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Dispatches, Part Eight; Or: Deja Vu (Will You Be The Dream That Might Come True?)

Pleasant dreamers– My eyes sting. My hands are buzzing. My brain hurts because it insists upon thinking, and I’ve got the nagging sensation that I have no mouth, yet I must scream. I’m still not out of the Pandora’s temple ballpark, and once again I’m getting a naggingly familiar feeling. There’s something I’ve felt before, someplace I’ve already been, an occurance which has happened once in the past and repeated itself two-fold this afternoon. There’s a name for this event, this phenomenon, a title I recall being used in songs, cinema and even other video games. Seeming to remember something, I know, just know it isn’t just my imagination….Wait a minute! I know what it is!

WOULD YOU LIKE TO SWITCH TO EASY MODE?

Now, it’s an issue I’ve raised before. If I were a lousier player, it wouldn’t be such a big deal to me. If I were constantly dying in the midst of combat, in fact, I’d take that screen as a challenge to double my efforts and improve my lagging button-timing. Struggling in a Sissyphisian feat, I’d rub my palms together, grit my teeth and with the strength and determination of our dear comrade Boxer cry “I will work harder!”

However, in this case, there’s really nothing I can do, because no matter how good of a gamer you are, you just can’t fix bad jumping puzzles.

Oddly enough, though it’s happened in two places in this last play-session, I can only remember the most recent one It’s deep in the Hades labyrinth, the second set of sliding tiles above pits of molten lava. Here, it’s just a case of really poorly designed physical space, because it needs exact timing for both the button press of the double-jump and the sliding tiles themselves, or else you taste hot magma. Now, precision timing really shouldn’t be this challenging for me, but I think it’s because of the absolute lack of wiggle-room here that the jump falls apart– the anally-retentive split-second demand shouldn’t be weighed with a life-or-death consequence. This kind of precision is fine for enemies, even ones which can savagely woung Kratos if the player gets it wrong time and again, but if the game builds itself a next-to-impossible challenge on the basis of a binary result, it really just forms an annoying hassle until you’ve gotten it right.

Now, like a miracle, I’ve just remembered the other “Easy Mode” moment (Jesus Christ, that sounds ironic)– the rushing wall underneath the Poseidon statue after Kratos makes out with the first Niad (Naiad? Naiid Nyad? I’m not bothering to google it, sorry). In retrospect, that obstacle wasn’t quite so bad– a simple matter of getting the R1 swim-boost timing correct with the tiny safe zones. Really, it’s just another version of the V’Ger Vortex traps with the spikes and blades, yet for some reason it’s the rushing wall that prompts the most deaths. Probably it’s because of the way the design obscures what’s happening until you’ve failed to survive it at least once– this is a puzzle it likely takes dying to figure out how not to get killed by. By itself, that’s a familiar and interesting experience. Sandwiched here between any number of other eye-rollingly obtuse predicaments, not to mention the accompaniment of its footnote of an “Easy Mode” offer, it just becomes grating.

Lost Souls and Opportunities

Because my memory of the exact architecture and demands of the last play-session is a little sketchy and vague I’ll just respond to one of my chief complaints here, and not even bother to localize it– Jaffe has some interesting ideas, but the ways in which he puts them into practice can sometimes be agonizingly insipid. Back when Stephen and N’Gai were in our class, I raised the issue of making games in which the player is forced to do something they feel guilty for doing, and N’Gai (or Stephen) said it’d already been done pretty well in GoW, in the section in which you sacrifice the soldier. Now, while playing the game I’ve been waiting for that moment for some time now– I felt a slight rumble of it in the Athens courtyard slaughterhouse, and when I found that coffin where Kratos rips out the skull. This time, however, I’ve played through the piece, grabing a lever from the sacrifice room, lowering the soldier-in-a-cage, pushing him up the hill and listening to his screams, pleads and begs for mercy as I put him on the machine to roast alive. All in all, I have only one thing to say about the whole scene, and what it means for gameplay:

Bullshit. Bull-fucking-shit.

It’s a block puzzle, okay? That’s all it is. A fucking block puzzle. Now, sure, the block screams, cries and asks you not to kill it, but it’s still a fucking block. The soldier-sacrifice fails at being the moment of self-consciously morally ambigious gameplay it at the very best strives for, and at the very worst pretends to be, for several reasons. First, there’s a mechanical fault, as too much of the challenge of this section is clouded by same-old-same-old demands of countering waves of enemies and keeping the block from falling downt the hill, forcing you to start over. If Jaffe wants this section to be about making the player feel guilty, there shouldn’t be any bad guys getting in the way. Letting the external invade upon the internal keeps any of those feelings of ethical concern from bubbling to the top– the player’s too busy fighting off demons and dragging the block up the hill to worry about whether the block wants to be dragged up there in the first place.

Second of all, and possibly more importantly, the sacrifice fails to be meaningful on any narrative level because the person we’re sacrificing is a nobody. Plain and simple, the player can’t be asked to care about a random, anonymous soldier stuck in a cage whom they’ve never seen before– heck, the soldier looks too similar to the all-purpose bad-guys we’ve been fighting all along for us to entertain any moral qualms about letting it die. If it were a supporting character in the story, perhaps, one we’ve been made to sympathize with and enjoy the company of, one who might even present significant advantages later on in the game if they were left alive, it’d be a different case. A sacrifice just isn’t a sacrifice unless you’re giving something up that you’d rather not– trust me, this is coming from a Catholic, here. Heck, even the petty stuff people give up for Lent is more meaningful than what goes on here.

Think of the story of Abraham and Issac– God asks the father to slaughter the son. The reason it’s a test of faith is because Abraham doesn’t want to do it– but he will, anyway, if his Lord really wants him to. The story wouldn’t have worked as well if it’d been just another sheep, or even some dumb shmuck on the road God asked Abaraham to ice. For a more Greco-Roman-centric example, Agamemnon incurs Klytemnestra’s wrath after he sacrifices their daughter, Iphigineia, to Artemis, just so he can sail off and fight the Trojan War– she wouldn’t have given a crap if it’d been an ordinary deer getting killed, or somebody else’s kid that she doesn’t care about. The point is that sacrifice means giving up, even destroying something you love, or at least something you’d really rather not be without. Even real-life human sacrifice has always been so potent to people because of how horrific it is. It seems to say, “Look, deities! We’re so ardent in our worship that we’ll perform the most barbaric shit in your name! We’ll do anything (and we mean anything) for you!”

What happens here doesn’t mean anything. You’re sacrificing a red-shirt– who cares? The player can’t empathize with the soldier in the cage, probably because Jaffe doesn’t even want the player to empathize with the soldier in the cage. It’s not what he’s aiming for, I’ll bet. The sacrifice isn’t trying to make the player feel guilty; it’s trying to make them feel badass, letting them inhabit their bitter, cynical anti-hero character and feel the same utter contempt for NPC’s which they do, and frankly that’s really dissapointing. This scene feels too full of itself– it’s trying to get attention for itself in that way that games are marketed to become as controversial as possible. Mechanically and narratively it’s an impotent section, one which doesn’t achieve the kind of pathos people seem to think exists in it. I feel more guilt slaying the beasts of Shadow of the Colossus, assasinating the Boss in MGS3, or rolling up strangers in Katamari Damacy, for Christ’s sake.

Frankly, anybody who thinks that the soldier-sacrifice is a meaningful piece of expressive gameplay is deluding themselves. If this is what counts for moral ambiguity in this game, I am not impressed.

Another moment which dissapointed me, though in a different way, was the Hades labyrinth. Never mind the fact that they’re getting the aesthetics of Hades and the underworld all wrong here– I can forgive the mistake of Sataning up the God of Death with horns, lava and flames, because that’s what everybody does. What annoys me is the great opportunity they had in the unlocking mechanism for the maze, which asks the player to kill everything in the labyrinth in order to proceed. At first, I thought I’d slayed every single thing in the level, and figured that Jaffe was trying to pull some creative design on us, so I tried to think of what the catch was here. Perhaps, I thought, it meant that the player not only had to kill all the enemies, but also Kratos in the end to open the door, taking the “kill everything” rule as literally as possible. After exploring and killing all the rest of the baddies in the maze, I genuinely hoped this was the case, as it would stand as a not-half-bad piece of gameplay riddle-solving, and one which would ask for the player to make a thought-provoking sacrifice in order to continue. After I’d slayed the last enemies, though, the door opened, and I was allowed to continue.

I can’t even begin to tell you how dissapointed I was, and how confusing that dissapointment felt, in retrospect.

I had some fun, this time, but frankly I’m altogether pissed at the end of this playthrough. Maybe I’ll go a little further tonight, but I’ve got a final to finish, so it’s not likely. Until then, dream pleasantly, pleasant dreamers.

2 Comments

  1. Charles wrote:

    I think what you’re missing from the whole ‘sacrifice’ segment is that its not meant to “be meaningful on any narrative level.” The difference between this part of God of War and analogies you’ve made to Shadow and Snake Eater are that its power is not supposed to be derived from its narrative weight, but rather the distance it creates between the player and his/her avatar. In main character of Shadow of the Colossus is such as blank slate that it’s easy to project your feelings of guilt on to him. The same could be said of shooting The Boss at the end of Metal Gear Solid 3; odds are that the emotional state of the player and the Snake should be pretty in-sync by then.

    The difference between these moments and the ‘sacrifice’ in God of War is that what I believe Jaffe is trying to do is break you out of sync with your character. The effect that it’s had on some people who have played the game is to jolt them out of their immersion for a moment and look at Kratos as a character, instead of just an avatar. In short, it’s the first time where your feelings and the feelings of the main character might differ, and for a second you consider how progressing in the game requires you to adopt the role of ruthless revenge-seeker a little more than you may have anticipated.

    Perhaps he doesn’t engineer this moment in the most subtle of ways, but by now I think that we can all agree that subtlety is not Jaffe’s strength. That should not blind us to the fact that he is doing something that is qualitatively different than the similar efforts from Ueda and Kojima. Sure, in the end it’s just a block puzzle, but it’s a damn interesting take on a block puzzle. As interesting as shooting The Boss, which was at its heart just ‘press the Action button.’ The reason I’m such a big fan of this little segment is that it’s the first time I’ve seen this kind of acknowledgment of the actor/audience duality of the player that didn’t involve openly breaking the fourth wall.

    Monday, April 30, 2007 at 6:07 pm | Permalink
  2. Bob wrote:

    I don’t know– I really don’t know. Without the soldier’s character being fleshed out in any way, there’s no reason for me to care about what’s happening to him, and therefore no reason for my feelings to be any different from Kratos’. I disagree with this scene being one that creates a meaningful distance between player and avatar– instead, I think it ties them together even more, in somewhat troubling ways. I feel the same way about the soldier as Kratos does– nothing. It doesn’t take me out of sync, but clarifies what was in sync already, and frankly it makes me somewhat skeptical about the values it endorses as a whole. If it was trying to do what you’re describing, then it didn’t work, for me, at least.

    Monday, April 30, 2007 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

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