Little Big MadWorld

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I’m up on the roof in Chinatown. (Which in this context is called “Great Wall Street”.) You can tell it’s Chinatown because there are gongs and kung-fu guys all over the place, just like in real Chinatown. Lurid letters appear on screen: MONEY SHOT. A two-story cutout of a naked woman looms large overhead with bullseyes over her NSFW zones. Each target has a big meaty spike jutting out of the center.

A caricature of an exaggeration of a stereotypical pimp struts into view and begins a self-aggrandizing explanation of how the game works. He uses the word motherf***ing as a wildcard noun / adjective replacement like he’s playing a round of Mad Libs with Samuel L. Jackson. Apparently the goal of this part of the game is to beat enemies senseless and then – in a needlessly complex and preposterous misuse of carbonation – propel my foes onto the woman’s spikes in order to score points. Halfway through his profane tutorial the pimp is interrupted by a lass in a tight outfit who cuts short the lesson with a straightforward demonstration. The pimp ends up impaled on a naughty spike and and dribbles a stream of red gore all over the buxom billboard. The cheeky girl saunters off.

The tutorial thus complete, it’s time for me to start murdering dudes while the announcers make jokes about gay group sex. The game I’m playing is MadWorld, from Sega.

The shocking thing about this scene isn’t the exhaustive and comprehensive attempt to offend anyone that might might see, hear, or momentarily play the game. (I can’t wait until the people who protested Mass Effect get a full ocular and aural dose of this thing.) The shocking thing isn’t the perpetually looping soundtrack, which sounds like a standard slice of the “shooting bitches and hos in the face” genre of rap that is now far beyond the reach of even the most cunning parodist. The shocking thing isn’t even the chunky splatters of blood splashed all over the screen. No, the shocking thing is that this is a Wii game. Using the Wiimote to dismember someone with a chainsaw is diabolically subversive, like building gallows out of Duplo blocks.

The last time I suffered from this level of console identity confusion was when I played the unconventional and whimsical LittleBigPlanet on the PS3. My first thought was, “Is this game lost? How the heck did a game about puppets collecting stickers end up on Sony’s high-priced technology slab for hardcore gamers and videophiles?” How did we end up in bizzaro world with adorable and playful on the PS3 and blood and tits on the Wii? I think I speak for a lot of gamers when I say to Sony and Nintendo: It’s about freakin’ time, guys.

There are few things I hate in gaming (and believe me, the list of things I hate is lengthy, diverse, and disturbingly intense) more than this attempt to pigeonhole consoles into game genres. In the past I’ve switched freely between Animal Crossing and Fallout, and I’d like to be able to buy a gaming console that can do the same.

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When I buy a DVD player, I don’t have to choose between getting a Samsung to watch action movies or a Magnavox to watch romantic comedies. When I shop for things like televisions, video players, and sound systems I look at sensible, quantifiable things like price, features, reliability, ease of use, and how awesome the unit will look once it’s set up. But when I buy a game console I’m supposed to figure out what kind of gamer I am and then purchase the system that fits my “lifestyle.” (Which carries the insulting implication that I must already have a life. The nerve.) I became a nerd in order to avoid making exactly this sort of idiotic decision. Anyone who’s been unlucky enough to see me in person can tell you that I don’t let car or clothing companies define me, and I don’t see any reason why things should be any different for the likes of Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo.

But this is the nature of the “console wars.” Like the “cola wars,” it’s a manufactured conflict where marketing executives trick consumers into doing their jobs for them. Why run ads when you can recruit your customers into posting all of your selling points and ad copy to pointlessly angry and hostile forum threads?

I understand that consoles aren’t quite like DVD players. There are good technological reasons why you don’t see a lot of games appear on both the Wii and the PS3. But when a console company trumpets their victory in securing an exclusive, it’s a victory for them, not the consumer. I am not going to like a game more just because other people can’t enjoy it at all. I didn’t enjoy Fable because my PS3 friends couldn’t, and I was more than a little sad when I realized I couldn’t get LittleBigPlanet for my Wii-owning parents. Less choice is not a good thing for consumers, and you should not let marketing tell you otherwise.

But I am fully in support of any effort to break down the pointless and completely artificial genre barriers that surround the big three. I like the idea of being able to use my Wii to play grown-up games when the kids aren’t around. And I think it makes sense to have family-friendly titles like LittleBigPlanet on a system being sold as a home entertainment / multimedia system like the PS3.

I know each console is concerned about “branding,” but I think trying to serve a rigid demographic is counter-productive. There is nothing Nintendo could do to bring Killzone 2 to the Wii, but there is no reason they can’t reach out and entertain people who enjoy Killzone-esque gameplay. Focusing solely on kid-friendly romps just means that gamers like me need to go out and buy another console if we want a little blood and cursing in our gaming. Even if you’re like me and own consoles from all of the Big Three and have built a gigantic nest of fire-hazard cables in order to to lash them to your television, it would still be nice to see each of them broaden their horizons enough to encompass the breadth of interest of the average person.

(And before someone jumps down to the comments any types “WHAT ABOUT THE XBOX YOU BIASED HATER”, let me point out that I own one, and it does an acceptable job of reaching out to the various types of gamer. I haven’t mentioned it because I’m contrasting the two extremes, and it stands somewhere in the middle. Still, more choice and diversity would be a good thing, for all platforms. Watching Sony and Microsoft enter the family-friendly market of heartwarming characters and kinesthetic interfaces is like watching a couple of hockey players learn to figure skate.)

I would say that LittleBigPlanet is a good start, and so is MadWorld. We need lots more of these convention-breaking titles, on all platforms. Ideally, people should decide what console to buy based on answers to simple questions like: How much can I afford to spend? Do I need a Blu-ray player? Do the Wii motion controls look like fun? How important is multiplayer and voice chat? They should not have to begin the process by asking, “How old am I and what genre of games do I like?”

Shamus Young is the guy behind this movie, this website, this book, these two webcomics, and this program. He still finds time to play videogames now and again.

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