The Extraordinary From the Ordinary- Why Layton is better than Gears of War


I haven't posted here on Bitmob for a couple of months for various reasons. One of them might well be the autumn rush of titles- it's easy to grow dispassionate about videogame discussion when it's centred around big budget blockbusters hitting every week.

Now Jack Frost is nipping at our toes however, I feel compelled to put pen to keyboard, get ink everywhere, and realise fingers work better. That said I'm writing chiefly not because of a videogame, but because of art. You know, real art, not that videogame trash.

Last weekend I headed to Roppongi's Mori Art Museum.and checked out Phantom Limb- an exhibition by sculptor Motohiko Odani. Working in various media, between sculpting what appears to be bone into geometrically pleasing shapes to more unsettling items, Odani aims to 'work on the themes of physical sensations and psychological states, such as pain and fear [and] awaken latent thoughts and emotions'.

My emotions were somewhat mixed, however. It should be said that I'm quite the Philistine and there's a lot that I don't 'get about this sort of thing, but while I appreciated the intricate details present in the sculptures, the concepts behind a lot of the work seemed slightly adolescent. A huge rotating skull, a clay dove depicted hitting the wall and a video installation comprising of torture porn movie-esque footage of a masked Odani wielding a chainsaw spoke to me less of the mundanity of ordinary life and its fragility and more of a guy who thought a giant skull rotating on its vertical axis would be totally sweet. It struck me that a lot of the exhibition's content wouldn't be out of place appearing as concept art for God of Gears' Inferno or something, yet Odani gets an exhibition in a big gallery in a nice part of Tokyo attended by monocle wearing people in suits while videogames are routinely derided. Go figure.

It did get me thinking, though, in the wake of a VGA based announcement centered on Gears Of War 3 being postponed, why I never got into the first two games of Epic's series. See, I tried to like them both, really I did, but there was something that until recently I couldn't put my finger on that turned me off them, and the demographically similar God of War for that matter.  It's not quite an issue with violence per se,  or of big guns, big swords and big (man) tits. The lack of maturity in design has something to do with it, but it's more to do with a steadfast refusal to let moments sink in.  

Imagine, if you will, that you are a low ranking soldier in some global military force fighting for humanity's survival. You're overrun by your alien threat, attacked from all sides, and your commanding officer orders you to cut through twenty aliens armed to the teeth to reach a safe point. A hellish encounter, you risk your life sprinting to cover, squeezing off a couple of headshots before providing covering fire to your ally. One of your friends takes a bullet to the knee and crumples to the ground; adrenaline kicking in and without fear for your own life, you rush out into harm's way to drag him to safety. It's an extraordinary situation, but one that Gears makes a  humdrum, straightforward occurrence. Much like I imagined Odani's home to consist of human skull shaped coffee tables and thus lost all sense of shock in his work, Gears makes its encounters so routine, 'stop 'n' pop' as Cliffy B, the game's creator himself put it, that there's no emotional economy behind the game, and the only way to get a rise out the player is with bigger and bigger set pieces or desperately trying to lure in more teens with back of the box bullet points (apparently you can rip off arms and beat people to death with the wet end in Gears 3, hopefully that'll be part of the rumoured Kinect mode). Now that's not to say gratuitous violence, big tits, big guns and big bosses don't have a place in games, I'm a fan of all of them in moderation, but  if Cliffy wants me more invested in the lore of Gears than say, R-Type, he may want to change tack.

One world I am invested in, however, is Level 5's London in Professor Layton and the Unwound Future. Faced with a long flight to visit family for Christmas, I'm rationing my play so that I can tackle the lion's share on the plane. As a result, I've been playing for a couple of weeks but only about an hour or so in. In this short amount of time, however, Level 5 have sucked me in in a way Epic never could in an entire campaign length and the reason why can be found in just one moment.

On arriving at a hotel, the elderly woman behind the counter goes to check the heroes in, only to face a problem. 'Oh, dear' she remarks 'I have to write your names in the book. I have four pens here, but only one has any ink'. From here, you're whisked into solving a logic puzzle to find out which pen can be written with. 

Where Gears makes an extraordinary acheivement ordinary, Layton makes this basic hiccup into a short game unto itself, with a reward at the end. Where in reality, any sane person would just try the bloody pens in turn until they found a working one, the game's universe doesn't operate under the same rules, and thus something basic and ordinary becomes extraordinary. If you accept the puzzle without ridiculing the entire premise (and some may) you are drawn into this twee world where people communicate their frustrations, fears and joys in the form of wee little puzzles. By making every small thing a journey, I certainly feel far more invested in Luke and the Professor than with Marcus and the gang, and the jingle and tinkle of in game currency into your virtual account as a reward for finishing a puzzle offers a far more satisfying visceral thrill than a chainsaw based vivisection.

Surrealising norms has been a staple of videogames for some time, of course. You could argue that the success of Paperboy, Burger Time, or Tapper in days of yore came from their transformation of tedious jobs into exciting journeys. Possibly the best example of this was 1984s' wonderfully unsettling surreal ZX Spectrum game cum concept album Deus Ex Machina in which you played through various stages within the body of an 'accident'- a human life- ultimately culminating in a frantic bid to bust blood clots against the backdrop of an ever dwindling heartbeat. 

Ultimately this is something a lot of modern, combat based games lack. Combat and conflict rarely seems to have gravitas enough to keep you involved in a story, and it becomes impossible to relate to Halo's Master Chief, even though he is a blank slate embodied by the player. The first Half Life certainly managed it- the famous introductory journey to work being vital in identifying us with Freeman';s plight before it goes tits up- the extraordinary again being born from the ordinary. Perhaps Modern Warfare 2 tried by turning suburbia into a battleground, but never lingered on any one point long enough for any of it to hit home.

Uncharted meanwhile, creates its ordinariness through its characters- Nathan Drake seems like an average man's man, who you'd gladly chat to in the pub, and humour while he tried to sell you some ancient Egyptian artifact that just fell off the back of a truck, honest, guv, Flinging him then into physically demanding platforming and exploration of ominous tombs, makes you really care for his well being- until he starts talking.

'Not more of them,' he quips 'where do they keep coming from?' it's not the lines themselves, but their delivery- you can perhaps imagine Nolan North rolling his eyes then winking at the camera as he delivers his sotto voce complaint- that make you realise this isn't the voice of Drake, but of how you, the player, are expected to feel, and all of a sudden, ground is lost. It's as if Layton is confronted by the elderly hotelier and replies 'Good grief woman! Just try the bloody pens until you find one that works! What kind of imbecile do you take me for?'. Before pistol whipping her. 

he's just a common man, working hard with his hands...

It seems more and more often that multiplayer is becoming a key part of our winter blockbusters not simply because of audience demands, but because it can become a crutch to extend lifespan- a case of knowing players will be turned off by poor writing in campaigns and keep playing online anyway. Perhaps if they took a lesson or two from a top hatted professor, they might find punters sticking through single player to the end. Even though in these days of five hour stories, that's not saying too much.

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