The combined IQs of all previous entries in Capcom’s venerable series of “Devil May Cry” games might conceivably approach heights reached by one of the less interesting primates on an understimulated day. The gameplay was, nearly literally, all style—your character, Dante, came armed with two guns and a great big sword and the level to which you progressed in the game depended on your ability to alternate between exotic moves and combinations of moves in such a way as to destroy the largest number of rampaging demons as quickly and variously as possible. Until last week, the most recent game went by the charmingly clever title of “Devil May Cry 4” and was remembered fondly by aficionados as a good time to be had by anyone who’d just done too damn much *thinking* that day.
The games were both published and developed by the same company, an increasing rarity in the video game business, and news that Capcom was hiring an external studio to develop the fifth game in the series, which would rework the games’ initial premise as well as the look of the characters, was met with much weeping and gnashing of teeth.
“Devil May Cry,” as you may be able to tell from the idiom-soup title, is a game created during that period when a suprising number of Japanese designers were enamored of but not terribly conversant in Western mythology and literature. It was conceived as a spinoff of the long-running and wildly lucrative “Resident Evil” series, which Capcom frequently refers to as a “franchise,” a term that makes a depressing amount of sense given the variations in quality between the dozen-or-so games bearing the name. “Devil May Cry” was originally developed by Hideki Kamiya, who as a designer is very interested in what gamers call the “core mechanic.” His games are not particularly well-written or engagingly acted, but “Resident Evil,” for example, takes great pains to make the process of killing zombies as laborious and taxing as possible; your character takes forever to load her pistol, runs out of bullets very quickly, isn’t a very good shot, etc., and Kamiya puts all of this on you, the player. If you were only a little quicker on the trigger or better with the thumbstick, her reaction time and aim would improve, too. But you’re not. It’s a lot like what would happen if you, personally, were being chased by zombies, and that’s why “Resident Evil” is a good game. Kamiya’s CV, with that notable exception, is mostly about doing things that no human being on earth would ever be able to accomplish simply in the name of looking cool. They’re all at least fun and in some cases transcendent; the cartoony “Viewtiful Joe” actually makes you feel as though you’re physically breaking things when you hit them with a particularly good combo or power move. For some reason it doesn’t matter to gamers that Kamiya has not been involved in the “Devil May Cry” series since its first entry. The game-playing community are always going on about how unjustly maligned their little subculture is, but if you want the truth, some of the most damning criticisms are dead-on: gamers want the same smooth mush they ate last night served up to them tomorrow, because they know about it and they like the taste. They hate change and are resolutely unself-critical, demonstrating loyalty to brands, trademarks and characters above artists and programmers who create characters and make trademarks valuable.
So it was with a certain amount of schadenfreude that I read the news that the developer taking over the “Devil May Cry” series from Anonymous Japanese Developer #4 would be Ninja Theory, an English, Cambridge-based studio that has survived in the world of megaconglomerates eating everything talented by employing skilled voice actors and telling interesting stories with the medium. Dante’s 90’s-anime flowing white locks were buzzed and turned black, his big red coat dirtied considerably, and his environment generally made grottier and more English; this is a game in which you actually have to fight demon-possessed CCTVs.
The best thing about “DmC” (aside from the title, obviously) is its writer, a guy named Alex Garland. I have been following Garland’s career for a lot of years. He wrote a pretty good novel made into a very bad movie by Danny Boyle, both called “The Beach;” he wrote the screenplays to my two favorite movies of Boyle’s, namely sci-fi/monster movie “Sunshine” and the terrific zombie flick “28 Days Later;” he also wrote this summer’s surprisingly good 3D blockbuster-wannabe flop (flopbuster?), “Dredd.” Garland takes most of the game’s initial ideas (some of which are pretty hoary, too—our hero has an identical twin brother named Vergil) and turns them around. The game’s villain is an industrialist who owns unsubtle analogues for Goldman Sachs, Fox News, and Coke; Dante’s sexy sidekick seems to have more depth and complexity than he does; much of the unnamed city in which the game takes place feels a lot like London. It’s a very punky, odd, watchable take on the “Inferno,” with Dante travelling loose equivalents to the circles of Hell until he gets to the game’s final boss. There are plenty of surprising plot twists, and overall it works on the same level as a few really good episodes of “True Blood” or “Battlestar Galactica,” which is to say that it’s compelling and interesting exactly when you’re about to write it off for being too silly.
The aesthetic… well, about the aesthetic. The games industry calls anything predicted to sell more than a million copies a AAA game; this mostly refers to the budget, rather than the quality, but the one can help to improve the other. “DmC” is not a AAA game, but it isn’t a bargain-basement game like last the last three Ninja Theory titles, either, so the developer has been given a couple of bucks to toss around. They’re still working with “midware,” rather than developing all the algorithms and code from the ground up, but it’s the same midware toolkit they’ve used on all their other games, and they’re very good with it. Midware is what you buy when you don’t want to pay a coding team to write your entire game world from scratch. It’s easiest to think of in toy terms: imagine you want an awesome dollhouse, but you can’t afford to pay a Parisian artisian to handcraft the mullions on the windows and carve the pieces of furniture individually. So you shop around, and you learn that there are people out there who can do really incredible dollhouses entirely out of Legos for far less money. Midware are the Legos.
The set of Legos pretty much everyone (well, everyone who is making a game on the cheap) uses these days is called Unreal 3, and it is old. This is mostly a disadvantage, especially if you’re just now trying to learn how to use it, but if you are Ninja Theory and you’ve spent several years in the buy-one-get-one-free ghetto, you know not merely the limitations but the advantages of Unreal 3, and you make a game world that fractures, splits and distorts whenever the hero is in trouble. You carve big floating statues and vast labyrinths of colorful stone and mold flaming, horned, terrifying monsters that leap out at your hero whenever he rounds a corner, wielding his fiery sword.
And this is why “DmC” is a sad game, at least from my perspective: it is just gorgeous, and it is as smart as it can be within the parameters of its terminally stupid franchise, but it is about 1/3 the narrative accomplishment of Ninja Theory’s last game, “Enslaved.” “Enslaved” was one of Garland’s best ideas—an adaptation of one of the four great classical Chinese novels called “Journey to the West,” written in the Ming Dynasty. The game re-sets the story in the far future, and it follows a reluctant hero—played by Andy Serkis—forced to serve a young woman desperate to see her home again. He helps her make her way there, and beyond, and along the way they fall in love. It’s a beautiful game. I cried at the finale. It’s also really buggy and gets repetitive near the end as the developers more and more obviously run out of cash and have to reuse textures, areas, and creatures in order to reach the end of the script. I didn’t care even a little; it’s one of my favorite games and on a list of perhaps three story-driven games I’ll revisit, just to meet the characters again. There’s progressively less and less room for games like it, as evidenced by its obvious poverty, but the best thing about “DmC” is that it suggests that talent will eventually attract money and an audience. Less encouragingly, it suggests that the only way for talent to acquire either of those things is to be assimilated.