Apart From the Crowd

Every year we slink into this dim reach of days after the glitz and glamors of the holidays have passed and there is little left to do but catalog a reckoning of the year. Particularly for those of us who have crossed a chronological and mental terminator beyond which New Year’s Eve holds little meaning, the howling freeze of late December is less a call to celebration as it is just a damn cold wind.

At times like this what is there to be done besides tally up the days that have come and rank them for posterity? What was the biggest news story of the year? The best film, crappy pop-music album, incoherent sports-star tweet or character death on a episodic prime-time show? And, of course, what was the best/worst game of the year?

I don’t mean to imply that I’m somehow above it all. If there is any hypocrisy to which I’ve not become comfortably accustomed, then assume that I just haven’t thought of it yet. I have no qualms with being at one turn critical of a thing, and then in the same sentence an active participant. But, what strikes me as we circle back ‘round to the Best Game of 20XX discussion is how far away I am from the norm on two key games.

Civilization V and Heavy Rain.

Judging by some of the criticism circling the web as regards the storied Civ franchise, the classic Star Trek law that every odd-numbered iteration is infused with concentrated, perhaps lethal doses of disappointment may be manifesting itself in the House of Firaxis. Anyone who has sat through The Search for Spock and The Final Frontier will know the pain that some Civ players seem to be enduring in the semi-reboot that is Civilization V.

I just seem to be that odd bird in the crowd, wearing my Vulcan ears and Federation Insignia who thinks that a character like Sybok is just the sort of thing the franchise needs to get moving in the right direction.

Hexagonal board, non-stacking armies, sea transport for ground units, culture tech trees, elimination of spies and religion -- these are all a big check mark in my big-book-of-good-ideas. And, I admit that the launch AI was patently non-spectacular, but maybe I’m just playing Civ for the wrong reasons, because I found my classic one-more-turn zen as quickly and easily as I ever did with Beyond the Sword.

I realize the disenfranchised will argue that I am underplaying the woeful AI, and that may be true. The issue at hand probably dissolves down to the shameful secret that I view Civilization more as a pseudo-sim than I do a competitive game. I am content to see my kind flourish across a grand landscape, and more often than not I’m more put-out than engaged by an invading civ. Examined through that distorted lens, it’s hard for me to find complaint against Civilization V.

Which, happily, leaves me extra scorn to heap upon Heavy Rain.

Heavy Rain, to me, feels like a movie that you leave feeling as though you should have enjoyed it, but the longer you ruminate on the experience the more you discover you hated the whole damn thing -- a movie like Pitch Black. (Pitchforks and fiery torches will be distributed in an orderly fashion.)

I choose Pitch Black, because like Heavy Rain it is a perplexingly beloved piece of poorly acted narrative with plot glory holes of obscene dimensions that seems to get a pass for style and a vague sense of uniqueness.

I understand the whole diff’rent strokes for diff’rent folks concept, and that’s the whole point here. I’m clearly the outlier, the raving lunatic, but I look at Heavy Rain and where others see an exercise in innovation, I see an overindulgent exercise in tedious gameplay, counter-pointed by a non-sensical and questionably written plot. Yes, it had some very affecting moments, but I’m pretty sure cutting off my actual finger would be affecting as well, and I suspect that I wouldn’t like that much either.

Thing about Heavy Rain is that I think I actually liked it more in the moment of having immediately finished it than I did at any moment after. It is a game that does not sit well in my memory and that is openly grotesque when viewed from afar. While so many others seem to have locked the strongest vignettes into their mind, it’s the tedious busy work, awkward conversations and ridiculous conceits that stick out in my mind.

I don’t expect much agreement at the end of all this. This probably isn’t a popular opinion, which is part of why I bring it up. Not to be contrary, but I always find it interesting when my perception of a game, which is so traditionally in lockstep with a certain kind of model, strikes off stubbornly on its own, because here’s the thing -- I should love Heavy Rain and I should be disappointed in Civilization V. I totally get why people have the opinions they do on these games, and I don’t quite get why I don’t share those opinions.

I'm not standing around saying here's how I feel about these two games and you should feel the same way too. I'm saying that I'm just as surprised as you that I feel these ways about these games. And, it's kind of nice to be surprised that way every now and again.

Comments

I'm totally with you on Civ 5. Your description of how you approach it is particularly familiar, in that it's almost exactly how I play the game as well.

I play Civ that way too. I'm not so much into the combat or competition as much as building a grand, prosperous civilization. I tend to keep my combat in RTS, while Civ is for my peaceful flourishing.

I'm with you on both games, Sean. And now we must wait for what is sure to be the imminent Apocalypse.

Hm... ...seems to be taking a bit. Well, the thing with Civ V is that many of the gamers at Civilization Fanatics were fanatics of the last iteration of Civ - which is Civ IV. They like that the religion was some nonsensical game mechanic that, more often than not, was used to manipulate the AI in gross fashion. They like that you could read the minds of your AI "opponents." They liked spying, for god's sake. To them, Civ IV could do no wrong and was perfection incarnate.

It stands to reason that anything that went in a different direction would be viewed as anathema, even though Civ V actually cleaves closer to Civ III and II than Civ IV does. Viewed from the perspective of history, it's Civ IV that's the outlier, not Civ V. In fact, at release, Civ IV AI was decidedly worse than Civ V AI, and I know this from playing both game on release. Civ IV's economy was about as complex as Civ V's, and the combat an order of magnitude simpler, yet Civ IV AI routinely just died under its own truly stupid mistakes, back when the game was first released.

I'm the same way on Civ- having to deal with other nations just pisses me off, can't they see I'm counting down turns to my next Wonder!?

Heavy Rain was a mixed bag for me as well. I'm ok with doing tedious things in a game, kind of connected me to the world some (although the walking mechanics drove me insane.) However, there were a couple scenes that I will probably never forget (the girl Madison being tied down to the table while crazy old guy approached her 'area' with a drill- I wish I could forget that and sorry to remind people here of it!)

You know what? For once i might actually agree with Elysium..... I'm actually a little scared!

Seriously, i've never been much of a serious Civ or strategy player for all my delusions of strategic grandeur but i do love conquering all those easy, very easy and "is the AI turned on?" settings of all the greats in the genre.

As for Heavy Rain, i haven't played it yet but i played through Indigo Prophecy a bit and stopped because of the drivel it had for story and the tedium of quick time events..... I kinda expect the same from the same studio with a similar vision....

Apropos, Elysium....

Maybe i shouldn't expect it.... but i don't suppose people could put spoiler warnings for Hard Rain - sorry drew....

...poorly acted narrative with plot glory holes of obscene dimensions...

Wow!

It is a game that does not sit well in my memory and that is openly grotesque when viewed from afar.

Viewed from afar, Heavy Rain looks like an interactive version of Saw. It uses a melodramatic narrative conceit to coax players into doing the reprehensible and then asks them to marvel at themselves for the hard choices they made. Players make a man cut his finger off, swallow poison, and crawl on broken glass, but because these things are done in the name of saving the man's child this is viewed as unflinchingly doing what's necessary rather than an exercise in virtual sadism.

There is no ambiguity in the choices to be made: a man faced with harming himself or allowing his child to die will carve up his own flesh without hesitation. In most of its notorious scenes, Heavy Rain doesn't ask players to make a difficult decision about what to do so much as it asks them if they can stomach the sight of what happens next. It's one long gross-out game of "would you rather" where one choice is always "let a child drown." That this is seen as a bold step forward for storytelling in games reveals uncomfortable truths about just how shallow gaming really is.

ClockworkHouse wrote:

That this is seen as a bold step forward for storytelling in games reveals uncomfortable truths about just how shallow humanity really is.

FTFY. Also see: popular media.

ClockworkHouse wrote:

Viewed from afar, Heavy Rain looks like an interactive version of Saw...

I'd say part of that is that they probably (I haven't played it) didn't build empathy with the character so that the choice the player is making is the character's choice, rather than just "I have to choose A or B to progress in this game". In a film it's people acting roles of characters who are written to react to certain things, and you're watching a recording of that situation, in a game like HR it's a weird middle ground between where the character is written "Bob is sad" and so on, and where the player has to feel in the place of the character in the situation.

ClockworkHouse wrote:
It is a game that does not sit well in my memory and that is openly grotesque when viewed from afar.

Viewed from afar, Heavy Rain looks like an interactive version of Saw. It uses a melodramatic narrative conceit to coax players into doing the reprehensible and then asks them to marvel at themselves for the hard choices they made. Players make a man cut his finger off, swallow poison, and crawl on broken glass, but because these things are done in the name of saving the man's child this is viewed as unflinchingly doing what's necessary rather than an exercise in virtual sadism.

There is no ambiguity in the choices to be made: a man faced with harming himself or allowing his child to die will carve up his own flesh without hesitation. In most of its notorious scenes, Heavy Rain doesn't ask players to make a difficult decision about what to do so much as it asks them if they can stomach the sight of what happens next. It's one long gross-out game of "would you rather" where one choice is always "let a child drown." That this is seen as a bold step forward for storytelling in games reveals uncomfortable truths about just how shallow gaming really is.

I didn't see the story in Heavy Rain as any more sadistic than your regular video game or television fare where mass murder is basically glorified. I think it's unfair to single out Heavy Rain in this regard. While I can see how Heavy Rain might be grotesque when viewed from afar, that doesn't change the fact that the actual up-close experience while playing is intensely intimate, in spite of the shallow storytelling and plot holes. That is why Heavy Rain is my game of the year - it was one of the few, if not the only games released this year that resulted in any kind of real emotion out of me, which is the largest hurdle games have yet to consistently cross.

I'm completely with you on both games Elysium. Of course I'll be the guy in the back of the crowd of torches and pitch forks pointing at you and saying "He said it!"....but I wanted to let you know that I agree!

LarryC wrote:

I'm with you on both games, Sean.

I'll be in my bunker.

I choose Pitch Black, because like Heavy Rain it is a perplexingly beloved piece of poorly acted

Are you impugning Radha Mitchell's honor? Why I never! Pistols at dawn, sir.

Loved Trek 5 and hated Pitch Black? Sean Sands, you are dead to me! DEAD!

Heavy Rain is getting a lot of acclaim, for good reason, I say. But it's also a pretty damn divisive game. Being critical of it it a far cry from being the lone howling voice of reason, it's part of a different crowd. To be lonely, hate on something like Portal, which I can't do, I'm just sayin'. Though you did at least play and finish it, Elysium, which should be the base requirement for being critical, but somehow isn't.

Pitch Black turned to sh*t the second Claudia Black died.

plot glory holes of obscene dimensions

Elysium, you're the best <3

SpacePPoliceman wrote:

Pitch Black turned to sh*t the second Claudia Black died.

What's that? Like five minutes in?

Heavy Rain certainly had its issues, but for all the flaws it still was a compelling, unique experience that felt different than anything I'd ever played - and for that alone it was well worth playing and worthy of praise IMO.

Pitch Black was awesome.

I didn't play Heavy Rain but I totally agree with you Elysium regarding Civ V. It's my favorite game of 2010.

If you want to have some fun, shout out in the GWJ Alliance guild chat that you think Civ V was the best strategy game of the year, even better than Starcraft 2. Watch hillarity ensue.

I think what bugs me about Civ V's AI isn't so much that it's easy to defeat, although it certainly is that. It's that it's dumb in specific and predictable ways that are unique to it being an AI. When I can choose an archipelago map and sit back comfortable in my knowledge that I will never, ever be attacked because the computer incorrectly calculates the movement costs of naval warfare when making the decision whether or not to do so, something's wrong. Ditto when it sends one wave of units to attack me and then, on the defeat of that wave, continues to send further units piecemeal to the slaughter long after even the dimmest human player would conclude that their resources would be better spent doing literally anything else.

That said, I had a lot of fun doodling around with Civ V, learning the new systems and watching my civilization reach ever-higher heights of glory. There's no denying that there's a lot of joy to be found in playing the game that way, but eventually I do reach a limit with that kind of enjoyment, which is why I'm looking forward to the inevitable patch that actually fixes something and/or expansion.

SpacePPoliceman wrote:

Pitch Black turned to sh*t the second Claudia Black died.

I need to learn to read credits. I had no idea that was Claudia Black yet I've seen her in a lot. And of course the voice was familiar.

I rewatched it the other day, still a tense and taut movie. Fun, but not perfect.

I'm not chiming in to try and get you to change your mind about Heavy Rain, or even chiming in to defend it's honor, I'm just chiming in to let you know that I still like you even though you are horribly, horribly wrong.

However, you are not as wrong as Lara who not only hated Heavy Rain, but also hated Dragon Age. One more strike and I'm pretty sure she is dead to me.

Having not played CivV yet, I'll focus on Heavy Rain.

I enjoyed the game quite a lot. I was ready (and actually managed) to oversee the Plot Holes of gargantuan dimension in the name of fun and innovation. I'm no fan of Quick Time Events but I wouldn't consider myself a hater of the mechanic. I will even forgive the tediousness of brushing your teeth in the first scenes because not everyone knows their way around a PS Controller.

What bothered me was that the game promised multiple endings but successfully completing the QTE sequences funneled you into only ONE decision tree: Have Sex or Not to Have Sex.

Everything else was either letting yourself be beaten --or even die-by missing QTE, don't ask specific questions, let yourself be arrested, etc.

Since I got the "Super Street Hyper Deluxe Happy Ending" the first time around, I really had no motivation to play a second time around to look for plot forks.

Hobbes2099 wrote:

What bothered me was that the game promised multiple endings but successfully completing the QTE sequences funneled you into only ONE decision tree: Have Sex or Not to Have Sex.

It's a metaphor for life..... what more do you want?!

Us older guys have had enough sex to want something a little bit more meaningful. Or maybe that's just me.

LarryC wrote:

Us older guys have had enough sex to want something a little bit more meaningful. Or maybe that's just me.

Did you miss the part where he said "or not have sex"?
Ithink that covers all other eventualities.

Not having sex can be good. I can't believe I just typed that, but I really do mean it. Amazingly enough.

drew327 wrote:

However, there were a couple scenes that I will probably never forget (the girl Madison being tied down to the table while crazy old guy approached her 'area' with a drill- I wish I could forget that and sorry to remind people here of it!)

@Drew327 - No, you're are absolutely right to remind people of this scene! It was precisely this grotesque lapse in taste and judgement that caused me to question the entire game and much of the praise heaped on it!

For all the talk of new methods of storytelling in games, Quantic Dream/David Gage found it necessary and appropriate to fall back on that hoary old Let's-Sexually-Threaten-The-Main- Female-Character cliche. There is already too much of this in the rest of the entertainment industry, and it's sad to see gaming follow. I cannot put it better than ClockworkHouse - "That this is seen as a bold step forward for storytelling in games reveals uncomfortable truths about just how shallow gaming really is."

What I found disappointing in retrospect (that is, immediately after coming across the two scenes in which Madison is menaced) is that none of the reviews that I had read mentioned this lazy cliched writing and - frankly - the moral repugnance of these scenes. I think the game reviewing business really dropped the ball on that one.

ClockworkHouse wrote:
It is a game that does not sit well in my memory and that is openly grotesque when viewed from afar.

Viewed from afar, Heavy Rain looks like an interactive version of Saw. It uses a melodramatic narrative conceit to coax players into doing the reprehensible and then asks them to marvel at themselves for the hard choices they made. Players make a man cut his finger off, swallow poison, and crawl on broken glass, but because these things are done in the name of saving the man's child this is viewed as unflinchingly doing what's necessary rather than an exercise in virtual sadism.

There is no ambiguity in the choices to be made: a man faced with harming himself or allowing his child to die will carve up his own flesh without hesitation. In most of its notorious scenes, Heavy Rain doesn't ask players to make a difficult decision about what to do so much as it asks them if they can stomach the sight of what happens next.

Viewed from afar... yes. But remember that context is everything.

Quite literally. The very concept of a story is essentially context for a series of effects and spectacles that hope to affect the audience in some way, be that shallow or deeply enriching. It's always 'that bit where...' that we remember, and it's the context of the story that elevated it to its specific power.

Granted, it is quite clear that Cage was a mite too keen to confront his audience at a few too many turns. Nonetheless, a lot of people were able to emphasise with Mars, and the Conferennce Call certainly implies that those either with or considering children found the quest to resonate very, very deeply. All the same, Heavy Rain was removed from the world of games where characters were bullet and blade sponges who would get better again if they hid behind a wall for ten or so seconds. The whole finger-cutting escapade was made more difficult because of this, and I know that I'm not alone in projecting myself and my own limitations onto Mars in that I spent a lot of time fretting over if I really had the balls to do it, no matter how noble the mutilation (which is, at least by Saw standards, actually fairly mild).

Keep in mind also that videogames tend to be universally retarded when it comes to understanding moral dilemmas. To blow up Megaton or not to blow up Megaton in Fallout 3. Really? Really? That's a temptation certainly, if you want to be an arse at least, but it's hardly a dilemma - look towards the system that decided your character class in Ultima 9 for some of those. By comparison, at least one scenario from Heavy Rain has been ignored here.

Spoiler:

Ethan is eventually requested to kill a man in cold blood. This is the moment that struck out the most in my mind. There's a very clear motivation, and it's a pure and decent goal - one that, even, would be monstrous for a father to ignore. But the request is ethically questionable, and there's no real middle ground around it. You could make arguments for both decisions, and while I did fall confidently on the 'let him live' side of the fence, I would still feel wrong being judgmental of the alternate choice.

It is a shame that, overall, the plot relied too heavily on unexplained red herrings and a pretty cheap revelation. All the more so because, really, it's a fascinating look at how story pathing in games can be implemented, and how QTEs can be made valid. It was also hugely cinema literate in a way that more games greatly benefit from (I'm looking at you, Mass Effect) and overall, although hugely flawed, is far too important in regard to how it could influence future game development (decisions made through hair-trigger QTEs are, honestly, far more intense than those mulled over in dialogue trees) to be fairly ratted on.

But then, a lot of this is born from a bee in my bonnet that I've carried with me from other message boards that I've since left behind me.