In setting out to write this feature I wanted to look at, well, a good videogame, a bad videogame and an app. All right, that was fairly self explanatory – however! There is a deeper premise at work. It is my wish to show people that they are playing videogames (not “interactive textual experiences” as in J.K. Rowling’s Pottermore videogame) more than they might think. As such, the first part of my reviews shall be: Relic Studio’s Warhammer 40,000: Spacemarine for most current gen consoles. One man’s tale of getting dressed in metal, wielding equipment clearly designed for deforestation and having genocidal pseudo-religious bonding experiences with “battle brothers”. It couldn’t get more fetishistic than this folks.
Beyond this, as it tickles me so that not everyone knows that they play videogames on an almost daily basis, I will review two, hmmm, fairly recent offerings from the world of videogames ($65 billion dollar world though it may be). The first is a game that I think is ontologically ‘good’. It’s fun, engaging and presents a future for the medium. For me, that game is Ghost Trick on the Nintendo DS. Finally, in my App section, the section intended to shock normal people into realising they are, in a rather cultish way, “one of us”, is the Topshop iPhone app, “scavenger”. It’s not spelt that way, but not being a moron, I refuse to debase myself by giving in to their “hip” defacing of the written word. Oddly, if Scavenger hadn’t been in my ‘app’ section, it would probably have been my choice for the ‘good’. An ARG (augmented reality game) with real world benefits, I can recall no better balancing of the social and goal oriented aspects of game play.
That said, let’s move on to the reviews proper. Charting a superhuman experiment to sustain religious hegemony, Spacemarine is an engaging confrontation with perceptions of power, belief and what it is to be right. Well, that’s what it could have been. Spacemarine is actually a disappointing, childish, power-fantasy romp. Charting the exploits of its protagonist Commander Titus, the game does a great deal to remain faithful to its source material but sacrifices vision for mass appeal. Although, if I’m being honest, that might as well be emblazoned, Auschwitz-style, over the door of every game studio.
For those of you who are uninitiated, Spacemarines are a race of superhumans in a dystopia, 38,000 years in the future. This may sound like fairly safe stuff but the real hook of the Warhammer 40k universe (notice the lingo) is its barmy use of Christian themes and imagery. You see, a Spacemarine is a clone of a figure known as The Emperor. Essentially, Space-Jesus, with a penchant for men in uniform. However, the Emperor was mortally wounded by one of his clones in an essential plot point. As such, the Spacemarines run amok across the universe laying waste to heretics with an extremist fervor matched only by Richard Dawkins.
The game is fun – really fun. It flows well and there are enough breaks between and variation in the combat to stop it from going completely stale. The problem is: this has all been done before. Returning briefly to the story, I will drop an humongous non-spoiler by telling you that the race of aliens you think you’re fighting are actually not the real bad guys who actually show up and reveal the hidden secret super weapon that’s buried somewhere in the planet. I would say every Halo but instead I’ll just tut and say, “Try harder. Please.”
The saving grace of 40k: Spacemarine is that although it’s all been done before, it’s never been done like this. It’s slicker than 90% of games out there, less tied down by mechanics than Gears of War but sacrifices being truly interesting as a result. There’s no Bioshock style confrontation with your own moral compass, but what there is, however, is a great deal of visualizing everything your 13 year old brain was working so hard to do when painting those models. If you didn’t collect Warhammer, this might not be the game for you. If you still do, this game might not be for you enough. If your heart skips a beat when you hear the word “chainsword”, you already own this game.
Moving swiftly on, Capcom’s Ghost Trick. To anyone who is a dedicated fan of art house DS games (just me then) it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Capcom have delivered another cracking game. After all, Capcom were ballsy enough to take on Okami for a second time, even after its financial flop proved that creativity in games should be kept away from any large sums of money that anyone is likely to miss. Ghost Trick plots the story of Sissel (maybe), waking up moments after he has been shot (perhaps) as he attempts to find out who killed him (or something). If you noticed my hilarious use of ellipses, what I’m getting at here is that this game is a mystery game. It’s not so much a whodunit in the old fashioned sense because you couldn’t ever guess from the beginning but it uses a similar tone to raise the dramatic tension between the set pieces of dialogue.
The game play is, well, minimal. It’s somewhere between connect the dots and Cut the Rope but given the intricate story line, a simple play mechanic stands as a wonderful counterpoint. Essentially, you are a ghost and so to move you must posses objects, some of which, you can manipulate. Your only advice is given to you by a desk lamp called “ray” and the game features memorable minor characters such as a dancing security guard, an overworked politician and, of course, Rocket, the reason everyone in their right mind now owns a Pomeranian.
I’m not going to try and explain Ghost Trick any further than that. It’s quite simply incredible. Tricky enough to keep moderate gamers entertained and accessible enough to not alienate people that just want to know what happened. It’s also cut so neatly into easily digestible sections it’s as if playing it anywhere other than public transport is somehow wrong. Capcom have recognized that people will play a narrative based game in the same, 20 minutes on the way home, way they read a book – and it works. The fact that the game quite consciously reflects on the inherent but unacknowledged Buddhist mentality of modern Japan is just a bonus.
Which brings me to Scavanger. Oh, all right… SCVNGR (Is it just me, or does it look like a shop code for vinegar?). The premise of Scavenger is collect points by taking pictures of things in TopShop which are given different values. For instance, a picture of your favorite dress will earn you 9 points while your favorite T-Shirt will only earn you thee. Putting it simply, Scavenger is less of a game and more of a quite obvious market research survey. However, in making you act (that is, play) the program takes on a more frivolous attitude as opposed to simply showing you pictures and asking for your favorite one. It becomes really interesting though, when you consider that playing the game has real world benefits. The overarching goal of Scavenger is to earn yourself a discount on clothes in TopShop. Play for long enough, you can get a 20% discount. If you’re a student, that means 40% off whatever you want to buy.
However, as Hamlet said, “This TopShop app better not be taking me seriously”. I love that Scavenger is being used to amass market information. It makes such a potential area for games to expand in to and be used other than as enormous wastes of money and science. That said, I was playing Scavenger, on a friend’s iPhone and I wasn’t taking pictures of my favorite things, but the most ridiculous things I saw. Perhaps that is why I had so much fun with Scavenger, but it spells a dismal future for this kind of symbiosis continuing. If Grand Theft Auto proved anything about videogames it’s that people are, essentially, jerks. I just hope TopShop know what kind of information they’re going to get from this new group of consumers, especially when playing Scavenger is such a great way for boyfriends to pass the time while their girlfriends do… whatever women do in TopShop.