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Vol. 2, Issue 1
November 9, 1999
Pixel Obscura:

Adventures in CandyLand

by Josh Vasquez

Video games have become infested with ghosts. One of the trends in the industry over the last few years seems to be an exploratory revisitation of the successes of the past. Old bones, however, are just that, and the stars of yesteryear needed a bit of "fleshing" out (fade to a boardroom meeting: "men, we gotta think big" the boss says as a chorus quietly sings "Dem Bones" in the background). In a ritual of redressing, paradigmatic characters like Donkey Kong, Frogger and, most recently, Pac-Man have all been resurrected with a day-glow pulse and bubbled out into a new landscape by way of a wonderful conceit: the illusion that one can implant the third dimension into the second. In essence this neoteric life promised to the faithful is a movement to the geometry that applies in depth. It's a deepening meant to tap into nostalgia and thus, hopefully, into wallets as fans trade for a peek at the "new world."

As a side effect of this marketing strategy, a new aesthetic has arisen around these once flat heroes that stretches beyond the "fish out of water" charm of seeing them turn 360 degrees. On the one hand, watching something being brought back to life can persuade the observer to develop a new appreciation for the tools used to work such a miracle. Seeing Pac-Man in the increasingly standard "3D environment" format has the potential to help the surfeited player rediscover a magical sense of awe at such video game advances, like seeing the sun rise through the eyes of someone regaining their sight after a year. Now, while I don't want to overstate the power of this awakening (in the end it is just a game after all), there is something to be said for its ability to induce a warm smile if nothing else. On the other hand, there is an interesting A+B=C equation taking shape here.

Mixing the cartoonish with a more fully "realized" environment has some curious side-effects. Treating Mario or Donkey Kong like, for example, Lara Croft (and whether Tomb Raider came before or after is beside the point), or at least placing them in a similarly rendered quest format, forces a strange marriage of the serious and the silly. Even though the ideas behind the games may be completely different, utilizing the same type of overall design to reach utterly different goals, the viewer can't help but see one in the newly cast light of the other. Just by 3D-ing the environment of a game you are evolving the narrative, raising the stakes if you will. This is true even if the new Pac-Man is still all about gobbling those little white dots; the walls of the maze are instantly more "dramatic" in a three dimensional setting than in the original by virtue of their being made more concrete. I am not suggesting that the creators have to have intentionally worked out a more detailed plot line for this to be true. If the individual is inspired to let his or her mind wander, stretching to account and plan for the possibility that a threat awaits behind that next hill or around the corner, then a more heightened interaction is automatically taking place between game and player. The intriguing and humorous bent comes in when the character is not a barbarian warlord or a robot monster but Frogger.
This Candylandish adventure/drama is taken a step further when there actually is a plot waiting to be unearthed by our furry or round or generally odd little friends. In the new Sega Dreamcast game Sonic Adventure, the famous, mercurial blue hedgehog undertakes such a challenge.

The scene opens on the metropolis at peace, people and traffic milling about in the rhythms of urbania. Suddenly danger rears its head in the form of water gone mad: manholes spout lethal torrents, the sewers overflow and, most troubling of all, the ocean surrounding the city is rebelling in a rather tidal way. There seems to be something at work here, some preplanned menace to home and country. We soon see what it is as a particularly sentient acting tidal wave pierces a skyscraper and begins to take hideous shape on the other side, losing its globular mass in favor of a well defined dragon beast replete with gnashing teeth. Enter our heroes. As the soundtrack swells along to the giddy heights of a rock-ish anthem, Sonic and his companions race to the rescue.

Many fine touches are sprinkled throughout the piece. The first two instances are sound based, a tool often utterly overlooked by video game cinematic designers. As the water bursts forth onto the city, the creators don’t succumb to the dreadful temptation of garishly over intense sound effects, but rather mirror the fluidity (forgive the pun) of the crisis with the hushed rippling of vaguely electronic music like drowned wind chimes.

When the dragon beast is taking shape, vibrating and shimmering, the only sound is that of a radio being tuned, the warbling tones and frenzied static that wraps itself around the ghostly voices you can hear between stations.

It may not be deeply profound art, but the fragment distinguishes itself as a thoughtful approach to something often thrown at the viewer as so much fodder. The song I mentioned earlier, an arm pumping rock-pop ditty that would feel at home in the Transformers movie, has a kind of campy charm as a roguish stab at attitude that would be terminally jokey had it not been played out with such brightly colored, furry “actors.” There are a few visual gems as well.

Intercut between flashes of the drowning city is a first person shot of moving forward at great speed, the player sharing Sonic’s world view as he races to help. By way of strict narrative drama, the trick helps build a lovely comic book tension and, in keeping with the idea that the gameplay offers a newly enhanced environmental perspective, it gives the player a view never before indulged in the Sonic canon. The city itself is nicely realized, a try for realism that sweats a beautifully cartoonish ink. The approach to editing is entirely consistent with the tone, something that in a tight little pitch like this is crucial. As is fitting with the candy striped ambiance, the “camera” cuts closer to characters rather then zooming in and refuses to linger on any one face for too long. Perhaps the single greatest cliché in all trailer type presentations is the “characters turning to face the camera” bit, and in Sonic Adventure it almost becomes reflexive. When the velutinous members of the Sonic universe play out this same old cliche, they come across as spoofy and place the viewer at an ironic distance from the material. Whether intentional or not, the humor works because it doesn’t produce a mocking laugh so much as a knowing one.

The novelty comes in watching good old Sonic having to solve a dilemma that holds challenges beyond those offered by collecting rings and dodging giant balls; it’s like putting Buster Crabbe’s 1935 Flash Gordon into Total Recall. The opening cinematics of the game highlight this by washing out the environmental colors in a realist stance and yet keeping the original Banana Splits-esque character designs: the “real” and the hyper-unreal as one. Sonic Adventure is the perfect hybrid to symbolize the recent trend in video games of bleeding together the past and the present. The old is brushed up, given a new coat of paint and hurtled into a strange new world, Like black darts thrown onto a white board, each is cast into stark relief by the another and yet that “conflict” makes the whole a much more fascinating picture.

- Joshua Vasquez is the resident film critic here at loonygames. He also writes for the Internet film site Matinee Magazine.

 

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