[FAIR WARNING: this entry has not been edited for typos or bad wording whatsoever because it's 2:15 am and I'm going to bed. Sorry!]

Last night, I downloaded the PC demo of Condemned: Criminal Origins. I've played through it twice, and it was intensely entertaining. I am really looking forward to its retail release next week. But playing the demo, and seeing how fun and well-constructed it was made me think: is Monolith my favorite contemporary game developer?

I'm not the kind to pick favorites when it comes to media. I couldn't tell you what my favorite movie or favorite album or favorite band or favorite writer or artists or video game of all time was. Broad categories? Top 10 lists? Sure. But I'm not defined by my number one favorite things of all time. I think that I find so many different aspects of any potential favorite exciting in their own unique ways that I have trouble picking just one that personally trumps all.

But, playing the Condemned demo, and realizing how much I enjoyed it, and then thinking back on FEAR, and No One Lives Forever 2, and the original NOLF... it just made me wonder, what other studio can I say that I like more than the Lith? I'll just address studios as they come to me, stream of consciousness style. Valve? No. I didn't really like Half-Life 2 that much, and I don't remember much about HL1. BioWare? I didn't like Baldur's Gate or really anything they've done besides KOTOR. Oh, and defunct outfits are out of the running, so Bullfrog and LEC (not to be confused with contemporary Lucasarts) don't even qualify. Speaking of which, Double Fine? Full Throttle may be one of my favorite games, but brand loyalty doesn't necessarily extend 10 years forward. I thought Psychonauts was okay but not the best game ever or anything. Maxis? I've been playing Sim games ever since I was still learning to read, but no, they don't really grab me. Kojima Productions? Well, two out of three ain't bad, but I'm just not in love with Snake, good as MGS1 and 3 were. Irrational? Well, getting closer... between System Shock 2, Freedom Force, and SWAT 4, they've really impressed me. Ken Levine seems to have his shit together. But somehow Irrational doesn't quite manage to get me riled up. Rockstar? Closer, perhaps... the GTA series is undeniable, plus The Warriors was one of my favorite games of the past few years, and Bully looks promising... but Manhunt was pretty weak, and maybe I just have that indie band "aww they sold out and now everybody likes them," too-big-to-love thing going on, but somehow Rockstar just doesn't tug at my heartstrings. Ubisoft's Montreal studio is definitely in the running-- between Splinter Cell, Sands of Time, and the upcoming Project Assassins which I saw demoed at GDC, I've had some of my favorite recent gaming experiences with them.

But there's just something about the Lith. I think partly it is that indie band thing, a bunch of dudes getting their shit together, doing their own thing, keeping it on a kind of small scale. Monolith isn't huge like Ubi, and they don't have four different studios in three different countries like Rockstar. They're just chillin up in Kirkland Washington, holding down the fort, making game after game. I like that they cater to the PC audience, despite market indicators staring them in the face-- they make FPS, damn it, and FPS has always equalled PC. They keep it old school, releasing dedicated Linux server versions of their games. They push the graphical envelope. They do the nerdcore thing, like all the command line and IT geek nomenclature in Tron 2.0 . They have a stable of characters that just refuse to be denied-- I'm talking about NOLF's Cate Archer and Magnus Armstrong here, mostly, but damn it, the whole cast of the NOLF series is so well characterized and written that they easily carry enough cred for the whole studio. But I think the main thing to me, besides the fundamentals of making well-crafted and entertaining games, is the stories they choose to create. I love their campiness, their pulpiness, their lack of self-consciousness. They made a 60's parody spy thriller starring a no-nonsense female lead. They made a hardcore, in-depth trek into how Tron works. They made a game about genome soldiers and slow-motion and supernatural powers and didn't give a fuck. And I just played the demo, twice, for a game where a desperate FBI agent trawls the rotten underside of some derelict city for a psychotic serial killer, smashing the teeth out of wild-eyed junkies with 2x4's and lead pipes the entire way. It's campy, it's trashy, it's fucking PULP, and it's absolutely wonderful.

I love pulp. I love hardboiled detectives and absurd urban fantasies. I love self-indulgent, ridiculous entertainment that refuses to apologize for itself. I love sensationalist, raw, visceral shit, like smashing a beer battle against a cop's face in slow motion in The Warriors, or slow motion bicycle kicking a cloned supersoldier in FEAR. If a game, or a book, or a movie can touch me and be meaningful to me, then that's a different story. That's a completely separate level of appreciation. What I love about pulp, and what Monolith does in that regard, is that it's the product of people who are just out to give people a wild experience for the sake of entertainment, no holds barred, because they're not embarassed to admit they this ridiculous, sensationalist, over-the-top shit just plain kicks ass. Fun for fun's sake. Pulp for pulp's sake. Refusing to take yourself seriously. Some of my personal philosophy is bleeding over into my thoughts on Lith here, but that's okay. Monolith isn't revolutionary; they aren't on the cutting edge of game design philosophy (intentionality, affordances, emergence, etc.) What they do is give the player one single experience, wonderfully fleshed out and full of its own very focused sort of life, and then move on. I believe that Lith is in the business of creating discrete experiences for the player to receive, and though it's certainly not the future of the medium, it's something that I personally enjoy more than about any other kind of game, and I love the style that Monolith brings to it.

So yeah, they're probably my favorite developer going right now.


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