The rise of chemical photography in the 1800s had a profound effect on the fine arts. While some painters embraced its use as a tool and aid, others thought it represented the impending demise of realistic or representational art. Although no one could deny the phenomenal ability of contemporary masters like Courbet or Corot to capture an essence of reality on canvas, nothing could match the scientific authenticity and objectivity of the photograph. Though academically debatable, many felt that this crisis of creative identity forced many artists to either embrace photography or redefine art away from the representational and towards the conceptual. The latter brought forth a new non-objective way of thinking that will ultimately lead to such styles as cubism, surrealism, and abstract expressionism (to name a few).
This effect that photography had on the fine arts in the 19th century can be considered comparable to the way the Sega Dreamcast is currently affecting videogames now in the 21st century. While console systems prior to the Dreamcast, were technological wonders in their own right, no one would mistaken their blocky 3D graphics and diluted colors to be anything more than a pale imitation of reality. The same, however, cannot be said of the Dreamcast, whose rendering ability far exceeds those of past systems and is capable of producing images and animation quality that is often frighteningly realistic.
With Dreamcast opening up worlds of possibilities, game developers are left in a similar quandary that artists in the 19th century had to face. Do they try to meticulously recreate reality as thoroughly as possible or do they move toward more conceptual and stylistic representations? Could there be a balance between the two creatively extreme directions? While I don't doubt that any game will perfectly represent a polar opposite, I do think that future games will need to lean more toward a distinction in order to be artistically successful. Capcom's newest release Resident Evil Code: Veronica proves why being somewhere in the middle of the road just doesn't work.
Most dedicated fans of the series and survival horror genre already know that Code: Veronica is one of the most hyped and highly anticipated releases on the young Dreamcast system to date. Virtually all the setups are the same as its three predecessors that appeared on the Sony PlayStation. Players take control of an individual character and try to escape a desolate location decimated by a viral outbreak that causes people to change into zombies. In the case of Code: Veronica, Claire Redfield is the character on the run (control later switches to a couple of other characters including her brother Chris) and Umbrellas island prison facility serves as the initial backdrop.
Despite being peppered with cutting edge prerendered, CG (computer generated) full-motion videos (almost worthy of Final Fantasy Movie-like recognition) that progress the story along, Code: Veronica is still largely a puzzle-driven (as opposed to plot driven) experience. Music and sounds remain mostly visceral and character relationships and scripting are still shallow and horribly underwritten. And, of course, in grand Resident Evil tradition, the voice acting is atrocious. The rotational pivot control scheme (complete with quick 180 degree turn, but sans the quick dodge move from part three) and exterior views from fixed camera positions remain unchanged from all previous entries as well. The only two things that have changed is the setting, which now shifts dramatically from one location to another about midway through the game, and the visuals (environments and all), which are now completely in 3D polygons and not the usual prerendered backgrounds that the series is famous for.
Not surprisingly, the visuals and the way they are presented are the most innovative and noteworthy aspects of the game. Being that the actual game is entirely in 3D, camera angles are now much more versatile and they can swoop in or follow in at key locations (as if Hollywood-style cranes and dolly tracks were being employed). Backgrounds are convincingly lively with amazing detail and richly diverse textures. I particularly liked how some areas gave a great sense of depth and distance without having any technical annoyances like draw-in or slow-down. Character models and designs were also equally detailed and diverse in just about every respect, from facial expression to clothing patterns. Furthermore, these characters animated and moved with silky smooth precision. It's rare that the quality of character models in the prerendered full-motion video sequences will match the quality of the ones generated in real-time, but in Code: Veronica, the two were strikingly similar. The quality of the models even reminded me of imagery from Sega's up and coming preordained masterpiece, Shenmue, and felt like a preview of better things to come.
Yet, the graphical wonder of Code: Veronica also becomes a lethal double-edged sword. While the presentation received a shot in arm and everything looks fairly realistic, the same can't be said of the gameplay mechanics, which has remained unbelievably ridiculous. The same style of play has been carried over from prior releases and remains largely unchanged. In other words, players still spend most of their time finding tools, keys, devices or knick-knacks and use them to either enter new areas or solve little brain teaser-type puzzles that usually lead to more tools, keys, devices or knick-knacks. Repeat the process over and over, coupled with consistent battles with zombies and similar-type creatures, and you get an idea of games general flow. Typical of the series, the puzzles and the items used in conjunction with them seemed overly forced or obscure. They usually extended way beyond the story arc and have no plausible functionality. The multitude of puzzles often involved mystical tokens, trinkets, and even jewels (used mostly as keys) and range from the barely conceivable to the completely preposterous. I don't have a problem with these kinds of quests if they were rationally disguised or motivated properly within the confines of the fantasy-like plot. But this was not the case with Code: Veronica, which has a gritty and technological modern art direction.
The confused relationship between the realistic graphics and mystical puzzles is further exasperated by the physical capabilities of the controllable character. Actions and mobility are severely limited to run, walk, turn, and shoot (the highly touted first-person view is extremely limited, with plausible usage in only two instances that involve specific weapons and only against bosses). Think you can pull off some of the fancy moves Claire employed in the introduction movie? Forget about it. There's simply a huge discrepancy in the way the game looks and what you can actually do in it.
This discrepancy is most apparent in one part of the game where a path is obstructed by fire and can't be passed. It's visibly obvious that there's a crawl space right beside the fire that any normal person could squeeze though to get around, but it just isn't possible due to restrictions that the developers have imposed. There's another part later in the game that involves Claire needing to retrieve an ID card encased in a crystal ball found inside an antique cannon (why the ID would be sealed in a crystal ball and found it that sort of location is a whole other story). What I found totally unfathomable was why Claire needed to put her life in danger by walking under a Loony Toons-type dropping trap to place the crystal ball in order to crack it. Why she couldn't have just casually rolled the ball into the danger zone rather than putting herself in harms way is beyond me. The two examples I've mentioned here are also far from isolated instances. I was constantly befuddled at why glass or fragile-looking doors couldn't be busted down or why mild obstructions like barrels or boxes blocking off certain areas couldn't be moved while others could.
Like many artists in the 1800s, Capcom needs to decide what kind of art they want to actually make. Do they want to make a fantasy-like game where mysticism and magic can circumvent everyday logic or are they trying to make a game that strives to mimic reality as closely as possible? In order for Code: Veronica to work, the developers need to take more of stand in one direction and then fuse the visuals and the gameplay to match that direction. As for how it stands now, I think my girlfriend put it best when she sat in on one of my gaming sessions with Code: Veronica and quickly observed, "Why can't you just climb over that fence if the doors locked?" That's a good question that I'll leave for developers to ponder.