Thursday, 11 June 2009

Game Review - The Darjeeling Limited

As gaming technology progresses ever closer to full immersion, with HD graphics and motion recognition tech like Microsoft's Project Natal pushing the boundaries of what games can represent, we have seen an explosion in abstract gaming genres, more concerned with telling convoluted and compelling narratives than merely giving the player an avatar to guide through a series of environments. This attempt to match established storytelling media such as books and films might be misguided. Arguably, games can do certain things that other media cannot, so why not continue to do those things instead of trying to imitate old media like movies? However, this has not dissuaded games developers, and the latest release from game developer Wes Anderson, in association with Tweesoft Games, is a notable progression in this abstract-narrative sub-genre.

The Darjeeling Limited is Anderson's first project since the critical failure of his first-person shooter / marine exploration simulator The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. After sales failed to materialise, Anderson split from long-time collaborators RagnarokRain, a move that shocked the gaming community. The success of their previous games -- Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums -- cemented their reputation as purveyors of eccentric gaming experiences, with Anderson's fertile mind served by RagnarokRain's incredible coding prowess.

Nevertheless, it was risky to change their style from increasingly complex Sims-style strategy game -- with Rushmore allowing you to manage Max Fischer's career at school, and The Royal Tenenbaums expanding your responsibilities to controlling a large family in a New York brownstone -- to a peculiar cross-breed of other genres. Regrettably their gamble failed terribly. The character of Steve Zissou was promoted as being the next Master Chief or Gordon Freeman but, with the traditional macho couture of the first person hero abandoned in favour of a wetsuit and red bobble hat, Zissou failed to convince. To make things worse, the underwater sections were poorly designed and overlong, until eventually fatigue set in for most players, ditching the game before completing the fabled Jaguar Shark Forgiveness achievement. Not long after the game was released, it was Anderson who ditched RagnarokRain.

Following the acrimonious split, RagnarokRain's head project developer Colt Wendell moved on to collaborating with French game desginer Jean-Luc Godard on the heavily guarded project Weekend. Godard has confounded expectation in the past, which is a reassuring thought to hold onto after initial rumour hinted that it was merely some form of 2-D side-scrolling driving game. Anderson, meanwhile, teamed up with Tweesoft Games, in a move that surprised all of us. Tweesoft's projects to date have been the amusing on-rails shooter Snakes on a Plane, which featured infamous voicework from Samuel L. Jackson, and the diverting Singstar-esque Hustle and Flow. Though those games sold well, neither hinted that Tweesoft was a good match for the ground-breaking intellectualism of Anderson.

Thankfully, for the most part, The Darjeeling Limited is a return to form for Anderson, and a notable leap for Tweesoft after the choppiness of their previous projects. The player takes control of three self-obsessed brothers -- Francis, Peter and Jack Whitman -- as they search India for their estranged mother in order to connect with her following the death of their father. The majority of the game takes place on the train of the title, switching from first-person to third-person and back again, as you interact with a selection of beautifully written NPCs, with occasional excursions off the train providing some much needed variety. These adventures usually end with a mad dash, either on foot or by taxi, with a countdown clicking off the time until the train departs. Though most of the game is leisurely, these sections definitely get the pulse racing. (Click on screen grabs for greater detail.)

As you progress through the game, your primary goal is to monitor two variables: Frustration With Brothers and Obliviousness To Others, both measured as percentages. The first measurement must be kept as low as possible, a task hindered by the insufferable selfishness of all of the main characters. As you hop from brother to brother, you see terrible behaviour from each of them, bringing that frustration level to the boil several times. Only by acquiescing to their neediness will your frustration level drop, but this will stop you from progressing through the game, meaning you have to balance your frustration, and your efforts to bring your siblings closer, with the need to get to your mother's abbey to reconcile with her. If you fail to keep your frustration tempered, and the percentage counter goes past 90%, the game momentarily changes to a first-person shooter mode, with your currently controlled character attempting to incapacitate the other two brothers using pepper spray.

The second measurement, Obliviousness To Others, has to remain high. Any other gaming designer would require you to keep that level low, but this appears to be Anderson's satirical take on the selfish and clueless behaviour of American tourists around the world. The higher this level, the greater the chance you will be thrown off the train, which allows you to progress deeper into the game. This counterintuitive choice is one of the many delightful Andersonian details that have made him such a star of the gaming world, and belongs with other memorable game moments as the failure of Max Fischer to win the heart of his teacher in Rushmore, or the death of the father figure triggering the reconciliation of his family in the final level of The Royal Tenenbaums.

Once off the train, the rules change, and you are required to keep the Obliviousness meter as low as possible, which triggers the River Rescue level. Again, Anderson plays tricks with the player by making the level impossible. Controlling Peter Whitman, you attempt to save a boy from a raging river, sadly to no avail. No matter how many times we restarted the level, the outcome was always the same. Though the consequence of this failure is continuation to the Funeral In Two Timezones level, it might frustrate many players expecting some kind of heroic catharsis, and could lead to the same kind of protests that followed the unavoidable death of Ned Plimpton in the helicopter level of The Life Aquatic.

Hopefully gamers will see past this and continue onwards, as the final levels of the game feature a race against time to reach the sanctuary of the Abbey, all the while chased by a man-eating tiger. This antagonist is as relentless as Nemesis from the third Resident Evil game, and can only be distracted with the use of pepper spray, cobras, and bottles of perfume. After this exhausting series of challenges, the brothers finally reach the Abbey, where they attempt to reconcile with the mother, who has absolutely no interest in making nice and instead just vanishes. Again, this could alienate the gamer as much as the lack of Jaguar-Shark-killing action in The Life Aquatic, especially as the game doesn't finish there, and doesn't give you any hint of what to do next. At least an hour was wasted walking the characters through the halls of the Abbey, with the same five phrases being spouted by the other brothers over and over again (we never want to hear the line about Peter stealing a belt again), before we realised that we had to leave the Abbey to head back to the nearby train station. A comment on the lack of tidy resolution in real life? Or crappy quality control by the game-testers? Who can say?

Throughout The Darjeeling Limited are littered a number of mini-games, each one specific to a certain character:

  • I Want That Stewardess: Can Jack seduce Rita while avoiding her angry boyfriend?
  • Hotel Chevalier: Here comes Jack's ex-girlfriend. Can you activate your iPod in time for her arrival?

  • The Search For Brendan: Find your assistant and get him to laminate all of your itineraries before he gets sick of your nonsense.
  • Dinner Time: Can you order dinner for each of your brothers before they get a chance to interject?
  • Those Are $3000 Loafers!: Chase the young urchin through the streets to get your shoe back.

  • Is This Meant To Be Sad?: Finish reading Jack's short story without anyone seeing you cry
  • We Think A Snake Might Have Gotten Onboard!: Hunt the cobra.
  • Are These Dad's Keys?: Find all of your father's belongings, which are littered throughout the train and the Indian countryside. Hint: The final suitcase is hidden in the Funeral In Two Timezones level.

While these distractions are enjoyable, they tend to get in the way of the central narrative, diluting the effect of all of the rug-pulling mentioned earlier. It's hard to become completely affected by the emotional rollercoaster of the Whitmans' reconciliation when you're interrupted constantly by crude racing simmulators. Another annoyance is the poor choice of unlockables, which are mostly songs by The Kinks. For some reason Anderson seems to think that gamers are only playing his games in order to access songs by British bands from the 60s, and has added Kinks unlockables to all of his games. Time to move on from that particular peccadillo, especially as there are very few unused Kinks songs left.

These are small quibbles. Technically the game is a marvel, with excellent motion capture of the main actors throughout. India is atmospherically rendered, especially during the final scenes as the characters beccome more in tune with their surroundings, meaning the avatars become smaller and smaller in the frame. Narratively, the game is unusually complex, easily surpassing the inexplicably lauded driving game Little Miss Sunshine and its gimmicky colour-blind level. After a disappointment, Anderson is back, and Tweesoft have established themselves as a force to be reckoned with. We look forward to their forthcoming collaboration with Alexander Payne on the wine-themed platformer Sideways.

1 comment:

sjwoo said...

Very much looking forward to Sideways. And also the Gran Turino/The English Patient (Wii version) Value Pack, where by pressing the 1 or 2 key, you can switch between Clint and the burnt Ralph Fiennes (same character, different color)?

I bet I'll especially enjoy Crash, too, where I'll have my pick of unsavory racial comments to choose from to spout to various characters, resulting in surprising (or maybe not so surprising) plot collisions.