The Most Important RPG of the Last 10 Years

        I've been putting a lot of thought into what my next blog would be because I don't really like to talk about what's going on in my day-to-day life. I'm kind of a private person and I don't really think my life is all that exciting. But every now and then I have insights I think I can lend to something and I feel the need to. Again, as I often do, a little background on me: I didn't meet and befriend other people who played videogames until I was in high school, as a result I grew up loving RPGs because they could be played alone (that sounds so depressing when I type it...), so RPGs are a genre that I have a lot of fondness for. I've been excited to see the rather significant metamorphosis they've undergone in the last ten or so years (I'm talking mostly in this about Western RPGs. JRPGs are a whole other animal that I may someday tackle.) I've given a lot of thought to what is the most important RPG of the last ten years. Not necessarily the best, mind you, because my choice certainly isn't the best. But it's the one that I feel has set the tone for what RPGs will be over the next ten years, maybe more. My choice is The Witcher. 
       Bioware (and by extension Black Isle and Obsidian) are some of my favorite game developers. The Baldur's Gate, Fallout and KOTOR games, while not perfect, were all revelations of freedom. In Fallouts 1 and 2 you can literally do anything to anyone whenever you feel like it. You might break the plot and kill a character whose important, but that's called consequence. The problem with those games, and it's a problem that continues today both in and out of the genre, is that they gave you two choices: be an angel or a demon. There was no middle ground, no grey area, you were either the kindest, gentlest, nicest, noblest person to ever exist, or you were the most despicable, sociopathic, monstrous, most disgusting person to ever exist. The Witcher might not have been the first game to change that, but it was the first one to receive any kind of wide release and be extremely playable (after the Expanded Edition was released anyway...) 
       The tagline of the game sums it up perfectly: "No good, no evil, only choice...and consequence." The choices you make in that game aren't good, they're the lesser evil, or at least you have to decide if they are. The first time you make a truly difficult choice, (whether to support the fantasy equivalent of terrorists or a hate group) I agonized over it. It was the first time I felt like there was no "good" choice. I played through it again and chose the other way, things weren't much better. At first I actually felt betrayed! I felt like the game had tricked me into something until I realized that it was simply forcing me to examine my own moral code. Who would  support in this case? Who do feel is right? Who is the lesser evil. Without this game coming out, we have no Mass Effect 2 (the first ME came out around the same time as The Witcher, but I actually maintain that 2 had a much more grey area approach, as I still felt Renegade was kinda evil in the first) and we certainly have no Dragon Age: Origins (the developers specifically said they were influenced by The Witcher's morality system, or completely lack thereof, when they made the more complex choices of Dragon Age). 
       I feel like these games will go on to define what Western RPGs are, they've certainly been the highest selling of the new decade, and I think they're going in a great direction. But we need to thank the little game out of Poland by a small development company that finally had the quads to say "You know what? What if there was NO good decision? What if we made the player choose between who was less wrong?" I truly cannot wait to see what they do in the sequel, and hey, maybe we'll have our most important game of this decade nice and early.    


They Hate Us So Much

I was playing some Brutal Legend and I got a hankering to go back and watch some of those VH1 Metal documentaries (the really awesome multi-part ones where they interview basically EVERYone from the 70s-80s metal scene), and there was something that struck me more this time around: 1) Rob Halford knows his shit. The dude is MAD informed and really clever. 2) The groups that protested metal (mostly Christian, but I don't want to over-generalize) came up with some pretty hilarious ways that metal was corrupting our youth (just like rock and roll before it and the blues before that etc etc), but one of the funniest, for me, was the idea that Judas Priest (of which Mr. Halford is the frontman) had recorded backward (and therefore subliminal...of course) messages that would cause the hapless teenagers listening to it to be overwhelmed with the urge to kill themselves. This was in the wake of two teenagers listening to some Judas Priest, and then killing themselves.

Now obviously, this is a patent lie. If subliminal messages could be so easily and effectively implanted in someone, it would have been acquired and weaponized by someone at some point. There was some kind of musical anomaly that made it sound like the background of the track was saying "Do it, do it" but as Halford pointed out "Do what? Why would you assume it meant kill yourself?" He then went on to "If we could program teenagers to do our bidding, why would we have them kill themselves?! Why wouldn't it be 'Go buy lots more Judas Priest albums, and pick up a t-shirt while you're at it!'" And I realized: it's because these groups think that bands like Judas Priest, Black Sabbath and Slayer are evil for its own sake. Which is something that doesn't exist.

Stalin's governing led to the deaths of 20,000,000 Russians, but he thought it would lead to Russia being stronger than it ever was. Even serial killers have motives, twisted and sometimes incomprehensible though they are, beyond "Cause I'm the BADGUY." But that's not how these people see the artists and us, their fans. They see us as either victims or enablers, depending on our age and whatnot, but they see these people as EVIL. They are pure evil for its own sake, they are from the devil, they want us to die for no reason. It doesn't make sense otherwise, why WOULD you program your fans, the people who have made your career, to self-destruct? There's no purpose and there's no point. I find it frightening that these people have been so indoctrinated by whatever drives them that they truly believe that there is a scourge like this and that it isn't some genocidal dictator, or an abusive family, or even a madman with a knife.

They really believe it's a bunch of musicians. Or filmmakers. Or videogame developers.


Waiting for the Miracle

Videogaming (a friend of mine is trying to stop the word "gamer" from being used anymore. Long story) is at an interesting crossroad that all forms of popular media have come to at some point: straddling the line between an accepted mainstream artform and something that politicians from both sides of the spectrum want to burn in effigy for corrupting the youth of America, who everyone knows has no capacity to think for itself. It's happened a few times with more books than I can count (look up a banned book list on any search engine and prepare to be surprised),  all different kinds of music (metal and rap most recently, but basically every form of music has been crusaded against at some point), movies are still choking under the yoke of the MPAA, and TV still has to contend with censorship on a daily basis, though the grip is slackening. Videogaming just showed up the party, and guess what? It's already got six drinks in it. Videogames present an interesting problem to the debate: interactivity. This is Roger Ebert's argument as to why they can't be considered true "art" forms: because the user interacts with and changes it, it's not truly art. I don't agree with this contention one little bit not only for the fact that I've seen art exhibits that allow audience participation, but there's only so much a user can do to "alter" a videogame while playing it. You'll never be able to make Marcus Fenix soar over the battlefield on the back of a pegasus raining down fireballs from a sword. But I'm preaching to the choir, and I won't lie it's a good feeling, but I have another point: one of the biggest hurdles is from within. It's us not taking the medium seriously, even on a sub-conscious level.

I was watching a review for a game on Zero Punctuation when the reviewer made the fascinating point of the community getting SO excited when someone from the mainstream gets involved, even peripherally, with a videogame. Now whether or not you like Zero Punctuation is irrelevant, I think the point is an incredibly good one. Why DO we fawn over people who don't work with videogames when they come and make a game? Why do we, as the reviewer put it, "Say 'oh YES Mr. Bigshot movie producer! Come down to the filthy masses and show us how it's done!'" This art form has been around for well over thirty years, mostly without help from outside sources, so why is there this hero-worship when a game comes out that has Stephen Spielberg as an executive producer?

Quick: what's one of the first comments about any hot new game sure to show up in the forums within 24 hours of the game's release and vindication of quality? No, not lewd comments about whatever female character is in it, "I'd love for them to make this into a movie." Why? Videogames have, historically, made atrocious movies. There hasn't been a single one of actual quality with the possible exception of Silent Hill (Mortal Kombat doesn't count because, while it was a fun movie, it's not a "good" movie). Metal Gear Solid is the one I hear talked about most and it's also the one I find most puzzling. I love this series, I've loved it since the first PS1 game, but the game is HEAVY on the cinematics, so why would one want to see an inferior version, most likely starring an actor no one wants to play the character, with a script that's been passed around like a dutchie 'pon the left hand side so many times, to so many different people who've probably never even heard of the game, that by the end it's called Metallic Cog Mercurial and stars Chris Kattan as the WACKIEST secret agent this side of the RUSTY CURTAIN! (rated PG-13)? 

I think it's because deep down a lot of us are still waiting for something to come along and make gaming OK for mainstream acceptance. Like what the one-two combo of the X-Men and Spider-Man movies did for comic books (with Blade being the lead-in), but comic books lend themselves more naturally to being adapted to the big screen, and even those movies didn't get REALLY good until very recently. So I think we need to bring gaming to the mainstream ourselves. Games like Bioshock are a great step in the right direction because they have incredible artistic vision as well as a satirical, philosophical plotline. In short: it has depth. That's what people look for in art: depth and that's what so many games lack. I'm not saying EVERY game needs to become Bioshock in order for us as a community to progress beyond what we are, I'm saying that we shouldn't let someone on the outside ride in like a white knight and redeem something that doesn't even need redeeming. We should solve our own problems by supporting games that actually try something daring and dynamic and even by trying to hold these games up as counter-examples rather than simply shouting at the top of our lungs about how artsy games can be.


The Future Is (Potentially) Forsaken

Oh Fox, is there any TV show you won't ruin? The news is no longer quite hot of the internet presses, but for those who don't know: Fox has resurrected Futurama, possibly the greatest cartoon ever made, only to attempt to recast it because the voice actors want more money to return than Fox is willing to pay.

This of course horrifies me as quite the die-hard fan who had to sit through texts of my friends meeting the cast at ComiCon (I hate the people who love me and they hate me!). One even asked about it and he was tight-lipped, as was DiMaggio in the interview being advertised on this fine website. This means that, very possibly contrary to popular belief, this isn't just Fox rattling their sabers like they did a few years ago when they threatened to recast The Simpsons. That was pure insanity and everyone knew it would never happen, but this is a show that was cancelled, had some great movies and is now returning.

As with my previous post, I don't really know what the point of this is other than venting. I can't really galvanize the internet into action because nobody takes online petitions seriously, I can just say to hope for the best with regards this little slice of TV heaven. And if things do work out, hope that Fox doesn't cancel them after six episodes.


Gotta Take the Bad With the Good

A little background on me to put this in perspective: I'm old enough to have gotten a Nintendo Entertainment System when they were new, I'm old enough to remember when $60 for a game was cheap (Kirby's Superstar for $80, folks), and I'm old enough to remember when our games didn't have age ratings on them and ESRB was just a collection of letters. I remember when being a "gamer" meant you were almost definately NOT in the cool kid clique and I remember when it began to turn. It was a little system called the Playstation that brought gaming to a level nobody had seen before. Sprites were replaced with polygons, voices were heard rather than read and, for some reason, games were getting primetime advertising. Have you ever been a part of something niche that became mainstream? It's the very definition of a double-edged sword. Games are cheaper and playing them doesn't automatically make you a schoolyard pariah, which is great. We have a much greater volume of work to choose from, so there's much more to be enjoyed, but something is lost.
My three favorite games are Earthbound, Chrono Trigger, and Final Fantasy VI (I liked one-player games because I was the only person I knew who really played games) and those games are all SNES games. They were all made with an incredible amount of love and care and they were made for people like me. This is not to look at the past with rose-tinted lenses, there have ALWAYS been bad games and there always will be, but now you've got people who play nothing but Madden and HALO and call themselves "gamers" and more and more games are being made to try and get these kinds of people on board. The biggest bait used is shoe-horned multiplayer. Games like Metal Gear Solid 4, Grand Theft Auto 4 and even games that don't have the number 4 in them like Resident Evil 5 are having multi-player crammed into them and it's still happening. Did anyone who played the amazing Bioshock think, "Wow, this game would be perfect if only I could play it online against a thirteen year old screeching racial slurs at me." Is that an unfair example? Absolutely, I made it because I'm trying to be funny and make a point. A better example would be did anyone think being unable to play against their friends in that game detract from the experience? Well for those people, multiplayer will be included in the sequel. And don't even get me started on G4 trying to make gaming "kewl" and "xtreeeeeeme(!!!)" or Roger Ebert declaring that it's impossible for videogames to be considered "art" because the user alters them.
So I guess in the end I'm more giving food for thought than actually trying to make a point. What do you think? Gaming in the mainstream, blessing or curse?