Thursday, October 11, 2007

Gaming Gone Green

For about as long as video games have existed - in fact, from the very first time many people first played Pong, I'd wager - people have used them as an exercise in killing things. Usually people. But this is only natural, after all, upon first finding out about such a form of entertainment, who wouldn't immediately think "Now how soon can I start the killing?" Of course, over the years, there've been countless complaints about violence in video games, ranging from "Pixelated blood in Mortal Kombat will destroy America's youth!" (A lot like D&D sure did too, eh?) to "I don't want my child playing Manhunt 2 so instead of being a good parent and paying attention to ESRB age rating labels, I don't want it out at all!"

There's a lot to be said about Manhunt 2 and the gaming media circus that revolved around it for months earlier this year. It's a testament to both how brilliant and disgusting the marketing team that orchestrated the whole fiasco at Rockstar Games is, having realized following the Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas "Hot Coffee" scandal, controversy sells. They pushed the ESRB too hard and got Manhunt 2 effectively banned through an AO (Adults Only) rating, which actually makes sense when you consider that the game itself is, at its core, all about murdering people through all sorts of horrific means. They protested, and gamers flipped out. Successfully manipulated into an outraged frenzy, they ranted against Nintendo for not allowing AO-rated games to be released on their hardware (And yet frequently gave Sony the pass, despite their not allowing AO games on their hardware either. Funny how that works.), and they ranted against the ESRB for doing their job. (After all, maintaining a good age rating system for game software is clearly a terrible idea, and secretly part of a plot to oppress gamers and ruin gaming - not protect the industry from politicians who don't realize that games exist for the whole gambit of demographics.) Then when the time came to hype a release, they easily edited the content ever so slightly as to be re-rated and brought down to an M (Mature) rating, locking in a Halloween release date for the game. Rather obviously cleverly orchestrated from the start to get the non-thinking gamer masses to rally behind the sequel to a fairly mediocre PS2 game that didn't make much of a splash, Rockstar deserves a nod for easily manipulating so much of the market. (And receiving little to no backlash for it from gamers, being amongst the few software developers who can get away with virtually anything in gamers' eyes - even playing them like fools.) But at the same time, they don't deserve much in the way of respect, largely in that this sort of well-crafted controversy only draws further ire from lawmakers with little understanding of gaming. It's the sort of activity that's essentially putting a bullseye right back on gaming, and that conveys a distinct lack of respect for the market as a whole as well.

The Manhunt 2 controversy also raised a common question - are video games art? The average video gamer, ever since this controversy, will give you an emphatic yes. But are they really art on average? No. Certainly, there's games with beautiful and imaginative artistic direction - Katamari Damacy, Okami, and Baten Kaitos, for example - but are these games art? On the whole, like most games, they make no particular meaningful statement. They're just gorgeous, fun games with interesting stories to tell. But rarely do games have a notable message or idea underlying the story. And far more are ultimately destructive than constructive by nature. Even the surreal cult hit Killer7 - one of the few video games truly worth regarding as a work of art in and of itself - relies on destruction to tell its story, through the eyes of an old assassin and his multiple personalities. The game made many notable statements about culture, politics, and the path humanity is on. However, very few listened to the messages it held - in part because of the extremely dense, trippy manner in which the story was told, and in part because it was a rail-based shooter, and plenty of gamers have an irrational hate for those these days. When you get down to it, though, most games have little to no artistic value at best.

Despite their efforts to shield their precious Manhunt 2 - on which precious little was revealed for a long time - from the onslaught of the "evil" ESRB, the game still isn't art. It's an unremarkable tale, like in the original, and like most Rockstar Games stories, that functions first and foremost as a means to murder people, and nothing more. This sort of thing is arguably detrimental to both gaming and culture alike, as there's a world of difference between their tongue-in-cheek crime sims that are the GTA games, and a humorless, straightforward murder simulator. Rather than supporting Rockstar blindly, we should be asking what this really says about us, and what we want in the gaming market, as if we don't police it ourselves, the government will eventually step in and do it for us, and we do ourselves no favors by antagonizing the ESRB over blind loyalty to a brand name.

Despite the prevalence of violent games, however, there are titles that manage to make far better themes fun - far more so than the violent game junkies would have you believe. (But many self-proclaimed "hardcore" gamers are far too narrow-minded to give any software a chance outside of the narrow established genre scope they enjoy. Everything else is either "kiddy," or an insult to them personally when those development costs could've been spent on making him another bloody shooter.) Natsume has enjoyed longstanding success since the 16-bit era with their Harvest Moon series, a fairly naturalistic, light-hearted franchise of cute farm simulators (Wherein playing as a young man or woman, you run a farm, raising animals, growing crops, befriending the local townspeople, and eventually getting married.), managing to keep each new installment of the series relatively fresh and fun, well over a decade since the series' emergence.

In 2002, Nintendo released Super Mario Sunshine on the Gamecube, a main entry in the Mario series that drew frustration from many fans in large part due to the feeling that a game where you utilized a water-pack on Mario's back to clean up a polluted island was somehow an open attack on their manhood. It makes one wonder where in the Man Guide it says we're supposed to be dirty, pro-pollution bastards. I must've missed that page. Regardless, it was a good game, with a notably positive theme to it, and gamers who looked past its environmentalistic leanings got a great, fun game out of it.

Now just over a week ago, Nintendo released Chibi-Robo: Park Patrol, the sequel to the cult hit Gamecube adventure game/house-cleaning sim, Chibi-Robo, on the DS. To say the least, Super Mario Sunshine pales in comparison to the environmentalist theme of Park Patrol, which has already begun to grate on the nerves of right-leaning gamers. (After all, by cleaning up a polluted park, our little four-inch metal hero is apparently an enemy of big business. It seems it's a failing of industry when it doesn't contribute all that it can to the death of our planet unimpeded.) The game focuses on a new model of the eponymous tiny robot, "Blooming Chibi-Robo," as it's tasked with restoring a wrecked park by growing flowers to restore the greenery, adding further plant life, and building little environmentally friendly attractions, while fending off the onslaught of the cheesily-named Sergeant Smogglor and his Smoglings. The game takes its eco-friendly leanings to new heights, with Chibi-Robo even being generating its own power in its Chibi-House, converting the happy points it earns from growing flowers to watts to power its battery and perform a variety of tasks. (If only it were so easy in real life.)

Though it's a fantastically addictive and enjoyable little sim with a good message behind it, Nintendo could've handled its release better. They launched it on, of all days, the same release date as the highly anticipated Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass DS game, and restricted its United States release to Wal-Mart. (For a variety of rather off-base reasons, no less, given that Wal-Mart's hardly a history as an eco-friendly company, let alone one that treats their employees well.) Regardless, if you're into gaming - and not fixated on violence in said medium - don't miss out on Chibi-Robo: Park Patrol. It's further proof that games with a good, thoughtful themes can be made without becoming preachy or dull edutainment masquerading as entertainment. And if we've learned anything about pollution from video games by now, it's that dumping waste can make tentacles turn evil.

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