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Smash Box

It’s a fundamental joy, destruction. From kids who tear down their own Lego castles to responsible suburban dads whose true satisfaction in home improvement is derived from what my own father eagerly refers to as “the demolition phase,” we are all joined by the unspoken thrill that resides in the act of tearing things apart with one’s own hands. In the final days of the Pasadena Mall, before it was transformed by New Urbanists (formerly known as “developers”) into the bizarre retail and housing chimera called the Paseo, half the place was empty, except for the cheapest retail: homemade galleries with cartoon posters; a place called $1.00 = 99 Cent Save For U (or something like that); and a Macy’s where huddles of people picked through cardboard boxes filled with irregulars like at a post-apocalyptic sale. A friend of mine suggested that the mall operators could have made more money by just charging people $20 an hour to go ape-shit with a baseball bat, wrecking the place. Funny, yes... but also, I found, strangely tantalizing — as anyone who’s ever spent time in a junkyard with a sledgehammer knows. Video games have indulged this instinct since their beginning. Happily, digital destruction is guilt-free. In 1986, Rampage, a breakthrough in the form, made attacking cities with monsters the game’s sole objective. Sure, parents and misguided moralists complained about violence in video games — and still do — but there’s no getting around the unmistakable human nature reflected in our electronic fantasies, and I would submit, from personal experience, that playing Rampage was certainly less delinquent than other favored activities, like, say, heading to the junkyard with a sledgehammer. Since Rampage, video-game power has increased a hundred fold, enabling the virtual laying of waste to become ever more detailed — and potentially more cathartic. Of the many inheritors of the Rampage tradition, The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction is certainly the most, well, destructive.A Vivendi Universal release, The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction is not to be confused with its earlier bomb, The Hulk, a widely scorned movie tie-in title that made the mistake of letting the carnage play second fiddle to the same kind of tedious narrative from Ang Lee’s sadly flawed film. Players complained bitterly about having to switch back to plain old David Banner too often. Who, they grumbled, wants to play Banner? This was a video game: What they wanted, of course, was for Banner to get angry. And unrestrained Banner anger, in all its green ferocity, is what this game provides.Superhero games have a reputation for disappointment, but that started to change a bit with Activision’s Spider-Man 2, which was lauded mostly for its open-endedness. Since Grand Theft Auto pioneered non-linearity and exploration as a new standard of game play, one mark of distinction for a well-made game is whether the world is fun without playing the missions, and in Spider-Man 2, the opportunity for leisurely vertiginous swinging through the vastness of New York was achievement enough. The developers for The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction clearly took a page from Spider-Man’s playbook: There’s a nice sense of scale and weight to the unfolding cityscape, although this time you can wreck it. And to do so is viscerally fun. Bounding along, leaving craters with each footstep, you discover that almost everything can either be A) obliterated or B) used to obliterate something else. Light posts, girders and cranes become truncheons; buses and cop cars are instant projectiles. And there is, of course, a strange pleasure in running up the side of a building with a car in hand to take down some army helos.Even so, the game wears quickly. Even fans complain that mindless stomping has its limits, and The Incredible Hulk’s story falls flat. (Unsurprisingly: Story is almost never worthwhile in video games, and in this case the plot has something to do with Bruce/The Hulk teaming up with Doc Samson and being hounded by one Emil Blonsky, leader of a military outfit called “the Division” who also doubles as a creature called the Abomination, a Hulklike product of gamma rays gone awry, blah blah whatever.) There’s no real hook — and absolutely no subtlety. Which, yes, there should be, even for the Hulk. If superhero games are so often terrible, it’s because they’re saddled with the flattening reductionism of superhero film adaptations. But superheroes aren’t so simple. The principal disappointment with the film version of The Hulk was that it lacked the mythical gravitas, graceful action and ultimate spiritual reward of Ang Lee’s previous masterpiece, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The film Hulk’s oedipal and rage complexes were ham-fisted, and the action boringly brutish. In other words: Crouching Tiger was a better superhero story. (And should have made a better video game; sadly, that title was a disaster.) That said, the basic Hulk story is ripe for its own psychological complexity. I don’t propose that Activision personnel should start digging up Lacanian-Heideggerian treatises from research-library stacks so as to learn more about embedding their “Destroyer” archetype in a theoretical context, as an objective externalization of the wilted subject, a desperate expression of control that reflects our ultimate lack of control; all I’m saying is that easy annihilation turns out to be a blaze that burns briefly.And that pulls the cathartic punch. A monstrous green corporealized Id with torn-up cutoffs is fairly pointless without the fragile Ego from which it sprang. If violence is fulfilling as a release, that’s a nuance alien to the narrow vocabulary of most video games. Senseless stealth missions as David Banner are not the answer to making a more rounded game, but punching buildings ad nauseum doesn’t do the trick either. I’m not sure how video games can best engage emotional depth. A sense of consequences might be a start. David Banner’s perennial torment is that he simultaneously relishes and regrets losing control. That duality is the source of the Hulk story’s power, in film and in print. So it should be for the game as well. THE INCREDIBLE HULK: ULTIMATE DESTRUCTION | Vivendi Universal | $50 for Xbox, PS2, Nintendo GameCube More Pass the Paddles Man's Best Friend The metaphysics of Nintendogs Digital Trim: Hillary Likes Her Coffee Cold Clinton takes on San Andreas Star Wars Rules!/Sucks! Battlefront shows why the original trilogy is better The Moralgorithm NBA Live vs. Live NBA: Ghosts in the machine? Blood on the Joystick The sociology of Grand Theft Auto Holidays 2004 7 ways to waste time inside your Xbox To further disuss the meaning of electronic fluff, Email Josh Bearman or visit Leveraging the Infosphere.