We partisans of the games-is-art cause talk a big game. We're all for this idea that games ought to embrace some long-term goals in the realm of narrative artistry. Above all we demand maturity, by which we mean: something that is true to reality as it's experienced by adults. In fact I was praising Far Cry 2 for these very qualities in my last post; the attentive reader might notice that I might have cast some mild aspersions on pleasure for getting in the way of mature narrative.
Aaaaand then last night I decided to throw Devil May Cry 4 into my Xbox. Honestly, the whole enterprise mocks the search for le mot juste:
I should try anyways, since words are my business: The Devil May Cry series is a character-action demonicidal opera. You pilot a white-haired wiseass in an implausible red trenchcoat from one implausible scenario to the next, and kill a heap of demons. For some reason, your sword revs like a motorcycle. I have principles and all, but I'm not made of stone, people.
Devil May Cry, as a series, wields a simple and nonsensical palette: Motorcycles. Demon popes. Rocket Launchers. Boobs. It acts as if it doesn't owe you an explanation why these things belong together. There's such a gleeful devotion to artificiality and exaggeration that it ultimately comes off as charming naivete. It knows that the demon-slaying is the main attraction, and so it feels free to cram every cutscene full of absurd demon-centric melodrama. There isn't an authentic human emotion to be found in the series. Everything is subordinated to style. (This is where a comparison to opera might work. Even great operas are often crammed with of stock characters, exaggerated melodrama and convoluted plotting; and all that is immaterial, because the libretto is in service of the music.) The Devil May Cry series, like all great trash, has the courage of its convictions. It commits to its frivolousness with admirable devotion.
Were I a helpless genius, I'm sure I could transform this experience into some brilliant “Notes on Camp”-like cultural analysis. That woman could spin gold out of straw.
But here's the lesson I take. It's like hip-hop: regardless of how great your MC is, no matter how mesmerizing his wordplay and no matter how slick his storytelling, it doesn't matter if the track doesn't move you. A ridiculous beat will redeem a hapless vocal, but the opposite isn't true. (Exhibit A: Gang Starr. Exhibit B: Canibus) Same goes for games. Doing pleasurable things with your hands comes first.
That might serve as the credo of what N'Gai Croal called the “shake-your-ass” school of game criticism, in his discussion of God of War 2 with Stephen Totilo. : “[GOW2] is unquestionably a game that will make you shake your ass. And that's my point of departure when assessing the quality of my gameplay experiences.” Alas, this is the case.
Addendum: I realized, having written this post, that over the course of this blog I'm just going to end up comparing games to every musical genre in existence. (In my defense, it was N'Gai Croal wot started it) When I compare Killzone 2 to bluegrass you have my permission to drag me behind the shed and put me down.