"Pain is personal ... I like mine."
- Henry Rollins
I have a PS3. I have a nice TV. Ergo, movies in my living room look really pretty.
But in my brief stint as a PS3 owner, the highest praise I've had for the black monolith has been "it's so heavy and shiny" and "dang, BluRay rocks!" Uncharted: Drakes Fortune had been an entertaining launch title (since I define launch as when something falls into my lap, not someone else's) and the known-good titles of Everyday Shooter, Flow and Calling All Cars had certainly shown that fun PS3 games are, theoretically, possible. In other words, I wasn't expecting much when I dropped $10 on a whim to get Pain from the PlayStation Network store.
And while it didn't shake my core belief systems or reinvent a genre, it did make an impression.
By all rights, I should hate Pain, a tiny, essentially throwaway title from developer IdolMinds.
About a year ago I found myself no longer able to deal with realistic violence. I can remember quite clearly the evening it happened. Jessica and I were slumped on the couch. We both had our laptops up, both of us on deadline. The TV was on, and tuned at random to CSI. My noodling on the web and occasional spurt of actual work was interrupted by the occasional graphic image of a penetrating bullet, a broken bone, and in one case, someone being hit by a car: average evening fare really. After CSI ended, I pried the warm laptop off my legs, stood up and went to the kitchen to pour myself another glass of wine.
Returning, I stood behind the couch for a minute, taking a sip and stroking her hair as I watched the neon of the commercial break fade into the "Previously on ..." tease for "The Unit." A young man - perhaps 20 years younger than myself - was crouched behind a car, cowering under a hailstorm of bullets.
"I can't really watch this anymore," I said. I think I said it without judgment or condescension, I certainly didn't mean any. Nevertheless, I picked up my laptop and headed for the basement, and I haven't returned to prime-time crime or war drama since.
For a short time, I was worried that the thinning of my stomach lining was a reaction to excessive gaming, or worse, that my new-found squeamishness would limit my ability to play even more. I avoided first person shooters writ large for several months. But with the launch of Gears of War I found myself right back in the thick of things, blowing off alien heads with the reckless glee of a 3 year old newly possessed of a loaded garden hose. And yet, ten minutes of Counter-Strike or Battlefield 2 and I became not queasy, but uneasy.
It's the abstraction that makes the difference.
In the quest for hyper-realism, TV producers and game designers have crossed a line in the sand where before I had seen only foam-washed beach. While "being in the game" is thrilling and actually mind-expanding in Flight Sim X or Forza 2, in Call of Duty 4 or Battlefield 2 that reality comes one step too near. The intensity and imagery of that real-world violence becomes something imagined not in the same way a story is imagined, but in that tense and anguished way I can imagine how it will feel to hit New England hardpack in the split second before my a heel-side edge goes out on a snowboard turn: immediate, visible, and right in front of my unblinking eyes.
But I'm not so self-actualized a cogitator that I can't be easily fooled. Add a thin veneer of unreality - the grunts of Gears, the ludicrous characters of Team Fortress 2 - and the caring part of my brain checks out. The fun sneaks back in while my conscience is looking the other way.
This is Pain. Pain lacks any higher premise whatsoever. It's nothing more than a juvenille showcase for the Havok physics engine. Here's an entire round of Pain.
- Aim the slingshot (which has you as ammunition) with the right stick.
- Pull back the slingshot with the left stick.
- Press X.
- Nudge your now hurtling body through the air, into objects, under cars, across train tracks, etc.
- Cause as much damage to yourself and your environment as possible before everything settles down.
That's it. There are various attempts to provide a game with these mechanics (playing HORSE is always a good way to make any simple target shooting game a multiplayer drinking experience), but ultimately, it's just a sandbox. It's this complete lack of pretense that makes the game entertaining. Jessica and I spent a good three hours on the couch the night I downloaded it, just flinging ourselves into random objects. While there is a certain "Jackass" humor to it initially, it actually stopped being funny quickly but remains entertaining for its purity as a physics simulator.
And the abstraction - the pure absurdity of flinging your avatar through the air, laughing with manic abandon, continuing to make a hundred variations of "that's gotta hurt" commentary long after he should rightfully be nothing more than brown stains - makes the game one I can not only play, but enjoy. For this reason I put it precisely in the same category as Team Fortress 2, rather than similar destruction derbies like the Burnout series - it can in no way be seen as real, as a commentary on something real, or as a glorification of anything. Its level of violence is no more intense than that inflicted upon a rubber frog, flung from the paddle of a 5-year-old at a carnival towards a never-to-be-hit lily pad in search of an unlicensed Sponge Bob pillow.
Pain not only lives in the same highly abstract, quasi-comic trend as Team Fortress 2, it also lies straight in the path of another trend I'm highly fond of: it's half complete and cheap. Pain "is only" $10, a download that takes mere minutes off the woefully ill-designed PlayStation Network store. For your ten bucks, you don't get much. You get one level - that is, one three dimensional world in which to fling yourself, from a single view point. You get one character to fling, although a second is unlockable. It's just about right. Of course, I would love to have a huge, world beating experience for $10, but what I got is just enough - a unique experience, with an obvious path towards more content. That first night, we bought a female character in a Santa hat (Candy by name) who serves no purpose but to look different, sound different, and make virtual sadism just a bit more interesting. She cost a dollar.
If Pain became a long-term hit in our house (which, to be fair, seems unlikely) I can see spending another $10 - $20 over the next year to get new locations, game modes, or characters. In the end, I might spend $30, and have a dozen or so hours of casual, yet very cool multiplayer gaming. Looked at in that light, it seems like a bargain. How many $60 games are foisted upon the next-gen console market which ultimately slide into suck after 5 hours.
This is how downloadable content should work. It's easy to decry $2 a song for Rock Band, a game that has already set you back almost $200. But a unique game experience for $10, with the promise of casual expansion if it strikes your fancy? That's a good idea. Just a few years ago, a game like Pain would either have never seen the light of day, or would have been padded with enough extra stuff to yield a questionable $45 title which would have languished on rental shelves.
Instead, it can sit in my list of games, next to the other downloadable nuggets like Calling All Cars. Having a library of titles like Pain is a good thing. It caters to the bipolar, distracted, time-restricted and possibly prematurely-senile gamer.
Like, say, me.