Feb 27 2009

House of the Dead: Overkill is a triumph

It's interesting to be around for the birth of a new artistic medium. What is ugly nonsense to those older folks who did not grow up with it is wondrous and relevant to those who did.

Film developed in much the same way. First monopolized by its inventor, Edison made the first films as uninspired tech demos, to use the modern parlance. It took until Murnau, Griffith, Lang, and Hitchcock before the medium began to appeal to adult, mature sensibilities.

Indeed, we are used to video games (which really need a new name) made by the machine makers. Nintendo's ubiquitous Mario and Sega's Sonic have for two decades set the standard for what video games were: largely without narrative, colorful, and without doubt childish. Simultaneously, they carried with them a tremendous difficulty, so that only someone without a job (children) could actually see the entire work. This condition has no parallel in other media.

At the crossroads of "casual" gaming and true mature entertainment stands House of the Dead: Overkill, a reboot, so to speak, of the House of the Dead series. The game plays out narratively as a long homage to B-movies (or "grindhouse", a term which was made into a genre by Tarantino, no matter what the merits of such a claim are), with each level a setpiece framed as its own B-grade film. "Fuck" is said more than "the", and the humor is nonstop, ranging from the lowest of lowbrow guilty pleasure to rather cerebral, built-up jokes.

Linking these vignettes is a deliberately corny, rather vague plot involving a mission to catch the man who killed the father of the protagonist, Isaac Washington, and who also unleashed a horde of zombies mutants. Washington is working with Agent G, the lead of the previous House of the Dead games. Along the way, they meet a buxom stripper Varla Guns (get it?) and a rather peculiar prison warden.

Gameplay is exactly what it intends to be: light-gun, on-rails shooting that is challenging yet simultaneously forgiving (with infinite continues). As such, the game treads precisely where it ought: fun for adults, who have jobs, and want an adult, mature experience. Is the gameplay deep? No. Is it exciting? You bet. This is not to mention that the fact that it's a light-gun game that goes on for FOUR HOURS, which is approximately SIX TIMES longer than either House of the Dead 2 or 3. This is an epic by the genre's standards, and it neither overstays its welcome nor feels too brief.

As with the latest Prince of Persia game, the title has been severely underrated by the enthusiast game press, who are apparently incapable of being circumspect in a way that critics should. This medium is advancing, gaining market share and respectability. Games that are inclusive of non-children working-folks are the rightful future of the medium, and the pioneers should be better praised, especially when they make something not only groundbreaking, but fun as well.