Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Wolfenstein: The New Order

So along with the Japanese literary fiction this Christmas, I got some other things too.  My brother got me Wolfenstein: The New Order, which is probably not something I would have bought for myself, and wasn’t on my Christmas list this year.  I guess he just thought I’d like it, and he was 100% right!  Turns out it is awesome.

I clocked a fair amount of time on Wolfenstein 3D back in the day, said day being the early 90s, and back then all they had to do was point you in the general direction of some pixelated sprites and tell you to go kill all those guys.  I mean I guess there was a plot, in the first level you were trying to escape the Nazi prison, and in the second one you were going to prevent the guy from creating all the zombies, and in the third one you had to kill Hitler, who was wearing mechanized armor and carrying four chainguns for some reason.  But these days we expect a little more plot and characterization.

So let me lay out a scenario for you.  You play an unstoppable badass, who has been out of commission for over a decade while an evil empire utilized its advanced technology to roll over all the nations of the world, and raise new monuments to its own glory while oppressing the terrified citizenry.  The will to resist is only left in a few small cells, and when you get back into the action you have to run from the pursuing elements of the evil empire while linking back up with the resistance and getting some advanced technology of your own.  Fortunately, with you at their side, the resistance is finally prepared to strike back at the evil empire and destroy the scientist who had been collaborating with them to enslave humanity.  This guy – who incidentally, is a total jerk – gives you an impassioned speech about how it’s easier to just go around destroying stuff than to create.  And it all wraps up into an action-packed first person shooter video game.  That game is Half-Life 2.

But hey, if you’re going to rip off a plot, shouldn’t you rip off from the best?  I think you should.  This was only the first of many good decisions made by the New Order development team, and I’m not being sarcastic there.  While it does have many of the broad elements of Half-Life 2, William J. Blazkowicz and Gordon Freeman are very different main characters.  Freeman is a mute who never expresses any emotions, and therefore you never really know what he thinks about all this stuff.  In this game, at least, Blazkowicz is an emotionally damaged meathead who rarely shuts up, unless it’s during a stealth section where he’s sneaking up on some guy to stab him in the neck.  It’s not so much that he talks to the other characters – although he does – but he has a complicated inner life, which he shares with the player all the time.

A year or so ago I wrote about the Tomb Raider reboot, and mentioned that they should have had a goofy excuse plot to go along with the stuff that they were showing there up on the screen; the people behind New Order have succeeded in doing the seemingly impossible, which is making a serious plot that is composed of elements that individually cannot be taken seriously.  I mean, if you try to use logic about this stuff then parts of your brain will die, for one instance in the first hour of gameplay how Blazkowicz maintains his He-Man physique despite being in a coma for 14 years.  And if you are like me then you will occasionally be wondering if the way things were transpiring was really part of the plan, and if so if anyone had raised any objections to that plan.  For instance when Blazkowicz infiltrates a labor camp in the general population, and if he hadn’t been selected for labor duty could very well have been gassed.  But somehow it all manages to hang together anyway.

The various trailers for this game show some of the heinous shit that the Nazis were up to during the period 1946-1960, such as dynamiting Mount Rushmore and shooting hippies in Paris.  Also they apparently have introduced the death penalty for flagrant fouls in soccer.  So maybe you would be thinking that the whole thing is played for camp, or for laughs.  But no, not really.  The creators of this game have clearly thought deeply about the Nazi regime and what it was all about at its core, namely nothing except an excuse for the exercise of power.  So the Nazi regime of 1960, despite its ray guns and robot soldiers, is still involved in racial purity buffoonery, trying to conquer the areas of the world not yet under its control, making huge monuments to its own awesomeness.  Blazkowicz comments toward the start that it’s less war than the breaking of seals, and the game itself focuses on the essentially blasphemous nature of the Nazi regime against all virtues and humanity.

Your chief antagonist, Wilhelm Strasse, doesn’t really appear to have strong feelings one way or another about political stuff, he is more along the lines of a very unethical scientist who just wants to see what will happen if he does various things.  I got the impression he only signed up so that he could vivisect people and build a bunch of killer robots, and this was the faction that encouraged that sort of behavior.  He only personally shows up near the beginning and at the end, but it’s his super-science that enables the plot to happen.  (In another one of those logic questions, you have to wonder if taking him out in 1960 when the Nazis have already been victorious will actually help much of anything, having failed to stop him in 1946.  And isn’t he about 100 years old by the end and probably going to die soon anyway?  You know what, it’s probably best to just not worry about this any further.)  You do hear his smarmy voice in various recordings throughout so you can be reminded of how much of a horrible asshole he is.  And although he’s undoubtedly an evil genius, in a nice touch the game establishes that much of his vaunted discoveries were actually reverse-engineered from a sect of Jewish mystics, thereby showing Strasse as essentially parasitic – and hypocritical, when he purports to lecture you on the virtues of creation.  Secondary antagonist Irene Engel , on the other hand, simply gets off on hurting people.  She sadly appears based on various real-life Nazi functionaries.

There’s also a surprisingly well-done love subplot between Blazkowicz and Anya Oliwa, a Polish nurse from his sanitarium.  Blazkowicz thinks at the beginning how he dreams of a picket fence and a family but that it will never happen for him; and of course in this world it’s pretty much not going to.  But these two find comfort in each other how they can.  Anya’s also not some 20 year old ingĂ©nue, she is in her late 30s and has had her own life experiences up to that point.  This is rare for main characters in games generally and unheard of in for a love interest, unless she happen to be a 700 year old vampire or something who just looks 20.  Despite some of the campy undertones throughout I’m just going to use the word “mature” to describe it.  It’s not something you see that often.

The gameplay itself is really solid, and does interesting things.  The most out-and-out “gamey” element is probably the perk and item system.  There are a bunch of random items scattered throughout the levels and collecting them gets you bragging rights and some useful upgrades.  Perhaps most interestingly, the item collections are persistent, so if you start a new game the items that you have previously collected stay collected.

The perk system is similar.  You have to perform some sort of feat to unlock them, which range from “you will accomplish this in the tutorial” to “very difficult”, and once done they reward you by improving your stats in some way.  For instance, if you stealthily kill 20 soldiers with throwing knives, you can carry an additional throwing knife in your inventory.  Like the items, the perks stay with you regardless of whether you start a new game or restart a checkpoint.  I think the purpose of that is to enable you to play at higher difficulty levels with increased health and armor capacities, faster movement, sneakier stealth, etc.  Oh, and modern shooters typically limit you to two guns at a time, but Blazkowicz was in a coma when that design decision was made, so he can carry a pistol, shotgun, assault rifle, sci-fi energy blaster, grenades, sniper rifle and a bunch of knives all at the same time.  In fact nature has blessed him with two arms, so he can dual wield anything except the sci-fi laser, so if you prefer to hold an automatic shotgun in each hand this is an option for you.  In fact there are perks for doing so.

If you want to simply run around blasting everyone you can do that, but there’s also strong encouragement in spots for the stealth approach.  Those helmets apparently give the Nazis bad hearing and non-existent peripheral vision, so you can get right up behind them and finish them off.  There are officers in these sections, who will call for assistance if they notice you and will continue calling for backup as long as they live.  (You would think that maybe once HQ gets a request for backup and then hears nothing more from the requesting officer or the guys they sent down there that someone might get a little suspicious, but I guess they figure no news is good news, or a new radio operator just happens to be coming on shift, or actually what did I say about the logic, never mind.)  Fortunately these officers tend to stand very still with their backs toward corridors.  There are also areas without officers where everyone knows you’re coming, and in those areas you have to simply go around killing everything that moves.  This is, if I haven’t been clear on this point, quite satisfying.

The game does a good job of mixing up the levels; you have action-packed shooting setpieces followed up by stealth/puzzle levels, or simple domestic arrangements.  To some extent the levels are a little fragmented, but I guess the developers decided that they simply wanted to have a level in an old castle, on a bridge, a couple of prisons, a U-boat, and the Nazi moon base, and didn’t sweat the transitions too much.

In short, Wolfenstein: The New Order manages to somehow transcend its pulp origins and put together a coherent, challenging, and adult look on a first-person shooter that’s altogether much better than I expected or than it had any reasonable right to be.  It addresses complex questions without giving pat answers; it’s one thing to wipe out the staff of an extermination camp, but even Blazkowicz seems to wonder about tearing up a train full of soldiers on leave.  Anyway, if you’ve ever enjoyed an FPS, this one is absolutely worth a look, and it’s impressive enough to be mentioned as an all-time great.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

Like many college students, I lived in a variety of apartments and dorm rooms with various other young men, and spent a great deal of time engaging in bullshit sessions with them.  On one occasion I remember a discussion about why exactly I liked Vonnegut’s Deadeye Dick, which I was reading at the time, and what I said was this – there was a subplot, or really just a mention, that after a neutron bomb accident the government had moved in a bunch of Haitian refugees into the affected areas and that it might not have been an accident in the first place.  And I said that in most books, that bit about the Haitians would have been the whole plot, or they would have at least gotten to the bottom of it, whether it was a conspiracy, or really was an accident, or whatever.  But instead Vonnegut just mentioned it and moved on.

I’m not sure that was an especially convincing argument for the merits of that book, and I remember this particular roommate looking skeptical.  Back then I was a little more thin-skinned about sophistication, and was probably a little hard to live with.  Then, as now, my literary tastes tended to fall into either 1) nonfiction, or 2) fiction that involves aliens, murders, evil wizards, or some combination of those, and he knew it, which I think was why he was challenging me to explain why exactly I was reading Deadeye Dick.  So, anyway, let’s talk about Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.

Reading Murakami is, for me, like being in a dream, or possibly reading the musings of an alien being.  I’ve read a fair bit of his oeuvre and I’m still really not sure what I think about him, but I keep reading this stuff so it must be doing something for me.  Damned if I can really place exactly what.  The best I can do is to compare it to that bit about the Haitians in Deadeye Dick, though, which was the point of that whole introduction there.  Which is to say that there’s a bunch of stuff in his novels that isn’t really explained.  In some ways I don’t even feel like I’m qualified to say anything about it, but, you know, I’m a literate person, or at least what passes for one nowadays.

If you’ve read something by Murakami before, then Tsukuru is going to be pretty familiar.  He’s a supremely disassociated individual, almost pathologically so.  He’s got trouble connecting with anyone in his life; never had much of a relationship with his father, has decent connections with his mother and sisters but tries to avoid seeing them as much as possible.  Like many Murakami protagonists he does have one particular desire, though, and that is building and renovating train stations.  Tsukuru had four close friends in high school, but after he went to university in Tokyo (to study train station engineering, naturally) he received a call from one of them saying that they didn’t ever want to talk to him again, which he accepted like it was a bad thing from a dream, then went into a suicidal depression for a while.  Later he came out of it, made another friend in college, and lost that guy too.

He’s been carrying this trauma around for some time, since as the book opens he is in his mid-30s and just starting a relationship with a woman that he finds himself actually really into, which surprises him, as he’d had a series of love affairs that moved him just about as much as anything which isn’t a train station moved him (i.e., not much).  But this woman thinks that maybe there’s something bothering him, and suggests that maybe he needs to confront the demons from his past.

Somewhat reluctantly, he does.

And this is where the Haitian bit comes in.  It turns out that one of the friends is dead, that she was found murdered in her home and that the murder was unsolved.  Somewhat like real life, Tsukuru doesn’t know anything about investigating murders, and he does what most of us would do upon finding this out, which is that he says “that’s awful” and goes on about his business.  He never figures out who murdered his friend, and neither do we, and neither does anyone else, that I can tell.

It turns out that the murdered friend had accused him of committing a heinous act, which Tsukuru didn’t know about and didn’t do.  This is why his other friends cut him off, but when he comes back to re-connect with them they all handle themselves like adults and talk it out.  It turns out that one of the three remaining friends knew all along he didn’t do it, a second had figured out over the years that it was pretty unlikely that he did, and the third hears Tsukuru out and then accepts his reasonable explanation.  No throwing things, screaming matches, or crazy fistfights.  But they don't have a tearful hug-fest, either.  They make up, everyone apologizes, they promise to maybe keep in touch in the future, but it's not like they set up an appointment to do this.  I mean, they haven't seen each other in half their lives, and Tsukuru notes each time that he may in fact never see them again.

Oh, and he never figures out what happened to his college friend, either.  Although possibly the centerpiece of the story is a flashback to a story that the friend told Tsukuru one late night decades ago, about the friend’s father and his encounter with a pianist who may have kept an extra finger in a bag, and who had sold his life in exchange for the ability to truly perceive color.  That pianist’s extra fingers may have turned up in a train station later, but if they did it’s not really important.  Oh, and we don’t find out if he gets the girl, either.

There’s not quite as much of the insanity that I’ve come to expect from Murakami, or the laugh-out-loud bizarre flatly-affected conversations.  Mostly it’s Tsukuru thinking about doing things, then doing them, then thinking about the things that he did.  At his worst, Murakami absolutely screams “literary book club selection”, and there’s a bit of that in places here.  But I found myself strangely affected by Tsukuru’s travels, and how he discovers that maybe he’s not entirely colorless after all.  The point isn’t really about any of these external things, but about feelings about them.  Just like real life, that’s all right.