Today I'd like to discuss Rez. For those of you already in the know - this is passe', but for the uninitiated, I'm hoping that this will be timely given the current status of the video game industry. Specifically, Rez is an interesting example when considering current genre popularity and consequently graphics and the often discussed 'next-generation'.
Released originally for the Dreamcast and designed by Tetsuya Mizuguchi, in 2002 Rez made it's way to the Playstation 2, sometime close to the debut of Sony's new system. As is often the case with games and other media (commercial or otherwise) that attempt to push boundries, Rez went largely unnoticed by the general public. Likely due to the fact that Rez didn't feature those 'next gen' (at the time) graphics that everyone was looking for, instead turning to games that strived for a greater sense of representationalism that every new game system promises.
The same thing happened to Nintendo's latest iteration of Zelda, 'Wind Waker'. By now the story is infamous : when Nintendo released the first video images of thier (then) new system, The GameCube, fans were dazzled by what they saw. In particular, a brief clip of what appeared to be the next Zelda game. It was like Pixar had taken Toy Story and removed all the toys and Randy Newman, substituting them with a Green Elf-Man and Ganon. Maybe this was a kind of validation for all those who had held on to Zelda for so long - that maybe if he looked 'realistic' it would justify liking these games. Thats why when 'Wind Waker' dropped, the collective hearts of the Nintendophiles sank - it was like a spit in the face. It was the exact inverse of what the democlip had falsely promised, Link was a Adventurous Little Elf-Boy rather than the Glorious Green Elf-Man, the world was bright and cartoony - 'Wind Waker' was obviously made for kids. Much posting of outrage on message boards followed, but it didn't change the fact that WindWaker, while beautiful in it's own cel-shaded way - wasn't 'keepin' it real' and therefore was something to be abhored and avoided. *
The story of Rez and Wind Waker sum up nicely the state of affairs regarding the current generation: it just doesn't pay to try and make a highly abstracted visual representation of the world in games.
Fast forward to 2005/2006, now on the verge of a new era of gaming - and you might find that sensibilities are swinging in the favour of Rez and Wind Waker.
In a funny turn of events, the same reasons why people were turned off by Rez are probably the same reason why it is held in such high regard today. I don't know if you noticed or not, but there are alot of shooters in the market today, if your not trying to be a HALO killer, your likely sports related, or (shudder) urban. Which is all well and good for the industry - in the sense that it rakes in the dough - however, people are getting burnt out by the same ol' same ol.
Video Games had become stagnant.
When Katamari Damacy hit, myself, along with many of the gaming community, and the general public, found it to be a breath of fresh air. But after playing the shit out of it, there really wasn't anywhere else to go. I was hungry for more - not more Katamari, but more that feeling of newness, something original and exciting.
Enter Synasthesia, the fictional landscape (or cyberspace?) that Rez contains within:
Hey - there's something wrong with my game! It's all wire frame graphics, the textures and mapping, it's mising!
At the root of Rez is a tangent that branched off from the old school history of games.
Rember those old Marvel comics, 'What If?', each comic was a contained story, with stories like 'What If Captain America became President?'. Wikipedia describes the concept as:
(having) proceeded from a particular point (a 'point of divergence') depicted in Marvels comic line and extrapolated what would happen as a result of that changed event
Rez asks the question, 'What If Video Games developed into a sensory experience?'. Rather then progressively moving towards narrative and cinema (video games as we know them today), what would have happened had games taken the example first set by Centipede, Tempest and Asteroids? These games were graphically stark and abstract due to the limitions of the technology. Rez proposes a game where abstraction is not an imposistion of the hardware but rather an asthetic choice - one that feeds into the theme of the game, sensory experience.
As mentioned above, Rez doesn't take place on earth, or the mushroom kingdom, rather a tecnological/conceptual world called 'Synaesthesia' - this is the first hint at the thematic goals of the game. Synaesthesia, refers to the application of the senses parallel and in compliment to one another. The idea of associating feelings of pain with the colour red and a shrill sound is an example of synaesthesia.
Rez endeavours to employ senses when you play (minus smell and taste). While you marvel at the pulsating graphics you are also reacting to the vibrating controller which is in synch with the techno-beats playing in the background. The senses are stimulated all in unison, subconciously your mind begins to make the connections between sight, touch, and sound and by extention the concept of Rez is illuminated.
Taken in as a whole, the seperate elements that compose Rez, the audio, visuals and the tactile form a satisfying sense of unity. Amongst the luminous examples of great literature, true cinema and moving music, you will find the same comprehensive commitment to harmony. That being said, it is worth disecting Rez once more, this time in terms of it's secondary theme, Layers.
At this point it would be appropriate to describe the gameplay of Rez. Every stage starts off in a similar fashion, you enter the stage - floating as the stage moves across a set path.Visually, the screen is vast empty black space. A dull beat begins, constant and droning, and soon a few enemies appear - clearly the need to be shot down. Pretty straight forward, maybe even boring stuff. This changes when you lock onto your first set of targets, fire off your laser and take down those first few adversaries, suddenly the concept becomes evident. At every point, from the locking on, to the firing of lasers and destruction, there is a seperate and distinct sound for each which then somehow matches the beat of playing in the background.
Soon the tempo changes, quickening , the enemies increase cluttering your vision, your grip on the controller might increase, as it seemingly wants to leap from your hands at every beat, and the graphics become progressively more complex. As Rez deliberatly evolves in its aural and ocular intricacy, so too will your onscreen avatar. Initially a humanoid form, you advance to newer forms, eventually into a posture resembling Buddhist prayer. The idea of progressing both through the stage in levels, deeper into the fictionalized system and complexity is echoed by the same evolution that takes place with your changing character. Interstingly - the game calls both of these examples 'levels', - further reinforcing the theme of unity through layers.
The idea of layers takes on further importance when you consider the narrative, visual and musical choices in Rez.
Although plot and storyline are never explained at length, the instruction manual alludes to an intelligent computer system, and a need to crack it. Its the kind of post - Blade Runner plot that has become all the rage in recent years. Broadly speaking, a fear that an increase in technological sophistication might spell doom for humanity.
Rez supports it's story with complementary visuals, at once drawing upon Tron,Hackers and The Matrix for it's computer interface/streaming code/vector art aesthetic. Furthermore, as players progress through the stages, an added sophistication of the imagery emerges.
Similarly, the music always starts at a simple, droning pace which progresses in levels, introducing new synthesized sounds culminating in the maturation of a full on piece of music (which the player is a participant in creating as he plays). Music is worth further examination as Mizuguchi has always been an advocate for synergistic relationships between it and gameplay. This, compounded by the fact that Rez is a game based around Techno/Electronica implies layers in its construction.
It is fitting then, that a video game meant to explore the possiblities of the medium would include the idea of 'levels' not only in the design of gameplay areas, but as a current that runs through every facet of it's architecture, visually, sonically, and in tactillity.
As our current generation of video games comes to a close, it would benifit game designers to look at this past cycle and examine both it's sucesses and failures.Where Rez might have failed as a commercial product, it succeeded not meerly as an experiment, but as a complete experience.
For further information on Rez I'd recommend Gamegirl Advance (for further examination into the tactile side of things) and also IGN for some great images from the game.
* Personally, I enjoyed Windwaker almost soley upon the merits of its visuals, since gameplay wise there were a few problems.