The heavy-handed allusions to the pop culture worlds created by David Lynch ("Twin Peaks") and John Carpenter ("In the Mouth of Madness"), combined with a B-movie-like insistence on improbable coincidences, all feel a bit overly pulpish. But, upon further reflection, the construction starts to make more sense. Alan Wake is himself a writer of popular horror fiction, hence the world his writing brings to life is itself a distillation of the basic tenets of pulp drama--the perfectly timed crossing of different characters' paths, the improbably motivated villain, the Doubting Thomas sidekicks, and the ultimate deus ex machina.
To this day, our perception of the Western owes much more of its DNA to Sergio Leone and Franco Nero than to John Ford and Gary Cooper. Those Italian/Spanish/French/etc. international co-productions looked at 19th century America through an international lens, an idea never more important than in today's hyperconnected, essentially borderless world. Though Red Dead Redemption was developed by an American creative team, the American West it presents is one filtered through that international view of the Western genre, with its twangy guitars, religious iconography, and dark antihero operating in a moral vacuum.
Limbo carries that same dreamlike feel (the polar opposite of the crisp Hollywood dreamland of "Inception," for example). The edges of the screen flicker and shift, looking very much like the iris masking techniques of the early days of cinema. For a far more striking example, look to this frame from the 1922 film "Haxan" about the history of witchcraft. Is there any more universally recognizable setting when presented in monochrome silhouette than the unsettling mysterious forest?
Heavy Rain is likewise a peek into one possible future of interactive entertainment, and even though it misses the mark, it misses on levels that more mainstream games don't even aspire to.
Though overflowing with characters, conversations are possible with only a handful, and even then, much of it is the kind of stilted basic exposition that even beginning screenwriters try to avoid. Rather than a real, interactive world, you're often left feeling like the only person in a fun house full of automatons--which may be a tough hurdle to get over, as that's what a single-player video game essentially is.
Back in 2007, that game's creators dressed up a familiar story-driven shooter with groovy retro-modern visual details and somewhat oversold references to objectivism and a shadowy Howard Roark-like figure lurking behind the plot. The result was greater than the sum of its parts, and became the kind of video game that garnered widespread interest outside of the insular game universe.
In practice, the end result is akin to making a game inspired by "Moby Dick," but actually about a cybernetcially enhanced bounty hunter whale who rides a turbo-charged speedboat called the Pequod.
But there is clearly a thirst for the particularly brutal brand of adventure told in these myths, as evidenced by the success, both critical and commercial, of the God of War games. It shouldn't be surprising--this is the same source material referenced by Joseph Campbell as the archetype for the classic Hero's Journey (also known as the monomyth)--the basic pattern for narratives across every culture, era, and genre.
The subtle clues we use to navigate the real world--peripheral vision, depth perception, etc.--are stripped away. Of our five senses, we get about half the benefit of our sense of sight, and a decent amount from our hearing (at least if one has a good 5.1 surround sound setup). Force-feedback controllers that rumble in the hand may add a tiny bit of touch to the mix, but that's about it--at least until they start making games in taste-o-vision.
But this embrace of youth may be the key to why Mario remains relevant while anthropomorphic rivals from Crash Bandicoot to Sonic have faltered. Rather than trying to hip up the franchise, it remains true to that original '80s NES experience; we all get older, but Mario and pals stay the same.
Like the YouTube-style handheld camera aesthetic the game mimics, Kane & Lynch 2 distracts, confuses, and at the same time immerses with blown-out video, oversaturated colors, skipped frames, and other hallmarks of the Flip cameras, mobile phone video, and security cam footage that have become such a big part of the language of online video.
This is a '40s/'50s America as imagined through the bars of the Iron Curtain. All the big beats are there, from the corrupt police to the black market economy, as well as the story of first-generation immigrants struggling, but also thriving by creating their own destiny--a key part of America's mystique for those who had lived (or whose parents had) through Czechoslovakia's Prague Spring movement.
But the real reason fans will wait out in the drizzling rain for the midnight release of a Halo game isn't the Tom-Clancy-meets-George-Lucas space opera; it's the full-contact multiplayer. The social utility derived from players around the globe having a shared experience, even if they're doing it at different times and in different places, mirrors the best aspects of social networking, with Xbox Live as the modern equivalent of the office water cooler.
But there's some truth to the complaints, with game publishers forced to walk a very fine line between keeping traditional customers happy and attracting new audiences. Don't forget that Zynga's FarmVille, arguably the most popular PC game around, is built around a sort of anticomplexity, engaging users in Zen-like repetitive motion instead of brain-taxing strategy.
The undercurrent behind that fork in the road is concept of self, and how the player psychologically engages with the game's characters. In most Western games, the protagonist is a largely generic blank slate, who literally becomes the player--a concept further enhanced by the trend toward games with moral choices and branching dialogue trees that reshape the game according to user input. The Japanese default is more about setting up a distinctive, often over-the-top character (such as DR2's extreme motorcycle racer Chuck Greene), and taking the player along on a predetermined wild ride.
As often happens, this is one of those cases where both sides really do have a legitimate, reasoned point of view. Those who opposed the game in its original form (based largely on the ability to play as Taliban fighters in the game's online multiplayer matches) have a point about how real-time current events are portrayed, whereas defenders make no distinction between games and films, such as "The Hurt Locker" or "Generation Kill." After all, it would be unthinkable to mark even still-brewing current events as verboten in any of the so-called serious art forms. Still, it's also easy to be sympathetic to the argument that passively watching or reading something about the Taliban is markedly different than being put in their shoes as part of an interactive experience.
Because if there's one thing the Fallout universe teaches gamers, it's that survival in the wasteland requires more selfless cooperation and less tribalism. And the game's greatest strength is in creating a sense that those relationships need to be nurtured (unless you're playing the game as an insensitive jerk, which is an amusing, but more difficult, option). Despite the sometimes oppressive grimness of the proceedings, it's that ultimately uplifting underlying idea that stands in stark opposition to the go-it-alone vibe of many games.
But it's actually not nearly as abstract a concept as one might think. It turns out that the vast majority of video games are essentially concerned with nonverbal communication in one form or another. Sometimes it's wordlessly shooting down waves of enemy soldiers, other times it's getting a basketball from one end of the court to the other by reading the body language of teammates and opponents, or even retelling famous stories through mime-like Lego characters.
The Fable series makes no attempt to disguise its deep fascination with the topic, and the end result is more of an elaborate puzzle box than a traditional narrative; players are trained to think more about gaming the system for extra widget points than truly interacting with virtual people.
In comparison, this is no "Apocalypse Now" or "Platoon" (or even "The Green Berets"); it's Cold War action in the Michael Bay mold, as big and explosive as games get, with all the telltale signs of big budgets and focus groups. At the same time, one has only to see a brutal torture scene early in the game to feel its connection to current events. Unlike the black-and-white patriotism of the WWII-era Call of Duty games, there are shades of gray here that, though historically appropriate for the era, also clearly reflect current-day sensibilities.