Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Review: Rayman Origins (Wii)

Let's get the critical evaluation out of the way: Rayman Origins is a fun, smartly-designed 2-D platformer that strikes a balance between the charm and detail of Kirby's Epic Yarn with the trial and error, twitch challenge of Super Meat Boy.  Sounds pretty good, right?  For the most part, it is.  Game reviewers have heaped near-universal praise upon the title using phrases like "wonderfully crafted," "gorgeous," and "controls perfectly."  I agree with all of these, and yet, Rayman Origins still comes off a bit empty.  The only reason I can think of for this disparity was the difficulty I had empathizing with the ragtag group of bohemian shit disturbers that serve as the game's protagonists.  This disconnect effectively eliminated my attachment to the characters' motivations and relegated the game to a product of craft rather than a work of art.

I do fear that this opinion could brand me as some kind of humorless square, but characters who have been created solely for mischief usually rub me the wrong way.  I have always been pretty straight-laced, staying organized and avoiding trouble whenever possible.  In elementary school, I observed conflicts and elicit conversations from a safe distance, honing my "excellent listener" skills overhearing discussions of cigarettes and R-rated movies.  I hated Michelangelo from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles because he was the idiot who always dragged the others into avoidable hostile situations.  So, when Rayman Origins opened with the full cast of layabouts harmonizing beatnik music via chewing and snoring noises that essentially annoyed the neighbors into retaliation, I felt less like exacting revenge and more thankful that somebody said something.

At least in Mario games Nintendo fabricates a premise of "rescue" for your quest.  You might not desperately need to save the princess, but you assume Mario probably does, so you oblige.  The "white knight" stereotype isn't what makes the character interesting or believable – on its own the characterization is quite shallow.  It does set a stage for you to quickly get behind the protagonist's motivation though.  This works for morally ambiguous protagonists too, just using different criteria to match the context.  In contrast Rayman and his friends are a bunch of hedonists, apathetic to current affairs except when their collective buzz is at stake.  It's like playing a game where a small party of stoners embark on a quest to find the nearest convenience store and eat day-old taquitos.  Actually, nevermind, I'd totally give that game a shot too.

The fluidity of Rayman Origins' level design and platforming controls largely make up for the shortcomings in plot establishment, but only to the extant that great mechanics can reach on their own. The moment-to-moment satisfaction in Rayman Origins is quite high.  Levels are designed for smooth runs if played precisely.  If the sensation of speed was faster you might think you were playing the Sonic the Hedgehog sequel that never was.  Better yet, you never feel like the characters are out of your control.  If you screw up, there's always something you could have done better.  After all your hard work, finally you reach the end of the level and the camera zooms in to show Rayman thrusting his limbless torso around, mouth agape.  This guy again.  In the scene that follows, one of Rayman's big-nosed pals straddles an incredibly phallic test tube as it fills up with all of the Lums (yellow, glowing collectables) you found in the level.  When other reviewers talk about this game being "unmistakably French," this is what they're actually referring to.

So what am I left with in Rayman Origins but an excellent product of gameplay craft, shouldering an otherwise driveless game.  It's a shame because so many pieces are in place for Rayman Origins to be a certifiable work of art, but it falls short on a holistic level.  The mechanics that are present are rich, but they're not deep.  The game doesn't invite immersion – I got burned out after few levels each time I came back to it.  It's great that Ubisoft recently published a strikingly similar game for mobile devices, since Rayman Origins' structure is better tuned to short gameplay bursts over long-form, sit-down experiences.  If a game/painting/song doesn't ultimately provoke questions or reflection or welcome a more intimate play of engagement, then it's just serving a specifically crafted entertainment experience.  Sometimes that's exactly what I want, but I had higher hopes for Rayman Origins.

We can talk "art v craft" inconclusively for longer than it takes to play Rayman Origins, so let's just consider the established critical baselines as laid out by Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant.  To state it plainly, Kant divided art objects into "fine art," "agreeable art," and "craft."  A great deal of intricacy goes into these categorical assignments, but the easiest way to distinguish them from one another is by the purpose of the object in question.  Craft objects serve direct practical purposes: cups are vessels for water.  Agreeable art serves to entertain: a well-written joke incites laughter.  Fine art seeks to act as, well, art: a video installation provokes a play with ideas.  Many individuals hold fast against Kant's distinctions between art, craft, and entertainment, but institutions of the art world (museums, galleries, and art schools) still hang on to them as guideposts for taste.

Games, and obviously video games, weren't a part of this discussion in the 18th century, but Rayman Origins was clearly built for entertainment.  That said, entertainment itself could be interpreted as a practical purpose too, thus placing the game into the "craft" category as well.  You could argue that even if I absolutely adored Rayman and his buds, the game would still be "agreeable," not "fine," art.  Who knows whether that would actually be true though?  If art was just a matter of pushing sliders more to the left or right, then the answers to these questions would be obvious.  But I digress.  My point isn't to trudge around in semantic minutiae, but simply to concretize why my time with Rayman Origins left me lukewarm when most signs within and around the game seemed to be pointing in a more prestigious direction.

I want games that match the mechanical challenge they're so clearly capable of with intellectual challenge, or at least stimulation. I'd love to see developers use the gameplay systems from Rayman Origins as building blocks.  The side-scrolling action/platformer can be considered perfected at this point.  That's a milestone achievement, and deserving of serious praise, along with the economical UBIart framework used to create Rayman Origins' visual assets.  But what of it?  I've spent years playing games where I move a character to the right, so here's hoping that the next Rayman game will return the favor and actually move me.

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