As unfair as it might be to Shadow of the Colossus, understanding the game outside its relationship with ICO is difficult. The parallels between the two are too abundant and too significant to ignore. Both played a vital role in the construction of “video games as art*”; both take obvious inspiration from popular media; both draw from the same pool of symbols and motifs, like shadow, light, space, psychoanalysis, etc.; and both paint very broad strokes with those motifs so the player can/will read what they will into them.
However, I want to be clear that Shadow of the Colossus isn’t merely an extension of ICO’s work. In reality it’s a development of that work. More specifically, the game inverts every meaning that Team Ico had assigned its symbols in their first outing. They’re more willing to consciously challenge everything that, previously, they were willing to accept for the sake of discussion. The bond between different peoples gives way to loneliness; a well defined prison gives way to barren wastelands; and any hope for something better is replaced with a dreary cynicism that’s all but resigned itself to senseless suffering.
For many video games, it’s possible (albeit to varying degrees of difficulty) for a critic to separate whatever legacy a game has accrued from discussion of their personal experience with that game or their analysis of the nuances and implications of what it expresses. ICO, I feel, is the rare exception to that rule. It’s impossible to ignore this game’s legacy. As one of the first commercial video games that writers hailed as art, any commentary made of the game is going to intersect with this narrative, consciously or not. So rather than ignore this, it would be best to put off any analysis of ICO for now and explore the idea of “video games as art.” This way, we’ll better understand both the idea itself and its relationship with ICO.
There’s a famous Wittgenstein quote that says, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” His point wasn’t that people should remain quiet on matters they’re unqualified to speak about, but that silence can be its own form of expression. Silence can paint a picture in vivid detail in ways that speech isn’t equipped for. To illustrate this point, let’s consider a negative example: the 2013 remake (more a light re-imagining than a strict remake) of Castle of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse.
Broadly speaking, the original game tended to leave things unstated because it didn’t have the tools to speak at length about them. It was an approach that worked well for what the designers had in mind. The remake, on the other hand, has those tools at its disposal and is determined to make its voice heard. The problem is that this Castle of Illusion doesn’t know how it should express that voice but feels compelled to express it anyway. It overspeaks; it overexplains; it fills previously quiet moments with activity. What you end up with is a game that, while technically sound, leaves too little to the imagination while adding little to our understanding of the experience.
Anybody who’s followed Mighty No. 9 on its arduous three year journey will already know the legacies it’s inherited; its relationship to Mega Man, the numerous production problems (delays comprising the majority of them), etc. And from what I’ve heard, it’s these legacies that many other reviewers have tried to disavow that they might approach the game on its own terms. Such a task is impossible. Mighty No. 9 takes such specific inspiration from Mega Man and wears that inspiration so proudly on its sleeve that it would be unfair to pretend it never existed. It’s better to admit how much of an impact all this has left on the final product.
Now I’m not saying this to criticize the game. In fact, it’s within this specific context that Mighty No. 9 shines its brightest. The game holds a deep understanding both of what makes Mega Man work and how to repurpose that within a modern context. That’s why you see the story meaningfully advance everything you didn’t even realize makes Mega Man great. It’s also why the game focuses on the kind of sleek, slick action that gives it life beyond its source of inspiration. No matter the circumstances, Mighty No. 9’s history serves to uplift the game rather than undermine it.
I promise this is the last thing I’ll write about Kingdom Hearts for a while. After seeing all the great things the series does with Kingdom Hearts II and Birth by Sleep, it was only a matter of time before one of the games stumbled. Enter Kingdom Hearts Re:coded. It was a weak game when it first released on the DS, and its arrival on the PS3 hasn’t done it much better. Sure, the gameplay is no longer a problem, seeing how this version is just cinematics telling an abridged version of the story. However, the story itself has problems of its own. It lacks thematic development and can’t find any real, uncontrived tension. All it can really do is fill space.
I’m not going to mince words with you: Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep is the bleakest Kingdom Hearts game I’ve played to date. In some ways, it doesn’t even feel like a Kingdom Hearts game. Gone are the cheery messages of friendship as the all powerful, all redeeming force. What we get instead is a story with a touch of tragedy, its heroes destined to fail in the end. This is clear right from the beginning. Despite the cheery tunes, we only see our heroes either fighting each other, flailing helplessly as villainous figures make short work of them, or running away from an overpowering force. Toward the end, one of the hero’s’ eyes change to an angry gold as the song proclaims, “Nothing’s like before.”
Me and the Kingdom Hearts franchise have a history together. I’ve been forming memories with the series since it first saw release in 2002. I played the first game to the point of breaking the disc. I first discovered YouTube not through tired memes, but through strategies on how to beat Sephiroth in Kingdom Hearts II. (It’s gliding, by the way. Just glide above him where he can’t hit you.) Despite all this, until I played the game on the PS3, I hadn’t touched the game in seven or eight years. And given how I’m not the same person I was seven or eight years ago (who is?), you’d expect my view of the game to change based on how I’ve changed in the intervening time.
I find Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner an odd game, as far as video game sequels go. Not for what it does; that part’s all too familiar. The game takes what its forerunner did, and adds onto it, refines it, improves it, etc. I’m more curious about what all that does to the game as a whole. Although both the story and the gameplay find themselves bigger and better than before, they do so on separate terms. This creates a weird tension between narrative and gameplay, as they find themselves unable to reconcile their own terms. So while both elements are strong on their own, they never come together to realize 2nd Runner’s full potential.
Our current (or, according to some critics, aged) understanding of video games tells us that Metal Gear Rising should be a good game. A damn fine one, in fact. If you engage it only for its audacious spectacle, then Rising works wonders. If you engage it as a game to be played, it works wonders. Continue reading