So Can We Get that Blitzball Game Now, Square?

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Everybody got their copies of the Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD Remaster yet? Good. The glorious re-release of one of the flagship games of the PlayStation 2 along with its sequel and bonus materials has no doubt put the same thought back in a lot of people’s heads that they had some thirteen years ago when the original game came out: there should be a game devoted entirely to Blitzball.

FFX is an epic trek across a world following the requisite ragtag crew of misfits as they protect a summoner priestess on her journey to amass enough power to defeat the Godzilla-esque monstrosity that is menacing their civilization. You’d think that would be enough for one video game – or at least the main focus – but there is this other thing about FFX that kind of overshadows the proceedings.

That thing is, of course, the minigame/sport Blitzball which is essentially an aquatic classic-style sports game that plays like an RPG. And good GOD is it addicting. What begins as an optional diversion ends up taking over the game. Instead of looking for treasure chests and shops in towns, you’re scouting for new players to recruit. Instead of pushing desperately to get to that next temple for a new awesome aeon to summon, all you just want is one more league game before you go to bed. Okay, maybe two. Or three. Seriously, last one. Maybe.

And the really funny thing is that this rerelease of a game two generations past is the among best JRPG experiences I’ve had since the original PlayStation. Having skipped out on the PS2 in favor of the Xbox, choosing to get a PS3 instead of a next-gen system has proven a wise decision many times over, and never more so than with this set. But even FINALLY playing a game I’ve waited so very long to play with a great battle system, characters, story, and everything else I love about the genre I’ve instead become consumed by the game within the game.

better play blitzball To paraphrase the sports t-shirts: Blitzball is life, the rest is just details. Defeating Sin can wait. So a few more villages and cities get wrecked and Yuna-chan has to perform a few more sendings to put the dead to rest. Big deal. What really matters is the Besaid Aurochs are at the top of their division, bitches! WOOOOOOOO! Suck it, Luca Goers! Do you even sphere shot, Al-Bhed Psyches?

Sorry about that. My inner jock doesn’t get to come out and play very often.

Is it possible that having such an addicting minigame in a game already packed with greatness could be a bad thing, though? It definitely messes with the players’ priorities in this case. Every save point throughout most of the game tempts the player with the siren song of a “play Blitzball” option, making it a struggle to get through the main story. Who could resist? With a lot of attention and praise being showered on this set I think it’s definitely time for Square Enix to start considering bringing this e-sport to the big time.

I mean, look at the state of Final Fantasy as a franchise this past gen. Failed MMO’s, a trilogy where only a few people really enjoyed the first one and even its defenders weren’t asking for a sequel (much less two); we’ve discussed these things already.Maybe it’s time for Square to step away and let the main series breathe for a while. Instead of flailing away and potentially ruining the quality of the brand name, they need to collect themselves and make the next Final Fantasy game something nobody will be able to deny. And while they gather their creative forces, a full Blitzball title could plug that gap.

Square used to be a company that did more than just epic Final Fantasys. They created a really great distraction within a game that didn’t need any distractions when what they really should have done was create an entirely separate franchise. RPG fans with any proclivity towards sports would flock to buy a Blitzball game. Probably before they’d buy another game with Lightning in it, in fact.

Bblitzball gameplaylitzball is actually a pretty simplistic, shallow, and generally rinky-dink production as it is, but it’s a testament to what a great concept it is that something that was an afterthought to one of the best RPG’s of its generation can actually overshadow the main attraction at times.

I’m sure you’ve already thought of the possibilities, but let’s go through some of them together anyways. You could expand the number and variety of teams to incorporate classic Final Fantasy locales, races, and even characters into the league. You could make a wider variety of skills and class systems to better reflect the talents of the residents of the series. Beyond that, it’d mostly be just a matter of fleshing out and balancing the gameplay a little. Easily done.

Differentiating different characters and classes could add all sorts of cool dynamics to the game. You could have a black mage to set the ball on fire as a dragoon takes the shot. Or a white mage on the field could heal status ailments, and you could include summoners who can expend all of their HP to summon Bahamut to take the ball in his mouth and bust a nigh-unstoppable clutch giga flare shot (for instance).

Obviously, you’d need full stat tracking, direct control over defenders, time outs, mid-period substitutions, more strategies and franchise management with full practice regiments, and other sports game standards. Imagine all of the standard bells and whistles of a premium Western sports title with a Final Fantasy twist. And do I even need to say multiplayer?

final fantasy x blitzball tidusYou know this needs to happen. The only real question is why it hasn’t happened yet. Blitzball was and is a great concept and a simple one to carry off; making a brilliant game out of it seems like a no-brainer, and it would be a lot lower budget than another Final Fantasy game. It’ so much fun as a half-assed minigame it almost hurts to think of how great it could be if they put the work in to make it a full title unto itself.

So why, Square? Why haven’t you done this? You’ve let a lot of fans down these last five years or so, but you’ve just reminded a lot of us why we were fans in the first place with this HD remaster set. Why not let that goodwill ride and give us something so many of us are jonesing for?

We don’t want Final Fantasy XIII-4: Hope’s Big Day Out and Final Fantasy XIII-5: Vanille and Fang Take Manhattan. We want Final Fantasy Blitzball League, but maybe with some crazy Japanese title that involves random buzzwords. Final Fantasy Super Fire Blitzball Rival Attack. Now that’s a game I’d buy a next-gen console to play. Make it happen.

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Let’s Talk about Interactive Sex, Baby – Part 2: The Wild, Wild West

Last time sexwI set out to explore the seedy underbelly (is there any other kind of underbelly?) of sexual video games. The kind that aren’t sold in stores and are generally banned from consoles. The games your mama would have warned you about if she’d even suspected such a thing could exist. The ones we dare not speak their names because…well, I’m not exactly sure about that just yet.

My first stop was Japan, where most good things in gaming originate from and I left pretty underwhelmed. Considering the extreme and constant presentations of violence and other unpleasantness in video games and the general pleasantness one associates with the act of making love, I’d have thought there would be a whole world of quality sex games on the market, but I found a pretty shallow pool filled mostly with visual novels featuring a few really explicit images, but also some real promise. Let’s see if America is looking any better.playboy the mansion girls

I remember playing Playboy: The Mansion on the original Xbox. I’m still pretty surprised that ever got released. I mean, it was a cool game and the only magazine/social sim I’ve ever encountered, but I was pretty shocked by the amount of sex in it. There’ something kind of awesome about a game that let’s your character pretty much command any two people to get it on.

As far as I know, this is the only modern console game with as much explicit sexual content as it has and it was somehow assigned the same rating as a Halo title. How this happened I don’t really know, but what I do know is that I haven’t seen any comparable game released, aside from a couple of failed Leisure Suit Larry console titles (to be fair, Magna Cum Laude was pretty funny) that featured some pretty explicit content.

It’s not exactly a trade secret that sex sells. Fantasy games typically fit female characters with hilariously impractical armor just to hypnotize us with hotness and T&A in general is the order of the day across the board in entertainment, even in the less visual realm of popular music. You’d think this sort of thing would eventually lead to its natural extension of more innovative interactive sexual content attached to quality games, but it remains a rarity. Why choose this medium beat around the bush (so to speak)?

Nonetheless, when you get into the underground of PC gaming you can shake some things loose. One thing I noticed was the prevalence of multiplayer. This seems like an obvious direction for the genre to go, replacing the pastime of cybersex via text, but I’m afraid I couldn’t go there myself. Being a married man I’m pretty sure my wife wouldn’t go for me actually interacting with real people in that context (and I’m not entirely sure I’d want to) so I’m sticking with single player.

sexpexfex trollTitles like Red Light Center and Sexpexfex are places where you can get virtually intimate with strangers, but I find it hard to imagine that these places aren’t rife with trolls. I mean, the comedic possibilities write themselves. Maybe I’m just not a serious enough person to imagine cybersex any other way. This concept isn’t for me.

Thrixxx’s 3D Sex Villa 2 is a name that comes up instantly when searching for sex sims, and hey it’s free! Pretty graphics, true interaction, tons of customization, a thriving mod community; sounds too good to be true. Can you say “insane microtransactions”?

From a technical standpoint, the game’s pretty impressive, allowing you to use your mouse to stimulate your partner of choice in various ways, which is interesting. But with so very little initial content, charging you for every character model, outfit, location, animation and even paid access to mods is kind of lame for such a shallow experience. It’s not like there’s an actual story or anything.

It’s mostly just character models in a room doing stuff while you fumble with the camera and try to figure out what your partner likes. Rather than buying everything you want to do, Sex Villa gives you the option for a monthly subscription where you earn points by playing the game which you can trade for content, but I don’t personally find the experience fun enough to justify that.

So much was put into the actual sex that that’s all there is. Maybe I’m a spoiled malcontent, but I want more to do. I like the idea of interactive sex in a video game, but not a video game that is JUST interactive sex. Give me actual characters that make me earn it, at least!outcast academy

So while on the lookout for something different, I found Outcast Academy Naughty Girls Sim from Lessons of Passion, who provide a number of online sex games. This one was low-budget and had limited animation, but it actually gave you stuff to do and had a story and characters. In fact, it tripped my RPG fanboy switch and I ended up going through it multiple times. The story is not what one might call “good”, but it sure beats just putting two digital models in a room to screw.

This one featured an almost entirely female cast, which is unusual in any capacity. The premise is that you are sent to an all-girl reform school for a finite time and you choose how to spend it. You can make friends and enemies, take on quests, study, and (of course) get some. Building relationships and your own personal stats in order to accomplish various goals and attain different endings is my kind of thing. If you play your cards right, you’ve got several options for sex, including everyone from faculty to fellow students to delivery boys.

Another approach is in the downloadable premium game Bonetown. It is described as being inspired by Grand Theft Auto and features the talents of Ron Jeremy in a quest to obtain bigger balls by banging chicks and beating dudes up. At first, you can only bang fat chicks, but once you balls are bigger you can upgrade to the “hot” ones. Sounds pretty brotastic. The price is high, the graphics look weak, and the premise appears to be moronic so I haven’t played this one and don’t plan to, but it does represent another approach to integrating explicit sex into gaming.

bonetownWhile finding myself actually enjoying aspects of gameplay from some of the games I played it struck me; there is the possibility of someone making a really great sex game in the future. By combining the interactive sex of something like Sex Villa with branching storylines like Katawa Shoujo and RPG elements like Outcast Academy and free form Sims -style gameplay like Artificial Academy I could definitely see a lot of potential for something really worthwhile between these different approaches.

Will we ever have it? Probably not. Western gamers have a lot more options for interactive sex games, including the likes of Lula 3D and Virtually Jenna, but none of them appear to be worth much. Shallow gameplay, weak to nonexistent stories, and/or a general sheen of jankiness seem to be typical and the ones that do have a good presentation are drowned in microtransactions.

So the line of questioning reverts back to my initial premise when I started this: why do video games spend so much time and money bringing us the finest, nastiest violence possible, but shy away from graphic sex? Given the prevalence of pornography -which people still pay for even though infinite amounts of it are viewable for free online- it doesn’t seem to be an issue of demand. I mean, why watch two people get it on when you could be participating?virtually jenna

There’s the issue of regulations, I suppose. The dreaded AO rating assures that there’s more money in decapitations than orgasms. Plus all you need to make a serviceable porn film is two moderately attractive people, some cocaine, and a camera. A quality video game is a much more involved investment so it may not be worth the investment to create a sex sim that can’t be sold in stores when the same investment in a violence sim could make you rich.

Obviously, even at this point where gaming is becoming a nearly universal pastime there are still hurdles to be cleared and misconceptions to overcome. People seem to assume that playing a game based on sex makes you a pervert more so than playing a game based on killing makes you a psychopath. This flimsy line of reasoning is unfortunately the manner in which entertainment industries are regulated, and regulation of art is the surest way to stifle it.

So it looks like if you want to get your virtual groove on, you’re either going to have to settle for scraps in quality games like The Witcher and The Sims or deal with the shallowness of the interactive sex genre as is. Japanese and American games have different approaches to sex games, but they are both defined by their limitations more than anything else at this point. It seems unlikely that the laws governing content are going to loosen up anytime soon so there you have it. I guess I’ll put the sexy games away for now and be thankful I’ve got an IRL option. Speaking of which….got to go!

Let’s Talk About Virtual Sex, Baby- Part One: The Sexy Beast from the East.

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So last week I dared to ask the question of whether we need mindless violence to make video games great. For some reason, we are really attached to violence as a form of entertainment and we are not shy about expressing it. There’s another half to the entertainment equation of sex + violence, but we hate to talk about that. Well I’m talking about it, so put the kiddies to bed.

And let me warn you, gentle reader, that this is not going to be a discussion about skimpy clothing or PG-13 cutscenes or simple nudity or anything that makes its way into mainstream gaming in any meaningful way on a regular basis. I’m not talking about just sex in games. I’m talking about games about sex. Like, sex being the point of the game. To get to the bottom of this, I took a journey through the gaming underground and came back with some (hopefully) interesting observations about them.

Out of sex and violence, I find it interesting that while woo-hoo is an infinitely more desirable outcome in real life, it’s an extreme taboo when it comes to virtualizing it. If we derive pleasure from massacring hundreds of bystanders and the police officers who attempt to defend them in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, it’s cool because it’s only a game. But when a mod allowed you to unlock a silly little fully-clothed simulation in the same game, the media lost their fucking minds. What do you think this says about our culture?

There are games that exist to scratch that itch for virtual sexual contact that we clearly have beyond the tiny portions that the current rating system typically allows to be sold in stores or made for consoles. You have to go looking for them to find them, but they are there. So I went looking. I found distinct differences between the Japanese and Western variants so I’m splitting this virtual sexpose’ into two weekly articles; one for each hemisphere.

Japan has a massive industry for bishojo or “gal games”, a lot of which feature pornographic content. Let’s start there. Gal games are low-budget visual novels in which you attempt to romance, seduce, and have sex with any (or all) of a cast of attractive female characters.come see me tonight 2

Gal games factor into anime plots fairly often so I assumed that they are a significant entity in Japanese pop culture. I elected to give this genre a try some years ago to satisfy my curiosity since there is no Western equivalent. This represented the first and last time I spent money on such a thing. I scored a translated version of Come See Me Tonight 2 off of Ebay after seeing a trailer for it on G4. I was pretty appalled, not because of the content, but at the sheer shallowness of that content.

99% of the game was reading text and after every ten minutes or so of text, the game offered you a choice from among the girls. You had to choose the same girl every time, though or you got a bad ending and no lovin’. I was quite annoyed to have to find this out by trial and error. So why even offer you the choice more than once?  Damned if I know. That was the extent of the “gameplay”.

So the entire game was reading, looking at a handful of static images, and making the same choice over and over until you progressed the relationship of choice enough to endure painfully written sex scenes and see some hentai images. This is what they do for cheap thrills over in Japan? Good god, man. Do they not have the internet over there?

My curiosity unpleasantly satisfied, I decided that this genre clearly did not hold the answers to how to effectively portray graphic sex in video games. Are gamers worldwide so hard up for a virtual portrayal of humankind’s favorite IRL pastime that Japan can build an industry out of this crap? There has got to be more to it.

kataea shuojo hanakoYears later, a free game hit the net made by a handful of Western anime enthusiasts who met on an anonymous message board. Their goal: to build a better gal game. Eventually, the game garnered itself a reputation on the internet community and I was forced to give it a go. It was free, after all.

The game was Katawa Shoujo, which means…..ummm….”crippled girls”. Yeah. That’s another reason I didn’t play it at first. The plot was that you play a guy with a bad heart who is sent to a school for physically disabled students. What I was picturing was horrible jokes about people with disabilities and freak show sex scenes, but after seeing repeated testimonials around the web praising the game for a year or so including some legitimately touching non-sexual tribute art, I started to believe they were not trolling.

In spite of its questionable concept, Katawa Shoujo turned out to be a respectful, well-written, and often genuinely romantic story with engaging characters, branching story choices that often subtly led the player towards his girl of choice with meaningful results, and multiple endings for each path. The creators even made a non-hardcore edit so that prudes could hop onboard and experience the feels that have made the game somewhat legendary in the online community. Okay, so maybe there’s something to be said about the possibilities that style of sex in video games presents after all, even if the sexual encounters in this case were pretty few and far between.

Gal games aren’t really a line I was ever looking to pursue. After all, they are more like visual novels than actual video games. I needed to get further to find a traditional video game that allows the gamer to really interact and not just make choices that unlock different scripts. Enter the distinctly non-sexily titled Artificial Academy.

Now this one I was pretty impressed with. I’d almost even pay money for it… Almost. The game has no story other than the one you create for yourself. It was somewhat modeled like an anime version of The Sims that takes place at a high school artificial academy hugand features seriously involved sex acts. Yeah, I know this would never fly in the States, but Japan’s cultural standards are different so bear with me.

While playing Artificial Academy I was immediately surprised by how good it actually was. In addition to a ton of customization options to make about any kind of anime boy or girl you can think of (or have seen, shippers) complete with over two dozen fully-voiced personality types (mostly female) and in-depth preferences to govern behavior, there’s a pretty impressive social simulation going on while you work your way to virtual sex god (or goddess) status.

It’s not approaching The Sims or anything in terms of complexity, but the students all go about forming relationships independent of your currently controlled character and you’re given a lot of possibilities to go about building your dream relationship(s). It’s pretty damn fun even before you get around to the boning, but once you get there the number of options is impressive.

Predictably, the game does not cater to everyone. While gay male characters are allowed to exist, they don’t get the full interactive sex minigames that male/female and female/female pairings do (although there is a mod, of course). Also, there are one-way options for the gentlemen’s pleasure, but I’m afraid the ladies get shafted (oh yeah, I just went there) in that department.  Damn it, Japan.

artificial academy sex While researching this article I found that Artificial Academy has an infamous sibling. Turns out ero-game developer Illusion also created Rapelay; the game where you get laid by rape. I’m sure at least some of you can forgive me for choosing not to touch that unspeakably horrifying concept with a ten foot pole. I mean differing cultural standards are one thing, but DEAR GOD, JAPAN, WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU!? Ahem. Well, at least in AA it’s consensual or nothing as it ever should be.

So that concludes my dipping of toes into Japan’s approach to video game erotica and I’ve got to say there doesn’t seem to be too much to explore. Obviously, I didn’t delve very deeply and I didn’t bother with some relatively high profile games like Sexy Beach (another Illusion jam; is there a monopoly in this genre or what?) because I haven’t had time and it looks stupid to boot, but in the few games I did play I feel like I got the gist of what’s available to the English-speaking market.

What I found while looking into the Japanese sex game industry pretty much confirmed what I had already seen as a fan of their popular culture. While the majority was stereotypically male-based, there are options available for others, including otome games (where you play as a female character romancing males) and others specializing in yaoi (male-male) content, which is a significant scene among the ladies over there.

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Tell me all of your pixels are for me, baby.Yeaahhh…

The only real headscratcher was that the games I found seem to be almost entirely anime-based. I had thought that Japanese men preferring 2D girls to real ones was a comedic stereotype, but either it’s not or the anime style is such a tradition in Japan’s gaming scene that nobody was willing to veer off-course for the sake of a more realistic interactive sex experience. Or if they are, the result perhaps hasn’t been localized.

Studies and polls indicate that Japanese lifestyles are moving further and further away from interpersonal sex and romance towards more stress-free fantasy alternatives. Whether this is because women are becoming more independent and their male counterparts are having a

hard time dealing with the loss of control or that the faster pace of modern life there no longer lends itself to involved interpersonal relationships I can’t tell from over here, but it’s an interesting phenomenon to say the least.

Considering the relative prevalence of sex-based games in Japan and their willingness to cater to atypical markets, I’d have to say that in some ways they seem to better off than Americans are. The main problem seems to be quality control. The bad ones are embarrassing, the good ones still need a lot of work, and Rapelay was a thing so the situation over there is the furthest thing from ideal.

Next time, I’m turning my attention to my home turf to break down what kind of interactive sex is made for the good old USA to compare and contrast with our Eastern gaming brethren. Until then: stay sexy!

Can Video Games Make a Killing With Less Killing?

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While it’s not exactly difficult to show almost beyond a shadow of a doubt that violence in video games does not cause violence in real life as there is an almost perfect large-scale inverse proportionality between the two, the increased prevalence of violence in video games does bring up some troubling issues when making the argument for games as an artistic medium. Namely, if AAA gaming is becoming so much more sophisticated and respectable as a storytelling vehicle, why do we still feel the need to use it almost exclusively to kill the shit out of virtual humanoids?

This question seems to be on a lot of people’s minds as criticism of games like Bioshock Infinite and the rebooted Tomb Raider contrast the sophistication and nuance of the stories and characterizations with the core action gameplay. Does it make sense for the character that Lara Croft is emotionally devastated upon killing a human being in a cutscene, but then goes on to mow down hundreds more like it’s nothing, essentially breaking the narrative?

Another example I’d like to point out that hasn’t been discussed to death is the climax to Red Dead Redemption (spoilers in the next two paragraphs). In that one, John Marston retires from his life of crime and bounty hunting to his family homestead when the government comes to tie up the last loose end: him. Dozens of virtual souls are laid low for the players’ enjoyment as he clears the way for his family’s escape.

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I swear I can take these losers.

All I was thinking was about how many men the government was willing to sacrifice for the sake of spite just to get at one person, knowing firsthand that Marston was a one man army capable of slaughtering almost any number of opponents sent against him. And indeed, I could have kept killing them indefinitely if the cutscene hadn’t decided to have Marston walk out into the open to greet his death because that was the story Rockstar wanted. I was not impressed.

Despite the universal acclaim the game received, I felt that they could have done better. At least Halo: Reach let the player go out on their own terms. Making a protagonist pretty much invincible and able to easily handle any threat may fuel the gamer’s power fantasy, but it’s becoming a liability on the story front.

I can’t help but think about games where you are every bit as vulnerable as your opponents and have to rely on skill to survive. Way of the Samurai is a good stepping stone here because it is a story-based game that wipes your save when you bite the big one. That makes a duel against a powerful opponent a nerve-fraying gamble and a random assassin ambush something to fear. You don’t have to do away with action to make a better story; just make it seem less meaningless.

In the past, the argument against this sort of thing was that players need stuff to do. Violence is cathartic. We love to kick back after a long day at work and just take out all of our aggression on a bunch of virtual shitheads like the biggest badass in the world. Kneel before Zod, bitches! Die! Die! DIE! I get that, and I love doing it. But at the same time, I’ve been doing it a really damn long time, as have we all. It’s become a cliché. I think we may be ready for a different approach.

Let’s take yet another look at BioWare. Their games are well known for giving players branching story and dialogue choices. But most of the gameplay still involves going from Point A to Point B killing the crap out of whatever is in between.

dragon age landsmeet

All those weapons and everyone is just talking? WHAT IS THIS INSANITY?

While I do love the combat, my favorite pastime in their games is inevitably hanging out with the characters. It’s what sets these games apart and makes them unforgettable. The Landsmeet debate was my favorite part of Dragon Age: Origins. After that, the Archfiend just seemed like another paint-by-numbers final boss.

Now what would you say to a Mass Effect or Dragon Age game where instead of playing a Spectre, Grey Warden, or whatever out running and gunning/hacking and slashing, you played a politician maneuvering your way through the vipers’ nest of places like the Citadel or Denerim using agents and alliances to further your agenda with a minimum of actual onscreen bloodshed? If Game of Thrones and House of Cards can spin this into gold, I don’t see why video games can’t follow through on creating more narratives that are based on character interaction rather than big dumb action.

This brings us to the next logical step: Telltale Games. In spite of its low-budget indie roots and distinct lack of typical gameplay, The Walking Dead made its way onto pretty much every Game of the Year short list in 2012. There was a lot of death and violence in the game, obviously, but every bit of it had meaning and plot significance. At no point did the game just turn you loose and have you massacre a hundred shambling zombies just to give you something to do in between story segments. The story was the entire game and every single act of violence was significant to that story.  See also: Heavy Rain creators Quantic Dreams.

Is this the future of gaming? As more and more people hop onto the games as art bandwagon, I think it’s likely that a higher caliber of storytellers will be attracted to the many creative opportunities that interactive fiction offers. In the past, the focus has been on creating deep gameplay mechanics then giving players really shallow things to do using those mechanics, but the worm may be turning.

See, now isn’t that more concise than twenty minutes of racking up kills?

Series like The Sims, Leisure Suit Larry, Myst, and Ace Attorney have seen sustained success without significant combat and we’ve seen numerous other titles from the last generation like Catherine, Gone Home, Mirror’s Edge, and Portal do well.  Most of these remain somewhat niche titles when you compare them to the AAA megahits, but I wonder if it has to stay that way.  If the industry made a concerted break towards these more creative alternatives to the usual shoot-shoot, punch-punch fare if they could open up to an entire new audience and attain the higher level of credibility they crave along the way.

Video games still have that stigma of being a distraction for children and dumb people. Regardless of awesome cutscenes and involved stories, a lot of people are going to scoff at the idea that a game where you spend most of your time mindlessly massacring a multiplicity of malevolent minions is art. But as developers explore the possibilities of gaming as an emerging storytelling medium, it’s entirely possible that we could be looking at the beginnings of a paradigm shift where the focus swings away from traditional “kill stuff, cutscene, repeat” gameplay to more creative concepts that serve to involve the player in the story and world of the game without treating acts of massive violence as menial tasks to be completed just because.

This isn’t to say that we can’t still have games for pure fun. I mean, that’s why we all started doing this in the first place, right? You can still have your Devil May Crys and Call of Dutys and Grand Theft Autos, but it feels like it’s about time to make way for something with a little more intellectual depth in addition to our fixes of mindless violence. I think when and if it comes, that collective leap is probably going to be the cue for society as a whole to recognize gaming as interactive fiction capable of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with film, television, and literature as a vehicle for experiencing classic stories.

Did Captain America: The Winter Soldier Beat The Dark Knight at its own Game?

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I don’t know about you guys, but I was pretty shocked at the quality of film I got when I sat down to watch the sequel to Captain America: The First Avenger. Not only is Steve Rogers a throwback white bread clean moral compass kind of character along the lines of Superman –which is to say kind of boring personalitywise- but he’s not a very high-powered superhero, doesn’t have a memorable rogue’s gallery, and is more of a heroic Marvel Universe figurehead than its coolest character. A good guy to have on your team, but not usually the star of the show. And with untested television directors Joe and Anthony Russo, the odds of an outstanding sequel weren’t great.

On top of the monumental challenge of making a memorable sequel to the least memorable film in Phase One of Marvel’s cinematic universe, in his first two appearances as the character, Chris Evans never really captured the essence of what makes Cap a force to be reckoned with in the comics. In my opinion Captain America: The Winter Soldier was the shakiest proposition Marvel Studios had yet made and it paid off big time, yielding what I consider to be the first solo Marvel outing to compare to the first Iron Man.

In fact, it paid off so big that I got the idea in my head to compare it to what many people consider the heavyweight champion of the superhero film crop: Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight; another sequel that outclassed its predecessor in most peoples’ minds and attempted to elevate the genre into something more than a shallow popcorn entertainment affair by utilizing modern social and political themes into the story. But which movie implemented its grown-up ideas more effectively?

This is not only another entry in an epic history of Marvel vs. DC battles, but it’s between two of the most closely-matched characters from those universes.  On top of that, the two films end up on somewhat opposing sides of the political spectrum. This gives the two opposing films an intriguing dynamic and I think it’s worth exploring.

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The rain is maybe a bit much, yeah?

The knee-jerk reaction is to immediately give it to the Bat. Nolan may be dumbing himself down as the money rolls in, but the man has visual panache coming out of most every frame of his work. Enough of it that you easily forget the ridiculous site of a vehicle flying from rooftop to rooftop or Batman on a motorcycle blowing up cars in a parking garage with missiles just because, at least.

Plus, Batman movies are dark and edgy and gritty and black…just like the pit of my soul [tries to keep straight face]. They bring out our inner emo kid. Dark just equals cool, regardless of what actually happens or is said onscreen. How can a movie that takes place mostly in daylight compare to all that cool-looking blackness?

Well, like I said before, Evans really nailed the character this time out. On the other hand I would say that Bale never really captured Batman. If you want to spend a few years of your life attempting to catalogue the number of times Bale’s attempted death metal voice has been mocked across all forms of media, feel free to try. And in terms of killer action scenes…well, it’s not even a fair contest.

I’m not dogging The Dark Knight here as I’m on record as thinking it was pretty awesome overall, but I am knocking it down a peg to put us on even footing because I feel like people have subliminally overestimated its virtues largely due to its stylish aesthetics along with the media frenzy surrounding the late Heath Ledger’s performance and accordingly act as though no other comic book film could ever compare.  It’s a theory that doesn’t necessarily stand up well to testing once you get past associated franchise, company, and celebrity fanboyism. Sorry, Bats, but you’ll receive no Nolan bump in this article.

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“Are you not aware that I get to tell these guys what to do? Watch your back, Mr. Verboon.”

What really drew my attention to the connection between the two films was their use of real world themes and issues. This is not exactly a new thing in fiction, but it’s still fairly unusual in superhero movies, which usually prefer to take their character themes from the source material. Keeping real world concerns out of it keeps the audience nice and comfortable. Both The Dark Knight and The Winter Soldier took a look at an issue that has flared up in recent years: illegal surveillance.

The Dark Knight explored this concept during the climax wherein Batman has to find the Joker before he does bad stuff so he utilizes sci-fi gobbledygook involving cell phones to monitor the entire city and find the one bad guy pronto. Lucius Fox presents the vague counter-argument that nobody should have that kind of power, but Bats uses it anyways to save the day and then grudgingly allows Fox to destroy it when he threatens to quit making all of his gadgets for him.

It’s interesting that Nolan chose this issue when he did as he was well ahead of the curve. This has only recently become a political hot button after our government was found to be utilizing similar ideas to spy on the populace. Nonetheless, he presented both sides of an argument, although neither was particularly compelling and it’s pretty clear that there wasn’t a major amount of vested interest in the topic.

Seeing that Batman saved the day using illegal civilian surveillance and was quite gung-ho about it, the conclusion seemed to be yes, Batman should totally be able to spy on everybody at once. He’s the Randian hero out to save us from ourselves and he’s special. He’s Batman, damn it! But the film was unwilling to really commit to the premise and took the easy way out rather than pursue the issue. In the next film, Nolan pushed his political views to pretty loopy extremes, but with The Dark Knight he made an interesting statement, even if he was unwilling to really sell it.

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What is going on with Fury’s expression there?

On the other hand, Captain America: The Winter Soldier left no doubt about where it stood and produced possibly the most compelling argument I’ve seen on film as to why. Whereas The Dark Knight demanded we acknowledge that as long as it’s Batman and it’s to stop a supervillain plot happening this instant, we should give up on our rights to privacy, The Winter Soldier went on to show that when such technology is allowed to be used at all, the odds of it always staying in the right hands is pretty slim and that the right hands are likely to realize that fact. Hence the illegality.

In The Winter Soldier, Nick Fury and SHIELD develop some gobbledygook of their own to scan for individuals who pose potential threats and neutralize them. This combines aspects of the US governments’ current surveillance of its citizens and throws in a little Minority Report for good measure. The kneejerk defense of this is that if you don’t have anything to hide, you don’t have anything to worry about, freedoms be damned. We’re the good guys! NINE ELEVEN!

At this point, Cap has a choice to make. His America wouldn’t tolerate such a grievous breach of the very principles it was founded on, but Fury and SHIELD are about the only things he has in this new world, having missed out on his entire lifetime after being frozen during WWII. Thankfully, the bad guys step in to explicitly iterate exactly why this sort of thing can’t be allowed and all of the characters we like get to be on the same team after all. Yay! Even so, Fury’s anecdote about his grandfather carrying a gun through his neighborhood to dissuade would-be muggers was actually a more relevant, effective, and personal argument in favor than we saw from Batman’s end.

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Muggers cross the street to avoid this BAMF.

So which middle film of their respective trilogies did it better? Although The Dark Knight had the good sense to present both sides of the argument briefly and leave it mostly up the audience to decide where they stood, one could argue that this decision was more of a copout than anything; a way to appeal to both sides at once without offending either. Personally, I’m more of a “pick a side and then present a conclusive supporting argument if you can” kind of guy when it comes to art, but I respect that Nolan didn’t allow it to take over the movie. More screen time for Ledger.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier chose instead to make a definitive statement on the topic; one that is pretty difficult to counter. Again, they didn’t allow it to take over the entire film, but at the same time the plot of the film hinges so strongly on the concept that it’s impossible to extricate it. In The Dark Knight you could easily have removed that entire aspect without really changing the story much or even substantially shortening the film, making it seem almost tacked on as an afterthought. In terms of successfully integrating modern political themes into the story, you’ve got to give it to the Captain.

The Dark Knight did an amazing job portraying the Joker as a symbol of anarchy incarnate; the physical embodiment of mankind’s unrestrained twisted destructive impulses, providing the perfect opposite number to contrast against Batman as the bringer of order. But what a lot of people will miss is the opposing contrast between order and chaos’ respective evil and good twins: control and freedom.

The Winter Soldier may not have the charisma of a Joker, but as a symbol of a man who is stripped of his freedom and left entirely at the mercy of authority, he is a perfect opposition. Cap is a man free to think for himself and act according to his own values and nobody else’s, and he accomplished great things that way. The Winter Soldier can only accomplish what he’s ordered to do with no control over who is giving the orders, again offering a fascinating contrast to The Dark Knight.cap

The concept that “freedom isn’t free” is usually used in the media to imply that if we stop dropping bombs on third world children or sending our own young men and women into hell holes to get shot at, we’ll be overrun with…unfreedom, I guess? The way I personally interpret that phrase is that if you want freedom, the price is accepting that it not only gives good people freedom to do good things, but bad people freedom to do bad things as well. Is living every day in a police state worth the cost of potentially stopping an occasional heinous act? It’s up to you in the end, but I’m of the opinion that there is a right and wrong answer.

I love that superhero movies have gotten to the point where they are comfortably utilizing the kinds of themes that used to be reserved for conceptual science fiction stories. It both facilitates discussion of real life issues and elevates the genre from popcorn entertainment to blur the lines of legitimate art. You can get your butt-kicking action and iconic mythical heroes along with your socially relevant commentary all in the same place. That’s a win for me.

It’s also interesting to me that a film like The Winter Soldier can integrate a concept like this into its story as well as it did and not get nearly as much praise for it as a film that did it in a significantly clumsier manner and is widely considered the most artistic superhero film ever made. Objectively comparing story elements from both films seems to bear out that Captain America’s sequel was not only better put together, but better represented the hero’s themes and source material.

There’s no doubt that Ledger’s Joker is better than any performance yet seen in a Marvel film (with respect to RDJ), but in terms of constructing and implementing a story onscreen, I think that this latest film has been sorely underrated, particularly considering it was directed by two first-timers best known for their work on Community. Where’s the love?

Paid critics be damned, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is easily one of the best put-together superhero films ever made from where I’m sitting. Individual aspects may not measure up to similar aspects of other films, but in terms of the total package, it’s threatening perfection. There’s room for improvement for sure, but it’s still a sterling example of where the genre is and should be going. That’s pretty much what I said about The Dark Knight six years prior so it’s about time Marvel tried their big boy pants on too.

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Speaking of which, it’s about time the Marvel ladies got their due. Bring on the Black Widow!

Getting to Know Your Big Screen Mixed Martial Arts Stars

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It’s funny that while politicians are still trying to convince the public that mixed martial arts is akin to “human cockfighting”, the stars of the sport are creeping into the mainstream more and more. Say what you want about the virtues (or lack thereof) of having two trained fighters test their skills against one another in sanctioned competition for our entertainment, but one thing that is undisputable is that MMA has some of the most colorful personalities of any sport in any era.

With so much of our onscreen entertainment being dedicated to people attacking one another, it’s only natural that the casting directors of the world look to some of the biggest badasses in the world to see if they can translate those skills from the ring/cage to the silver screen. With the magnetic personalities of leading actors and the physical skills of the best stuntmen, it’s only logical. So far, the results have been pretty positive.

The MMA scene features a lot of people with really entertaining dispositions, so expect the word “charisma” to come up a lot.  Beyond their skills as real life action stars, a lot of these people were chosen for their roles based on their endearing or outrageous personalities and the potential crossover appeal that represents. Let’s answer some questions about some of the most prominent mixed martial artists to make the jump to the big screen.

 

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Who’s this guy?

Georges “Rush” St-Pierre

How much ass does he kick?

He’s a consensus top five pound-for-pound of all time UFC champion who retired at the top having only lost twice (the last time being seven years ago) so he’s done alright for himself. He demolished legends, smashed and smothered contenders, and made it look easy. He became the absolute dominant force in his division for most of a decade with a rare combination of physicality, scientific intelligence, discipline, and the flawless technique you’d expect from a man with several martial arts black belts.

GSP got a lot of criticism in the latter half of his career for not finishing his opponents and choosing to fight for points. To me, that means that this guy assured victory against the best fighters his size on the planet by choosing to utterly dominate them for 25 minutes straight rather than taking the chance to knock them out or submit them. If you can frustrate and completely undo a UFC number one contender for 25 minutes, you are pretty damn hardcore. He once broke a man’s FACE using jabs without bothering to finish him and he made bonafide legend BJ Penn quit on the stool in between rounds after he claimed he would fight “to the death”.

What’s he been in?

He just made his feature film debut as Marvel supervillain/jobber extraordinaire Batroc the Leaper in Captain America: The Winter Soldier where he got to go head to head with the star and show off his insane physical skills in a great fight scene.

Is he actually any good?

Fight fans know that the very last thing you’d expect from GSP would be to play a Marvel villain. Outside of the cage, the man is made out of adorableness. His charm, boyish good looks, and classy professionalism made him the best ambassador the UFC ever had and his French-Canadian accent and ridiculous build make him a candidate for a cheesy Arnold/JCVD-esque action hero role if anything. But he managed to play Batroc with legit menace, his accent was circumvented by allowing him to speak his native French, and obviously his insane physicals made for a killer fight scene so no complaints.

 

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Who’s this guy?

Cung Le

How much ass does he kick?

Stylistically, he’s the closest thing we’ll ever get to seeing Bruce Lee in MMA competition. He outclassed most of his opponents in Strikeforce, where his mastery of kicks made him look like a silver screen kung-fu hero even when fighting in a cage for real. Prior to that, he was a world class kickboxer with zero professional losses and a crapload of US and world titles to his name. In the UFC he’s 2-1 and earned Fight of the Night and Knockout of the Night honors in that brief window. Not bad for the oldest guy in his weight class.

What’s he been in?

He played Marshall Law in the Tekken movie, had supporting roles in Pandorum and Fighting, had one of the most badass fight scenes ever with Donnie Yen in Bodyguards and Assassins, costarred with JCVD himself in Dragon Eyes, and most notably played a villain in RZA’s classic kung-fu homage The Man with the Iron Fists. He also got a starring role with Dolph Lungren in the recently-released Puncture Wounds.

Is he any good?

Well, obviously he has the physical skills to deliver amazing action, but the films I’ve seen him in tend to shy away from giving him much in the way of lines and he mostly sticks to the cheesiest of action flicks so I’m going to say he’s not the best actor. Reviews of Dragon Eyes and Puncture Wounds appear to confirm this. Bodyguards and Assassins was great, though.

 

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Who’s this guy?

Bas “El Guapo” Rutten

How much ass does he kick?

Rutten is a rare old school virtuoso who competed in the 90’s dark ages of MMA, mostly in Pancrase. He has a pair of UFC wins that saw him earn the heavyweight title, but only fought once since 1999. He hasn’t lost since 1995 and three of his four career losses were to the legendary Shamrock brothers Frank and Ken, who are household names even to the most casual of MMA fans.

His specialty was finishing opponents with a liver kick, which is pretty much the most painful possible way to legally win a fight. He also has a reputation for getting into barfights and has plenty of anecdotes to share along those lines. But as far as actual mixed martial arts goes, Bas is the guy that everyone wants to be.

What’s he been in?

He’s been a lot of movies and even had his own television show, Punk Payback. He played a villain in Sinners and Saints and was in Backlash as well as some other low grade action flicks. But in spite of his fighting background, his forte is without a doubt comedy. He played a drill sergeant in Paul Blart: Mall Cop and had a great co-starring role with Kevin James in the UFC-themed Here Comes the Boom.

Is he actually any good?

His action stuff is so-so, but Rutten’s strength of personality is where he shines. People arguably know him more for his role as color commentator for Pride and all-around hilarious guy than for his actual fights due to his low number of appearances in large organizations. Punk Payback was a ridiculous concept for a show (he reenacts videos of actual crimes where he steps in and beats up the criminals) but it was insanely entertaining because Rutten is an absolute riot to watch. The only film I’ve seen where he really gets a chance to do what he does best in a film was in Here Comes the Boom. He practically made that entire movie for me.

 

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Who’s this girl?

Gina Carano

How much ass does she kick?

Quite a bit in her day. She was the first female mixed martial artist to threaten the mainstream, and it wasn’t just because she is one of the hottest women on the planet. This beauty was a beast in the cage. She made her bones in muay thai competitions in Thailand, and if you know much about martial arts, you know that’s a brutal scene.

She blasted through the competition in Elite FC before being handed her only loss in WMMA’s first big time fight by Cris “Cyborg” Santos. They say she’s called Cyborg because she’s half man, half machine (psst…she also got caught for steroids), and while there’s no shame in losing to a genetic freak most men would get clobbered by, the loss wrecked her confidence and she hasn’t fought since.

What’s she been in?

She starred in Haywire, which was a serviceable “secret agent gets set up by her own people and goes rogue” action flick where she looked good and kicked ass. She was also seen in The Fast and the Furious 6 and has signed up for an unnamed film referred to as a “female Expendables”.

Is she actually any good?

She’s not bad. A friend of mine once said it’s easier to teach a martial artist to act than to teach an actor martial arts. I’m surprised Carano hasn’t been used in more films given her natural athleticism and charisma, but I guess the way things are done in Hollywood is less focused on the actual physical skills of the performers. A woman like Gina could make big waves in the Asian action film scene. I hope she gets more chances to show us what she’s got.

 

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Who’s this guy?

Quinton “Rampage” Jackson

How much ass does he kick?

As a fan favorite in the Japanese Pride organization, he demolished the UFC’s poster boy Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell -causing his corner to throw in the towel- while he was considered the guy to beat. Later, he came to the UFC and crushed him again effortlessly, ending his legendary run of title defenses with a loss so devastating that he never returned to form. So a lot.

What’s he been in?

He had a small role in Ryuhei Kitamura’s criminally underrated adaptation of Clive Barker’s Midnight Meat Train that made me laugh louder than most comedies can manage. He was also offered a starring role in The A-Team, replacing the incomparable Mr. T as BA Baracus.

Is he actually any good?

When I heard they were remaking the A-Team, I couldn’t imagine who could take that role on. Then I heard Rampage got the role and it made an insane amount of sense to me. The man is every bit as cartoonishly endearing as Mr. T and obviously he has the physical presence as well so nobody else could have done it in my mind. I don’t know that he could make a legit career as an actor, but for that role he was clearly the man for the job.

 

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Who’s this guy?

Randy “The Natural” Couture

How much ass does he kick?

Well he was a title contender until the day he retired at the incredible age of 48, a five time UFC champion across two divisions, an Olympic wrestler, one of the true pioneers and faces of the sport, and was the fourth person inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame. He’s a cerebral fighter who specialized in wearing down and breaking an opponents’ will to fight, which is to say he was pretty much a nightmare for anybody.

What’s he been in?

He landed a large role in The Expendables among the legends of action cinema after small roles in other films, a spot in The Scorpion King 2 (which I didn’t even know was a thing), and an appearance as a commentator in the MMA-themed Redbelt.  He seems poised to be a generically-titled action flick mainstay, working alongside Bruce Willis in Setup and taking the lead role in Hijacked.

Is he actually any good?

He does what he does. Being a grizzled veteran of the sport definitely gives him that no-nonsense swagger that made him perfect as a side man in the Expendables films, but I don’t know that he has the charisma to make a convincing leading man. He can look like a badass and definitely deliver some bone-crushing takedowns, but his personality is not what one would call “memorable”

 

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Who’s this girl?

“Rowdy” Ronda Rousey

How much ass does she kick?

As much as is humanly possible for a woman her size. She’s the daughter of martial arts legend “Judo” Gene Lebell, an Olympic silver medalist judoka, an undefeated UFC champion who has yet to really break a sweat in MMA competition, and an irrepressible badass.  She defeats every single opponent with an armbar, usually within a minute or so. That is to say that everyone she fights knows exactly what she is going to do to them and are powerless to stop her anyways. She’s almost single-handedly responsible for the UFC creating a women’s division.

The UFC has done their best to use her good looks and unparalleled skills to make Rousey into their poster girl, but she ain’t having it. She trains with Cesar Gracies’ legendary Central Cali-based Skrap Pack which includes some of the nastiest personalities in the sport, and she fits right in with her fondness for awkwardly standoffish interviews, scowling, and throwing her middle fingers around.  But being the most skilled woman in the sport by a mile with cover girl looks to boot pretty much lets her get away with anything.

What’s she been in?

Ronda’s all set to make a splash in the next installments of The Fast and the Furious and The Expendables. She’s got the looks, skills, and charisma to make it as an action heroine and having shared the set with the late Paul Walker, there are going to be a lot of eyes on her next year when The Fast and the Furious 7 comes out. But if you can’t wait until then to see some epic judo throws on the big screen, The Expendables 3 will be out this summer.

Is she actually any good?

We’ll have to wait and see on that one. Being a real life badass couldn’t hurt, and there’s always room on the screen for a pretty lady so I’m betting she does alright as long as she sticks to cheesy action flicks.