Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Miscellany

This week, all I have to offer is some scattered observations, tastefully arranged across the silver platter of compromise.

Writing-wise, I've submitted a couple of article proposals this week. I don't know whether I'll hear anything back, but I know that if you keep knocking on doors, eventually someone will feel sorry for you and offer you a cup of tea and a shower whilst they tactfully call the authorities.

I will of course let you know how it goes and link you to things if the planets align and they get published.

In other news, I was pleasantly surprised by Lara Croft and The Guardian of Light.

The conspicuous absence of the words "Tomb" and "Raider" from the game's title might give you a clue as to the game's appearance. Lara acts much the same as she did in the last few Tomb Raider games (grappling, vaulting etc), but we have to look at her from rather further away. And she's got a buddy.

Unlike classic Tomb Raider games, which place the camera a few metres behind Lana as she explores fully three-dimensional tombs, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light presents the landscape in an isometric view, cracking the top off the Mayan underworld and revealing the juicy yolk of puzzle madness within.

The plot might be your standard boy meets girl, girl releases vengeful god, boy also turns out to be god, girl helps boy re-imprison god-type story, but the gameplay is an absolute delight.


Lara is light and agile, and she can not only use her grapple for traversing spike pits, but also for creating bridges for Totec (the titular "Guardian of Light"). In turn, he can lift her up to high ledges on his shield as well as firing spears into the wall for her to climb up. Co-operation is the key to success, and it's especially rewarding when the game offers you several ways of solving any given puzzle.

Often you can choose between remote detonating a bomb under a boulder, Totec building a spear-bridge for Lara or Lara creating a grapple-bridge for Totec in order to activate a switch. Because both characters have unique ways of creating paths for the other, exploration never gets old. The fact that the game uses a fairly slick physics engine helps things no end.

You can play Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light in single-player mode, using just Lara, with Totec popping up every few minutes to help you out. I haven't played the single-person version, although if you're curious, Stella has finished her single-person walkthrough.

However, I played the two-person co-operative mode with someone who is also Marcus Fenix to my Dominic Santiago, Major Chief to my Arbiter and blue-helmetted Super Smash TV guy to my red-helmetted Super Smash TV guy.


If you can find someone who will dash across a spike pit to save you when you are struck by a lump of burning rock and who won't take it personally when you thoughtlessly swipe all the extra ammunition crates, hold on to that person. These are the things that hold a relationship together.

I always loved board games because of the enjoyment that comes with sitting around a table with the people you love (or, you know, the people who put up with you), laughing at twists of fate and mishaps. A co-operative video game can not only combine these things, but it not only a) ensures you both laugh at the same mishaps rather than just each other's, but it also b) adds a narrative and creates an arena where you must work together to reach a common end.

So many multiplayer games are either online (meaning they aren't designed to be played in the same room, from the same sofa, on the same television) or they pit the players against one another, as in a racer or a beat 'em up. Fun though these undoubtedly are, it would be nice to see a few more games which utilise a second player as imaginatively and seamlessly as Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light.

If my eager wait for the next full-length Tomb Raider title must be punctuated by a morsel as delicious as Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, then life cannot be all bad.


And so to Mass Effect 2. The original Mass Effect was a complex and detailed space opera whose dark themes, excellent fight scenes and sparkling dialogue more than made up for a thin plot and ropey side-quests.

Mass Effect 2 allows players to load the savegames from the original, ensuring that the events of the game follow on the outcomes of the first. This means that squad members sacrificed during missions in Mass Effect don't appear in Mass Effect 2 and peripheral characters affected by your actions in Mass Effect are likely to appear in the sequel, if only by sending you a hesitant message of thanks. The player's unprecedented effect on the world is very exciting.

I'm not a great reviewer of games (and a dreadful reviewer of good ones), so I'll just leave it there with a hearty recommendation. But on a personal note...


...Mass Effect 2 epitomises just about everything I love about video games. The player's ability to explore and influence the world in as much or as little detail as they want is something completely unique to games. The action is sensual, visceral fun. It looks utterly beautiful. Great care has been taken in the creation of characters who I felt genuinely attached to.

Shepherd can understake "loyalty" missions for every member of his/her squad. In many games, you might do this in order to gain some reward, or because the simple act of playing the game is fun enough to warrent doing it for its own sake. And although these were both factors in my motivation for helping out my squad-mates in Mass Effect 2, I really just wanted to help them out. Poor old Miranda, groomed and modified by her father to be the perfect agent for his unilateral political group. Sure, she's made lemons into well-paid and pretty darn foxy lemonade, but I understood why she wanted to help her sister avoid the same fate, even if it would be a thankless task.


Did I hesitate to help her out?

Nope.

Annnnnnd then I read this book:


It was pretty good. I don't tend to read a lot of fantasy, and this book reminded me why. Dazzlingly inventive though it is, it's also 867 pages long. It's not that I didn't enjoy it, I'm just not sure that the juice was worth the squeeze.

The novel begins well and improves steadily for about 300 pages. It introduces some brilliant characters, a vivid world and one of the most powerfully affecting love stories I've read in fiction for a long time. It's just that some of the most fascinating aspects of New Crobuzon are sidelined (or dropped) in favour of a central plotline which although exciting and conceptually interesting cannot support the weight of the novel by itself.

I would like to have learned more about the city's various races and its cruelly ingenious justice system. And what about the mysterious Torque, introduced in an early chapter with great enthusiasm and then never mentioned again? And why is so much emphasis placed on the central characters' political and social subversion in the first half of the novel and never mentioned in the second? That was probably the most fustrating thing about it. That, and the Deus Ex Machina ending.

Can you guess what I am going to say next?

Of course I would like to play the Perdido Street Station video game. Of course I would like to explore the world on my own terms, interacting with its inhabitants and reading people's correspondance, examining its architecture and watching the sun set from the rooftops.

The narrative sprawl of a game, unconstrained with fiction's necessary tethers to time, arc and sequencing, would allow for the different strings in New Crobuzon's worldweb (yes, that does appear in the book, I didn't make it up) to be fully explored.

It's not that it's not a good book (the prose is utterly brilliant), but I felt like MiƩville's invention had spilled over the edges of its 860 pages and that the excess had merely been mopped up and disposed of. And it's not that I think a video game would necessarily do the job any better (MiƩville's beautiful descriptive passages would have to go, for one thing), but I do think that perhaps a more free-roaming narrative would give New Crobuzon more room to breathe.

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Alright, I do think a video game would do the job better. That, or at least two sequels.

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Finally, I'm writing a blog with a limited lifespan about my recent Westward Expansion. It is of interest to my mum, my friend Pep and me, but mainly because it gives me a place to put my pictures online in full-resolution. I mention it here because my writing's still in transition (which you will have noticed by my flogging the dead "fantasy literature would be better as a video game" horse) and I thought I may as well post to what I'm doing in the meantime.

Oh, and it's funny because I somehow managed to make the url "www.westwardSEXpansion.blogspot.com". How does a person manage to do that?

Freudian slip?


Thanks for checking in everyone, your support means a lot to me.

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