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On Tim Schafer, Apotheosis, and Video Game Rockstars: A Brütal Legend Review [Game Overview]
Nov 20th, 2009 by Dan

Apotheosis
1. The fact or action of becoming a god; deification
2. Glorification, exaltation; crediting someone with extraordinary power or status.

Do you know who Tim Schafer is?

When I still lived at home, my dad used to ask me, “When are you gonna grow up and stop playing video games?” He tells my mother that he’s sure I’m addicted to the medium. It’s true that I spend the vast majority of my free time playing games. I can name developers, producers, writers, designers, and even composers for games from my favorite series of games. This vast information age enables me to know everything about a game, down to its minutia, just by checking an online database. If there’s not enough information there, I can almost guarantee there are five or six fansites devoted to uncovering every last detail. It must be daunting for developers nowadays to produce in this environment.

My dad says these things, but I’m not sure he understands that this is just the nature of hobbies nowadays. Not too long ago we could almost justifiably claim an unhealthy obsession with the works of Deepak Chopra and transcendental meditation. Eric’s life revolves around photography nowadays almost as much as mine involves interactive entertainment. This is what hobbies are like now. Think of an obscure hobby, like stamp collecting, and I’ll guarantee you that someone out there spends a couple of hours a week producing a podcast for tons of people to listen to.

The point is, there’s a growing number of people who actually know just who is behind the games they play, a huge contrast to the early Famicom days.

It’s not exactly the fault of the developers that we had no idea who was behind our games back in the day. Standard process for Famicom-era games was to credit oneself via a pseudonym to prevent talent poaching. How would you be able to tell that seeing Gondamin credited as a composer meant you were listening to Junko Tamiya’s music? Famed Mega Man creator, Keiji Inafune still goes by INAFKING in some games.

Now that games are actually credited properly, it’s not uncommon for people to know that Bioshock was the brainchild of Ken Levine or that the wackiness of Metal Gear comes from Hideo Kojima. Nintendo actually keeps Shigeru Miyamoto’s hobbies on the down low because they don’t want people to speculate on what ideas his brilliant mind will come up with next. We’re talking a complete 180° shift here.

Eddie Riggs: “Ever feel like you were born in the wrong time – like you should have been born earlier, when the music was… real?”
Roadie: “Like the seventies?”
Eddie: “No. Earlier… like the early seventies.”

Embedded within all enthusiast cultures is the cachet that comes with either “being there first” or experiencing a unique experience that the ignorant masses overlooked. Go to Brooklyn, grab the first guy with crazy hair and skinny jeans you can find (protip: you won’t have a hard time finding one), and ask him what his favorite bands are. Chances are, unless you’re from the Brooklyn scene too, you won’t have heard of any of the groups he’s mentions. He will consider you a barbarian for liking commercial music and you will consider punching him in the face.

I think it’s clear where I’m going here, so I won’t belabor the point.

Have you ever played Grim Fandango?

We arrive at the natural conclusion: these developers, thanks to the power of the Internet and rabid fans like myself, are now legends in their own right. When Miyamoto talks, everyone listens and when Tim Schafer makes a game, I buy it (we’ll ignore the fact that I don’t own Psychonauts or Full Throttle). All this devotion and dedication to one man is based on the strength of four games: The Secret of Monkey Island, Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge, Maniac Mansion: Day of the Tentacle, and Grim Fandango, the last of which is the only one solely under Schafer’s artistic control (the true Monkey Island games were made by the holy trinity of Gilbert, Grossman, and Schafer while DotT was a Grossman/Schafer collaboration). When I played Grim Fandango for the first time in 2002, it was on the strength of Schafer’s Monkey Island reputation, but I wouldn’t have been able to tell you his name until 2007 when I started listening to video game podcasts.

The press gushed and gushed about how good Schafer’s games were and how Psychonauts was criminally under appreciated and created the image of a brilliant game designer whose games featured great comedy writing and stories, but mediocre gameplay. Think about this for a second: Tim Schafer is famous for being a commercial underdog whose games are only hampered by mediocre controls. Before Psychonauts, Schafer’s only games were adventure games. Controls are irrelevant in that context, so Schafer has a reputation based on one game.

What’s worse is that I totally bought into the hype. I found myself thinking, I hope poor Tim Schafer isn’t underappreciated yet again. Really? After one game? This is the industry. This is modern, enthusiast society. This is madness.

Did you buy Psychonauts?

I can’t say that it started there, but the first time I ever saw an editorial campaign intended to raise a game’s sales was back around 2003 at IGN. Matt Casamassina, a fellow fan of Eternal Darkness, was bummed about the lackluster sales of what was actually a really great game, but its downsides were twofold: it was a new IP and it was a dark, mature game launching on the Gamecube, clearly the wrong platform for the game. The point of the campaign was that mature games would not continue to launch on the Gamecube if no one bought it, so everyone should take one for the good of the team and play this game. As you might expect, the plan failed and, for all I know, Casamassina still does his best to drum up sales of mature games on Nintendo platforms (he was back in 2008 when I still listened to IGN podcasts) with the same results. The Internet’s a tricky place. Everyone will agree that these games are criminally underrated by their sales numbers, but no one is willing to actually open up their pocketbooks.

Well, there is at least one. At some point I got it into my mind that if I wanted to keep seeing good games, I should support the ones that are trying to innovate in the field, regardless of whether I want them or not. It’s why I own Zack and Wiki and Little King’s Story, despite having no real interest in either. I just wanted to support good, non-minigame collections on the Wii. Lucky for me, nine times out of ten the stance that I want to support means that I’m supporting a game or series that I do truly love. Paying for the Day 1 DLC in Dragon Age: Origins is a hot issue for many who are morally opposed to content appearing on Day 1, despite the fact that this stuff probably wasn’t ready for a Day 1 launch. Regardless, I own both packs because I love Bioware as a developer and I want to see them continue to make good games. Likewise, it might have been a few parts my completist nature, but I used to buy every bit of DLC offered by Harmonix for the Rock Band series because I wanted to support their philosophy on music gaming over Activision’s (I also don’t buy used games for a similar reason).

It’s an attitude not limited to games either, I no longer pirate anything and actually buy CDs, .mp3s, and DVDs to support the artists that I treasure. It’s kind of foolish and I get burned sometimes with mediocre stuff, but I think it’s still worth it.

The take home message here is that my purchase of Brütal Legend comes from a complicated place. Tim Schafer, a man elevated to game-god status, a rock star, if you will, being the primary catalyst while the rest of my logic amounted to a combination of wanting Double Fine to find success in their game releases for once and rewarding EA for picking up this title after Activision so unceremoniously dropped it.

Was that a good idea?

It may not be the truth, but it’s the better story.

Brütal Legend is the worst kind of lie. It’s singing love songs with the girl of your dreams on a road trip, but you’re the only one who means it, while your best friend is sleeping in the backseat, blissfully unaware of the metaphor. That’s not to say it’s an evil, insidious lie, it’s just pretending to be one thing while slowly guiding you toward another. Boot up the game, watch Jack Black, go to the Land of Metal, and you’re expecting a 3rd person action brawler. Not too long into it it’s become an open-world brawler, complete with vehicle sections. An hour or two after that and you’re partaking in a hybrid RTS/3rd person action brawler/open-world driving game. It’s bait-and-switch executed marvelously. You might hate the RTS portions, but you’re already hooked on the story and you’ve got to begrudgingly see the rest of it through.

I’ll guarantee that most players didn’t even know that their game had RTS elements before purchasing it. How would they have when all the advertising campaigns featured only the 3rd person combat? Was this an evil move on EA’s part?

As a supporter of Tim Schafer, I say no. It’s a lie, no doubt, but it serves a greater purpose. This game cannot be distilled into its distinct parts in a 30 second action reel. Why not bring in the sales on the game on this promise? It’s not like it’s a total lie, it’s more like a half-truth. You will be fighting in the 3rd person for majority of the game, you’ve just also got to manage your troops well or you will lose. Then again, I have a hard time defending deception to the consumer on such a grand scale. Did Brütal Legend lie to all of us? No one went out and outright said it was one thing, but gave you another. There was even a demo out there. Is it really “Buyer Beware” to give the impression of one thing in your advertisements and deliver a slightly different thing? This isn’t like giving top billing to an actor who only appears for three minutes of a movie, is it?

“We say, over and over again, that the default player actions in a single-player game should be compelling enough to make you believe with all your soul that a two-player deathmatch situation using two player character clones and said default player actions would be at least as compelling as the actual game.”

– tim rogers in his Bionic Commando: Rearmed Review

tim rogers makes a point in countless reviews that a game’s core mechanic should be good enough that you can play it in multiplayer ad infinitum and have just as much fun with it. Brütal Legend takes that just a touch too literally. Double Fine so desperately wants you to love their multiplayer that the entire singe-player campaign is a training mission to prepare you for multiplayer. The final units and mechanics are all finally nailed down for the player in the penultimate battle. I’m not kidding, you can’t do everything until right before you fight the final boss. It goes against everything that “we,” the player, knows about games. When you play the campaign in StarCraft, haven’t you gained access to the entire tech tree after maybe four of the ten missions in the campaign? Maybe I’m wrong and this isn’t true, but it’s certainly not right before the final boss.

I see what the intention is. Strong multiplayer drives down the resale of games. Pre-owned game purchases are money lost to the developer. We’ve seen this trick already, EA, it’s why Dragon Quest made you grind for ages and why DLC and special pack-in unlocks are so prevalent in the games of today.

Back on message, the problem with this structure is that I didn’t want to play multiplayer once I finished. I’ve yet to boot it up once. That’s not to say that the game is terrible, it’s just not mechanically sound (and, lo, we now have a pattern that we can apply to Schafer).

“The road is fuckin’ hard,
The road is fuckin’ tough-ah”

-Tenacious D – “The Road”

Before I dive even further into the mechanics, perhaps a look into the raison d’être for Brütal Legend, its story, is in order. I should start by saying that the most surprising thing about this game is that the player is controlling Eddie Riggs, not Jack Black. Despite his tendency to be Jack Black in almost every role he plays, credit has to be given to Tim Schafer and Double Fine for writing him as someone completely different. There’s not one “skedoosh” uttered by Riggs in the whole game and even the part where Jack Black is Jack Black is decidedly restrained and non-Jack Black-like.

So the player controls this guy, Eddie Riggs, who is a roadie for a fictional metal band, Kabbage Boy, that’s all kinds of terrible in the modern, faux-metal, emo kind of way. The intro has this great part where the band starts off with an appropriately epic power cord, only to have a DJ break in with some scratches while the song devolves into a pop-nonsense song about the lead singer’s girlfriend. After saving one of the band member’s lives due to some reckless climbing (all while staying out of the spotlight), Eddie is crushed by some of the stage and his blood lands on his belt buckle, summoning the Metal god Ormagöden, who kills the members of Kabbage Boy and transports Eddie to a mystical world of METAL (if I could make flames burst out of this review, I would). For a guy like Riggs, this is a dream come true since the entire landscape looks something like the album cover to the metal records of old. Demons rule this world and enslave humans, but there is a small resistance group led by a man named Lars that Eddie joins to get closer to Ophelia, a woman he meets when he first teleports in.

The beauty of Schafer’s tale comes from the heavily enforced role of the roadie. Eddie Riggs is not out for glory and, despite the fact that he is the resistance and the main character throughout the entire game, he is not the hero. Maybe it’s Eddie’s personality, but he is firmly devoted to being a roadie and unused to the spotlight. It’s so ingrained in his character, that the narrative only addresses the discrepancy between what Eddie does and what he gets credit for maybe twice and both times he quickly brushes off. The story isn’t about Riggs becoming a hero in a world in which he belongs, which is strange, because it clearly features him uniting humanity and freeing mankind. Instead it’s a (METAL!) love story between Eddie and Ophelia and a damn good one at that.

Both the characters of Eddie and Ophelia are believable and both the dialog and voice acting between Eddie and everyone else is among the best I’ve seen in any game (top marks also go to the Uncharted series, the second of which I played right before Brütal Legend). The metal legends chosen to make cameos (Ozzy Osbourne, Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister among others) do fantastic jobs of being both themselves and (especially in Ozzy’s case) fucking metal. Even the professionals like Jack Black and Tim Curry do some of their best work while industry veterans Jennifer Hale continues to prove that she’s one of the best in the business (don’t believe me? Check out her gameography).

At the end of it all, it’s clear what Schafer’s true strength is: world-building. Grim Fandango takes place in a wholly unique, single-serving world inspired completely by the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico with a dash of hell, demons, and the 1920s mafia. Psychonauts takes place within the brains of its cast of characters, with each mindscape inspired by psychology featuring wildly different neuroses, themes, and ideas. Brütal Legend, as you know, is inspired by heavy metal and creates a world where bass notes can heal, guitar strings are crafted by metal spiders, and guitar solos have the power to literally melt faces off. In each case his brilliance and creativity shines through and the player never wants to leave. He is unparalleled in this respect.

Brutal Legend draws itself up proudly. “I am a bastard child of the schizophrenic postmodern age. Know only that I am metal, and that I was forged from the raw materials of innumerable genres. No single acronym can contain my all. I am pure hybrid.”
-Chris Clemens. “At the Gates of Genre

Should Tim Schafer give up on games? I refuse to go on the record as saying that Brütal Legend is a bad game. Trust me, it’s not. On the other hand, it’s also not very good. It’s wild hybridization of multiple game styles and mechanics don’t combine for the better and the game winds up a jack of all trades, but, well, you know the rest. No one aspect of the actual game mechanics make me want to boot the game up again. Melee fighting is shallow because only two buttons can be allotted (you need to be able to control your troops and play guitar with the others). Driving is just a faster way of getting from point A to B and feels unsatisfying.

Quick Aside Time

I understand that this is hard and that resources are better spent elsewhere (not to mention that invisible walls serve to keep the player within them), but we, as gamers, need to take a stand against the goddamn trees in video games. How many fucking metal :throws up horns: nitro boosts did I waste because a thin, pathetic looking tree turned out to be The Epic Tree of Arrested Momentum. Seriously, if you’ve got small logs that I can drive through at low speeds, then why can’t I drive through a thin bit of underbrush? Then again, my car can fall thousands of feet and take no damage, so maybe my car and the trees are made of the same mystical, physics-distorting material.

Back to the review…

I can go on ad infinitum about every system in the game: the guitar solos are shallow, the RTS-style mechanics are frustratingly imprecise, the quest structure is repetitive, and the collectibles are annoyingly difficult to track and collect. Tell me Schafer, if I’ve got a map that automatically draws itself as I discover new parts of the world, why can’t it have a toggle switch to show me which collectibles I’ve already found? Ask my friend Ian how many hours I spent searching for the last (of 120) Bound Serpent in the game. It’s MADDENING.

At the end of the game, when evil has been vanquished and all the credit and accompanying hero worship has fallen on Lars and his sister, Lita, we see Eddie drive away, content to be a mere footnote in history, despite being the only reason that the history of that world continues. I return to the question, should Schafer stop making games himself? Wouldn’t he be a much better world designer for other projects? Isn’t Tim Schafer a better Eddie Riggs than a Lars? On one hand, I want him to continue to have the freedom to make his own full, artistic visions come true, but with two consecutive commercial failures under his belt (Brütal Legend has reportedly sold only 200,000 or so copies in Rocktober, but we’ll see what Christmas brings), will the industry keep giving him a chance?

Lars: “What do you do with a bunch of kids that just wanna bang their heads all the time?”
Eddie Riggs: *tears in eyes* “You start a revolution Lars…”

Tim Schafer is a rock star. There are few people in the industry who get what it means to craft a world, but the staff at Double Fine, Schafer-included, need to sit down and think about game design a little more. It’s got to be hard to reign in Schafer’s monstrous creative energy, but it would be a good idea to try to focus on getting fewer things perfect in their next game. The sad truth is that they haven’t got many more chances. Most of them could probably find jobs elsewhere, but the only member of their team with absolute job security is Tim Schafer. He will always be a Lars in the industry. Developers would be nuts not to give him top billing of some kind (note that the boxart for Brütal Legend explicitly states “A Tim Schafer game” above the title) and he deserves that kind of praise. So, to answer my previous question, Tim Schafer should absolutely make games, but perhaps he needs to narrow his sights a little bit and focus more on his core mechanics. Less can be more when you have to sacrifice quality.

Furthermore, have I learned anything about hero-worship in the industry? If anything, I think that writing this review has caused me to reevaluate the stances I take for granted on game companies and the artists I love, in general. I still think that the most effective way to lobby for anything in this industry is with consumer dollars, but I’m finding myself increasingly disenchanted with how little the sales from a small, dedicated fanbase amounts to. I mean, look at what my money did for the MLB Power Pros series in America? Given the decision again today, I would still go out and buy Brütal Legend. I like it that much, game mechanics aside, but with only 200,000 in sales, I’m pretty sure it will be a while before Double Fine is able to round up as much capital as I’m sure they did for this game (which may be to their benefit). On the other, Dan-has-learned-something hand, I’m pretty sure that I’m no longer giving everyone a carte blanche license to earn money from me. Metal Gear Solid 4 was such a disappointment to me that it will take some prodding for me to really trust Kojima again. Nintendo has flip-flopped around so much with Mario that I’m unsure where I stand. Mario Galaxy was not the breath of fresh air I thought it would be, but New Super Mario Bros. Wii is a masterpiece of sharp, 2-D game design combined with the brilliant addition of 4-player co-op. I no longer buy mature titles for the Wii. DVD box sets of shows that I casually want to remain on the air no longer get bought. Some things have been learned.

Take Home Review Message:
Brütal Legend is a definite rental, but I don’t feel comfortable recommending that you buy it until you’ve tried out the multiplayer.

Game Overview Special Tuesday Edition: Obsessive 100%
Apr 22nd, 2008 by Dan

If any of you clicked over to Leigh’s post at Sexy Videogameland about obsessively completing games, then you already know where I’m about to go with this post. If you didn’t, here’s yet another link.

Call it a personality disorder, but I have an obsessive need to unlock the full 100% potential for video games that I enjoy. I know what you’re thinking, if he’s gotta include the “enjoy” caveat, it’s not really obsessive then, is it? Let me tell you, that caveat did not come easily. It took years of mental conditioning to be able to realize “Hey, I want to play too many other games to go at this pace on such a crummy game…” Once I did finally realize that forcing myself to 100% complete a game that, honestly, wasn’t worth it, I’m was able to log off of Gamefaqs and get onto another game that will eat up my time. You see, since I’m a university student, I do have more time to play than 9-5ers, but I don’t have as much time as when I was in high school because of classes, exams, homework, and trying to maintain a social life (kids, stay away from World of Warcraft).

Where do I draw the line? Mainly wherever it’s going to just take too much time to be worth it. I loved Final Fantasy X, but when the game asked me to dodge lightning something like one hundred times in a row to get an ultimate weapon, I said screw it. My party was tough enough that I wouldn’t need that one ultimate weapon just to kill Sin. If it wasn’t, I would train up and make do. There were other, less time-consumingly stupid sidequests that I could go waste my time on.

The advent of the Gamerscore on Xbox Live! has brought up some really interesting issues too. Before achievement points and worrying about increasing my Gamerscore (I know it’s low, but I don’t have the time to be a real achievement point whore), I honestly never worried about fully completing an action game or a music game. I’ll tell you which achievements I can resist though – Guitar Hero 3’s asininely stupid ones like playing through the career mode on a controller instead of the guitar (really? play through on my controller for ONLY 15 achievement points), winning 500 matches (grind, anyone?), or even playing through a song on expert with the sound settings turned down (no sound in a MUSIC GAME?). The Rock Band achievements are much less idiotic. Fully completing cities, completing career modes, achieving milestones in the World Tour mode, these are all acceptable to me.

My first Xbox 360 JRPG introduced a new dastardly trick to entice me to get full completes on games that don’t deserve it. Lost Odyssey, mind you, is not one of them, but my progress to the end of the game has been halted by the achievement point list that includes optional bosses and leveling up all the characters in my team. It’s definitely brilliant because those side quests, in other RPGs, usually include neat story details about the characters that you wouldn’t see otherwise, they give you sweet weapons and armor, and they also satisfy my need to fully complete an RPG that I love.

Just because I’m able to resist these urges more and more nowadays doesn’t mean I’m fully out of the woods. I was trying to burn through MGS and MGS2 to complete the series before MGS4’s launch in June, but now that I’m on MGS3 and June’s far away, I’ve taken it upon myself to hit up Gamefaqs to find out where all the Kerotans (strange little frog thingies that you have to shoot) are and all the different types of food so that I can get a whole bunch of sweet bonuses after I complete the game. Persona 3: FES launches today, but will be in Gamestop waiting for me tomorrow, and I have no idea what I’m gonna do about all the Social Links. After reading Leigh’s article, I convinced myself that I should just play the game naturally, but then I went and watched the 1UP show and learned that the Social Links that you max out contribute to your ending. How could I not try to max them out and get the best possible ending now?

I will admit that part of my completionist nature comes from the fact that I have a lot of games on my plate and I want to get to them all. If I can beat them all 100% the first time through, then I don’t have to play them again to see the stuff that I missed. People usually ask me about this when they see me browsing Gamefaqs or another walkthrough when playing a video game, either asking “Why don’t you just finish the game if you can?” or “Why are you looking at the guide? Why don’t you figure it out yourself?”

The answer to both has to do with enjoying the storylines of games oftentimes a lot more than the gameplay. If it’s a good game, I want to see as much of it as possible, so I bother with the sidequests to learn more about the characters. Anyone who has ever wandered through the Phoenix Cave in Final Fantasy VI knows how incredibly moving (maybe this is just me) it is to see Locke passionately search for the one thing he has heard can save Rachel. Most people, I like to think, were moved when (SPOILER ALERT) the Phoenix failed to revive Rachel (/SPOILER ALERT). It’s little touches like this that go to flesh out just why Locke is so committed to protecting Terra and Celes once he meets each woman.

If it’s a bad game, heck, I just want to be done. I don’t care about figuring out the strategy to kill a poorly designed boss with a character I don’t give a damn about. I don’t care about figuring out the proper path through a bland Zelda-ripoff temple. It’s just not satisfying since by that point I’m playing the game only because I like to finish what I start.

Adventure games are the exception to this. I oftentimes love the game, I’m just not willing to try and figure out how I’m supposed to use the chicken with the tree to save the monkey in the swamp. The game type just asks you to think too much like the designer to complete mentally unnatural and unintuitive tasks. Yahtzee makes some good points about Adventure game design in his review of Zachkand Wiki that I totally agree with.

In the end, I guess I’m not that bad about obsessively completing a game, but when the design is just so well-done as to encourage the player to do it, I honestly can’t resist. When you have a screen full of little glass windows to smash open for Super Smash Brothers Brawl, who can resist the urge to just go for the unlockables? Those trophies and stickers are also so cool…

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