Why ‘Character’ is a Dirty Word
Sony Santa Monica released God Of War in 2005, to critical and commercial acclaim. We all know the story, people were entranced by the texture of the setting; hyper-violent Greek Mythology, like Todd MacFarlane meets Homer. The series did well commercially due to the satisfying combat and the continuous stream of new skills and abilities doled out to anti-hero Kratos throughout the course of the game. God Of War head designer David Jaffe referred to this system as the ‘morphine drip-feed’, a way to keep the gamer engrossed through giving him something new to look forward to around every potential corner. It’s the same formula that keeps companies like Zynga growing like crazy, the prospect of there always being more just at the edge of where you were going to stop playing. It’s not a new system, but it works, and God Of War was one of the inaugural abusers of the concept.
But the biggest change in design ethic for the development of videogames was ‘Character’. In the 8-Bit days, characters were part of the overall design. Mario was thrown together because Nintendo figured out how to make jumping feel right in a virtual setting. Mario has no personality outside of eagerness to be a perpetual White Knight to a woman who doesn’t seem to give a toss about him. The true charm of Mario, outside of the surreal art-style of the Mushroom Kingdom, is all in the jump. It’s easy to overlook this today, but in 1985 nothing had moved quite like our happy plumber. He had inertia. You could go for a full run and when you let your finger off the ‘right’ button on the D-Pad, he slowed down. Mario was the first character who really moved like a person. A crazy cartoon person, but a person nonetheless.
What does this have to do with God Of War? Think about what characteristics of God Of War’s main avatar Kratos. Chains wrapped around his arms. White ghostly skin/body-paint. Tattoos. A GOATEE. Was it Sony Santa Monicas’ intention to make a videogame that truly let you feel how it is to be a person with a goatee? Maybe there is somebody at that studio who thought so, and all the more power to them, but we honestly can’t see how Kratos’ facial hair makes him a more distinctive character. The only attribute that he has that is actually integrated into gameplay are his chains, that stretch out to hit enemies. It’s a smart move, something that makes the combat system more fluid and forgiving. Giving Kratos that extra reach makes it easier for the player to not lose his combo streak, allowing that synapse-firingly-satisfying combo to go up, with the additional rewards of seeing the words ‘BLOODY!’ pop up on the screen. It’s easier for the player to get his fill at feeling awesome.
This isn’t to say that God Of War is an inherently bad game series. It’s sort of the true fast food of gaming, it’s enjoyable, but it’s completely empty. There is little mastery of game mechanics to be had in Kratos’ 5 (soon to be 6!) adventures, just beating everything up and then getting more stuff to beat people up in different ways. The main ugly trend that God Of War has forced to rear its’ ugly head is this focus on making the character before figuring out interesting gameplay mechanics.
We here at LUNA gave Grasshopper Manufactures’ Lollipop Chainsaw a spin over the weekend, invigorated by the developers last excellent release Shadows Of The Damned, a game that managed to tie the trademark Suda51 personality and punk-rock aesthetic to a competent and satisfying set of game mechanics. Sure, those mechanics were more-or-less ripped off wholesale from Shadows designer Shinji Mikami‘s previous Resident Evil series, but they meshed well with the aesthetic and the characters to form a fully realized whole. Lollipop Chainsaw did not do this.
All the accusations of blatant sexism in the character design aside, Lollipop Chainsaw attempts at creating an ultra-violent Buffy The Vampire Slayer with zombies and a bizarre 1950s-by-the-way-of-the-1980s-for-no-reason setting. It was intriguing in the way that tangible details always are, and enough of an incentive for us to check it out. However, about an hour into the game we came to the awful conclusion: this was a game that had about 40 minutes of actual game design plotted out, wrapped in months of interesting art/sound design.
The combat is clunky and unmanageable. The levels appear to be designed for our lead heroine Juliet to use her giant loveheart emblazoned Chainsaw to hack through legions of the undead in a visceral, satisfying way, but instead leave her cutting through zombie flesh impotently, like her chainsaw is made out of rubber (this was also a serious issue in the Star Wars Force Unleashed games, where the developers seemingly forgot that Lightsabers are able to cut through human flesh like butter). The light and heavy combos are so robotically delivered through visual cues of the main characters animations, it feels like she has a back brace on the entire game.
Every now and then there is the promise of an interesting mechanic. Early on in the game Juliets’ boyfriend is horribly decapitated but remains alive, and so she can throw his head on headless zombies to control them at her whims. What initially sounds kind of interesting is dissolved fairly quickly when you realize that these sequences are the dreaded Quick-Time Events. Where instead of being directly in control of any given character, you instead press button prompts on the screen until the animation has completely resolved.
Everything about Lollipop Chainsaw smacks of laziness except the actual aesthetic. The cutscenes in the game are hilarious, portraying Juliet as some kind of uber-teenage girl, full of insecurity and poor self-image issues and directly contrasting that with the overt sexuality of the camera-angles and subtle-as-a-sledgehammer innuendo of the dialogue. You could be offended by it if you were completely without a sense of humor, but it manages to retain just enough of a tongue-in-cheekiness about itself that it never really breaks over into the crassly exploitative.
However, the character of Juliet (and the setting) seem to be the developers ultimate priority. There is no desire by Grasshopper Manufacture to introduce a new, interesting set of mechanics to the fray of the already over-saturated beat-em-up genre, only the desire to see an 18 year old girl kick the crap out of hordes of the living dead. In which case, we all have to wonder, did this have to be a video game? The real question we are asking to are readers; is just a strong character and setting enough to carry a game? We’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.