30 January 2010

Progressive video games, part 1

A friend recently commented on the imperialist narrative of most video games: travel to exotic places, meet interesting people, kill them, and exploit their resources.

Well, yes, there are a lot of video games like that, ranging from the hundreds of first-person shooters that only an enthusiast could tell apart, to the cerebrally imperialist Civilization series. However, there are also video games which manage to have a more progressive message. I thought I’d write about a few of them.

(Note that there are a few mild spoilers below; this is a guide for parents, rather than necessarily for players. If you’re a video game enthusiast you should have played these all by now…)

Beyond Good and Evil

(PS2, Xbox, Gamecube (or Wii), Windows)

This game is something of a cult classic, though it sold badly on initial release. Designed by French software house Ubisoft, it’s a 3D third-person action-adventure in a mostly open world, with some puzzle solving. The protagonist, Jade, is a female journalist investigating the activities of a military dictatorship which has emerged to defend the planet Hillys from an apparent alien invasion. Jade mostly relies on sneaking around and collecting photographic evidence, though she does resort to martial arts when necessary.

I have the PS2 version, and I strongly recommend the game, even though the PS2 version was the most criticized. For what it’s worth, I didn’t have any problems with the frame rate or other alleged shortcomings. Metacritic scores are 83% or higher for all platforms.

Like most cult games, BG&E commands a hefty price for a new copy, but used copies in good condition can be tracked down. You can also rent the Windows version on Steam or GameTap. Rated T for Teen.

Psychonauts

(PS2, Xbox, Windows)

Another cult game, this time from Tim Schaffer. Also another 3D third-person action adventure with puzzle solving. The protagonist this time is a psychically gifted kid named Raz, who runs away from the circus to sneak into a summer camp and try to become a Psychonaut. Before long, he must psychically journey into the minds of various disturbed individuals in order to heal their minds. Each person’s insanity manifests as a different surreal world with its own logic and graphical style.

Again, I played the PS2 version. I found it worthy of the praise it has been given (Metacritic scores in the high 80s on all platforms), though the final circus/tightrope world was infuriatingly difficult and spoiled an otherwise delightful experience. Unlike BG&E, I didn’t keep my copy.

Commands an even higher price than BG&E, and you’ll pay like-new prices for a good used copy. Rated T for Teen.

Ico

(PS2 only)

Third person action-adventure, again, but with a more distant look that often resembles classic isometric games. The most graphically beautiful game on the PS2, in my view, and one of the most sadly overlooked when it was new. Now commands premium pricing even for a used copy. (No, I’m not selling mine.)

The young boy Ico, apparently born with horns, wakes up in a mysterious ancient fortress. He is forced to go on a perilous quest to save himself and a young girl who is apparently some sort of princess. On the way, he learns about the mystery of what the fortress is for, and why he was placed there.

The game is mostly environmental puzzles. Monsters are the spirits of the dead manifesting as black smoke, and they are driven away with a simple wooden stick or torch. Rated T for Teen, because although it’s less violent than the above games, it’s creepier.

Okami

(PS2, Wii)

Another video game which was unfairly overlooked by players on initial release, in spite of winning numerous awards, this one has the advantage that you can buy it new for a reasonable price. A 3D third-person action-adventure steeped heavily in Japanese mythology.

The graphics are unlike any other game, with cel-shaded animation and textures inspired by Japanese ink and wash painting. The protagonist is Amaterasu, the Shinto sun goddess, who manifests as a wolf and attempts to lift a curse that has fallen on her native land. Combat is carried out, and puzzles solved, by painting mystical brush strokes on canvas using the celestial brush. This game mechanic makes the game a natural for the Wii’s remote, and I kinda wish I hadn’t played the PS2 version so I could play the Wii one fresh.

Rated T for Teen. There were a couple of instances of smutty innuendo that made me raise an eyebrow, but I suspect a kid would have missed them. There’s also some cleavage and a little partial nudity. Not a game for Christian conservatives, but then again they probably wouldn’t like all the Japanese gods either. Somewhat slow to start, and probably not a good game for anyone who lacks patience.

© mathew 2017