Thursday, 14 January 2010

The Puppy Method

So anyway, I have been playing Bayonetta all week, and it is very good. As for whether or not Bayonetta is a good female role model, I honestly don't know. Really, I don't think she is any more or less representative of women than most male video game characters are of men, so I'm not going to worry too much about that side of things. What concerns me about Bayonetta is the fact that her clothes are made out of hair that is still attached to her head.

Even more exciting that enemies are dispatched by her hair swirling around in the shape of an enormous hawk and swallowing them. Apparently Bayonetta summons demons from hell (with you so far) with her hair (right) and then the demons possess her hair (hang on, what?) so that it is able to assume their form, regardless of whether or not it happens to be a giant boot.

Bayonetta somehow manages to bring together such disparate elements as angels, supernatural hair, lollipops, baked gecko, motorbikes, prescription glasses and iron maidens and it still works. It is refreshing, because the last five years or so have seen the graphical capacity of games shoot up to such a point where environments and characters have actually started to look like real ones. Although lots of games have science fiction or fantasy settings, they follow a logic akin to that of the real world where guns kill and you can plunder empty houses for food.

Further to that, there has been a growing trend since the launch of the XBOX 360 and Gears of War for post-apocalyptic games in which the colour scheme is largely brown, green and grey. In many cases this is no bad thing, and the artistic success of such titles is testament to the fact that game engines can now render such palettes beautiful instead of muddy. The special edition of the original Gears of War came with a small hardback book entitled Destroyed Beauty, a selection of hand-painted conceptual art plates by the game designers which illuminated the world of Sera. Interestingly, the designers and artists made many preliminary sketches of a graceful, prosperous and architechturally rich civilization at the height of its power before imagining how it would look decades into a bloody war for Imulsion. It was only after this rich world had been established that the designers proceeded to "destroy" it by imagining the effects war might have upon it.

As a result of a careful and passionate design process, Gears of War manages to present a completely preposterous premise with a huge degree of realism. A similar technique was employed in Bioshock when the art deco underwater city was designed before the artists imagined what might happen when the ravages of social decay took hold and cracks began to appear (literally) in the rivets of Rapture.

Considering how outlandish the premises of both these games are, they both employ a fairly robust logic which is conspicuously absent from Bayonetta. In Gears of War when you find abandoned weapons, you can use them, and if you are too badly wounded you begin to bleed, able only to crawl until a team-mate "revives" you. In Bioshock you are similarly forced to scavenge for weapons, but your only real hope of survival is to undergo the same genetic modifications as your enemies. In order to preserve the excitement of gameplay, these concepts are necessarily simplified. Rather than spend twenty minutes applying a dressing and a splint to a fallen comrade's injured leg, the Gears of War soldiers merely hoist each other up by the shoulder, thus ensuring that the action isn't interrupted.

Application of med kits are similar in Bioshock and indeed almost all other modern games with a "health bar" and a med kit system. Rather than having to take two days out of the game for the protagonist to clean their wounds, bandage them, take some antibiotics and get some sleep, players are generally given to option to "use up" a med kit from their inventory in order to instantly replenish some or all of their health. Though this might not be realistic, it is logical, and it isn't just games which use symbols for reality. Limited by its medium, theatre tends to use signs rather than realistic representations of all sorts of things. The audience is able to suspend disbelief and understand that the red cloth is in fact Polonius' blood.

Although I suspect such artistic license such as this will always be taken in games for the purposes of playability, in certain games such logic (medpack = cure) will always remain. The more advanced games become, the more game developers are able to make them mimic real life, or at least create a world which we believe to be everyday for its characters. For example, Grand Theft Auto IV is, like Gears of War, predominantly brown, grey, and silver, much like contemporary New York. Cars handle similarly to real cars, motorbikes handle similarly to real motorbikes and it isn't pretty when you crash, either. The roads have traffic jams and other road users drive in very different ways. This rendering of a believable city would have been impossible to this degree 15 years ago, and although we're asked to take certain things for granted (hotdogs can cure bullet wounds, apparently), it still looks much likea real city.

Let's have a look at Pac-Man, who actually has quite a lot in common with Grand Theft Auto IV's Nico Bellic. They both ravage their environment whilst being chased by rival gangs. In Nico's case the gangs are a succession of racial minorities, and in Pac-Man they are ghosts. Pac-Man wants cherries, Nico wants money and a nice crib, but they're otherwise fairly similar.

If you think about it, Pac-Man makes very little sense. He eats Pac-Dots. Once he has eaten all the dots he moves onto the next area. Larger dots give him the power to devour his enemies (the ghosts). Many people have suggested that Pac-Man is a commentary on Western capitalism. I am not so sure, but I do think that it makes little logical sense. Likewise, why does Mario have to avoid turtles? Why do mushrooms make him invincible? Why can he only break bricks from underneath, with his head?

I realise that I have been implying that in games, this bizarre logic was prevalent in the past and is scarce in the present. This is a generalisation, as many venerable games strove for realism. No doubt we will laugh at our early 21st century attempts at realism in 20 years. But I think it is fair to say that the astonishing processing power which modern games have has perhaps lessened the game designer's need to disregard logic and search for seemingly random answers to questions such as "so how does our character avoid being hit?"

Even high-concept games, like Bioshock, tend to be based around fairly solid science-fiction or fantasy premises in a world with fairly stable and logical rules. Whilst I love these games and the immersive worlds in which they take place, I cannot help but be seduced by Bayonetta's glorious silliness. It plays as if the developers bought three books: The Bible, Burlesque and the Art of the Tease by Dita Von Teese and Castles and Palaces of Europe by Ulrike Schober. Then they cut each individual word out and placed them all, confetti-like into a large-holed seive. Then they strapped the seive to the back of an excitable puppy, proceeded to place little scraps of bacon all around the office and then let the puppy loose. Then they picked up all the words in the order they were dropped and wrote a game about it. The result is at once awe-inspiring and hilarious and the sooner the "puppy method" is employed by all game developers, the better. I mean, Hollywood has been doing it for years...


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