Sunday, February 28, 2010

Character Profile: Travis Bell

Straight up, being a remnant psyche would be horrible. Actually, on second thought, that could be kind of cool. It would all depend on who you followed around. Celebrities, boring; politicians, ugh; sports stars, God no; a group of professional assassins, now that could be interesting. The Killer 7 are an elite group dedicated to exterminating the Heaven Smile threat, and Travis Bell was their first target. He became the “Killer who got killed on the job,” and the group’s first remant psyche. And Travis isn’t afraid to provide harsh and relentless criticism over it. As he puts it, “Hey Smith, I ain’t letting you go nowhere.”

As odd and eclectic as he may seem, Travis is a reliable voice. His ability to tell Garcian “Straight up” what's going on shows his insight into the government’s underground affairs. In a game as convoluted as Killer 7, Travis is an invaluable ally in finding the truth. He doggedly pursues any and all connections between the assassins and their targets. Travis is usually willing to share what he finds, but he’s also disenfranchised soul. This gives him a huge agency within the story. He could tell us exactly what's going on, but he won't. As a psyche, Travis could go anywhere and do anything, but he’s tethered to the group. To stick around with a bunch of assassin for a week is one thing, you’d get to know them just enough to see what they do for a living. If you spent fifty years with them, you end up a little jaded. Travis knows what’s going on in the world and can see past the hypocrisy. And why make it easy for them? They did kill him after all.

What makes Travis so interesting is that there are three elements involved when reading him. First, there’s his posture. Each time we encounter Travis he’s always in a new position or performing some action. From pelvic thrusts to cooking to working out, he’s always doing something that’s symbolic of his mood. Second, there are his t-shirt. Like his pose, each says something about the tone of his upcoming dialogue. His t-shirts also add an unconscious layer to his tone. The third is the straight up analysis of his dialogue. For instance, in the first level he says this to Garcian:

“Oh, there you are! Don’t be shy, Emir! Who woulda figured you’d be the only survivor? Well, anyway, how are you getting along with the chief? Straight up, I was waiting for you this whole time. Yeah, I know… Don’t be so mad, man… Don’t glare at me like that… The chief’ll wake up. Really, I’m sorry. The other chief must be rolling on the floor with laughter.”

Travis is just nonchalantly reclining against a wall waiting for Garcian Smith to show up, whatever, he’s cool with it. In reality, Travis was killed in 1969, almost fifty years prior to the incident at the Celtic Building. He’s been waiting for a long freaking time. His t-shirt has the words “Pillow Talk” written on it. This may seem insignificant, but it affects the player on a subconscious level. Travis t-shirt is saying that he's “In Bed” with the Killer 7 and he's able to share intimate details about their lives. And right off the bat, Travis’s dialogue shows that he can see through Harman’s façade. He can see into the deeper conflict inside of Garcian Smith. This shows just how much power Travis holds over the game’s narrative. The only problem is that he’s a cryptic and reluctant expositional character.

In “Setting sun” Travis talks about the Yakumo Party Cabinet and introduces the International Ethics Committee. These are big names in the government conspiracies surrounding you. This is how Travis confronts Garcian and his identity. Travis asks us, "How much do you actually know?" and in truth we know absolutely nothing about what's going on. Garcian believes that he is working for the United States government to help stop the Heaven Smiles, he’s right and he’s wrong. Behind all of the bloodshed there's a veil of deception being pulled over Garcian’s eyes. This is the thing about Killer 7, you can’t know what’s going on in the game.

Travis is one of the lucky few who were transformed into a remnant psyche. According to Iwazaru, these kinds spirits are only formed by killing them and most are either unwilling to leave their killers alone or unable to. Travis is in the former category. But we see people who we have killed returning to talk with us and give us some advice. Afterwards, they always disappear, but not Travis. He stays with us and haunts us. Travis is unable to release his grip from Garcian because his death brought a kind of pleasure. He even says, “The pain went straight up my spine, and then back down again. To be honest, that shit felt good.” You can see how Travis is able to connect his catch-phrase to the sexual pleasure/ecstasy he got from death. This is why he follows the Killer 7 around. To be with them is to be stimulated, in more ways than one.

Travis Bell was killed on a hot and muggy summer’s night, and not without a hint of irony. He was assigned to take out the Killer 7, but got a bullet instead. Even in death Travis managed to keep his sense of humour about it. If you read Hand in Killer 7, you can get a sense of who he is in relation to the group, but there’s an air of mystery surrounding him. Travis has a fragmented sense of self. This is why he has to display his emotional states in his posture, in his facial expressions and on his t-shirts. Each character in Killer 7 is obscured in some way. This is why Travis is so important. He is an expositional character, a secondary voice who is outside of the main story. As one of these remnant psyches, he has insight into the psychological condition of the characters. He knows things about him. But as a means of exposition, you’d probably be better off listening to Iwazaru than Travis. Travis is a reliable and an interesting voice, but he’s also a smartass. The thing about him is that he can see past the façade. He can see into Garcian’s true nature and the conflict he’s apart of. Near the end of the game, Travis says this:

“There you are, Smith. I was waiting for you. Do you remember this hotel? Let’s talk straight for a second. Well, suit yourself. It was stuck into this sofa. I found it again. What does this bullet mean? You know, right chief? The charade is all over, my friend.”

Again, we can use the same method of analysis. In this dialogue, Travis is sitting in a pretty dramatic spot inside of Hotel Union. As you run through hotel, you are confronted by six different rooms each with a "soul shell" hidden inside. Each time you uncover one of these shells, Garcian, in the second part of the level, recollects the fragments of a mission he was sent on many years ago. This is how Travis confronts Garcian with the “Truth,” and he knows it’s going to hurt. Travis’s t-shirt says “New York” on it. There’s an over arcing theme in the game about the deception of the United States government. By connecting Garcian’s false identity with the word “New York” it creates a bridge between Garcian’s fragmented identity and the United States. In essence, it’s Travis attacking Garcian’s identity as a person and his role as an assassin for the US government. Travis sees past the charade and he knows how little time there is left in the game. This is another aspect of his character I'll be talking about a little later on.

As a remnant psyche, Travis Bell is nothing more than a figment of Garcian Smith’s imagination. This is what makes his character so interesting. Travis is aware of his existence as a videogame character. In "Alter Ego" he comments on how stupid collecting the colour samples is. He says something like, "What's a pain in the ass! What's with the design of this studo? Straight up, this sucks ass. Pissing me off, I tell ya." He is aware that collecting these samples if far too complex for any real world security system.

To say that Killer 7 is an accessible game is like saying Goichi Suda and Shinji Mikami are mainstream developers. The more you think about the story the less it makes sense. Garcian Smith is fragmented along the lines of his personality, his psyche and his identity. So, in order to fully understand Travis, you have to look to the source of his creation, Emir Parkreiner. Major spoilers ahead, I’ll do a small recap of Travis below.

Travis Bell is a remnant psyche who can see almost everything. He’s willing to share his knowledge, and right from the start of the game we can see just how much he knows. He looks at Garcian and just laughs. He says, “The other chief must be rolling on the floor with laughter.” Travis is important because he can see into the conflicts surrounding the Killer 7, and ,unlike Iwazaru, he’s no servant of the Master. He can speak his mind. He has free agency to say what he wants and do what he likes so long as he follows his killers on their journey. In some ways, this makes Travis more of a prisoner than Iwazaru. He’s trapped in his spiritual form, not because he likes it, but because he can’t escape from his obsession with finding the truth behind his death. He wants to know the truth, and this is what drives him. He’s an important character because of the exposition he provides. He tells us about the alternate reality we are in and what the hell we should be doing. Travis Bell can see into Garcian’s mind and collect some of the fragments. The only problem is that picture he constructs is grotesque and unfinished. On with the profile!

Emir Parkreiner was an assassin who was trained at Coburn Elementary school. After killing all of the school’s faculty and students, he was picked up by the US government as an assassin. Emir was then tasked with killing a group of assassins called the "Smith Alliance" that included: Harman, Dan, KAEDE, Kevin, Mask, Coyote and Con. This murder spree was later known as the Killer 7, partially due to the intense level of violence that took place but mostly because there were seven victims. After these events took place, Emir committed suicide on the roof of Hotel Union. This death of the “self” spurred the creation of a disocciative identity disorder. He thus assumed the roles of the assassins he killed and used them in his government sanctioned operations. On a spiritual level this was when Harman Smith, an ancient demi-god, decided to take in Emir as a vessel to wage his battle against Kun Lan.

For me, understanding Killer 7 depends on your grasp on the characters. One of my goals for doing all of these character profiles was one day to get around to categorizing and examining each of the Smith personalities. Each of them is article in and of themselves, they’re that complex. I thought starting on a smaller would be best. Travis Bell is anything but simple, his moods and thought are complex, his dialogue is insanely cryptic and his purpose in the game is somewhat obscure. Straight up, he knows what's going on. This is what makes Travis so different from the other spirits. He can see through Emir, he can see through Harman and he can see through the United State’s historical façade. Travis can see the truth.

In Travis’s last dialogue he says, “I’m warning you, the truth is too big to even begin to scratch the surface. But Smith, I do believe that you can find the truth.” He confides in Garcian that he believe that the end is near. It’s quite a dramatic moment and it signals the death of his character. He says, in probably is the best last words in all of videogames, “I’m telling you straight up, this is about it from me. I wish you all the luck, and die like a dog. Then laugh it off. I’ll be waiting for you with a grin as wide as the truth.” What a way to go out.

Haunting the Killer 7 would be tough. The hardest part would be trying to keep the important details to yourself. If anything, Travis helped Garcian find himself. Killer 7 is a tough game and is practically impossible to decipher. It’s a game that no one can really understand, and this applies even to the characters themselves. Travis Bell is a minor voice in the grand scheme of things, but the fact that he can see so much makes him almost too important to be left unexplored. Sure, being a remnant psyche of an inherently fragmented person would be kind of confusing, but Travis works with what he can get. He's "The Killer who got killed on the job" and, ironically, he helped Garcian actually get somewhere.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Character Profile: Hunk

The Mercenaries introduced me to the neck-snapping and silent Hunk. It took me a while to get used to him, but he turned out to be the character for those tense trapped-in-a-corner moments. The problem with Hunk is unlike Leon, Krauser, Wesker or Ada, he doesn't have definition as a character. I was making him go into insane and zombie-filled situations without knowing the real history behind him. I'll admit, I thought he was a little bland. Then I started opening up his character and exploring the man behind the gasmask. Though he may lack a voice, this doesn’t mean that Hunk lacks a personality. In fact, it means that there’s a wide range of speculation for his profile. And though most of what you see is really what you get, especially in the Mercenaries, his character goes much deeper than his outside appearance. Underneath the combat gear and silent façade, he’s a character obsessed with death and a character who suffers from a number of psychological delusions in order to cope with his job. He's called Mr. Death after all.

Two months after the first incident in 1998, Hunk was a part of an elite unit sent to recover the G-virus from an underground lab. He was the only one to survive. About three months after that, he had a hand in the mission to deliver the T-virus to Rockfort Island. For a character who’s so seemingly minor, Hunk has really gotten around in the Resident Evil universe. This is what makes his character so interesting. He’s practically a ghost when it comes to the operations he’s been involved in, yet you can see the impact it has had on everyone. He’s a behind the scenes kind of mercenary. Whenever he goes on a mission, he completes it with deadly precision and what makes his tactics so interesting is that he’s always the only person to return from his squad. This happens because all he knows is the mission. He’s got a serious case of occupational tunnel vision. What kind of personal life could that make for? Being known as a reaper could do some serious psychological trauma to a person’s sense of self. There are a few theories about his character, two of which I think are probably the most sound.

Hunk’s a cold-blooded assassin who exists for the next objective. Through this “mission only” mentality, he’s able to justify the use of his Death persona. It’s an efficient mindset for killing zombies and the occasional tofu monster. Hunk was originally trained at Rockfort Island and there he learned how to kill quickly and ruthlessly. Now, working for the Umbrella Corporation as a scientist is pretty dicey. You’re exposed to lethal viruses, there’s a pretty good chance of getting mauled or going insane, but at least the danger isn’t imminent. Working as a mercenary for a company who dabbles in necromancy is going to be filled with death and your conscience is likely to be laden with the guilt of what you’ve helped do. Hunk is something special. Using his persona as Mr. Death, he puts himself into a mindset where he becomes more than a merchant of death. He thinks that because he is the only one ever to come back from the mission that he’s an invincible spectre, a character who has achieved “god mode” status. This is a really interesting way of looking at his psychology.

Another is to look at his exterior persona as nothing more than a façade. If we look at his character history, so much has been protected. We don’t even know his first name. The persona as Mr. Death and Hunk could be his way of protecting his identity as an individual. This has to do with his psychological conditioning. On one hand, his identity as Hunk could have been created through warfare. On the other hand, his persona could have been created during training in order to protect his identity as an individual. I like to think of his gas mask as a physical manifestation of his obscurity of self. It’s him protecting his identity and keeping his person separate from his persona’s actions. You can see how his character is open to a scope of speculation.

You can see some similar psychological profiles in other characters in the series. Ada Wong has a very similar attitude about her identity as Hunk. Her prologue in Resident Evil 3 says:

A woman looks at herself in the mirror. She used to be called Ada Wong… but this morning she will say good-bye to that name. “I’m not Ada anymore.” She feels her ab and thinks “This is Ada’s scar, not mine.” And as she says good-bye to Ada Wong, she can’t stop her tears. However, there isn’t much time left before her next mission.

This could be me reading way too much into things, but it looks like “Ada Wong” is just another created persona. She seems to have created a second self in order to deal with her role as both a tool for the Umbrella Corporation and Wesker. This kind of disassociation is related to a real psychological disorder called Dissociative Identity Disorder. With Hunk, we see another and very similar epilogue:

“Once again, only your survived, Mr. Death,” the chopper pilot speaks with cold bitterness. “Always, only your, survive, Mr. Death,” the pilot continues. But Hunk does not respond to the pilot. He doesn’t care. “The Death cannot die…,” the survivor thinks to himself with a warm smile…”

Unlike actual cases of DID, Hunk and Ada are aware of their actions and aware of their seperate personalities. Hunk may be a little more schizophrenic than Ada, but without any real kind of definition of character it’s hard to come to a real conclusion about his psyche. Being deluded into thinking that he is more than just a merchant of death, but Death itself could obviously create some psychological trauma. Or it could just be his way of coping with his work. Ada and Hunk aren’t at the level of disassociation as Alfred Ashford. Through Alfred, we can see that there is a history of this character creating process in the Resident Evil series. Hunk is just a little more obscure in his motives.

One definitive aspect of Hunk is that he’s a veritable badass. He is a trained solider who has undoubtedly participated in many combat situations and recovery operations. We see how effective of a soldier he can be when fully utilized in the Mercenaries and we see how clean his methods are in the Fourth Survivor. What makes his character so unique and standalone is that no matter how invincible he may be or how important he is to the canon, he has been left undeveloped. And this is a good thing. His ambiguity is what makes him such an interesting character to read into. All we have from him are a handful of quotes and a few case histories of his operations. That’s about it! He’s a hunk of combat gear and death!

I’m certain that Hunk has a life outside of the Umbrella Corporation. Somewhere in the Resident Evil canon there’s room to give this character a little more definition, but there is a slight problem with this. Imagine what would happen if we were to learn about his family. In the Resident Evil universe, the individual is always a target and family is right at the core of most characters. Another theory about his lack of definition is that he is trying to protect, not only his self, but his family. By withholding information about his personal life, he is protecting those who he might love. It’s a little bit of a cheesy theory, but it would help explain his deadly mindset and his creation of the Hunk persona.

Everyone always seems to complain about the campy writing in Resident Evil. The dialogue can get a little corny every once in awhile, but on the whole characters of the series are well defined, deep and interesting. Hunk is unique in that what little definition he has says a lot about his personality. Through just a few lines of dialogue, we can find so much detail about this silent assassin. I just hope he doesn’t get a gritty reboot any time in the near future. He’d probably have to kill the writers.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Character Profile: James Sunderland and Angela Orosco

Like the town itself, there’s a mystique surrounding the characters of Silent Hill. But before I get into this profile, I’ve got something to get out of the way. I love these games. Everything about the series just makes me pulsate with excitement. I recently played through Silent Hill and Silent Hill 4, which were both amazing experiences, but my mind was always wandering back towards Silent Hill 2. In most players’ minds, the second game is definitely the best. James Sunderland is an enthralling protagonist because of his ambiguous nature and segmented psychological profile. He has lost his self within Silent Hill. He’s really just a big, metaphorical question posed to the player. The town itself is a reflection of his psychological state, but one character stands apart from it. Angela Orosco is in her own Silent Hill, and she’s going to be the main focus of this article. But to understand Angela, we first have to look at James.

James has just received a letter from his dead wife Mary who said to meet her at their “special place.” James immediately sets out for Silent Hill, a resort town located somewhere in the United States. This game starts off much like the first. James finds himself walking through the fog filled and deserted streets of the town looking for someone. This is the first time his psychological state becomes apparent. When he looks into the mirror at the roadside stop he sees himself, but as we go into the town of Silent Hill it begins to fill with fog. This is James’s “Fog World.” It is the essence of his confusion and his muddled nature. His world and its inhabitants represent all the desires he has suppressed and memories he has compartmentalized throughout the course of his life. His memories, his anger, his sexual frustrations, they are all hiding and lurking within the fog. The first real manifestation of this is the straight-jacket creature. It’s called the Lying Figure and it’s symbolic of James’s internal suffering, but it also plays another role. It introduces the player to the kind of experience you are about to embark upon. The survival horror genre is as much about constraining the character as the player. Let’s look at another example.

The Mannequin is constructed of the bottom half of two women, you probably get the picture and you probably see what key desire James has been suppressing. Everything in Silent Hill: the town, the people, the fog and the creatures are all apart of James’s psychological state. And this brings up another interesting and unavoidable point. The people who James meets in Silent Hill are all constructed from his mind. Maria is extremely sexualized and for a good reason, she is the ideal state of his dead wife. She is what James desired most out of Mary. He wants Mary to be her sexually active self. Quite Freudian if you ask me, but I digress. Every character and every monster in his town make James whole, it’s like they are his manifested persona. The obscurity of the self becomes a major theme of this game and this is reflected in its characters. James can be broken down into his id, ego and superego. Eddie is his id, Maria is his ego and Silent Hill is his superego. Without getting into a deep Freudian reading of his character, you might want to take a look at this: There are certain things I agree with, especially his reading of Eidde, and there are other things I disagree with this analysis of the game. Whoever wrote this has disappeared since 2008, but I think he has a pretty good understanding of Silent Hill.

The problem with taking a reading of Silent Hill from a “James Only” perspective is that we assume his quest is central to the game. Of course it’s the main focus, but Angela Orosco begs an important question. What is the true nature Silent Hill? I’ve always thought of it as a transformational area, a place where a person’s subconscious manifests itself into a physical form. Just take a look at the first game. Alyssa’s Silent Hill is filled with fog and cold. She was trapped within a hospital for almost her entire life and had a limited view of the world. The fog would only come naturally to someone like her who has been trapped within a room for ages. Henry Townsend from Silent Hill 4 has a very different view of Silent Hill. Like Harry Mason, he has an outsider’s perspective on the town and its surroundings. What separates him is exactly just what I just described, they are outside of the psychological scope of Silent Hill and they are experiences another person’s manifestation. What makes Angela so interesting is that her reality runs parallel to James. She has her own Silent Hill that actively engages with his.

Angela is a 19-year-old runaway, she’s was also abused as a child and it’s alluded to that she was repeatedly raped. She came to Silent Hill looking for her mother, but she is unable to find anyone. What makes her reality so interesting is unlike James’s fog, she has her fire. There’s a piece of dialogue right at the last time we see Angela where James remarks, “It’s hot as hell in here” to which she responds “It’s like this all the time for me.” Her Silent Hill is filled with engulfing flames that are constantly trying to catch her. It’s all the pain of her life manifested into something terrifying and encroaching. As James has his confusions, Angela has her pain. Unlike Eddie, who is a manifestation of James’ id; Laura, Mary’s innocence and Maria, James’ sexual frustration, Angela totally stands a part. What has to be understood about her is that when she is with James their realities merge. In some of the scenes where they interact, she acts as though she does not know James, as if they had never met. She acts confused and muddled, like she’s suffering from smoke inhalation. This is how James affects her. This is also what separates her from his reality.

What does the Lying Figure or the Mannequin mean to Angela? Absolutely nothing, but that’s not necessarily the case. If you take a reading of her character you can see that the characters who exist to James are of no consequence to her. If Eddie was really a person, why don’t we see any interaction between him and Angela? Why doesn’t she know about Laura? Why is it that whenever the two meet, she moves onto a separate path unavailable to James, it is because she has her own hell to go through, she has her own memories to conquer. This is what makes Silent Hill as a transformational environment so interesting and a character like Angela so intriguing.

What would it have been like to have played through her experience? I remember playing through Maria’s Born from a Dream and feeling kind of disappointed. It really didn’t add any depth to Silent Hill even though it helped explore Maria’s character. To have played through Angela’s journey would have made for a better experience. The only draw back is that this article would basically be useless, and you wouldn’t want that. What Angela represents is another lens through which to understand Silent Hill. It’s kind of like a purgatorial quest. I always thought that James and Angela are together because they had died at the same time. The only problem is that purgatory for them is a symbolism filled hell.

Angela is a rape victim. This is what drives her psychological state. There’s a scene in the game where she is being attacked by a monster called the Abstract Daddy. In walls of the flesh-coated room metal pistons steadily pulsate in and out of small holes. When James kills the monster, Angela lashes out against it and viciously attacks it. We can see here that the Abstract Daddy is her manifestation because it only has a small representative nature to James. After the fight, she accuses James of hating his wife and then disappears. Through her lens James is a representation of her oppressor, he is her father. Every time he reaches out to her with compassion and caring, she recoils because her father and her mother were unlike that. One part of the human psyche is developed through our interaction with role models and parents. This is the superego. The values that are passed on by our parents act as a mediator between the ego and the id. Her ego and id are out of sync with one another because of her lacking of a superego. This isn’t her fault; no one can say that what happened to her was her fault. This is also what makes her character so tragic, her mother also blamed her. This is her pain, she’s running away from the memory associated with her rape. It’s quite sad.

What makes all of this so important is that she solidifies the nature of Silent Hill as transformational. I could write an entire character profile on the town itself and one day I might, but right now I’ll keep the focus on James and Angela’s relationship. This is an easy way of visualizing it. Imagine that they exist within two spheres. Both spheres have a separate theme and effect on the surrounding area of Silent Hill. James’s clouds everything within fog and Angela’s creates walls of flame. When the two spheres interact they merge and create a middle ground for both characters to interact with. You can see this in their last scene together. Angela mistakes James for her mother while James comments on the intensity of the flames. Utter hopelessness is the feeling that can encapsulate that scene. As a player, the only thing I wanted to do at that point was run up those stairs and tells Angela that wherever she is going isn’t the right way. Burning to death in your own fiery hell isn’t the right way of dealing with pain, but James really isn’t a character who can relate to this.

Spoiler alert! I’ve alluded to this a few times before, but just in case this next part will be covering a few endgame events. I’ll do a small recap right now of what I’ve covered just to make sure everyone gets my point. Angela is equally as important as James because she has her own path. Unlike Eddie or Maria, she is her own person constructed of her own memories and schisms. Everything about her stands in contrast to James’s character and she acts as a reflection to his plight. He has his Mary, she has her pain. What makes her so important to the series as a whole is because she changed Silent Hill. Instead of it being a simple little town somewhere in America, she transformed it into an allegorical place where lost souls go on a purgatorial journey. James did play a big part in developing this, but she solidified this theory about Silent Hill being more than just a special place.

On with the article.

James killed Mary. He killed her because he was tired of her being so sick and being a burden upon him. He felt that by ending her pain she could finally rest, but he also had an ulterior motive. He hated her for stealing away his life, he felt that he had wasted so much of his energy and what he had keeping her alive within his heart. When I said, James can’t relate to Angela, I meant that the way he dealt with his internal pain was no better than Angela’s contemplation of suicide. At least her way is morally neutral, but murder is a sin, it’s something that goes against most laws and tenets of society, it’s something that will land you in Silent Hill. This is why the “Leave” ending is the true ending. He reveals all of what he felt to her and then leaves Silent Hill with Laura. James casts away his guilty conscience and moves on with his life. It’s a sad ending, but one with some closure.

Angela doesn’t get any of this, and this is why she’s a tragic figure. Unlike James, she is left undeveloped. We only meet with her four times each of which only last about five minutes. That’s not a lot of time for her to develop, but that really all she needed to become one of the most engrossing and interesting characters within the series. When she walks up those stairs no one can really tell what awaits her. Maybe she was able to confront her father and mother like James and Mary or maybe she found her way to the afterlife. This is why I like Angela so much. She’s an ambiguous character. Characters like her have been lost in modern videogaming, and it’s kind of sad. Everything always has to be explained and there’s hardly anything within the subtext. She is something special when it comes to character creation and development. Her ambiguity is her biggest draw and her depth leaves the player wanting more.

I love Silent Hill. It’s a series laden with meaning. The latest instalments, not so much, but every game up until four is filled with interesting characters to profile and to examine. Angela and James are just two characters, but two of the most interesting. How they interact with Silent Hill is truly remarkable and how they interact with each other speaks worlds about their personalities. They are tormented, confused, angry and filled with sorrow. They are thoroughly human and they remind me why Silent Hill 2 is one of the best games ever made.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Games with Emotion

Videogames have a specific lens that we see through. As players, we usually think of games as entertainment, a kind of interactive play, but what happens when a game stops being fun? The games on this list will make you feel bad, they will question your thoughts on death, life and the world and they might even dredge up old feelings or nostalgia for days long past. These are masterpieces in their own right, and rarely have I felt worse and consequently more human after having played them. Almost all of the ten games are available online for free. Try them out and see what you make of them. You might not have fun, but they’ll make you feel differently about videogames and the emotional impact they can have.


Jason Rohrer’s Passage takes five minutes to finish, but it will stay with you forever. This game was a significant step forward in changing my perspective on videogames. I had been emotionally distanced from games before and this was the first time one had hit directly at home with my emotions. Love is powerful. And Passage is able to express this in a clear and distinct way.

As you walk, a number on the screen slowly rises. If you are alone your score goes up by one. If you are together it goes up by two. The numbers express something profound about the game’s mechanics. Certain passages are only traversable alone. If you are together, you then have to walk around the roadblock and try to continue on. It’s like a roadblock during a relationship. As well, the 2D horizon is blurred. Time has a funny way of making us think about life, whether in the future or past tense. As you play, the horizon makes you believe you might be able to see into the future. The origin becomes more and more blurred as you age.

My brother suggested that I play Passage. After, I sat at my desk asking him over and over, “Why did you make me play that?” There is a profoundly sad moment in Passage. I won’t ruin it for those who have yet to experience it. It is one of those things about the game that has stuck with me and has consequently made me stay away from it. Not in the way that I don’t want to experience the emotions again, but that if I do a repeat might lessen its impact. Play through the game once and think about it for a while.


Age is something that we’re all going to face and living in a retirement home, especially in the West, seems inevitable. With high living costs and an aging population, homes are being built everywhere. Residents aren’t neglected. They’re cared for and generally made to be comfortable during their stay. But my grandfather said, “Don’t you ever spend your retirement in a place like this.” And I’ve taken that to heart, and that’s why this game hurts so much.

There are a few moments in the game that resonated almost too deeply with me. The game is designed around needs. You need food to live, you need to use the washroom, you need to sleep and you need to talk. Interaction is probably the most important of the group. It’s one of those things that keep us human. When Charles speaks to Moira for the first time, he comments on the sound of the rustling trees and on how quiet the retirement home is. At first, she corrects Charles when he mistakes her name. The third time you speak with her, she doesn’t correct you. She acts like she’s given up on helping him to remember, and memory is something extremely human.

Charles asks about Moira’s dog. She says that he’s always asking about him, it makes me wonder if he always asks about his daughter too. And when his daughter comes to see him, he doesn’t remember how long he has been inside of the home. I don’t know what’s worse, the sense that Charles is losing time or having him suffer the indignity of wearing diapers. It’s a game to play but with some caution. It stirs one of our deepest fears out into the open.

And everything started to fall

Time moves fast.

We’ve all felt hurried through life. Whether it’s from work, school or just plain growing up, there’s an expectation in life that everyone has to grow up into an adult. I never want to grow up, who does? And playing this game made feel like my time was running out.

We are all sped along so fast in our society. Our childhoods are short and punctuated by our experiences in school, our teenage years are all based on choice and how we relate to others and our adult life is filled with the death of our loved ones and the slow degradation of our bodies. This game makes you think. How many hours have I wasted doing little insignificant things? In the end, nothing really matters because we’re all headed for the same end. And it doesn’t help with the subways here in Toronto, everyday we pass a cemetery, our daily reminder.

There’s a synopsis of the game’s intended purpose and message. The explanation is extensive and it reveals a lot about what the game tries to do. There are a few things it doesn’t mention. One, which I believe to be an important symbol, is the tree right at the end. It looks like it is reaching up towards the sky. Even though the person’s time has ceased, he still wants to continue on. The choices you make on Earth really determine what you think the afterlife will be like. Either way, he grows up and dies. Kind of depressing, isn’t it?

Everyday the same dream

Monotony is the working world. This game actually complements the one above, so play them both and it makes for a good comparison.

“Five more steps and you will be a new person,” if only it was that easy. Have you ever taken a minute just to reflect on life? When we’re all so busy running around trying to make sense of our existence, it is the little things that remind us why we exist. This is what Everyday the same dream wants to show us. I’m not going to say much about this game, except that I know the feeling it is trying to evoke. That day after day grind that is life should always be highlighted by even just a second of clarity. Reading a book, talking to someone special, eating chilli made just right, you’re supposed to feel that one second of pure sense, of awareness of the world around you. It’s hard to find that in this world. You just have to find someone or something to confide your emotions into.

The game is a commentary on how desensitized we are in the world. It comes from work, it comes from stress, it comes from just plain old living, but we always have to find that one little release. Fortunately, mine is writing and now you’re helping out in my secret dream away from school, essays and stuff like that. The ending of the game packs quite a punch. It made me stop and just stare. The implications are heavy. There’s always a balance that has to be found in work and in play. And that’s no way to find a release.


Gravitation puts you into the shoes of a dad. What we experienced as kids really helps determine how we feel about this game. Kids want attention, they need role models to show them right from wrong and you need love. You also have to look at this game from another perspective. Being an adult is hard.

When I first played, I tried to strike a balance between work and play. In the real world, you have to work in order to have money, and you need money to make sure your family doesn’t starve. In Gravitation if you play through the mindset of a videogamer you will alienate your daughter. Soon the ice becomes too thick to melt and she disappears. While we were out collecting all those stars, she lost not only her father but her childhood. Seeing that little red ball lying there, I can’t really describe it. It’s a part of life, but you wish it wasn’t.

You can stay and play with her forever, and that’s exactly what I did when I came back to Gravitation. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s technically an option in game, but it’s not something feasible in real life. Everyone has to work and they run the risk of alienating those they care about. The difference is that in this game you are given choice. There’s no consequence to just playing and watching her heart grow and grow.

But that’s not life.

When God came to the Cave

Packing for a trip is always a solemn occasion. You’re going away from home and comfort to live somewhere else. Your family and friends will all be left behind. You feel sad because you’re going away, but excited knowing that you’re about to experience something different, something great. When God came to the Cave prepares you for another kind of journey and it explores how we reconcile with it.

You collect parts to construct the form of a man. I won’t give away the ending, but it might leave a few people puzzled. Your person can be deconstructed into several parts: your body, your mind, your soul and your memories. You have family, relationships, emotions, friends and thought; these are parts that make a person whole. By constructing the figure you are preparing him to move on out of the cave and onto the afterlife. The little sprite that you play as could be the last bit of consciousness he has or his soul looking for a body to live within. I just find it sad that you have to be prepared by what seems like a fatherly figure throughout the game. There’s a sense of loss as though someone has died or is dying and being prepared to move on.

You can look at this game in two ways. The journey you take prepares this person for the afterlife or the journey has helped give you a sense of identity of who you are. This is just a reading and if anyone else has another feel free to comment. Cactus’s games are always fun to deconstruct and they always need a lot of analysis.


I never had fish back when I was a kid. They die too quickly, and I guess I have to thank my parents for that. I’m not sure how I dealt with death back when I was a kid. I was one of those odd ones who never saw Bambi and never realized that I mortal until about age eight. Though, I’ve always had videogames and watched characters die over and over again just to rise up and keep on trying. In hindsight, it seems a little cruel to present mortality in that way. Death in videogames is always presented as a kind of surpass able obstacle, it’s something that we can always overcome. Fathom shows us what death is in the real world.

In the game you play as a character with a helmet, a shotgun and a vest. He’s rather endearing for the little time that we spend with him. He reminds us of the character figures that we played as kids. Unfortunately for him, the final boss is just too hard. He falls down and ends up underwater.

Falling into the water is symbolic of his loss of self. As he goes deeper into the water, it becomes darker and he needs to use the flashlight to see. As he collects fish, his point score increases, showing that he is still on the mission. Play the game, I don’t want to ruin the ending for anyone.

Seven Minutes

Nihilistic is one way to describe Seven Minutes, insane is another. We’ve all felt like things aren’t going well or that times are too hard. Work is difficult, relationships are tough, time is counting down, but how often are we pressured into fixing any of these problem?

It’s interesting that when you touch the flame, the head tells you that your exploration will lead to your death. We don’t chose to be born and we don’t chose to be mortal, and his voice is the symbolic representation of our mortality.

Seven Minutes gives you seven minutes to make your way through a complex maze of platforming. It’s nihilistic in the sense that almost every misstep that you take leads you closer to your death It’s a game that has to be played a few times to be fully understood. And then you’ll look at life like it’s just a big videogame with only one outcome.

Dear Esther

Dear Esther is one of those games that’s impossible to talk about. It’s written in such a way that its content is far more profound than almost any other narrative available in the medium. It can be best described as a post-modern work that uses the medium to deliver more of a narrative than a videogame experience. And you really can’t define Dear Esther as a kind of play.

Unless you have Steam and a copy of Half-Life 2 you might be able to download this game, but check this out: The link goes to a downloadable version of the game’s script. It’s worth taking a look at.

The game is an article in and of itself. You can look forward to something about it in the near future.


Where is mystifyingly beautiful.

You might be in awe for the first few minutes of the game, but you’ll soon find yourself obscured in the game’s purpose. Most games centre on the idea of the goal. You might think that the balloon is your intended goal or target, you might be right or you could be wrong.

When I first played Where, I began to question if I was really playing. The game’s changing aesthetic gives you the ability to cycle through four unique settings. Each one evokes a different kind of feeling. One is white and sparse. It feels open and yet closed off as the walls surround you. Two is blue and cold. It reminds me of those days when the snow just drifts down from the sky. I ever started to feel cold when listening to the music. Three is red and warm. It looks, sounds, and feels like a romantic place. Its atmosphere is calm and just lovely. Four is black and open. You can see the stars. Living in the city, I miss them and it gives a good feeling of nostalgia. Each setting has a similar emotion attached to them, longing.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Character Profile: Tommy Angelo and Sam

Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven (2002) is one of those titles that all gamers can appreciate, at least those who bought the PC version. Its story and its characters are brilliantly designed around delivering an intense and deep experience. Before I go off on a tangent about how much I love Mafia, I’m going to get a start on this. This article is going to be a close examination of Tommy Angelo, Sam and their conflict. When I first played the game, I automatically took Tommy’s side. He’s the protagonist and as players we’re supposed to relate to his struggle. I’ve been thinking about Tommy’s motivations and though he may be the only angel in the city of Lost Heaven, he’s also an angel of death.

Tommy Angelo isn’t your normal protagonist. Sure, he’s got the strong look, he has the attitude and he’s under the player’s control, but what’s he really like? Tommy joins the Mafia because he needs their protection. He slides into his position as the capable wheelman of Salieri’s mob, but he does more than just drive. There’s strength in numbers and it turns out that he’s a real team player. In “Ordinary routine,” Tommy gets his first gun and he ends up killing about 15 people. Any normal person one might go, “Whoa, I just killed a lot of people.” Not Tommy. He says, “You know, I ain’t one of those people with a thirst for blood. I don’t need violence in my life, and I don’t look for trouble, but I also don’t have any remorse.”

For a protagonist, Tommy makes some seriously immoral choices. He doesn’t condone hurting women and children, he spares a priest who witnesses a mass murder and he makes some morally good choices, but in “Whore” he plants a bomb in a hotel and blows it up. This sets fire to the building and probably sends shrapnel careening through the halls and adjoining rooms. Who knows how many innocent people were killed in that incident. Tommy eventually has an epiphany and it makes him realize the error of his ways. He escapes, talks to the police and decides to take the Mafia down before they can get him and his family. Tommy is seen as the “good guy” and his actions are always justified by the simple reasoning of protecting his wife and child or himself. There’s nothing wrong with that, but though he wants to protect his family, he ends up alienating his first one, the one that initially protected him.

I always felt bad for Sam. In “The Death of Art,” Sam dies bitter, angry and betrayed. My initial reaction, like most players was, good now Tommy is safe. Now that I’ve gone back and played the game again, I find myself questioning why Sam was killed. Players always need a justification to commit murder or to use violence. In Mafia, everyone you kill helps to circumvent Don Morello’s power. When Frank Colletti goes against the Mafia, he becomes a target. Now, deep down Tommy is a good guy, his Mom probably helped with that, and he knows not to kill Frank. He has a wife and a kid, and if anything he’s a reflection of what Tommy’s future self. Tommy like Frank wants an escape. For a character like Sam who doesn’t have a girlfriend, who doesn’t have a wife or kid and doesn’t even have a last name, all he has in the Mafia. Killing Sam, who honestly believes what he’s doing is ethically correct, seems a little unfair. To have just let him go might have been a better alternative than killing him in cold blood. Tommy had a right to avenge Paulie’s death, but Sam was just doing his job.

Sam is driven by a strict work ethic. He’s always there to do a job, not to have fun. He’s a Worker as well as a Mafioso. Unlike Tommy and Paulie, who are always in the spotlight, Sam constantly finds himself out of the action. On two occasions, Sam is taken away, beaten and interrogated. He finds his purpose obscured and placed into the background against the dominant central characters of the story. He only finds usefulness as an occasional tough guy and as a temporary auto mechanic. In the missions leading up to their conflict, Sam is given a specific task by Don Salieri. He’s told to keep quiet about the diamonds that are hidden inside the cigar cartons. Tommy and Paulie feel betrayed because they weren’t told what was at risk during the mission. They decide to rob a bank and blatantly disregard the organizational structure of the Mafia. This, of course, presents its problems.

Tommy is one of the lucky ones, he managed to get Sarah, Luigi’s daughter, and secure himself a nice little spot in the organization. Sam even says that Don Salieri thought of Tommy like a son, and this is what makes his betrayal of the Mafia so heartbreaking. Whether or not the Don was being honest or just vindictive, the friendship between Tommy, Sam and Paulie was a tangible relationship. There’s a moment in the game where you learn that Salieri and Morello used to be best friends. And even the best of friends can find themselves at each other’s throats. There’s no evidence to suggest that Sam was even told about Frank, Sarah’s friend and the other screw ups Tommy has been apart of. It’s entirely possible that Don Salieri told Sam about all these incidents to fire him up to kill Tommy. It’s a complicated affair.

For me, their conflict is more than just a case of relativistic morals and ethics. The Mafia in Lost Heaven can in no way be considered the “good guys” and their activities can definitely be seen as morally questionable. Prostitution, drugs, gambling and bootlegging are all bad things, and even though we don’t see Tommy or Sam involved in them that doesn’t mean that they were indirectly tied to them. Tommy and Sam are just pawns in overall structure and when one of them gets a chance to ascend through the ranks, they vie for it. This is what makes Sam’s participation in the diamond scheme okay.

Sam’s always in the background. This is finally his chance to make a name for himself as a “good guy” within the Mafia. Tommy and Paulie have threatened both Sam’s chance of making something of his purpose in life, but they are also threatening the structure of the Mafia and thus Sam’s purpose within the narrative. What does Sam really have? He has his clothes, sometimes he has a gun and maybe a little respect, but overall he doesn’t have anything other than the Mafia. This is what makes Tommy’s betrayal so tragic. The Mafia didn’t betray Tommy, Tommy betrayed the Mafia. He acted selfishly and ended up getting Sam killed. Tommy said he didn’t have any remorse about using violence as a means to an end. This time the consequences go deeper than just a question of morals and ethics, it affects someone outside of the scope of relativism.

This master piece of dialogue was read by Tommy at the end of the game, check it out:

"You know, the world isn’t run by the laws written on paper. It’s run by people. Some according to laws others not, it depends on each individual how each his world will be, how he makes it. You also need a whole lot of luck, so somebody else doesn’t make your life hell, and it ain’t as simple as they tell you in grade school. But it is good to have strong values and maintain them; in marriage, in crime, in war, always and everywhere. I messed up, so did Paulie and Sam. We wanted a better life but in the end we were a lot worse off than most other people. You know, I think it’s important to keep a balance in things, yeah, balance, that’s the right word. Because the guy who wants too much risks losing absolutely everything; of course, the guy who wants to little from life might not get anything at all."

Tommy always seems to get the last word. He’s a big character with an indomitable personality, but he’s also not the protagonist his appearance makes him out to be. He may have all the characteristics of a “good guy,” but he’s also a Mafioso. He may have Sarah and his daughter as the moral backbone of his epiphany, but characters like Paulie and especially Sam suffered because of his selfishness. Sam was always in the background and when it came for his time to be in the limelight, one of his best friends stabbed him in the back. Of course, this is just one reading of their conflict. Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven is a deep game and is always a pleasure to sift through all the little intricacies that make it a masterpiece. Emotion runs deep within each character and the relationships they have. Tommy and Sam both screwed up and paid for their crimes, not a fitting end for two of the best characters in all of videogames.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Character Profile: Norton Mapes

F.E.A.R. (2005) and the Breakdown (2004) changed the FPS world. Instead of being stuck in first-person perspective unable to fully interact with the environment, your proverbial box had holes cut for arms and thus a whole new way of looking at the world. The unfortunate part is that F.E.A.R. lacked a strong narrative backbone to reinforce the innovation.

The Point Man is a wholly unremarkable. What little character he has is just user manual material. He just transferred to F.E.A.R. and has been made the point man of the team. We also know he has a brother and at some point he was genetically modified to have faster than human reflexes. Your teammates, most of whom disappear, have little to no effect on the story’s progression, unless you count Jankowski’s ghost.

The only character who has any notable personality traits is Norton Mapes.

On the whole, Norton is left unexplored. We know that he’s a computer engineer working at Armacham and he likes Cheezee Pooz. He’s basically the result of Wayne Knight from Jurassic Park and Cartman having a kid. Of the characters in the game, that, for the most part, are bland and without definition, he is the only one that has any definable characteristics outside of the norm. He’s both a good and evil. He displays two sides, one in the destroying vital documents that could help reveal the Point Man’s identity and the other in his almost insane devotion to Armacham.

Norton is bumbling. He hides under a cactus for God’s sake. He makes me and almost every-other-person in the world feels. He’s a character designed around antagonizing you. For all of the Replica soldiers, tanks and assassins you kill, Norton is somehow able to evade you. This fat and obnoxious character undermines your integrity as a video gamer, and that’s why I like him.

As a character defined by a certain purpose, Norton fulfills it in almost every respect. What makes this worse is that he’s virtually untouchable, unless you count his appearances in the expansions where you get to wreak sweet havoc against him. He’s not an antagonist. He’s a secondary character that somehow manages to force his way into your path. It’s not that he’s not important, it’s that he’s important enough to be there for the developers to make us angry and indestructible enough to ensure that he survives even until the end of the game. He intrudes upon the experience to do nothing important except make you slightly annoyed. What makes Norton a weird character is that he seems to be just an elusive an indestructible as Fettel. In this way, he begins to fill in as a scapegoat for all the player’s anger and frustration. In that, he does a fine job as a character.

If you look at the way he is designed you can almost taste him. That sounds kind of gross, but you can just imagine what the developers were trying to get at. Norton is the stereotypical computer geek. He eats Cheezee Pooz, he has an obnoxious RTFM belt and he’s fat. This seems to be one of the qualities that are a little unfair to his character.

Making Norton so obese has an effect on how we view him. It makes him into a kind of jester or joker during the game. Not in the way that he becomes the comic relief of the game but an object of pity. Yes, it’s kind of funny that he gets stuck in the air vent, but it’s also a little sad. A character like him that generates so much ire, he makes you feel guilty for getting angry at him. It’s kind of sad and kind of pathetic, but that’s his character.

We don’t see Norton for more than thirty seconds at a time, but in that time he manages to get us to do a lot. He makes us open doors, he makes us angry, he makes us laugh when he ends up getting shot and then making us feel a little guilty when you realize he actually helped us out.

Norton has an amazing affect on the game’s story. If you look at what he does, just because of his general build and constitution, he managed to get past several replica soldiers, makes his way to Alma’s prison and still be alive after being shot to help you into Origin. A character should always have some redeeming qualities. Norton helps you out in the end, but that didn’t stop me from unloading a couple rockets his way when I finally got the chance to. We’re supposed to hate him and pity him.

Norton is portrayed both as an object of pity and an object of our hate. We both love him and we hate him for making us display any kind of sadness for his supposed demise. When he’s lying there bleeding after being shot in the chest, you sort of just stand there listening to him wondering when he’ll shut up and when those feelings of regret might go away.