Love in the times of video games

Let's call this the story of the untroubled times. Let's imagine a boy, late teens, just out of school, fresh into college. For the sake of anonymity lets just call him S, hm? He is living the good life, enjoying every bit of college and the myriad possibilities of fun and intoxication it promises. Exploring life, and as yet unspoilt by the harsh realities of having to work for a living.

This boy, then, one beautiful August morning sees this girl. Unassuming, confident, slightly aloof. And beautiful. Hmm, he is intrigued. Distracted even. He has the next party to plan, video games to play, books to read, friends to meet, and study if need be; in short, no time for frivolities and yet... he is drawn to the girl. Yes, he is most definitely intrigued. He tries to strike a conversation but our boy is kind of shy too. I say 'kind of', because he does manage to speak to her. It takes a few days but speak to her, he does. They strike up an easy friendship.

The girl - fun loving, charming, intelligent, sometimes careful to the point of extremely cautionary, and yet at other times playful and teasing soon opens up to him. With emotional attraction comes physical attraction and more often than not, vice versa. Come September and he is in love. The big 'L'.
The boy thought he knew everything about girls and relationships. She proved him wrong. There were more surprises in a day with her than an entire month with most people. She showed him things he didn't think were possible. The passion they shared was at a height unparalleled hence, and unmatched since.

Yet, one day the relationship ended as abruptly as it had started. For years he pines for the same emotional and physical torrent he went through - stumbling from one relationship to another, sometimes surprised, but mostly disappointed. Other relationships and priorities took his time and attention now. Yet he knew that one day she will come back, something will bring you people back together.

It happened. There were a few hiccups in the beginning, and slight moments of embarrassment, but slowly it happened. The passion is unbelievable, the emotional storm even greater. This is what he was missing for so many days! Such long years had he waited for this to happen! The conversations, the long drives, the frantic moments of passion and the quiet, tender moments of love - everything is so much better this time. But without so much as a preamble, this time too comes at an end. He is not as heartbroken as the first time round, but the abruptness of it all does leave a slight sour taste in his mouth. Yet he knows that he will look back at these times as one of the best he has ever had.

That is my summary of Half Life 2.

Really. It's that good. And steam is that bad.

This may be the longest introduction for a game review I have written yet, which is thoroughly ironical considering the game starts without so much as a 'Hi, this is the story'. You wake up in a train, the G-Man tells you to '...wake up Mr. Freeman. Wake up and smell alalalala ... what the ROCK is COOKIN!'
Heh, the last part is entirely real in my head.

Screenies at Gametab

So yeah, its vague, yet stylish. The future is here, my friend, and dang, it looks good. The aforementioned train ride is Atmospheric with a capital A, as is the rest of the game, and serves to suspend your disbelief for a solid 15 hours(or more). If there is one thing that Half Life 2 does, it puts into sharp focus how much is possible in games now. For people who thought the Source engine will not be able to be as good as it's colleagues, I have one thing to say: you were wrong, you jabroni ass.
The environments look real, the physics is a constant source of jaw dropping moments, and the game is understated, stylish, interactive and real all at the same time. The engine is well optimized too - so much so that mid range systems run the game pretty well too. In your FACE, Doom III. This was personally to me one of the best business decisions by Valve - they have managed to hold on to a larger consumer base. But making the game sometimes unplayable because your content system is underdeveloped is, as the they say, teh suxx0rz. Also suxx0rz is the packaging of the box, which is cheap.

But that is not what I want to discuss. The boy didn't care what clothes the girl wore or what bus she caught to come meet him. No-siree.

The game, when it runs, is 'fried gold' (to borrow a phrase from another Year's best). This is fat free entertainment at it's best.

Half Life was one of the first games to be unapologetically first person. You WERE Gordon Freeman. No cutscenes, no sounds for the protagonist, even no dramatic death animations in third person. Lots of games since, including the excellent MoH:AA and Call Of Duty have used that technique to convince you that you are the protagonist and immerse you completely. HL2 does so unashamedly. Where such a technique is very useful in games like CoD, where the story is basically non existent to the extent of being relegated to text on the loading screen, in Half Life 2, it tends to confuse you a bit.

You have no idea what you are doing in City 17, what happened in the 15 or so years between Black Mesa and now, or who are those taser welding mamus after your ass. But that is perfect because Gordon is feeling the same. YOU, Dr. Freeman, don't know what the hell is going on. You slowly figure out the 1984-esque setting of the city and the general feeling of oppression is well conveyed through the actors and the scripted sequences. (if you still have no idea what's happenin, you might wanna see this:

Despite the mute protagonist, the game delivers a knock out dose of emotional involvement, mostly thanks to some extremely well done scripted sequences and dialog sequences. The story is not told at the back of the box like most shooters, either. The events and characters unfold as one big adventure, and the story you get out of the game is a superset of all your experiences in the game. Levels and environments serve to move the story and the adventure forward, and as such may seem disappointing to people used to doing things in more than one way, a la Deus Ex. But that is not Half Life 2's strength. Its strength lies in it's ability to consistently and repeatedly create richly diverse and believable environments that encapsulate the game play brilliantly and succinctly and give us not a sand box in terms of gameplay but a rollercoaster ride. And what a ride. Escape, rescue, friendship, betrayal, revenge, redemption, triumph, salvation - all these are the milestones in the narrative of the game, and it is all good.

The story is not unique, and most of the times, not even apparent. But all of the story elements are also drawn to excellence by brilliant character models and fluid animations. Complementing the rest of the game, the characters are gorgeous to look at and - this is becoming the operative word in describing HL2's graphics - real. Valve are the masters of Level Design, and they have proved that with HL2. The progression is logical, well paced, and of course, always well constructed. The whole thing just looks spectacular, and feels even more so, considering the physics that are integrated in a seamless manner to the environment and the gameplay.
Your experience is constructed so much around the real physics that they have even incorporated a Gravity Gun, and made it almost a central piece of the adventure, considering so much depends on it. It gives you the incredibly useful ability to pick up and throw inanimate objects like barrels, blades, crates etc., thereby using it as a weapon as well as a puzzle solving device. As a side note for the FPS aficionados, the puzzles are fairly simple, yet diverse and satisfying in the payoff, and serve to further the adventure feel of the game.

Focus, rightfully, is on the combat and the 'Shooter' part of FPS. The enemy AI is usually adequate, and the scripted sequences and coordinated attacks are fun and challenging enough. The alien nasties scare the heebie jeebies outta you, and the soldiers are a source of constant frustration as the attacks are varied and the AI unforgiving. Yet, there are some times you curse the AI. Especially when you get a few team mates to fight with you later on. Bizarre situations where you are stuck with 4-5 guys in a narrow corridor make you think: why?

I mean, let's try this: grow several bugs that are over three feet tall, wear a hazard suit, get in a corridor and order the critters to attack someone at the other end of the corridor. Problems. See? The path finding is actually pretty good, but the design decisions some time bring a few problems to the forefront. So it's no Rainbow Six.

Nevertheless, the nasties give you quite a few scares, and while you may think they could be smarter, it doesn't take too much away from the game. In particular, there's a certain alien crab thing that jumps on you, shags your head, and releases it's... er, stuff, on your face. Not only is that totally gross and mostly false, your health drops to 001, and starts regenerating slowly as the hazard suit releases antidotes. This guy and the returning 'rope-alien-thing-on-the-roof-that-sucks-you-to-it's-mouth-and-eats-you-slowly' are my two worst enemies. EVER. I hate them in a good way though. A good villain will always inspire dread, and I fear them. A lot.

Apart from the stuttering bug that Valve fixed some time back, sound quality is generally superb too. The environmental sounds are truly wondrous and ambient, the voice acting is quite good (not as good as the first one, though, methinks), and the surrounding sounds of machinery, radio chatter etc. are incredibly atmospheric.

All in all, I'd say this is pretty close to the perfect FPS. Some bugs and a strictly OK AI may take away some points, but the fact remains that this the most fun you can have with your PC (apart from pr0n). Some people may nitpick, as is usual with games with such hype, but sum of Half Life 2's parts is very very solid. It's a rare game that can survive its own hype. Half Life 2, even with it's burgeoning mass of hype, does so with enough panache to spare.

These, then, are my favorite games from 2004:

10. Unreal Tournament 2004
9. Tribes: Vengeance
8. Pro Evolution Soccer 4
7. Katamari Damacy
6. Sly 2: Band of Thieves
5. Rome: Total War
4. Burnout 3: Takedown
3. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
2. Half-Life 2
1. Sid Meier's Pirates!

posted by sam | 1/24/2005 12:10:00 PM


Rest in peace, Mogambo. And remain Happy

posted by sam | 1/12/2005 11:34:00 AM


Two Thousand and Five, Anno Domini

So 2005. Tsunami. Will Eisner. LJ+six apart.

Hell of a start, I must say.

Happy New Year nevertheless, have a good 2005.

However, I am not here to remind you of the calendar change by screaming "HAPPY NEW YEAR!" (in capitalized text too!) and run off like an excited 7 year old.
(Though otherwise it is a wonderful age to be. I'd be 7 all my life and only complain while doing homework. Honest.)
I'm not a writer with awards strung around my living room, and I am fully entitled to use the following as a poor excuse for segue:


I am here to mostly write a post, since I don't want 2005 to be the year when blogging died, 2004 already being proclaimed as a year when it got boring. I'd stand else where in the argument (namely off screen, chewing corn on the cob, because God knows that's the only civilized way to have it), but I guess that doesn't matter, since Warren Ellis was the one doing the proclamation in question. Mr. Ellis, I shake my fist at you. I am also here to tell you that Transmetropolitan by Mr. Ellis is one of the most masterful and deadly cool comic book series written, the earlier issues ranking up there with works of Moore, Gaiman, and of course the works of Eisner lording over all of them.

But I am mostly here to do two things: One, to tell you that in the post modern, interweb writing world, it is okay to start sentences with And and But. And second, ( :P ) to tell you a story, the veracity of which I leave you to decipher on your own.

It all started in Janpath. I met Raja, Hyacie, and Anupma. While Raja has proven himself to be a straight male, he has a freakish knowledge of bargaining with novelty shopkeepers, and a shared(with the other two) warmth for shoe shopping. So the three of them shopped for Juttis in the absolute center of Delhi, as I watched with amusement the event. It is fascinating, watching 4 grown people (3 to 1) arguing over the price of ethnic juttis. Though I was the guy standing in the corner staring at the pavement intensely and muttering "fair's fair" in favor of the shopkeeper, I'm sure the amusement of watching that sight must be someone else's.
I dislike bargaining. I like things to be of a uniform price. I prefer barter. I am strange, and you must laugh at me, because staring at me embarrasses me.


And we talked about a lot of things. Like how Shiva has always been a cool God. You don't mess with him. He's strong, wise, and terrible when angered. Hes got a third eye which can emanate an uber ray of death. He is most definitely cool. Damn straight. But all the tees that you see of him are the ones you've been seeing since childhood, if you have ever had a calendar fetish. Why doesn't someone do a cool representation of him, (respectfully of course. You don't want to see what Genius Chang would do to him) and show it to me? We talked about how Charlie Kaufman copped out and created a Dharma and Greg like couple among all his lovable, oddball characters in Spotless Mind, and how just like Shahrukh Khan, Jim Carrey doesn't have a job description in the movie. And whatever happened to Spike Jones? We saw a poncho and loudly sang the theme to The Good The Bad and The Ugly. Hyacie, my favorite Mumbaikar right now, bought a lot of hand made paper, and that was very cool. There was a militant salesman intent on selling everything and annihilating all competition. He wished me a Happy New Yearses.

Much, much later, I told them something I haven't told anyone - I have a mortal fear of Mumbai. It has Bhai Log, devil trains from Hell(or Colaba or wherever), it has Shiv Sena, Chandni Bar, celebrity couples who don't know how to kiss, and gay rapists. However I like very much the people I know that stay there, and I respect their courage in continuing to do so. It also has Goga Kapoor and Aroon Bakshi. You don't know who they are because you don't watch bad hindi movies. I do.

So then we also bought DVDs, shopping for which I like immensely and with a passion unrivaled except for when I shop for books and games. And it was then that Raja proclaimed that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is his top movie this year. As also the fact that Collateral will not feature in his top ten this year. Both statements sparked a minor debate, and I promised to do something that I am about to do now:

My Top Ten Movies of the year 2004. (Not ones I saw, because I also saw a lot of older movies, like Musa, which is pretty good, but it actually released in 2001)

There will be movies here you don't like much, and there will be excellent ones that you'll hate I missed. But you could take a list out too, you know. The ones you don't like are here because they are good, but you don't like them. That doesn't make them bad. The ones you miss aren't here because I haven't seen them. My bad grasp of segue continues as I use:


10. Finding Neverland
Nope it's not that great. But Johnny Depp does to this what he couldn't do to Broken Window. He elevates the movie into greatness.

9. Ab Tak Chappan
The only Indian movie in my list, but what a movie. I haven't seen the better ones that are touted for Oscar nominations, but I intend remedy-ing that. But AT56 is cool. Deadly cool performances, uncompromising direction, best background score of the year. This is what a Factory movie should be. Not Gayab. It starts with a quote by Nietzsche, and ends with the protagonist starting on a journey to become the superman that Nietzsche philosophized. Brilliant.

8. Collateral
I like Michael Mann, what can I say? Plus great performances, and a background score that reminded me of Indian Ocean.

7. Kill Bill Vol. 2
You want me tell you about KB V2? You're crazy. Go, watch. See what the words seminal and cult mean.

6. Spider-Man 2
Raimi has been one of my favorite directors since his Evil Dead days. I even liked his curry flavored The Quick and the Dead and his much under appreciated For Love of the Game. The Darkman movie was his audition for Spidey. And thank God the producers liked what they saw. The perfect balance of in jokes, emotions, humor, and action this year.

5. Primer
I shouldn't have seen this movie. I haven't seen this movie. I love this movie. A stray torrent did a lot of good and a lot of bad. I intend watch this at least 6 times to completely tell you what I think of it. As of now, it stands at number 5. The smartest movie this year. And my favorite Indie movie.

4. The Motorcycle Diaries
You may or may not like what Che Guevara had become or stood for later in life. But watch this movie for the single best camera work all year, and a bloody good story of the growing up of two friends, their journey, and their bonding.

3. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring
I cheated a bit here. This movie released in 2003, but got a US release in 2004, when I actually heard of it, and then watched it. If you don't think this counts, just move the previous movies one step higher, and bring in my number 11, Spartan in at 10. :)

2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Easily one the best movies of this decade, and classic Charlie Kaufman. Sardonic, funny, poignant, and loopy. It just lost points on the basic introductions to the main characters. The boring, uptight guy meets the colorful hippie. That the characters were, in due course of the movie, established as very much different and well fleshed out (except Carrey's job. I hate it when the main character is started as a blank. I admit that it was Charlie's way of letting us connect to him, but I've watched too much SRK movies for my own good.), brought it to number 2.

1. Shaun of the Dead
The best movie all year. One of the best zombie movies ever. In my top ten list of funniest movies ever. Brilliant. If I ever write a script as brilliant, or direct a movie with such accomplished story telling and such fine performances, I'd have accomplished something. Some faux movie connoisseurs may scoff at my choice of number one, citing the 'intelligence' quotient of Eternal Sunshine, Garden State, or Primer. If you see this movie, you will know what intelligent film making is. You will realize that a zombie movie can be as important a piece of cinematic glory as a celebrated scriptwriter's newest. If you don't, you are welcome to be pretentious.

Movies I did not see last year, that I have been told are great:
Ray, The Aviator, Million Dollar Baby, House of Flying Daggers, Infernal Affairs, A Tale of Two Sisters, Sideways, Ong-Bak, Maria Full of Grace, The Incredibles.

The Worst movies I saw in 2004:
Since there can be no "top" 10 for worst movies, here they are:
Musafir, The Terminal, Polar Express, Asambhav, The Punisher, Saw, Van Helsing.

I will continue my rantings on 2004 and my fear of whole cities as evil entities, until I find something worthwhile to talk about. Next up, probably: Games and Books and Comics.

BTW, I've donated, have you?

posted by sam | 1/06/2005 12:09:00 PM

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