Monday, June 8, 2009

What's Within Your Soul?

The above is the question posed as part of the advertising campaign for Namco's Soul Calibur IV, a video game available for the Xbox 360 and Ps3 as of July of last year. It has occupied a gargantuan amount of my "gaming" time since I bought it last August, and while I don't have any way of knowing precisely how many hours I've spent playing it (unlike many other games, Soul Calibur lacks an in-game "clock" that tracks the amount of time you've been playing), I suspect I may have even clocked in more hours with this game than I have with all other games I've played for the past 9 months combined. For those interested in a fairly liberal estimation, however, consider that Star Ocean 4 alone took me a good 40+ hours to complete - and that's just one game among many I've been playing and continue to play even now. Needless to say, we're talking about some truly copious amounts of play time with just one solitary title. So why wait wait until now to provide a write-up of my take on the game?

Suffice it say, despite that I've ventured through almost everything the game has to offer - and there's a gargantuan amount of content here - writing about a fighting game is not something I've had to do before. My admission that I even happen to like this particular game, let alone this particular genre, is bound to get this Catholic gamer some "cocked-eyebrow" glances (er, comments) for fellow faithful, and for good reason. The entire point of this game, after all, is essentially to "K.O" the other guy, and while the violence in this game certainly isn't of the spill-your-guts gorefest Mortal Kombat variety, it's still gratuitous enough to merit a "T for Teen" ESRB rating - and enough to give any Catholic pause. To quote The Holy Father, "any trend to produce programs and products - including animated films and video games - which in the name of entertainment exalt violence and portray anti-social behavior or the trivialization of human sexuality, is a perversion." Even in a game like Soul Calibur, where the line between good and evil is clearly demarcated ("Soul Calibur" itself is the name of a sword that is supposed to be the manifestation of pure goodness, while "Soul Edge" is the weapon embodying pure evil; the game itself is set on the backdrop of world history and the various events throughout time that, unbeknownst to mostly everyone, are caused by the conflict between these two swords), the fact that:

a) both good and evil are represented by a weapon, a tool of destruction;
b) the game itself really does boil down to virtually knocking the stuffing outta the other guy/gal who's trying their utmost to do the same to you;

is certainly problematic irrespective of the rest of the game's virtues.

More problematic in my opinion, however, is the game's treatment of sexuality. Let's just say that "scantily clad" is a VERY MINIMALISTIC way to describe the depiction of certain female fighters in this game. It is clearly meant to attract the playboy generation, and, as I wrote in a post last year, it nearly stopped me from buying the game, if only to protest what I thought was not only in terribly poor taste, but an ostensibly offensive objectification of the human body. Now there are ways to avoid some of the naughtier bits - the game actually allows the players to purchase different armor and weapons for the characters, with each costume affecting different battle parameters. It's not difficult to customize characters so that this particularly unfortunate content shouldn't pose a problem.

So just what exactly redeems this game, anyway? Well, I didn't find the concept of "fighting" in and of itself to be particularly problematic, not being a pacifist. As creatures, we're actively engaged, whether we like it or not, in a battle between good and evil; the various characters in the game often find themselves unwilling participants in the same struggle. I found this particular premise to be particularly compelling when I first played Soul Calibur II on the Gamecube, and even now, as a 20-something seminarian, I STILL do. The fact that the game actually attempts to provide some characterization (well, what qualifies as "interesting" when it comes to video games, anyway) also adds to this game's appeal; I'm sure I'm not the only one who was compelled to play the games "story" mode just to see what exactly happens to these characters as they play their part in the battle between good and evil. Sure, the game has its fair share of cheesy, B-movie dialogue, too, but this actually is for the better, as well, as it keeps the game from becoming too verbose and pretentious.

The game itself is also really, really fun to play. Whether I was clashing virtual weapons with CPU foes or battling with my brother seminarians, I had plenty of moments of distraught frustration after harsh losses alongside the triumphant satisfaction emanating from moments of victory. Heck, there were some even some moments of shock and laughter thrown into the mix (especially with Star Wars' very own Yoda making a guest appearance as a playable character - just imagine the possibilities!). Shallow as it may sound, the game possesses a certain intensity (due in no small part to the game's high production values - this game looks and sounds like a movie more often than not!) that ensures that emotions run high for anyone watching of playing the game. This is both a boon and a bane for prospective game players; I suspect those that have a particularly competitive edge may find this game a little too much of a near occasion of sin (seriously! If you play the game you'll see what I mean!). Still, outside of the perennial favorite fighting game Super Smash Bros. Brawl on the Wii, I think that this particular fighting game rewards practice without being too complicated for people who have never picked up a game controller in their lives (unlike, say, more "niche" fighting game series like Guilty Gear). It strikes just the right balance it terms of challenging and intuitive gameplay with an atmosphere that really lends an "epic" sensation to the experience. In short, it's FUN!

While I certainly WOULD NOT recommend Soul Calibur to just anyone, I think there's enough here where a mature teen could easily play this title without much worry of spiritual danger, and a younger one could probably play along with some older siblings or parents' supervision. St. Paul admonishes his fellow Christians to "fight the good fight" in his letter to Timothy; perhaps Soul Calibur IV has a little to say about attaining the crown of righteousness? I'm really not sure if it's that much of a stretch to say so...

UPDATE: Well, turns out there *is* an in-game clock in the game's "Battle Records" submenu. Apparently I've played over 147 hours!


Pat said...

I wouldn't worry too much about the Soul Calibur being presented as the embodiment of good; it's not like the saints and angels have never been presented with swords themselves (I'm thinking of St. Michael here). Sometimes we need a sword just as much as we need a shield, if you get my metaphor. I'd almost get more frustrated by the idea that Soul Edge can steal people's immortal souls for itself, but SC4 never made any pretense to theology anyway.

And man, just when you think you've made a modest costume in the character creation room, the armor destruction system sends you right back to the drawing board. It's almost more work than it's worth. I'm lucky; Cassandra's one of my better characters, and she's got a cute and modest alternate costume.

I'm going to disagree with you on the b-movie dialogue, just because I see so much potential here that was never capitalized on. They could never make all the character's stories mesh, which is too bad, because some of them had interesting themes. Sigfried kept talking about salvation and forgiveness. Oh well.

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