 2009 16:45:29

I'm buying a Playstation 2 tonight. I sold my last one for fuck all pounds a couple of years ago when I was skint, and my girlfriend's been nagging me ever since to get another one.

Someone is being kind enough to sell us one, with four games, for £30. Mad skills. It'll be interesting to see what I can pick up for it - and I can finally play the Persona series. Hooray!

Not A Review: Hallam FoeFilm & TV

Posted by Lewis Wed, March 25, 2009 12:30:43

Hallam Foe makes for some uncomfortable viewing. There's an odd incongruency between the dark, grizzly themes of the film, and the regularly upbeat, trivial manner with which they're dealt. It's a piece about depression, suicide, voyeuristic addiction and latent necrophilia. But it's delivered with an awkward ease and nonchalance. The result is a remarkably strange film that seems to have very little to say, or at least be confused about what its core messages are.

Whether this is also true of the source material, Peter Jinks' 2001 novel of the same name, is something I can't comment on. My instinct says it probably isn't. The 95 minutes of running time here feels fleeting, skipping impertenently between emotions and narrative nuance, driving on towards a satisfying conclusion that never really arrives. Maybe that's the point. That life doesn't lead to an end point at every turn. It evolves, and shifts unpredictably, forcing you to rethink your outlook and reshape your behaviour accordingly.

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But this doesn't seem to ring true for the film's eponymous protagnost. Hallam, a troubled teen fleeing from the apparent tyranny of his stepmother, chooses to carry on spying from the rooftops at the object of his affection, even after he's already secured a shag and a second date. The character interplay is frequently confusing, with moods and opinions changing faster than it's possible to keep up with. "Get out," Kate commands Hallam, before seconds later stating that he doesn't have to leave if he doesn't want, the shift occuring without any real build-up.

This seems to be the ground from which Hallam Foe is erected. At its heart is a collection of confused and afraid characters, unsure of what they want, or the direction they wish to take in life. Hallam spends the majority of the film convinced his father's new wife was responsible for the death of his mother. It never goes anywhere, and most of the big questions lead to unexpectadly bland answers. It's a film about paranoia, when there's never anything to be paranoid about.

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There's a heavy influence of European New Wave on display here, in the abstract cinematography, the mundanity of everyday life, and the portrayal of disaffected individuals trying to break free of their inner turmoil. But it lacks the poignancy of those it mimics. Hallam Foe struggles to say anything meaningful, as there's barely a shred of honesty about it. It strives towards realism on many occasions, but the picture it paints is unconvincing, despite the solid acting from everyone involved. The enormous amounts of graphic sexuality never shock, as they're seen from the far-removed eyes of a deeply disturbed mind. But while explicit, it's never really raunchy. As Hallam peeks through Kate's window as she rumps with her manager, the only thought on his mind is how much she looks like his mother, and how greatly he misses her.

The problem is that, while Hallam Foe wants you to identify with its lead, his behaviour is consistently so abhorrent that it's difficult to do so. We sympathise, but never empathise. As a result, for all its artistry, Hallam Foe remains somewhat unsatisfying, despite being an interesting and thought-provoking picture.

Oh my goodness, what be this?Other shit

Posted by Lewis Wed, March 25, 2009 09:54:02

It be a blog! Another one, you cry? No, you probably don't, because you probably don't know it exists yet! Hooray!

This is a general home on the internet to collate my thoughts on a variety of matters. I'll be keeping up appearances over at Honest Gamers, but probably cross-posting from time to time when something would sit nicely over here as well.

And, and, and... yay!