Dec 19, 2011

Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword & Nintendo's Art Legacy

Nintendo's Wii console is mercenary to its core—of that, there's no doubt. Yet despite being a shovelware-aiding gimmick of a platform, it has miraculously produced a few games that are not just good, not just great, but that are artistic achievements that belong next to the Silent Hill 2s and Super Mario 64s in canon. At once a company that can be greedier than any other, and backwards in its technology, Nintendo also manages to keep their artistic souls intact by having as many dream-orientated designers as they do dollar-eyed opportunists. Or perhaps gaming endures, no matter the console's technology level or who runs the corporate offices. Perhaps art endures. 
At its best, the company manages to cultivate a sense of magic that reaches back to childhood: it shows you the world in a new way, or maybe a way you used to see it. (No wonder Spielberg wanted to do his first game for the Wii.) It's no mistake that Nintendo has not just one stand out/profitable franchise but all its Marios, its Zeldas, its Metroids, its Starfoxs, its Kirbys. That brings me to director Hidemaro Fujibayashi and new release The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. 

Dec 6, 2011

Batman: Arkham City (2011)

At Pop Matters, G. Christopher Williams' review of Batman: Arkham City calls for a return to the cramped settings of Arkham Asylum, but I think the game already is set in a cramped setting. Just not quite one we've ever seen before. While the original Batman: Arkham Asylum presented us with the titular locale's claustrophobic, Gothic environments its sequel presents a uniquely "open" claustrophobia that only a city could give off.
[Images copyright to Official Batman: Arkham City Community.]

The city is big, yes, but it's walled. (It's also the most rounded, interesting character in the game.) Instead of being just down a (mostly) linear hall, danger could be anywhere and often is; the alleyways are limitless, the buildings go on and on. Plenty of hiding spots. And sometimes, the danger is presented by the player to the enemies instead of the typical opposite of enemies being a threat to the player.

All of this is thanks to the open claustrophobia of Arkham City's architecture and art design. I say "open claustrophobia" because what it presents us with is what many players will stop and stare at upon climbing their first building: seemingly endless, horizon-feeling space they can explore that's crowded everywhere by its art details. Ugly but pretty for it, the game presents us with a city-within-a-city where decaying factories mix with carnivals and Art Deco and 1800s construction, all made over with a Noir paintbrush. It's garish, yes, but not pointlessly so like Joe Schumaker's awful film vision of Batman & Robin. Instead, it resembles dark fantasy art. A world not quite possible, not quite ours, but similar.

The sick/slick visuals--full of neon green signs, rusted factory towers, highways that fall into the sea, and Deco statues--crowd the screen so much that they crowd the player. Little details like bits of dirty snow hanging off buildings or political posters (resembling Big Brother mixed with Nazi propaganda, of course) further overwhelm the player. The feeling it gives off is of being in hell, comprised less of sensible city zoning regulations and more of "layers" shoved together.

But for once, this isn't a bad thing. This isn't a case of developers gone wild. This is exactly what fits the situation: a contrast of controlled anarchy, represented by world and art design. Delving into the underbelly of the game world, when the player encounters a buried "City of Tomorrow"-type Deco area, we realize that it exactly matches the message played over its intercoms: if mankind continues its upwards ascent, the buildings will grow to resemble hell breaking through the sidewalks, up and up and up, until we choke to death and are no more.

Does that mean Batman: Arkham City is the first notable game to not only include fantastical architecture, but to include it and to comment on its architecture and city spatial dimensions?

Dec 5, 2011

Writing updates #3

New, short post coming up within the next day. On what? Batman: Arkham City. Plus, expect something much longer on "Skyward Sword" and Nintendo's art legacy later this week. In the meantime, feel free to e-mail me or leave me comments, and thanks for reading; spread the word, if you want.