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December 2, 2003

Three Joysticks for the Elven Kings

Posted by Mike on December 2, 2003 6:11 PM

I think we're reaching Tolkien saturation here. In addition to the LoTR viewing marathon that was this past weekend (the documentaries on the DVD are excellent. Lots of "wows" and "ah hahs" going on there), there was an unhealthy amount of the Two Towers Playstation game, which also comes with interviews and documentary footage as levels are unlocked. Favorite part so far: Hacking through five levels of orcs in a secret area to get to Saruman floating around in the air and booming out "You have elected the path of PAAAIN!"

Several years ago, at the dawn of the 32-bit gaming era, there was more than the usual amount of static about "whether video games can be art." My off-the-cuff answer would have to be "why the hell not?" I've got a pretty loose definition of the word, I guess, so it's got plenty of room for just about any medium an artist cares to work with. If we'll admit film into the blessed circle of legit art forms, the question really can't be "can video games be art," but rather "when are we going to get the first video game that people widely acknowledge to be art?" What will be the video game form's "Great Train Robbery" or "Passion of Joan of Arc?" Got me. I'm definitely not saying the Two Towers game is some evocative masterpiece, but for a simple action game it has a ton of interesting narrative elements:

There are breaks in the game where we cut away to action elsewhere in the game world, there are useful animations bookending each level to ease the player into the action, and there's a startling willingness on the part of the game designers to mess with the foreground with falling debris and general battlefield clutter, which contributes to a sense of fantasy battlefield chaos.

Several of the actors from the movies did voice acting for the game, the Howard Shore soundtrack plays in the background, and there are good samples of movie sound effects. The prologue from "Fellowship of the Ring" is lifted straight from the movie in its entirety, too, providing a moment where the film footage of the battle at the foot of Mt. Doom almost seamlessly turns into a video game brawl with the player controlling Isildur. The characters themselves (you can play Legolas, Aragorn, Gimli, or Isildur) are all motion captured in wonderful detail.

It seems that most of the technical pieces are in place to create a film/game fusion that's palatable to a mass audience. This game isn't it: It's far too dependent on twitch reactions and twiddling controls around, and many of the games I've seen that come close in their own ways miss because of elements that are too much like "Dungeons and Dragons on your teevee" to be pleasurable. But with the quality of the graphics, the ability to use video and music, and the obvious sense of cinematic flair game designers have been picking up over the past few years, I'm pretty stoked about the next few years, and really curious about what else is out there.