Monday, November 12, 2012

Zansonsha: What's in a Name?


I have been using the alias Zansonsha for quite some time now, but I have yet to really define it or explain why I’ve chosen this Japanese term to represent my identity and my work. As much as I am annoyed by essays which begin with definitions, it would seem necessary in this case. Zansonsha (残存者) loosely translates to “one who survives” or, depending on usage, “one who remains”.

Even as a child, I was interested in the meaning of life and death. The threat of death was a very real one for me. My earliest memories are of hospital rooms, where doctors would share grim prognoses with my worried parents. I was a mess of respiratory and autoimmune problems that would have been a fatal concoction; aside from excellent health care and a loving family, I have no idea how such a labyrinth of circumstances got me through those early years.

My earliest vivid memory of asthma is from what I believe was late elementary school. My brother and I were home alone while my mother was at work, and an attack struck. If you haven’t experienced asthma firsthand, the best way I can describe it is for you to imagine what a literal fish out of water must feel like, a dry kind of drowning, muscles straining to draw in what little air the bronchial tube will permit, like pinching the end of a straw and trying to suck air through it. Consciousness fades gradually, becoming a light-headed delirium followed by blackouts. Rescue medication is not guaranteed to work, forcing an occasional visit to the hospital. This particular attack would require one of those visits. Rather than let my brother call and disturb my mother at work, I insisted he not call, forcing myself to fight against my own body for several hours. When my mother finally got home, she was upset and asked why I did not call her. My response was: “I didn’t want to be a burden.”

Survivor is an interesting word. To most, it has an overwhelmingly positive connotation. It has a band, a reality show, and hundreds of support groups to give it meaning. The reason it’s so positive is apparent: our culture values human life to such a degree that we care more about the presence of it than the quality of it. We are a culture that discourages suicide, euthanasia and abortion. Life is a divine gift, and a survivor is someone who fights to protect the gift of life.

While this philosophy is sound enough, being alive is a collaborative effort, and this is especially true for survivors. Survivors have a heightened awareness of those who have contributed to our lives: the parents and teachers who were there to educate and nurture us, the friends who supported us, professionals who worked to save us, artists whose work gave our lives greater meaning. With such awareness, survivors may be overcome with a sense of guilt. Survival seems less like something that is earned and more like something that requires human charity and a particular alignment of the stars. The struggle of a survivor is not simply to live, but to feel deserving of salvation, to repay a living debt. It is the struggle to ease one’s burden on others.

Such a sense of responsibility can be overwhelming, and one’s ability to come to terms with the absurdity of death and find a way to contribute to society can make or break a man. Using a word like survivor would seem inadequate to capture this psychological sense of survival. The two closest words in the English language would be holdover or remainder, but there’s something mathematical and impersonal about such terms. It was clear to me that I would have to borrow from a foreign language.

While many cultures have their great existentialist writers, I was attracted to the maturity of Japanese storytelling from a young age. The shows, movies and video games I grew up with were created by artists who were children or young adults in the aftermath of World War II, forced to deal with the realities of death on a massive scale and the guilt of survival. Taking a page from reality and turning it to fiction, teenagers engage in war with experimental weapons, children watch as cultures are decimated, and false gods are slain. These themes extended into literature as well, be it through the absurdist eye of Kōbō Abe or the postmodern pen of Haruki Murakami. Such artists have proven a significant influence on me, and my choice of a Japanese word is largely a tribute to that. Zansonsha does not carry the positive connotation of the English survivor, but it does retain the human element that other English terms lack.

Over the years I have become much more independent, but I have not forgotten how I got this far.  I write in honor of those who give of themselves to improve the quality of the lives of others, and I hope that my work will have the same effect on those looking to explore the hard questions of existence. I edit to give voice to those who need assistance sharing their stories with the world. Living is, after all, a shared experience.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Total Recall – Part 2: A Memory Better than the Real Thing?


While many of my suspicions about the new film proved to be correct, there's one very erroneous projection I made: that Total Recall would be disappointing to fans of film adaptations of Dick's work. Rather, Wiseman's creation proves a tribute to just about every film based on Dick from Blade Runner to Minority Report, with elements of A Scanner Darkly to boot. Some are more obvious: Quaid on his balcony in the rain looking over the city is a clear reference to a similar scene in Blade Runner, as is the role of the piano. The section of The Colony where Quaid lives, New Asia, obviously borrows the noir visual style of Blade Runner while the United Federation of Britain borrows the sleeker, brighter style of Minority Report (as does the car chase). Less obvious are the thematic elements: Rekall is no longer presented as a clean, futuristic technology, but rather a seedy-seeming drug-enhanced experience; an added conversation between Quaid and Mathias (2012's Kuato) discusses the relationship between identity and memory more explicitly than Verhoeven's film did, recalling a similar “discussion” between Deckard and Rachael.

What makes it great:

Much to the chagrin of critics, much of the new film's intellectualism rests in subtlety; other than the obligatory Lori/Quaid and Edgemar/Harry/Quaid discussions, the writers didn't force the issues any more often than absolutely necessary, leaving the audience to insert them on their own. For example, here it makes much more sense that Quaid seeks a secret agent fantasy: we see him reading a James Bond novel on his way to work, and his investment in the Cohaagen/rebel conflict stems from his wife's career as an agent of Cohaagen herself. The woman he dreams about isn't so exotic here, either; in fact, she's all but indistinguishable from Lori in physical features and ability (certainly not as contrasting as Sharon Stone and Rachel Ticotin). While Schwarzenegger's Quaid selects a fantasy that satisfies a childlike curiosity and dissatisfaction with everyday life, Farrel's Quaid picks a fantasy much closer to home. Not only does this lend to the idea that the 'dream' is real, but it raises the question of why we choose the things about which we fantasize. We have fewer lines like: “I just had a terrible thought; what if this is a dream?”, but they aren't missed any more than the narration in Blade Runner.

Considering the reality, Wiseman complements the original Total Recall's nightmarish fantasy violence by grounding his film in more realistic and mature circumstances: rather than insert an unfamiliar face to talk him out of his 'dream', here we have Harry attempting to convince Quaid of his schizophrenia, along with higher stakes than the red pill Edgemar offered. The slip into a dream state is also all but non-existent, which I thought was a nice touch; conveying the sense of falling asleep, particularly where anesthesia is involved, is a difficult thing to pull off in film. In reality it seems to happen in the blink of an eye with only a vague awareness of time having passed on the sleeper's part. The fade-outs in the original film force the audience to acknowledge the passage of time, though in real life it would be perceived very differently. The result of Farrell's more realistic Quaid is of course a less fun, less quotable Total Recall, but also a film that better addresses questioning reality and identity.

The visual style is much sleeker and less gritty, which improves the pacing of the film particularly in the action sequences. Farrell's Quaid can move and is quick to react to new situations, making his performance more visually interesting than Schwarzenegger's brief, grittier fights. It's easier to believe that Farrell's Quaid is at least Lori's equal, if not her better, while Schwarzenegger's Quaid just barely seems to keep up with those around him, meeting most obstacles with brawn, resilience, and the occasional explosive.

All in all, Wiseman's Total Recall is an excellent complement to Verhoeven's over-the-top Schwarzenegger vehicle, and stands pretty well on its own as an entertaining film.

What makes it mediocre (may contain spoilers):

It's a summer blockbuster. That sums up a lot of the film's perceived problems, though I'll explore them in more detail. Total Recall didn't need to be an action film and could have been handled much differently with this cast, but Wiseman and company thought a straight "remake" would attract the biggest audience, and they may have been right. It certainly hasn't impressed critics, on the other hand. Action movies are a dime a dozen, especially in today's cinema, and Quaid isn't quite competition for Batman or Spider-man. With that in mind, Total Recall is most certainly going to be overlooked this summer, though it may enjoy a bigger following once it's on a home format.

While much of the film is beautiful to look at, many of the visual elements are spoiled by the rampant use of CGI. At times, it creates an interesting effect; New Asia has a 'floating world' effect that's beautiful to look at and affects the way action scenes play out. At other times, the storytelling seems to stop to show off some visual effect which doesn't seem worth pausing the film to see. Thankfully, Wiseman seems to work in live action visual effects as well, which makes it a little more difficult to distinguish what's physically there and what's animated at times (the synths are the best example of this).

The plot is about ten years too late: the idea that terrorists could be scapegoated as an excuse to go to war was a common conspiracy theory circling the September 11th tragedy, and might have been more relevant then. Today, it seems cliché (no more cliché than it was in the original, but even so). Given the film's maturity and American sensitivity toward the subject, I would have liked to see the rebels here try to legitimize their terrorist acts as the main characters in Star Wars, V for Vendetta and Final Fantasy VII do. Instead, Wiseman plays it safe here, and I think the film suffers a little for it.

The treatment of women would seem to be better in Wiseman's film. Lori replaces Richter as a more than capable pursuant of Quaid, and Melina is no longer a prostitute. There are fewer catty comments between characters, and Mary (the three-breasted woman given no name in Wiseman's credits) handles Quaid's rejection much better. Unfortunately, this just seems to skirt the Madonna/whore issues Verhoeven faced head-on. Here, Lori fills both roles as she did in the original film, but Melina only fills the Madonna role, leading the audience to push Lori into the whore category and lose the ability to connect with her (made worse by the fact that her motivation to take down Hauser against orders is never stated explicitly, making her seem psychopathic as well; as two-dimensional as Richter was, his motive made a lot more sense).

One can hardly put Harry Gregson-Williams in a category like 'mediocre' and feel good about it, but Total Recall's score just seems to be missing something: perhaps a notable melody to attach to the film. The use of polyrhythms is fantastic and intense, particularly in augmenting the action sequences, but it doesn't leave a memorable theme in the listener's head after having heard it the way that Goldsmith's does. Then again, the same complaint was levied against Goldsmith's score, so perhaps it's just something I missed the first time through.

Conclusion:

I could probably go on, but I feel that Wiseman's homages to Dick's film universe give the film a sense of respect and a unique enough feel that it doesn't come off entirely as a remake of Total Recall, but rather a tribute to it and its creators. It is well executed, well written, and just a little gimmicky at times. For a summer blockbuster, it is worthy of attention. As a science fiction film, it's worthy of including in any discussion, though much of what's explored here has been done in previous works. Wiseman has given us a sci-fi cento that should, at the very least, keep its source materials alive and well.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

“Total Recall”: We Can Remember It With You


As we come upon the release of yet another summer blockbuster that owes its script to another great work of art, I would like to say that I’ll be going to see it with an open mind. Why we’re so resistant to the idea of remakes is a concept I’ll get to, but I can definitely understand why a movie studio would want to remake a film like Total Recall. It was fun, action-packed, and thought-provoking enough to stand out among action films that had been bogged down by repetitive plot points. Yet I can’t help but feel that this summer’s contribution to Dick’s legacy will be at least somewhat disappointing to fans; Verhoeven and Schwarzenegger’s vision of Total Recall created one of my favorite films and a film that deserves more credit than it often receives.

Why it’s a Classic:

Total Recall was part of a great series of films that sought to elevate the action genre above its roots in Westerns and give it a more intellectual feel perfectly complemented by the science fiction genre, creating either an action-science-fiction or science-fiction-action subgenre which confused more than one video store manager. Aliens, Blade Runner, and Escape from New York shine as examples, and Schwarzenegger was no stranger to the format, starring in Predator, The Terminator, and The Running Man. It was Schwarzenegger himself who pushed to have this film made, as he believed in the potential of the script and his ability to sell it to an audience. As such, Schwarzenegger became a champion of the “thinking man’s action movie,” and Total Recall is an indispensable part of that tradition.

By its nature, Total Recall is the kind of movie that can lay out the entire plot for you start to finish and still leave you gripped as to what will happen and, after you’ve seen it, what really happened. As with Blade Runner and the question of whether Deckard is a Replicant, you can’t help but watch it a second time and see if there is something you missed. And perhaps a third time. Total Recall is intentionally and masterfully ambiguous, and to this day I haven’t come to a decisive conclusion about which of the possible theories I believe: there’s enough evidence to argue them all. To be ‘thinking’ movies, a film must present something new to think about, give clear evidence toward multiple conclusions, and give the issue importance in the way the story unfolds. Total Recall has all of that.

Total Recall 2
What Total Recall did to make it totally unique is to pair the idea of memory and identity (explored in Blade Runner) with the notion of prophecy and, more specifically, self-fulfilling prophecy. Quaid believes himself to be the hero, but events around him all but force him on a particular path giving him only the mere illusion of choice (with the preservation of his identity in mind). At several points in the story, Quaid is told what he will do by a salesman, a scientist, and a mystic. While the only one he actively chooses to follow is the mystic, doing so causes him to fulfill the prophecy of Edgemar he’d hoped to avoid. The one discrepancy between prophesies (whether he wakes up, is lobotomized, or is actually on Mars) is left to the audience.

Today, ‘thinking man’s action movies’ are the norm, but in a skewed sense: the thinking is done for us, leaving us to argue with the writers rather than collaborate with them. When the issues presented are ones we’ve already thought about, filmmakers seem to avoid ambiguity and present their own conclusions instead, a commonality evidenced as recently as Inception (and when films attempt ambiguity, they risk the fate of Sucker Punch). Reality versus fantasy from the point of view of an unreliable narrator is a theme that has been done to death, literally in some cases. As such, it doesn’t seem like remaking a film like Total Recall will add much to the discussion.

One of the best things about the writing in Total Recall is, of course, its penchant for one-liners and otherwise lovely quotables. Aside from the usual Arnoldisms, there’s:
Lori: “Beats me. I just work here.”
Richter:  “What was that, sir? I couldn’t hear you; I’ve got sunspots.”
Cohaagen: “All dreams come to an end.”
Benny: [Repeated line] “I got five kids to feed.”
Dr. Edgemar: “She’s real because you dreamed her?”
JohnnyCab: “Hope you enjoyed the ride! Haha!”

"You can't explain that!"
Other than the writing, what stands out to most who’ve seen Total Recall it is the visual experience. Total Recall was one of the last great films before the CGI era, and it shows for the better in this case. Gorgeous matte paintings, believable prosthetics, and trick photography are all present and executed well. The Martian landscape in the opening dream sequence leaves a lasting impression, as well as the animated X-ray safety zone, the animatronics on Kuato and the sculpture-based effects in the nose-bug scene and Quaid’s mask. One can’t help watching these scenes in awe of how they’re done. Mike Mattei of Cinemassacre describes such traditional effects as “literally magic”[i]. Like any great magic show, even if you know the trick, the execution is still something to behold. While I feel CGI has lent a lot to the artistry of film, particularly in its earliest uses (Tron, The Last Starfighter) it does take the wonder out of how an effect is produced and is often used unnecessarily in place of traditional special effects. Aside from the X-ray scanner, everything you see in Total Recall is filmed, which makes it all the more interesting to watch. One can argue that Verhoeven’s love of blood packs and geysers interrupts the realism of the film, but pairing it with the prevalence of cement and steel architecture (called brutalist architecture for a reason) lends to a blend of fantasy violence and gritty visual interpretation perfect for a believable everyman.

Few things stand out more than one particular scene: Quaid’s introduction to The Last Resort. The clever name adds to an equally clever environment with a more colorful and diverse secondary cast than a Disney musical. Each has only a few spoken lines, but in those few lines we learn everything we need to know to flesh out and care about their characters. Complementing the environment is Bruno Louchouarn’s cheesy but catchy loop of “Mutant Dancing”. This scene is an excellent example of how to establish an alien setting in the shortest amount of screen time.


On the subject of music, Jerry Goldsmith’s score certainly requires mentioning. The opening theme titled “The Dream” is an excellent setup, blending ideas from Holst’s “Mars” with an electronic rhythm and orchestral percussion, building a crescendo that becomes increasingly complex. There’s a very brief B section characterized by an airy melody before a quick return to the unrelenting A section. At about 2:30, the urgency of the theme disappears as a string and winds variation picks up, followed by a very dissonant, uneasy coda. The leitmotifs established in the theme are heard throughout the film, particularly in the climactic “End of a Dream”. The light, airy tones are used often in the more thought-provoking scenes, most prominently through the scene with Dr. Edgemar, giving these moments a particularly otherworldly feel. Though the score is brilliant, one of my favorite scenes involves silence: Quaid’s meeting with Robert Costanzo’s Harry after visiting Rekall. The following fight scene offers no music at all, only gunshots, punches and snapping necks, grounding the film’s grittiness much as the Bane/Batman fight in The Dark Knight Rises.

Why Remake It?

Luhrmann adds a unique style to
Shakespeare's most produced work.
Besides the obvious reason of “established IPs make more money than new ones,” the first question we should ask is why remake anything? To that, I say “Why is it a ‘remake’?” The directors don’t seek to erase or ignore the past by “unmaking” the original film; rather, it is an adaptation of an existing story (as are most "original" works). Both should exist in complement of each other. And if you ask me why adapt an existing film when the original is already good enough, I’d just ask “Why not?” There are over 40 filmed productions of Romeo and Juliet and millions of different stage productions since the time of its writing. The story is the same, the actors and directors differ. So what is it about the nature of film that makes us think an actor and character are inseparable, or that the story shouldn't be retold?

Certainly, one can make the argument that Total Recall needn't be retold. Film, unlike theater, carries a sense of permanence. It can be viewed in exactly the same way over and over, and shared with others as the exact same production you saw. When you say “I really love Gone with the Wind,” you don’t have to specify it as the Fleming version or even the year it was made (though you may be asked to distinguish the film from the novel). In this sense, fans can't help wanting to protect the posterity of their version of the work. When you bring up Star Wars in a conversation, you may feel the need to specify whether you mean the original trilogy only, the six films without the expanded universe, or the expanded universe, but not the new trilogy. New films can damage the reputation of older works, but mostly for those who aren't familiar with the originals. A bad stage production doesn't necessarily reflect on the quality of the story.

On the other hand, like theater, film remains a product of the era in which it was produced. Technology and cultural significance can make a film less relevant over time, relying on a knowledge of the time it was produced to fully appreciate it. The prevalence of Asian languages and imagery in Blade Runner is one example, as is the sense of Cold War paranoia in Red Dawn and Rocky IV. Citizen Kane is a particularly useful example, as the person upon which it was based and the chutzpah it took to make such a film at that time have long been forgotten by modern audiences.

The White Yojimbo
Adapting old stories into new settings is a common art and, when done well, increases the meaning of both texts. West Side Story took Romeo and Juliet and made its point of contention not about parentage, but about race at a time when civil rights were taking center stage. Eddie Murphy vehicle The Nutty Professor took Jerry Lewis’s 1963 film and updated it, as weight discrimination became more culturally relevant than whether or not one was shy and awkward. Adaptations can also bring films from one culture to another, as we see with A Fistful of Dollars, The Ring and Insomnia. To call these films remakes is to do their originals a bit of injustice.

Dick's stories are excellent examples of adaptation done right: while his novels and short stories have made some incredible films, the best of them share little in common with the original work. Total Recall and We Can Remember It For You Wholesale are unique visions of the same story and excel because they're aware of the limitations and benefits of the media for which they were produced. While not terribly successful, even the Showtime original series Total Recall 2070 didn't seek to replicate the stories on which it is based, but instead created a world based on Dick's work and found stories to be told inside of it. Adaptation is necessary to retelling familiar stories, especially between media. Peter Jackson and his writers were aware that The Lord of the Rings required some changes for an adequate screen adaptation (and The Lord of the Rings is itself a fantasy retelling of The Nibelungenlied).

Having said that, I feel that for my generation and those older, very little of 80s culture has completely left us. Existentialist notions about reality, tragedy and identity are certainly there. Consumerism, sensationalism and corporate tyranny as well. There isn't much to Total Recall that falls by the wayside of time. However, one prevalent theme, post-colonialism and apartheid, is not so much a part of common thought. Terrorism, reaching back to Cold War paranoia, is much closer to our hearts and informs a lot more of today’s action and science fiction films than it did in the 80s. A Mars colony isn't necessary to the telling of Total Recall, but if you take it out, will the audience of the original still recognize the story?

Total Recall suffers just a little from the ‘everyone in the future is white’ problem as a lot of science fiction does. While Rachel Ticotin provides a main character of mixed race, Mel Johnson Jr.’s Benny comes off a bit, well, racist. A poor, black cab driver with five kids squandering his money at a brothel, and eager to tend to Quaid’s needs, following him loyally into the resistance? That can come off poorly. His character is redeemed momentarily when he confesses to deceiving Quaid, motivated only by profit (that’s better, right?) but not long after he’s chasing down Quaid in mining equipment yelling “I’m gonna drill you, sucka!” There’s a fair bit of scholarship on whether or not this character is regressively racist, but I have my doubts that such a character would even be around in 2084.

Then there’s Schwarzenegger. I’ll always be a die-hard Schwarzenegger fan, but Arnold himself is a bit of a relic of the 1980s and early 90s. His characters are always larger than life, which works in some cases like The Running Man, The Terminator, and Last Action Hero, but missteps in others. With Total Recall, I liked the character of Quaid, but since the story depends a little upon Quaid being a believable everyman, Arnold’s presence here is slightly distracting to one’s suspension of disbelief and all but forces the second and third acts to be comically over the top. Envisioning the character as a construction worker helps to explain his musculature, but doesn’t really make him seem more ordinary, especially when he’s spouting one-liners and ripping bolts out of JohnnyCabs.

Then there’s the fact that it’s an action film. Though Quail is an assassin in the original story, it needn’t be adapted into a big summer blockbuster with a fight scene between every few minutes of dialogue (consider other assassin films like Collateral and In Bruges). The perpetual chase works as well here as it does in The Terminator, keeping the story suspenseful throughout, but it also compromises the intelligence of the story to a point: Quaid’s pushed by Richter and Cohaagen to do exactly what the program wants him to do, thus his choice to listen to Kuato and resist Cohaagen isn't much choice at all. The Edgemar scene is the only spot where we feel Quaid could be in control of his fate, but it doesn't take him long to decide and the film wastes no time picking up the action bar again. A more subtle, dialogue-driven film could certainly work for this character and his world.

Could the story use a more modern adaptation effectively? Sure. Will it be effective? I’ll leave judgment of that until I've seen Wiseman's vision. I have no doubt that if it tries to do anything unique, there will be fans screaming about it (the same fans already complaining about the PG-13 rating, I'm sure). But with any adaptation, pissing off fans is a potential risk and a necessary one if your film wishes to add anything that wasn't already there.


[i] The Dungeonmaster (1985). Mike Mattei. April 16, 2012. http://cinemassacre.com/2012/04/16/the-dungeonmaster-1985/

Monday, February 20, 2012

The New Celebrity: How New Media Affects Celebrity Texts

A post from George Takei's
popular Facebook Page
In Paul McDonald’s discourse on stardom in The Star System, celebrity is defined as a systematic exposure of the star text in such a way as to reinforce Capitalist male hegemony while appearing on the surface to merely entertain. This structure presupposes an audience that is entirely unaware of such businesslike positioning, instead buying into the concept of the American dream – that celebrity is the result of hard work, dedication, and charisma, a concept Max Weber loosely describes as a kind of supernatural quality, in this case an inborn talent, which allows them a level of success inaccessible to just anyone. Thus, we have been led to believe celebrities are where they are because they deserve to be. However, with the popularity of new media forms and the ever increasing efficiency by which information can be distributed, the star system has been forced to become a much more complex entity which no longer exists solely in the hands of producers, if it ever did.

Jim Carrey brings a "Jim
Carrey" quality to all of his
characters.
In his article “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, Walter Benjamin asserts that because of the way film is constructed, the actor is rarely able to engage with his character or his audience and is therefore presenting not his role, but his self, to the camera. The star is not an actor in the traditional sense, but rather a person on film given prominence by the camera, through which the audience must experience the character. Benjamin argues that because anyone is capable of being filmed, we are all, in a sense, a kind of expert on film. Further, because the film is constructed with a level of care for detail impossible in other theatrical arts, and because the actor is required to model the reality that is reflected in their surroundings, the viewer is encouraged to be hypercritical of film. For a star to maintain their stardom, they must be able to jockey their way between performance and an audience relationship outside of the film itself.

Autographed photos
remain important to fans.
That relationship may once have been easy to control, as in the past it has been achieved through fan mail, clubs, and conventions, but with new media and its ability to reshape the celebrity text, the power of celebrity now rests in the hands of the blogger, the YouTube uploader, and the tabloid publisher, whose agency in reshaping star texts has become almost as important, if not more so, than the films these stars produce. In his article “New Media – New Self: The changing power of celebrity”, P. David Marshall addresses several of the changes celebrities today must face in maintaining their fame in response to this shift.

Drew Barrymore saves whales in
real life and on film in Big Miracle.
One suggestion is that celebrities such as Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt have allowed their personal lives to attract more publicity from tabloids and bloggers in order to keep themselves a matter of constant discourse in the absence of films. Celebrities may go so far as to create imitative scandals preceding the release of a film in order to gain publicity. Thus, rather than ever accept these celebrities as characters in a role, we are encouraged to interpret their identity in reality as equal to that which they portray in film. As Rebecca Williams points out, Drew Barrymore’s role choices have shown her agency in shaping her star image while taking advantage of the power of the associative relationship between actor and role. The interpretation of Barrymore’s casting in any particular role is contingent upon an understanding of her personal outlook on her career, with which the audience is already expected to be familiar.

"It's like people only do things
because they get paid. And that's
just really sad." ~ Garth Algar
The celebrity today is no longer able to separate film performance from product endorsements. As distributed media, both in terms of home video and internet streaming, become the primary means by which viewers experience film, producers cannot rely on income from commercial breaks alone and thus interweave advertising into the film itself, a phenomenon known as product placement. Product placement in film has become so common that it often goes without conscious awareness, explained away as character preference rather than a reinforcement of brand consumerism. We only seem to become aware of product placement when it is purposefully brought to our attention, usually in the context of parody. In a popular scene in Wayne’s World, Wayne Campbell says “Maybe I’m wrong on this one, but for me ‘the beast’ [acting for television] doesn’t include selling out” as he demonstrates in an obvious fashion eating from a bag of Doritos. In the same scene, when told that compliance is his choice, Wayne responds with the Pepsi slogan “Yes, and it’s the choice of a new generation,” then drinks from a can of Pepsi. Wayne’s commentary here both criticizes product placement in television while reinforcing it in film. With the exception of Nuprin, the products advertised in this scene (Pepsi, Doritos, Pizza Hut, Reebok and Nike) are popular with the demographic expected to be watching the film.

Thankfully, Jack Bauer's loyalty to
his country is stronger than his
loyalty to car makers.
Reception to product placement in television has been characterized by mixed responses. Such deals can disrupt the viewer’s suspension of disbelief when visually obvious, such as the prominence of Ford (and later Toyota) vehicles in the series 24, Apple products in The Big Bang Theory, as well as the prevalence of various branded products in 30 Rock. The fact that these instances of placement are noticeable is suggestive of the fact that product placement in television is somewhat new and unusual, but ultimately effective. However, this practice requires the celebrity to sacrifice aspects of their image in “selling out” to corporate forces.

The slanket may not be product
placement, but I wonder about the
Mac.
Few celebrities have worked their way around the problem of selling out and one’s celebrity image. One working method has been to spin the concept of product integration (writing the product into the plot of the show) into loving parody. A recent episode of The Big Bang Theory, “The Beta Test Initiation” (S05E14), features Siri, Apple’s advanced voice recognition software native to the iPhone 4S, as a necessary part of the episode’s B plot: the only “woman” to whom Kunal Nayyar’s character can speak without the influence of alcohol. 30 Rock has further integrated branding into the writing to such a degree that it is often difficult to tell what is paid product placement and what is included for humor’s sake: in “The Ones” (S03E19), Tina Fey’s character wears a product called a “slanket” and when discovered by her boss, breaks the fourth wall in proclaiming “It’s not product placement, I just like it!” Using a different approach, Lady Gaga’s video “Telephone” incorporates many corporate products, some of which become a part of her physical presentation (i.e. Diet Coke cans as hair curlers), but also includes a number of fake products, such as a “name-brand” poison, that visually parody the practice of product placement. These tactics allow actors to maintain a sense of individualism in the midst of corporate influence.

Lady Gaga speaks for herself... and maybe Diet Coke.

Betty White maintains her hip well.
Facebook and Twitter have given fans more agency in the success or failure of stars than ever before. What once took a complex letter-writing campaign can now be accomplished with a few words and the click of a mouse: Betty White’s career was recently revitalized not by a brilliant Emmy-worthy role, but by a Snicker’s commercial that prompted fan David Matthews to create a page on Facebook titled “Betty White to Host SNL (Please?)!” The page attracted enough attention from fans, White's representatives and Saturday Night Live’s producers that then 88-year-old White was announced as the host for a special Mother’s Day episode. On the other end of the spectrum, a tweet from Michael J. Wolf regarding Alec Baldwin’s behavior on a particular American Airlines flight prompted a number of Wegmans customers to use Twitter to demand that the company pull ads featuring Baldwin. When the company promptly complied, Baldwin’s fans retaliated with “hundreds and hundreds of tweets, emails and phone calls”, prompting Wegmans to issue an apology and release the ads.

Sheen describes himself
as an "unemployed winner"
With so many potential influences on the celebrity image outside of the celebrity’s control, a direct line of communication between stars and their audiences is crucial for success. Today, celebrities will often write their own blogs, post statuses on Twitter, and create fan pages on Facebook that feed the audience a constant stream of information, both preventing their image from being forgotten and giving the star a level of agency in the way fans reshape their image. Many celebrities, particularly musical artists such as Lady Gaga and Fallout Boy, have used this medium to give their fans a sense of closeness and identification that is not possible through music videos alone. Charlie Sheen's recent fall from grace could provide an excellent case study of the relationship between self-representation and fan response.

Felicia Day: a model of
the self-made celebrity
Celebrities now must truly work to maintain a celebrity status: they must constantly be aware of their public image, on guard at all times to protect that image and be familiar with a number of tools with which they may do so. They must keep themselves in a constant state of relevance between artistic engagements. They must accept the audience as agents in their success, not simply consumers of a product. If at any time being a celebrity were difficult, it is certainly made more so by newer forms of media which democratize the process. And yet, somewhat conversely, it has become easier for some to circumvent the systematic production of celebrity and achieve fame through these new forms of media, as Felicia Day and Perez Hilton have done. It can thus be said that celebrity has left the purely commercial space that it once occupied and, as Marshall asserts, the distance between fan and celebrity “is narrowing quite dramatically.”


Dan Amira. “Alec Baldwin is Too Rude to Be in a Supermarket Commercial [Updated]”. New York Magazinehttp://nymag.com/daily/intel/2012/01/alec-baldwin-wegmans-commercial.html.
Eoin O’Carroll. “Thanks to grassroots Facebook campaign, actress Betty White to host ‘Saturday Night Live’”. The Christian Science Monitorhttp://www.csmonitor.com/From-the-news-wires/2010/0507/Thanks-to-grassroots-Facebook-campaign-actress-Betty-White-to-host-Saturday-Night-Live.

Max Weber. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Ed. Talcott Parsons. ISBN 0684836408.
P. David Marshall. “New Media – New Self: The changing power of celebrity”. The Celebrity Culture Reader. ISBN 0415337925.
Paul McDonald. The Star System. ISBN 1903364027.
Rebecca Williams. “From Beyond Control to In Control: Investigating Drew Barrymore’s Feminist Agency/Authorship”. Stardom and Celebrity: A Reader. Ed. Su Holmes and Sean Redmond. ISBN 1412923212.
Walter Benjamin. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Top Ten Classic Horror Video Games - Honorable Mentions

In the 70s and early 80s, the idea of a game that could be genuinely scary was a bit premature, and the few games that attempted to bring horror to console games were poorly designed, such as adaptations of Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or original titles like Haunted House and Frankenstein's Monster (the logic that makes these horror games could easily apply to Pac-Man). Arguably, it wouldn't be until the CD-ROM age, with FMV, realistic graphics, improved sound design and more memory for all that storytelling that games would stand on par with films at delivering a horror experience. There were a few gems along the way that certainly deserve credit for starting the genre that has since exploded into such a large category that a top ten list really does little justice, and I'll present these in order by date, leading into the CD-ROM era.

Maniac Mansion
Release - October 1987
Purchase - Out of Print, NES version at Amazon.com

Maniac Mansion was the start of it all for Lucasfilm Games, now iconic in the adventure gaming market, before their nausea-inducing whoring of the Star Wars franchise (as LucasArts). Maniac Mansion was the first of its kind to bring text-based adventure games to a completely GUI-controlled engine, a standard in the genre today.

While more horror-comedy than straight horror, Maniac Mansion takes its inspiration from the B-horror sub-genre  which is difficult to take seriously anyway. Talking tentacles, blue-skinned scientists and teens with over-the-top personalities are the staple here. The plot involves a missing girl, Sandy Pantz, whose boyfriend believes her to have been kidnapped by the owner of a stereotypical creepy mansion. The owner is Dr. Fred, who is rumored to be stealing human brains for his experiments.

The game has a sense of humor that has become a standard in LucasArts adventure games. Some puzzles are solved in cliche ways, like discovering the key to the mansion under the doormat, while players can perform totally unnecessary actions for the sake of humor, like microwaving a hamster. What gives the game a horror feel is the unusual cast of antagonists, who can appear on any screen at any time in the game, and will imprison the character if they come in contact with them. Still, like the genre it draws from, the game is more fun and humor than horror, and the absurd characters draw more of the audience's focus than the horror elements.

Maniac Mansion doesn't hold up very well today. Its slow, crawling movement and dated point and click interface just beg for an upgrade, which fans have acknowledged. Maniac Mansion was followed by Day of the Tentacle in 1993, by all accounts a superior experience and one of the best adventure games ever made, but more science-fiction themed than its predecessor.

Castlevania II: Simon's Quest (ドラキュラII 呪いの封印)
Release - August 28, 1987
Purchase - Amazon.com, Virtual Console

When Castlevania II: Simon's Quest was released in 1987, it met with almost unanimous praise. Its open-world system allowed the character to go anywhere from the start of the game, though exploration would be limited by items in the character's inventory similar to the Zelda series. It introduced an RPG-like leveling system, a bartering system, and a morbid story that involves collecting the defeated Dracula's organs in order to resurrect him and defeat him again, ending the curse he placed on Simon and Transylvania for all time. It was weird, novel, and formed the basis upon which Symphony of the Night and its sequels were built.

But like Resident Evil, Simon's Quest has become known as much for its flaws as for its ingenuity, thanks in no small part to a 2004 short produced by James Rolfe. Rolfe entertainingly reviews the game as a character who hates it for ruining the Castlevania trilogy on the NES, treating the video he's making as a PSA to warn people away from the game. While most of his complaints are completely valid, a lot of the game's impossible puzzles came from the fact that its translation was horrible (as were most NES games of the time). For a game that relies so heavily on learning clues from townspeople, this is totally crippling. If you happen to follow a guide and don't mind the day-night transitions, it's not a bad game and offers some fun somewhat-linear gameplay, though whether or not the payoff is worth it is up to you.

In the words of The Nerd, "The ending sucks, too."


Friday the 13th
Release - February 1989
Purchase - Amazon.com

Unlike Simon's Quest, Friday the 13th has universally been called one of the worst games ever made since its release. It's hard to argue against that statement, but Friday the 13th does have quite a few novel elements working in its favor that are often ignored by reviewers boggled by just how bad the mechanics of the game can be.

You play as one of six counselors being stalked by Jason at Camp Crystal Lake, and can switch between counselors at any time by entering the small cabins along the path. The goal of the game is to survive for three days and defeat Jason three times. If all of the counselors and children die, the game ends. During the game, the player will randomly receive a notification that Jason is attacking someone, and the cabin where he is will flash on the map screen. The player can then run to that cabin, or switch to a closer character. Each alarm allows sixty seconds for the player to hunt down Jason before he kills his prey and moves on.

The Jason timer is surprisingly considerate; as long as you respond immediately and keep someone near the lake to defend the children, you'll always get to Jason in time (unless, of course, you get stuck in the woods or cave). Fighting him is a totally different story. Jason attacks with his fists, machete, and axe in a Punch-Out!-style fight, which requires dodging his attacks with a very particular dodge move (holding the D-Pad in the down-right position) which the game never tells you to do. Until you discover this move Jason will wipe you out every time. Once you figure it out, the timing is relatively easy and Jason retreats after eight hits or so. True to character, however, he comes back again and again, and it takes fighting him at least a dozen times to actually kill him. Once.

There are several nods to the series: defeating Jason's mother's disembodied head can give the player her sweater (which will discourage Jason from attacking on the path) as well as a pitchfork weapon. The casting is true to genre, with three male and three female characters. Two of the girls are the best characters in the game, putting Friday the 13th with Super Mario Bros 2 as games where boys will play as female characters given the choice.

Though I've never beaten the game, I personally enjoy the challenge. With today's expectations, a game is only fun if it's possible for just about anyone to beat it, but being able to kill a slasher just ruins the experience. Consider Nightmare on Elm Street, also for the NES, where Freddy Kreuger is an absolute joke. Somehow, Friday the 13th on the NES is still the best game based on a horror slasher franchise. It had the right ideas, and later games like Resident Evil 3 and Clock Tower show that these ideas can translate well to a console.

Alone in the Dark
Release - 1992
Purchase - Good Old Games

Following in the vein of the Japanese-only release Sweet Home comes Alone in the Dark, a creepy 3D-style horror game that bridges the gap between traditional games and the CD-ROM era. Based loosely on the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, the plot involves the investigation of a suspicious suicide, and is told mostly through found documents.

Alone in the Dark pioneered the idea of third-person 3D models in prerendered backgrounds, which gave developers the option of placing the camera at key locations to emphasize the horror elements: low-angle, high-angle, framed and corner shots are all fairly common during the course of the game. Unfortunately, this also means control is painfully stiff, requiring a character to stop moving forward, spin anywhere in a 360 degree path, and resume moving forward to change direction. Each time a camera shift takes place, the player has to quickly reorient themselves, and some camera shots make it terribly difficult to tell where your character is going.

Sadly, this control style, paired with how slow everything moves, makes the game borderline unplayable by today's standards. To be fair, the control is a bit typical of a keyboard-based input system: while many PlayStation games kept the 3D model/2D background method, most chose to go with a more fluid "up goes away from the screen, down goes toward it" control model that paired well with the joystick-based controller. One of the games that kept Alone in the Dark's control style was Resident Evil.

Diablo
Release - November 30, 1996
Purchase - Amazon.com

Diablo deserves mention here for its use of demonology and the sheer number of skeletons you'll see, but it's difficult to classify as horror so much as it is dark fantasy, like The Dark Crystal or Legend. It's a near-endless dungeon crawler that has the rare characteristic of changing the layout with every playthrough, making no two experiences alike. Players can choose between the three typical fantasy classes: Fighter, Archer or Magician (Warrior, Rogue and Sorcerer here).

What put Diablo on the map was definitely the multiplayer experience. Up to four players could work together to solve the game's sixteen levels, and this is definitely the best way to play it. Of course, having three people to help you takes a bit away from the potential horror experience, and whether or not horror games should include coop modes continued to be a debate until Resident Evil: Outbreak (バイオハザード アウトブレイク) in 2003.

Grim Fandango
Release - October 30, 1998
Purchase - Amazon.com

Despite a Halloween-timed release date, Grim Fandango is themed after the Mexican Dia de Muertos, a Catholic update of ancient Aztec festivals. Another LucasArts offering, Grim Fandango is frequently cited as one of the best adventure games ever made, and it's a fair reputation: the puzzles are clever, the humor is spot on, and its cultural awareness gave it a unique flavor that few games have bothered to match.

Of course, like Maniac Mansion, Grim Fandango's emphasis on humor keeps it out of most horror game discussions, as well as the plot's emphasis on noir detective stories. It is an incredible game, and it does play around with the idea of the Grim Reaper and what his job might actually be, so it's worth checking out for its bizarre imagery and fun storytelling.

Silent Hill
January 31, 1999
Purchase - PSN, Amazon.com

For some reason, Silent Hill and Resident Evil are often paired as competitors, but aside from frustrating controls, the two games share very little in common. Silent Hill is a psychological horror/thriller set in the fictional town of its title, with an arguably unreliable narrator and potential supernatural element. We never know how much of what's going on is actually happening, which is much more in line with modern horror films than the B movies Resident Evil seems to borrow from.

Everything about Silent Hill's execution is incredibly atmospheric and moody, and the design goes well with the psychological perspective: locations change entirely at different points of the game, which makes backtracking a little less monotonous. All of the indoor environments are pitch-black, leaving a flashlight as the only source of light. A pocket radio allows the player to know when monsters are nearby, emitting a high-pitched white noise in their presence.

Silent Hill may be considered a classic by some, but for me, it doesn't feel like a classic; it feels like any other modern game. Like Metal Gear Solid and a handful of other PlayStation games, it still plays well next to its big brothers on the PlayStation 2, and had the benefit of coming four years after Resident Evil, toward the end of the PlayStation's life cycle. This one would have been number eleven, had I gone past ten.

System Shock 2
Release - August 11, 1999
Purchase - Amazon.com

I mentioned System Shock in my Half-Life comments, and System Shock 2 improved much upon the precedent set by its predecessor. The concept is virtually identical, with a rogue AI taking over a starship, and trapping the player upon it. A roleplaying system is included, allowing the character to choose a background like hacker or psi user, and puzzles are solved in different ways based on the tools at the player's disposal. Inventory space is limited, giving the game a bit of a survival horror feel.

Of course, the premise allows us a creepy AI, and we hear her everywhere in the form of SHODAN, a returning character from the previous game. She taunts you as you progress, producing an effect both intimidating and encouraging. You'll also be up against zombie-like bioorganisms, so there's that. The sound design is beautiful and immersive, from the sounds of creatures, the distorted voice of SHODAN, to the moody industrial soundtrack.

This game was fairly well-received, but not quite as popular as it should have been. It does have a huge cult following, however, and fans have since put together texture packs and mods to keep the game looking and playing as beautifully as ever. If you have yet to play this masterpiece, put it on your to-game list ASAP - if you can find a copy of it.

Persona 2: Eternal Punishment
Release - June 29, 2000
Purchase - Amazon.com

The Megami Tensei RPG series has a long history in Japan, but the US got its first glimpse with the spinoff title Revelations: Persona in 1997. Persona revolves around a group of teenagers who discover an ability to awaken "personas", facets of their personality with the power to cast magical spells and cause serious damage. The idea is that, when stressed, the character becomes someone else for a brief time in order to fight, and the literal manifestation of a second personality in the form of "Persona" is pretty brilliant.

Persona 2: Eternal Punishment was my entry into the series and probably the darkest, as the plot focuses more on the adult characters than other Persona games. The story involves a reporter for a teen magazine, who is investigating a series of murders rumored to be committed if a person calls their own cell phone number and gives the name of the person they want killed. There's a ton of genuinely creepy imagery in this one: the killer, known only as "JOKER", is portrayed wearing a paper grocery bag over his head with a smile painted on it.

The "monsters" in this game are various myth-inspired demons, and the player has the ability to try talking to them before resorting to combat: certain demons are affected by different methods, such as flirting or shouting, and failing to talk them out of fighting will typically give them a head start in combat, or a buff of some kind. Succeeding gets their card, which can be used to avoid future encounters with that particular species. It's a fun system, and mastering it can make the game far easier.

The Persona series didn't really gain mainstream appeal until Persona 3, which introduced the dungeon-crawling to a high school simulation that, while a weird mix, seemed to work exceptionally well. Players could choose when they wanted to explore dungeons, and when they wanted to work on friendships or academia, though there is a sense of a time limit through the game that requires a particular amount of dungeon progress per game month. Of course, Persona 3, while widely regarded as the best in the Persona series, has yet to age enough to be considered a classic.

~

I hope you enjoyed reading about these great games, and if you haven't played something on my lists, I'd certainly encourage you to do so, whether it's Halloween, or just another Fall evening with a suitable chill in the air. The horror golden rule remains: play these games in the dark, wear headphones, turn up the volume, lock the door, and prepare to be frightened.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Top Ten Classic Horror Video Games - Part 2


Legacy of Kain: Blood Omen
Release - November 1996
Purchase - PSN, Amazon.com

"I didn't care if I was in heaven or hell. All I wanted was to kill my assassins."

The Legacy of Kain series came at a time when few games outside of AD&D allowed a character to play as a villain. The "protagonist" of Blood Omen, the vampire Kain, is undoubtedly one of the darkest main characters in video games. A nobleman slaughtered and "gifted" with vampirism, Kain hunts down his assassins and, at the behest of his mysterious benefactor, accepts a quest to assassinate the corrupted Circle of Nine. Their defeat may restore the land, but Kain's only interest is curing his vampirism and returning to some sense of normalcy.

Gameplay follows the familiar Legend of Zelda top-down adventure
format, but taken in a dark direction. Kain acquires various abilities one might expect of a vampire, such as transformations and magic spells, which certain puzzles require to solve. What makes it stand out is certainly the dark atmosphere and the amount of blood that bathes the screen. One of the first images we see in the intro are bodies impaled on stakes, evoking the legend of Vlad Tepes.

This is another game where I feel a lot of credit goes to the sound design. The music is beautifully atmospheric, offering a number of different instruments from vocalization to what sounds like a panflute. This is one of the few PlayStation games that features voice acting, and Simon Templeman's performance as Kain is incredibly memorable for all the right reasons, as he really sells Kain's charisma without sacrificing his dark, selfish nature.

The game's ending allows a choice between sacrificing Kain's vampirism (thus killing himself) to purify the land, or remaining alive and holding onto the curse, dooming the land for eternity. The canon choice is to doom the land. Now that is a badass.


Doom
Release - December 10, 1993
Purchase - Steam, Xbox Live

Finally, a game I don't have to say anything about! But there's still a lot to say about it. id Software's second entry into the 3D first-person-shooter genre is among the most well-known and controversial games ever produced, and most of those reasons fit right in with our horror showcase - gore, monsters, and a chainsaw. "I'm the Lord of the Harvest!"

For its time, Doom had some incredible lighting and sound effects that gave it a seriously haunting atmosphere. Lights flicker or shut off completely, so in many places you can't see what's coming at you until you find a light switch. Occasionally, you'll run into traps which shut off the lights and send dozens of monsters after you. Awesome. Often you'll hear something barking at you from behind before you knew anything was there. These touches are what make a bunch of 2D sprites with glowing eyes legitimately scary.

Keeping your adrenaline going through this experience is one of the most recognizable soundtracks in video games. Composed by Robert "Bobby" Prince, who took "make this soundtrack sound like these artists" a little too literally, the sountrack borrows themes from awesome songs like "Behind the Crooked Cross" by Slayer and Metallica's "The Thing that Should Not Be". Though there's no official list of sources, the Doom Wiki has a whole page about it. Most games in the horror genre rely on creepy, atmospheric music, but Doom's relentless metal is both empowering and intimidating, making the experience a fairly unique one. Because the soundtrack was coded for MIDI, it uses completely different instruments on different machines, so some versions sound better than others. My personal favorite is the SoundBlaster AWE32, though the 3DO comes close and the SNES port is pretty good, too.

I've gone and spoiled the ending!
Of course, you're asking "Is there a story to this masterpiece?" Odds are you'll still be asking that after you've played it. Mixing films like Alien with zombie fare and demonology, the story deals with a space marine (known only as Doomguy out of universe) who is the sole survivor of some kind of accident involving transporters which managed to summon creatures from hell. But the game never stops to tell a story or explain anything, with the exception of brief text between episodes, nor does it have to. Like a solid console game, if the gameplay is engrossing enough, story be damned. There is a lot of outside text about the game, both in the manual and in its sequels, but it doesn't really add anything to the series: by the time Doom 3 came along, Doom's format had already been done with much better stories.

I'd still highly recommend Doom to anyone, and if you've already played it to death or think it looks too dated, check out the Doomsday Engine and high resolution texture packs (dengine.net) to bring new life into the game. Also check out id's other offerings Hexen, Heretic, and Quake.


Parasite Eve
Release - March 29, 1998
Purchase - PSN, Amazon.com

Despite a few good titles, FMV games left a bad taste in everyone's mouths regarding the whole movie versus game debate. Games are meant to be played; movies are meant to be watched. Parasite Eve was one of the few games to embrace cutscenes as a pervasive means of storytelling while including great levels of depth and gameplay, touting itself as a "cinematic experience". Thanks to some excellent writing, beautiful imagery, solid action-RPG gameplay and a haunting soundtrack by Shimomura Yoko, it manages to pull off the blend we now take for granted.

The story is unique for a number of reasons. It is a sequel to a Japanese novel of the same name written by Sena Hideaki, in which a woman's mitochondria awaken in an attempt to take over their human host cells rather than continue to live in symbiosis with them. Once awakened in her, they try to incite the same awakening in other people. A weird plot to be sure, but the novelty and the scientific "realism" gave it a unique brand of science-fiction horror not unlike Resident Evil. The plot picks up in Manhattan, where a second Eve is awakening. After causing the spontaneous combustion of everyone in an opera house, the new Eve is fascinated by sole survivor Aya Brea, who she believes is also a potential for awakening. The plot explodes the events of the novel, giving Eve the ability to terrorize the entire island of Manhattan, and escalates the absurdity as Eve tries to conceive the Ultimate Being. Aya is a compelling lead, a tough New York cop faced with the existential crisis of becoming a kin of what she's fighting against. In an excellent move, the new location means the characters know as much about the events of the novel as the audience might, particularly in the North American version.

Good God, the imagery in this game. We get to see a lot of the transformation scenes as mitochondria take over their hosts, which are all beautifully horrendous. Monster designs are clever and imaginitive, with some of the best to be seen at the Museum of Natural History (there is a T-Rex fight, which all good games should have). Eve has several transformations as she becomes progressively more powerful, and while I won't ruin the final boss for anyone who hasn't played the game before, the experience will definitely stay with you.

If you've played Brave Fencer Musashi, you'll be glad to know this is one of the majority of Square's games that has no voice acting, and given games like Resident Evil where the horrible voice acting takes too much away from the horror elements, it's a welcome silence. Appropriately, the only voice we hear is Eve's, as she possesses a young opera singer's body. The operatic vocalization pervades the soundtrack whenever Eve is on screen, particularly during battle sequences, and the effect is incredibly eerie. Shimomura's music perfectly complements the tone of the game, and the piano pieces are breathtaking.

Parasite Eve was followed by Parasite Eve II, which took the character and story in a completely new direction that didn't quite catch on as well as the first. Compounded by a more Resident Evil-like control style and overstating Aya Brea's sex appeal, it feels like a totally different game, but still a good bit of fun.


Half-Life
Release - November 19, 1998
Purchase - Steam

Welcome to Black Mesa. Doom spawned sequels, successors, and countless user-generated mods, so much so that the formula was getting predictable and fairly tired. In 1994, Origin Systems released System Shock, which took the familiar first-person interface being used in the Ultima series and introduced it to a Doom-like cyberpunk universe, creating a game that was both first-person action and full of puzzle-based gameplay, with a heavier emphasis on puzzle-solving.

Valve's Half-Life represented a more complete symbiosis of the two ideas. Armed with only an HEV suit, a crowbar and sharp wits, theoretical physicist Gordon Freeman must fight his way out of the Black Mesa Research Facility after an experiment creates an interdimensional portal, allowing an aggressive alien species called the Xen into the facility. While combat is emphasized, advancing often requires solving puzzles, like using scientists to activate retinal scanners and using environmental objects to clear obstacles.

The monster designs are all imaginative, but the one that stands out as the "mascot" is the headcrab, Half-Life's version of the facehugger. With four crab-like legs and a mouth on its underside, it attaches itself to a victim's head, mutating the victim and controlling their body in a zombie-like fashion. Without a host, headcrabs are incredibly small and quick, making them difficult to hit, and often attack in groups. They can leap an incredible distance and use their legs as cutting tools, making them extremely dangerous opponents, not to mention creepy as hell. The chirping noise they make is the stuff of nightmares.

Tracking Freeman's progress is the gray-suited "G-Man", a Kafka-esque character who seems to be manipulating Freeman, though to what end is completely unexplained. The G-Man adds a strong existential element to an already absurd situation, calling into question issues like fate, agency, and religion, as well as the relationship of game developer to player.

Half-Life has several add-ons and fan-created mods which add different perspectives to the experience. In June of 2004, Steam released an updated version of Half-Life using the Source Engine of its sequel, showing this game is worth keeping around.


Resident Evil (バイオハザード)
Release - March 22, 1996
Purchase - PSN, Amazon.com

Before choosing to include this, I thought: "Don't open that door!" "Zombies in a mansion" is how I once summarized this Capcom classic, and with that attitude in mind, I hated it. Zombies aren't scary, they're just obnoxious. If the game allowed you to kick, half of the enemies would be no problem at all.

It's the other half that make this game worth playing, though. The infamous moment when zombie dogs come crashing through the window is genuinely startling for first-time players, and the dogs are some of the hardest normal enemies in the game (thanks to poor game mechanics, but even so). Of course, this makes us wonder why humans are so crippled by the T-Virus while dogs seem as agile as ever, but I digress. The bosses/obstacles are imaginative, with a zombie plant and the massive beast Tyrant as highlights.

The plot is definitely the strong point of the game. A team of special police investigating a series of cannibalistic murders goes missing, and a backup team is sent to recover them. When they find the scene they are attacked by wild dogs, their pilot abandons them and they're forced to seek refuge in a nearby mansion. They are quickly separated, and investigating the mansion reveals it to be the testing ground of a virus that turns human beings into zombies. As with Parasite Eve, there's a scientific approach to the horror aspect, though the use of viruses makes it a bit more generic.

The real "Evil" or "Biohazard" the title suggests is the Umbrella Corporation, a pharmaceutical conglomerate hoping to branch into bioweaponry for military contracts. When seen in that light, the story is brilliant; the zombies themselves are faceless victims of corporate greed, unchecked business ethics, and nationalistic paranoia, offering real-world commentary and an excuse to have a mansion full of zombies.

Unfortunately, Resident Evil has come to be characterized by its many flaws. The control scheme is horrendous, using the same tank-like system that crippled early 3D exploration games like Alone in the Dark. Characters can only shoot/stab at 45 degree angles, leaving a wide range in front of them they can't hit, and headshots are only possible at extremely close range. Thanks to these and limited ammo, a smart player will generally avoid combat altogether, but the few enemies you have to fight (like the zombie dogs and crows) are a pain in the ass to hit.

The voice acting is legendary for its poor quality. It's as if the director asked the actors to deliver their lines in the same tone they would order at a fast food window. It might fall into the category of "so bad it's good" for some gamers, but for the rest, there's a remake, or you could consider learning Japanese and play the original Biohazard. The localization did not take itself very seriously.


There's a slew of sequels, spinoffs, remakes and films for this series, but I prefer the simplicity of the first few games. The first three feel like a trilogy; the rest feel like milking a franchise.

~

I hope you enjoyed this top ten list! Come back soon for a third installment of honorable (and not so honorable) mentions for games that didn't quite make the top ten for one reason or another. Happy Halloween!