Thursday, November 25, 2010

Most Breathtaking Moments in Gaming

Here, you'll have the pleasure of reading my gushing about some of my favorite moments in gaming. I was gonna use "Awesome" or "Artful" moments, but I think "Breathtaking" is the verbiage best-suited for my cause. A “Breathtaking Moment in Gaming” is defined by a few parameters, indicated as followed:

- Memorability; will I remember this scene/sequence in five or ten years, after I've completed another fifty to one hundred games?? Or, did I play the game five to ten years ago, and still clearly remember the scene??

- Description of the human condition; does this particular scene make a reflection on the plight of humanity?? Does it sympathize, or otherwise effectively address, the human struggle?? Does it resonate with the player's heart/conscience after they’ve effectively spilled buckets of enemies' blood and emptying thousands of rounds of ammunition??

- Redemption/Condemnation; does this scene carry with it a meaning deeper than what is portrayed?? Does it have a theme(s) that are typically involved with classical Literature or cinema??

This list operates outside of standard gameplay conventions. Awkward controls, inane objectives, and dated graphics are all riding backseat today to the human spirit's influence in producing great video games. I narrowed the list down to five, and I will be counting down in order of preference, with #1 being my personal favorite. Had I included my entire list of awesome moments, this article would suffer both from lack of readership and lack of focus.

Two disclaimers:
- These are moments in gaming that I find personally to be touching; little to no discussion/research has been involved in their selection, nor have I attributed their greatness to poll results from any published source.
- Despite being the gaming enthusiast I fancy myself to be, I have not played a great many games that are considered "classics," therefore my list will be void of moments from several games that millions of gamers hold close to their hearts.

I've successfully dodged all Kingdom Hearts games, most of the Final Fantasy series and Final Fantasy spin-offs, and all notable Playstation 3 and Wii games, just to name a few. This is not because I have a bias towards Microsoft and/or Xbox, but simply because my budgets of time and money over the past ten years have not allowed me to enjoy as many games as I truly would like to have played.

- Spoiler Warnings –

First, a few honorable mentions:

- Killing/Sparing Darko Brevic, Grand Theft Auto 4 (Xbox 360, 2008)
- Breaching the Citadel, Half Life 2 (Xbox, 2005)
- Conversation with Sovereign, Mass Effect (Xbox 360, 2007)
- Invasion of the Normandy 2, Mass Effect 2 (Xbox 360, 2010)
- Landing Ultra Combos in Multiplayer, Super Street Fighter 4 (Xbox 360, 2010)
- First Emergence from Temple of Time as an Adult, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (N64, 1998)
- Dead Nicole, Dead Space (Xbox 360, 2008)

Breathtaking Moment #5 - Bird Colossus battle, Shadow of the Colossus (PS2, 2005)

Shadow of the Colossus is a truly unique game. It broke the mold when it first came out, introducing genre-bending gameplay, indefinable aesthetics, and a mysterious story. Critics and fans alike rave about this game, and it, quite daringly, brought a concept previously familiar only to fine art and artists to the gaming masses that can only be thought of as insane in the context of a videogame: minimalism. Gaming has always been a race to produce games that are more extreme, more exciting, more chaotic; Sony Computer Entertainment of Japan took a huge risk in keeping the game in such a tight focus: boss battles, light platforming, and exploration. Present only enough of a story to give the player a subject to drive the one objective.

While there is much to say about this game, one battle stands out from the rest: Colossus five, the bird. In a shape that can best be described as a flying crucifix, the "a-ha" moment that accompanies solving the puzzle of mounting this beast is immensely satisfying. The player, in his quest to slay sixteen giant beasts in a desolate land, must stab them in weak points, denoted on their bodies by magical, glowing insignias. The first four land lubbers are pretty self-explanatory, as are all but a handful of the beasts. When this beast came soaring on to the scene, my thoughts were optimistic, because I would just wait for it to land, jump on it, stab it, and move on to the next battle.

Much to my surprise, the beast will not land anywhere near me. The arena in question is a spacious, open lake, with only a handful of small temples, statues, and bunkers dotting the landscape in a (as I recall) symmetrical fashion. The menace perched atop towering obelisks, mocking my feeble body as I swam to safety again and again in my attempts to trick him in to landing. His primary method of dealing damage is to sweep down and in toward the player, slamming him with his stone-brimmed wings.

Only after an hour or so of deliberation and frustration was I able to mount the beast the only way I've ever figured out is possible - by jumping and grabbing onto the beast – mid flight. Only by jumping onto a tuft of fur on the innermost portion of the wing during the midst of his barrage was I able to latch onto my foe. My relief was short-lived however, because my foe immediately departed for the skies, and all the landscape I had become familiar with faded into the distance as I was dragged hundreds of feet into the air. As the beast writhed and flailed, I postulated that failure to manage my grip gauge efficiently would likely result in an instant death, and therefore, starting from scratch at the landing near the lake.

Clawing my way around the anatomical landscape of the Colossus, I managed to locate three weak points: the tips of the wings and right behind the head, on top of the neck. I clearly recall my heart pounding as my grip gauge slipped further and further into impotence, rendering me closer and closer to a virtual death, and a very real failure. Soaring through the sky elicits a dreadful sense of height, which is especially impressive given the limitations of the hardware on which it operated. Colossus five is a special breed of battle, one of the few that incurred in me a genuine sense of dread. I felt especially accomplished as they giant beast plunged into the lake with its dying breath.

Breathtaking Moment #4 - Underwater Hyrule, Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (Gamecube, 2003)

I’ll come right out and say that I took a solid three years to finish Wind Waker. Having cut my teeth on Ocarina of Time and later, Majora’s Mask, the “kiddie” style of Link and the cel-shaded environment as a whole really put me off. I must confess that losing interest in a game due to its art style is quite shallow, and once I overcame my ego and finally settled into the idea of playing a game whose surface appeals to a kindergarten class, I really sunk my teeth into the game. It only took three restarted games, but Wind Waker finally took hold of my urge for adventure and elegant puzzle-dungeons.

I still was a bit irked by the setting, though. I played Ocarina of Time, Majora's Mask, and even played A Link to the Past on the GameBoy Advance for kicks, and after spending my adolescence tramping through overworlds that featured mountains, lakes, valleys, farms, fields, and other lush and intriguing landscapes, I quickly grew bored of sailing from island to island. While the islands themselves were intricate and held plenty of character, and the ocean gave a great sense of scale, the time-consuming journeys among the islands grew tiring.

Despite the feeling that the game desperately needed an overworld, I was waist-deep in Wind Waker when I was thrown on my head; in the quest for the Master Sword, the player is sent under the waves to the long-forgotten Hyrule Castle. Hyrule Castle, being sealed in a bubble, has the ocean surrounding it, and the rest of the Kingdom of Hyrule that I all came to know and love in our youth was submerged beneath the waves that I was growing accustomed to sailing upon!! Within the castle I faced a brawl with some of the toughest enemies of the game, and I was rewarded with a staple of the series: the Master Sword, which unsheathed with an elegant sheen. I remember feeling pity for the world which characterized the Nintendo 64 console for me, which is a rare feeling to be evoked from video games. From this moment on, the game had a real kick in the pants, and I plowed through it with great enthusiasm. Considering how Hyrule felt like a home with its familiarity, welcoming environments and memorable characters, the image of the kingdom in a state of indefinite suspension evokes feelings of alienation and loss.

Breathtaking Moment #3 - Rally Point Omega, Halo: Reach (XBox 360, 2010)

I must inform you that I carefully considered that the shock value of this game may still be reverberating in my heart, but I have chosen to include it, nonetheless. Halo: Reach maintains a dim and gloomy atmosphere while hope is the driving force to stay the course, and complete the mission at hand. The entire game revolves around the concept of sacrifice and loss, two themes that are rare in videogames, and near-absent from first-person shooters.

Rally Point Omega is the after-credit sequence of Halo: Reach. While Halo fans have been accustomed to a sneak-peek at some future iteration of the game, a mysterious cutscene, or a humorous bit of play, Halo: Reach did away with that tradition. In its place is a remarkable end-of-game sequence, and what is certainly a strong testament to the strength of the human spirit in the face of insurmountable opposition.

As previously mentioned, the campaign revolves around sacrifice. The player's squadmates on Noble team all end up making the ultimate sacrifice for the greater good, with most of the team expiring while looking their death straight in the eye and engaging in what was necessary to secure the objective at hand. Jorge, Carter, and Emile all wittingly and willfully faced certain deaths in their duty, which really propels the importance of the task at hand that ultimately falls on the shoulders of the player, Noble 6. Noble 6 successfully delivers "The Package" and protects Captain Keyes as he takes the precious cargo aboard the Pillar of Autumn.

The meaning of selflessness is really accentuated in the after-credit sequence. While seeing all of one's teammates sacrifice their lives to keep the mission alive and not lose hope, Rally Point Omega really brings the sacrifice of Noble Team to light. Noble 6, choosing to operate the MAC cannon from the ground to protect the Pillar of Autumn as it departs for outer space, is not able to escape planet Reach while the Covenant fully invade and "glass" the planet. The Pillar of Autumn takes off, the credits roll, and then players once again are behind the visor of Noble 6.

I checked the mission objectives: Survive. I immediately knew that this mission is never meant to be completed. I scrounge about for some new weapons, and the battle ensues. Elites, grunts, jackals and skirmishers circle around me. At first, the battle is manageable. However, the numbers of foes and their aggression and cunning increase and they gradually become an unstoppable force. The covenant fleet clogs the sky, dropships, banshees and spirits fly about freely, as they have no fear of resistance from the dwindling population of their now-conquered planet. After last-ditch evacuation attempts, the rest of the population has been laid to waste by invading armies or bursts of plasma from covenant warships. Soon, my helmet cracks, rendering the battle all the more one-sided as my visibility is drastically impaired. Soon, my shields and health expire, and Noble 6 throws his damaged helmet to the ground as the helmet-mounted camera records his last moments of struggling before the Elites surrounding finally put Noble 6 to death. By this time, I understand what it took to give humanity some hope, as did the rest of Noble team before me.

Breathtaking Moment #2 - Smothering Mary, Silent Hill 2 (PS2, 2001)

Silent Hill 2 is a gem of the video game market. Despite being part of a franchise, as a standalone title it rivals Shadow of the Colossus in terms of inimitability. It features slow, methodical gameplay and puzzles with vague hints and irrational solutions (coin puzzle, anyone?). Also, it’s the single most disturbing game I’ve ever played, both with respect to completely enveloping me in the eerie atmosphere, as well as with respect to content and themes. Bullying, murder, suicide, rape, incest, and terminal illness take center stage here. Cheap thrills and closet monsters ride backseat to brooding, mystery, dread and psychological fear.

The story is a bizarre one, with the widower, James Sunderland, being invited to a place of intimacy that he and his wife, Mary, shared before she passed away. The puzzling part that drives the entire game is that Mary has been dead for some time, and the letter addressed to James has been signed by Mary herself, and she invited him to visit her at their “special place,” being the hotel room they shared on a vacation.

Without going into great detail about the game, for sake of spoiling it, there are four real endings to the game, and they all play out the same. The player plays through the game, is scared as hell for eight to twelve hours, and lastly, something depressing happens. Although the game features more than one ending, the gameplay and plot do not deviate from base line at all, as the endings are dictated by the player’s interaction with a key character.

The plot’s mechanism revolves around James looking for his wife, and asking the handful of deranged cohabitants of Silent Hill if they know of her, or have seen her. These characters are all worthy of some deliberation in and of themselves due to their erratic behavior and seriously disturbing backgrounds. But all the same, James takes every moment that he can to reflect on how much he misses his Mary, and how confused he is about the origin of the letter sent to him from his dead wife.

Where Silent Hill 2 is likely to invoke horrible reactions out of some folks is during the home stretch of the game. James discovers a home video tape of his late wife that he recorded while they were on vacation. The touching video, which he views on a VCR in the room in which it was filmed, Mary elaborates on the splendid atmosphere and aesthetics of the town, and then begins coughing and it is revealed to the player that Mary is terminally ill – meaning, she is diagnosed with a disease that has no cure, and ultimately is fatal, i.e. cancer.

The game is daringly vague about plot, and no matter which ending is viewed, no substantial closure is provided. One thing is clear though: James smothered Mary with a pillow while she was lying sick on her bed. After Mary has her coughing fit at the end of the home video, the scene changes to a hospital room as James suffocates his wife, in an attempt to end her suffering. Certainly, the gravity of the home video has to be seen in order to really be appreciated.

This is the only game that I’ve played that really connects to the human heart with respect to suffering. Anyone who has ever seen a loved one in pain knows that it is dreadfully heartwrenching. Konami had the nerve, at the turn of the millennium, to make a game that revolves around this very personal theme. The game is open for interpretation, much like controversial endings in film or literature. I interpret it as follows: James’ act of killing his wife is an act of selfishness, because he could not bear to see Mary enduring such suffering. He killed her to end his own suffering instead of letting her stay with treatment in the hope recovering. Seeing as how it is a selfish act, the spirits of Silent Hill saw fit to punish James. Apparently he tricked himself into believing that she died directly as a result of the disease, the omnipotent town led him to the place he most associated with his happy marriage and forced him to confront his selfish denial.

Breathtaking Moment #1 – Killing the Boss, Metal Gear Solid 3 (PS2, 2005)

Metal Gear Solid is an outstanding game by itself. It could have ended with the traditional Metal Gear boss battle, involving ridiculous enemies with exaggerated powers and an onslaught of Metal Gear bipedal robot war machines, and it would have been a great game all the same. However, Kojima-san and company chose instead to dive into the realm of symbolism and art. Killing the Boss is as artistic and beautiful as it is gutwrenching and inevitable.

The Boss, appropriately named, is the final boss of the game. The battle carries much emotional weight with it, because the Boss is both the mentor of, and a mother figure to, the main character of the game. Seeing her defect to the enemies is as heartbreaking as it is confusing, especially as the cinematic cutscenes throughout the game display her tolerating the cruelty, greed and bigotry of her new team.

The battle itself takes place in an open field, with only a few fallen logs and a tree or two to provide cover. The circular arena is otherwise covered in beautiful, white wildflowers. The player is free to shoot the Boss, but she will only engage you in close-quarters combat (CQC) for reasons that are later disclosed. The combined applications of stealth, vigilance and reflex make for an exciting, fast-paced battle. Being lathered in beautiful, white flower petals make it feel all the more intimate. The real tear-jerker comes after the Boss’ stamina has been depleted.

After a moving cutscene in which the Boss lauds the main character for his loyalty to his country, praises him for his growth – both as a person and a soldier, and confides in him her last laments, she asks for the player to put her out of her misery. But this isn’t left to a cutscene – the player must actually pull the trigger on the controller. It is stamped on my mind like a bad memory, the image of Snake standing over the Boss, gun in hand, aiming at her head. I tried every possible button combination, and then stood; waiting for the screen to change but the image remained the same, waiting for my command. Finally, after what felt like hours of trying to change my fate, I gave in and dealt the Boss her death sentence, an unjust execution in the name of global peace. There is no other game on the market that forces such a heartbreaking confrontation on a player, and is therefore worthy of praise and commendation.

That’s it, folks. These are moments that stuck the sharpest knives in my throat. Agree?? Disagree?? Did a few touching memories from some of your favorite games come to mind as you read about mine?? Post in the comments section, or go ahead and start some discussion on Facebook!!

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