I wrote these reviews based on three completely made-up video games in order to get someone’s attention and land a job at the now-defunct Play magazine. They might be fun to read on account of the ideas, but these are some old pieces and I feel like a huge fuckwad when trying to extract meaning from the tortured sentence structure. I guess at that point my writing was better than, say, Kevin J. Anderson or Peter David, but that’s about it.
So the three games I made up are SAW: Everlasting Love (a franchise tie-in that isn’t a rushed, desperate attempt to cash in on a popular icon), Let’s Take a Shower (a Wii exclusive “first-person washer” that lets you use the Wiimote to take a shower), and Blame! (which is based on the cybergoth manga by Tsutomu Nihei).
Saw: Everlasting Love
Is There a Rating That Goes Past Mature?
“You want to drive down the Endurance of your victims, but not so much that they choose to opt out of suffering by letting your traps kill them.”
It’s finally here: A game in which the object is to kidnap victims and torture them. Our parents knew this was coming since the day a plumber ingested hallucinogenic mushrooms and took to stomping turtles to death. And the worst part? The game is… fun.
In this game based on the Saw movie franchise, you play as Juda, a disciple of John Kramer – aka Jigsaw – and continue your master’s work by stalking and capturing people who have “forgotten the sanctity of life.” Then, through a series of menus not unlike LittleBigPlanet in scope and ease of use, you construct a trap. What makes things interesting is that the trap is not necessarily supposed to kill the victim, but force the victim to overcome their fears and break free. In the words of your mentor during the game’s opening: “The tools we use are cold steel, crippling fear, and cleansing blood. To hold anything back from our victims is to do them a disservice. But our ultimate goal? We give the gift of life.” For our young readers desperate for parents to buy this Mature-rated game, try that line and see if it works.
Frankly, it’s difficult to ride the moral high horse when you’re having the time of your life scrolling through lists of barbed wire, vats of acid, explosive collars, spinning saws, locks opened by keys that are surgically implanted inside victims, a few fear-inducing dead animals thrown in for good measure – all that, on top of the fact that you’ve been sitting for half an hour reading and re-reading your victim’s profile, wondering exactly which combination of traps is going to trigger their survival instinct and teach them to love life once again. The list of victims, and the “games” that can be played with them, is exhaustively constructed. For beginners, there’s the Drunk Abusive Father, the Slacker Rich Kid, and the Spoiled Goth Chick (the trick with her is to not overdo things, as it seems she’s annoyingly quick to give up and die). Later on you can tackle the Sadistic Cop or even the Death-Wish Artist (he’s willing to die if your trap is too simple, but oh, if you can crack him and teach him to choose life, your Love of Life meter will skyrocket). Towards the end of the game your traps will have to approach Rube Goldbergian levels of complexity, including the use of multiple agents whose complicity you’ve gained through blackmail, multiple locations and “red herring victims” so that law enforcement officials can be sent on wild goose chases – all in order to crack targets like the Crooked Politician, the Wealthy Mob Boss, and the Hawkish General, men who are so entrenched in their world-view that nothing short of forcing them to experience Hell Itself will cause them to turn from their destructive ways.
Therein lies the challenge, and charm, of Saw: Eternal Love. In most other games, once you have your opponent “boxed in” and the kill is guaranteed, you’ve already won. Here, that is where the game begins. From the morbidly beautiful instruction booklet: “You want to drive down the Endurance of your victims, but not so much that they will choose to opt out of suffering by letting your traps kill them.” While seeing your traps reduce a victim to a pile of sausage goo can be laugh-inducing, there’s nothing like the rush of seeing an AI opponent defeat your trap and go back into the world as a better human being. After so many scenes painted in dull greys and sharp reds, after listening to a soundtrack of harsh stringed instruments punctuated by screams, there’s nothing quite like seeing the cityscape that you stalk actually turn into a brighter place. The norm of gaming, and of storytelling in general, states that the protagonist is always one step behind the villain until the final scene where pluck and endurance overcome crafty megalomania. In Saw: Everlasting Love, you play as the antagonist… but you will never feel like a villain. Mastermind, yes, but at what point in our evolution did we decide that “sociopathic mastermind” was synonymous with “villain”? Did I miss that memo?
In fact, this empowering sense of being a mastermind became so palpable as the game progressed that by the time I faced off against an opponent who used my name, and was most likely a fallen disciple of my own master, and who had access to the same traps as me and wanted to use them against me, a little tear almost trickled down my cheek when my character finally stood face to face with his nemesis and whispered, “I want to play a game with you…”
Just as there are players of Grand Theft Auto who input cheat codes, unlock every gun, and then go on a killing spree throughout the city, it is also possible for players to simply make perfect death traps and then watch their victims die horrible, and sometimes amusing, deaths. But, by the twisted morality of the game’s developers, such players would be missing the point of John Kramer’s Love. Those who love the Saw franchise for reasons beyond the fact that the traps are “cool” will probably already understand the desire to stalk a horrible person, stick them in a trap, and then feel the rush as they emerge like a butterfly from a cocoon, battered and bloody and thirsty with a new love of life. But for that hefty segment of the populace who thinks that Doom caused the Columbine shootings and who shake their head at Mass Effect because they heard it was pornographic… well, there’s nothing I can say that will whitewash Saw: Everlasting Love.
Then again, maybe it’s time for gamers to stop apologizing for their awesome lifestyle.
If you can draw a line and say that gunning down opponents is okay but letting them fall into a giant garbage disposal because they refused to hack off a limb with a rusty saw in order to escape is not okay, then Saw: Everlasting Love is not for you. Otherwise? Hell yeah, this game is awesome.
Let’s Take a Shower!
Nintendo Cleans Up Its Act
There are some games that you know will never make it from Japan to Western shores. Others make it but, due to the belief that Westerners are solely fixated on the WW2 FPS experience, only make it after heavy-handed retooling. A few years ago Let’s Take a Shower! would have been the former; now, thanks to some homogenization between our cultures, it’s the latter.
For those of us who are completely bored with taking real showers (I know I am), then Let’s Take a Shower! provides hardcore gamers the chance to get cleaned up in a virtual world. Your head is the camera and the Wiimote (or DS stylus) is your hand, which is used to manipulate the soap, shampoo, and conditioner of your choice. Now, just because taking a shower in real life can be a mind-numbingly boring affair, don’t assume that’s the case with LTS!. There are a number of shower upgrades to unlock, and you can even play online and help to wash off a buddy (while they try to do the same for you).
There are also a multitude of body types to choose from, which is exactly why a game that contains next to no text or dialogue required such a herculean feat of translation from its Eastern development team. You see, the Japanese version of Let’s Take a Shower! displays naked bodies. I’ve no doubt that across the ocean they actually like the idea of rubbing all manner of soaps and hot oils on attractive female bodies. (On a side note, it’s a good thing the Wiimote requires only one hand for use.) But like any red-blooded American, I can’t stand the sight of a naked body and I require it to be censored out of any video game I play. Apparently I’m not alone in this. That’s why the American version has had its naked bodies replaced with… alien bodies. Each body you can choose is more surreal than the last, a conglomeration of tentacles and strange colors and singing orifices. And they all need cleaning.
What a strange trip it is. When playing as an Alpha Centaurian, who are green and round-bodied and many-tentacled, I couldn’t get over the impression that I was watching some grassy landscape in constant, sickening motion. Being able to rapidly switch between tentacles didn’t help my motion sickness. Washing up as a resident of Regulus Prime, I was in for a real treat when I was using one god-knows-what limb to wash another appendage when I accidentally (and vigorously) rubbed the creature’s “rhythm hole”. Here I was just trying to power through the shower, but was instead treated to a short musical piece the likes of which I have never heard before or since.
The point is: The alien bodies are strange. Sometimes passably decent, sometimes only not-quite-bad-enough-to-regret-the-purchase. However! There’s a bonus for you Americans who fear getting short-changed just because you don’t get to wash down pert, young female bodies. And this bonus material is exclusive to the US release, and is tailored to appeal to a Western audience. Yes, you guessed it: The final boss that you get to wash is none other than a rotting corpse. The body of the corpse is rendered in graphic detail – think less “Mario,” more “autopsy photo.” The challenge was ramped up, too, as there are bloated limbs that can drop off (and you thought dropping the soap was bad), orifices clogged with maggots that require harsh scrubbing, and sometimes the corpse will actually zombify and smack the soap away. That, dear Americans, is some ultra-violence right up my alley!
Let’s Take a Shower! is flawed, but still far more enriching than taking an actual shower. Nintendo has once again proven the power of ingenuity by creating a new genre: First-Person Washers. I’ve no doubt that Nintendo will also live up to their reputation by releasing a horde of rehashed FPW games until you wonder if they’ll ever have the balls to release a game that doesn’t include Mario, Samus Aran, or Dirty Corpse in its lineup.
Cybergoth-Flavored Shadow of the Colossus
Blame! is a marriage of the minds of manga iconoclast Tsutomu Nihei and Fumito Ueda, the mastermind behind PS2 cult masterpieces Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. For those unfamiliar with Nihei’s ten-volume manga, Blame! is the story of Killy, a black-clad loner armed with a photon beam emitter who wanders a massive cyber-dungeon seeking “net terminal genes”. Blame! has no witty banter, no Japanese schoolgirl ninja vigilantes, no comical sidekicks who interfere with the protagonist’s hardassed stoicism, and no cackling supervillains who want to take over the world. What Blame! does have are long stretches of silence in which Killy navigates through a vast, dark industrial wasteland, interspersed with violent battles against silicon creatures, towering biological monstrosities, and builder-robots who mindlessly extend the size of the industrial landscape and whose original controller has long since gone AWOL.
Ueda, of Team Ico, has once again opted not to fill the environment with a host of minor enemies who harass the player, and instead focuses on bosses. Like Shadow of the Colossus, most of these bosses are giant, roaming puzzles that can be solved only by a particular kind of violence. But unlike the former title, whose bosses were like extensions of nature and seemed content to ignore the hero and wander through their own thoughts, the bosses of Blame! are more like the works of H. R. Giger brought to life: Sinister, austere, metallic. Think Alien meets Terminator meets Hellraiser. And some of them are downright sadistic: Just watch leather-clad Sana-Kan’s knock-down maneuver which ends with her standing over Killy. She calmly fires down at Killy, ejects the spent shell, reloads, and repeats, each blast deforming the terrain as if she’s digging his grave.
A game this unique has few analogues to draw comparison from. I could call it cyberpunk, but the sense of solitude, emptiness, and sheer strangeness make it feel more like David Lynch’s Eraserhead than cyberpunk giants Bladerunner or Akira. Just imagine a vast industrial landscape in which the gameplay is stripped of gear, items, and peasant folk who need you to fetch this and that. Instead, wandering is its own reward. The dark world of Blame! has no real direct route from boss to boss, but is instead filled with towers belching smoke and black rain, claustrophobic catacombs, and strange hidden areas bathed in light. Killy can wander for hours, silent and alone, in a world with borders that are surprisingly difficult to find. (On a side note, it is difficult to see the big picture since there is no map of the playing area, but some have speculated that the gameworld is actually the inside of a large sphere where the gravity has been inverted – therefore the only “border” would be the floor on which you walk.)
Speaking of borders and a lack thereof, one thing which may disturb some gamers is the seeming pointlessness of many out-of-the-way encounters. There are a lot of things to find in the world of Blame!, but power-ups and an experience point tally are not one of them. For those of you who think you want videogames to become more like real life, well, here it is. Just as interacting with someone in real life may not produce any tangible benefit, so it is for the non-boss-related events in Blame!. If you come upon a silicon creature cloning chamber full of feral fetuses, feel free to blow it to smithereens. If you see a tribe of skeletal hunters ranging about in the distance, you can let them pass by without missing anything. I would argue that the experience itself is worth the investigation. This is not Grand Theft Auto, where you interact with people you don’t even like in the hopes that it will open up more interactions with other people you don’t like so that maybe a set of numbers will increase. Blame! does not have that. Sounds strange, I know, but anyone who enjoyed Shadow of the Colossus can understand the appeal of seeing an interesting stretch of landscape and heading towards it for the sole purpose of seeing what lies over the hill. Believe me, there is a sense of wonder that lies outside of the world of numbers, and there is a sense of purpose beyond the neurotic impulse to make those numbers increase. Blame! has that sense of wonder and that sense of purpose.
Like Ueda’s former titles, music only comes into play during specially scripted events. Yet the world of Blame! is an aurally powerful experience cast in a perversion of natural landscapes. The lonely sounds of gears screeching in the distance are like birdcalls, and the sound of wind in the trees is replaced with pressure valves expelling steam. Even the great black void that Killy encounters near the end of his journey hums with brooding menace when the camera is rotated straight into it.
Fans of the anime Boogiepop Phantom will enjoy the uniquely jarring musical direction: Imagine ethereal harmonies that suddenly cut off, or a mad stack of drums pounding mercilessly when a certain giant boss is tearing up the world to find you, or the strange electronic tones triggered when you step into certain areas – as if to signal some cinematic event that never seems to show up.
Then there is the sound of the title itself: Blame! is, in “engrish,” the sound of a gun firing. It just so happens that there are few things that can improve upon silence like the sound of Killy’s superpowered photon beam emitter tearing through the sky, searing atoms and leaving hissing, molten rubble in its wake. To say that Killy carries a laser pistol would be to miss the point entirely. Imagine the force of a nuke concentrated to pinpoint razor-sharp precision, then imagine a gun like that going off with enough force to throw Killy across the room – or even tear his own arm off if you go hog-wild with it. But as you learn to control the force of nature that is the photon beam emitter – coupled with Killy’s Synapse Enhancement ability which slows down time to help you aim – the sound of Killy’s gun charging and going off in tight, controlled bursts will be a godsend.
So Killy’s gun is God and the sound it makes is a choir of angels singing high-pitched 80s hair metal – that is, a joy to hear every time. But don’t let it go to your head because eventually you do meet bosses who are also equipped with photon beam emitters, which can be a real testicle-stomping nightmare. I’m almost certain that the sound those guns produce is actually a slight variation, or maybe a perversion, of Killy’s own godlike weapon. There is a real sense that gods are at war when you and a boss are leveling the entire playing field as you try to get at one another: Smoke so thick you can barely see, molten metal pouring from once-stable platforms, the hiss of the air all around you catching fire from the extreme temperatures… I could go on and on because of the strength of the vision and direction behind Blame!
A truly unique game. An interactive work of art. This could be a good or bad thing depending on your perspective.
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Hey readers! If you liked this post, you should check out some of my books. I’ve got an epic series called Demonworld, which is equal parts Mad Max and Lord of the Rings (think “science fantasy”), and a much-loved gamebook series called Heavy Metal Thunder which is currently a hyperlinked Kindle book but will be a fancy phone app any day now.