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Fear & Loathing (and Peace & Relaxation) in Gameland

February 13, 2009 By Dennis Burger



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Flower
F.E.A.R. 2

I can think of exactly three things more peaceful and soothing than thatgamecompany’s new interactive toy/stress reliever, Flower (the spiritual, if not thematic, successor to flOw).

The first is napping with my little boy in newly laundered sheets on a stormy Saturday. The second is that last fleeing moment of awareness right before succumbing to anesthesia—that faux-Zen state that would last oh-so-much longer in a fairer world...

Truth be told, I’m always a bit hesitant to try to explain Flower to anyone who hasn’t played it, because, really, controlling a breeze that blows flower petals from place to place, collecting more petals and bringing dead grasslands back to life, sounds like the worst idea for a game ever.

And if Flower were technically a game, at least in the traditional sense, I might be inclined to agree.

But there are no points to accumulate here. No high score to be had. There is no time limit. The goals are laughably simple; success is guaranteed. Your grandmother could master the twisty-turny motion-sensitive controls in two seconds. There are no replays to keep count of, no lives to lose. The rewards are entirely emotional. It’s like stepping inside a hippy’s best dream, or Dick Cheney’s worst nightmare.

But when my buddy Dave comes over on Sunday and I plop a controller in his hand, something magical happens. His eyes get all calm, like, almost instantly. He smiles a silly, unselfconscious smile.

Two minutes in, he slumps back into the couch cushions in a gesture that lets me know I’m not getting that controller back for a while.

I say, “You know there are over 200,000 individually rendered blades of grass onscreen at one time, right?”

“Uh huh.”

I say, “Some of the best graphics I’ve seen in a while.”

“Yup.”

I say, “Isn’t the surround soundtrack amazing?”

*Nod*

I point out that we’re going to be late for the movies and I finally get a polysyllabic reaction: “I could sit here and soar around this same field for hours.”

Which is the exact opposite response my buddy Ben has to F.E.A.R. 2. Here’s the email he sends me just after the demo launches:

I tried playing the FEAR 2 demo.  I had to shut that mess off.  I was literally too afraid to go any further.  I’ll probably try it again at some point, but dang.

But dang, indeed.

Mind you, I’ve sat next to Ben on many a couch and many a theater seat and watched many a heinous crime against humanity unfold on the movie screen without batting an eye. If someone is getting stabbed, slashed, or decapitated on film, Ben and I are sure to either rent it, buy it, or get a ticket for it.

So if the demo had him piddling his Pampers, I had no choice but to buy the ticket and take the ride.

I’m a few hours into the game now, myself, and have to admit: if not for the fact that I ragged so hard on Ben (not to his face, mind you, but still), I probably would have curled up in a corner with a stack of Shel Silverstein books by now. At the very least, I’ve turned all the lights on, which all of my closest friends will tell you is against my religion.

I’ve seen a review or three ripping F.E.A.R. 2 for its less-than-groundbreaking graphics. And that may be true, but I think these reviewers are missing the point: honestly, there are any number of games with better graphics gathering dust on my shelves right now because they bored me once the eye candy got old. And yeah, its controls aren’t exactly revolutionary, but, as with Flower, the makers of F.E.A.R. 2 have tapped into something greater than mere pixels and polygon counts.

Audiovisual excellence isn’t hard to come by these days; it’s almost taken for granted. We’ve reached the point where video games can look and sound nearly indistinguishable from films. But the best of games are made by artists who are once again discovering that games are not films, nor should they be. Why they're having to relearn this is beyond me.

Perhaps as virtual worlds start looking more and more like the real one, the inner film director in these game designers becomes harder and harder to supress? Whatever the reason, it's a filthy habit that need to be nipped in the bud now. When we pick up a controller or lay hands on a mouse, we gamers aren’t looking to take part in an interactive movie. Why bother, when we can save a lot of effort and just, you know, watch a movie?

On a similar note—and I realize I’m going off on yet another tangent here, but...—I recently read that BioShock, the single best game of 2007 (and 2008, in my opinion), is being turned into a movie. Allow me to be the first to say Ack! Why? Why would anyone do such a thing? BioShock wasn’t the best game of the year because of its story, its graphics, its environments (although they certainly didn’t hurt); it was the best game of the year because it did something no movie could ever do: force you to make really hard choices with really dire consequences that haunted you for the next few hours of your life. It made morality a gameplay element (which is, perhaps, a topic for another blog entry).

Likewise, F.E.A.R. 2 isn’t a great game because of it boasts beautifully rendered lights and shadows and a spooky soundtrack (it does!); it’s a great game because its makers found a way to combine those elements into a terror-inducing cocktail that shoots straight for the amygdala. The fact that I've shot more shadows than baddies in F.E.A.R. 2 so far oughta tell you something about just how downright terrifying the experience is. It takes more than pretty graphics to pull that off. 

And Flower isn’t a great game merely because it sports some of the most luscious landscapes this side of Aaru; it’s a great game because it’s simply unlike any experience you’ve ever had in a sober, waking state. It’s a 21st-century digital toy that deserves to be ripped off at any and every opportunity. And I don’t mean that I hope to see game shelves cluttered with a hundred half-baked PS3 games centered upon flying flora a year from now; I simply hope that more and more designers stop worrying as much about genres and sophisticated control schemes with eleventy-three different button combinations, and start thinking first about how their games are going to make us feel, rules be damned.

Oh, and as for that third thing? Joanna Newsom’s Ys. But, yeah, maybe that’s just me.

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