RIP Visceral Games

Sad news coming from the video game community this week: Electronic Arts announced the closure of Visceral Games (formerly EA Redwood Shores), the studio responsible for recently hiring Amy Henning to develop a story driven Star Wars game. Disappointing to say the least, I’m not going to use this space to rail against EA for continuing its practice of acquiring studios only to shut them down. You don’t have to go very far to join the ferver. Instead, I’d like to take this opportunity to raise my glass to Visceral and talk about some of the games they made–specifically, those that I really liked.

Here’s to you, Visceral!

Lord of the Rings: Return of the King – One of a few instances of a movie tie-in game doing it right, Return of the King was a hack and slash action game with light character building. In it, you got to experience pivitol set pieces from the film from the perspective of those that experienced them. As Frodo and Sam, you’ll fight off Shelob before making the final push towards Mount Doom where Gollum awaits to take the One Ring. As Gandalf, you’ll break the siege at Isengard, rally the troops for the battle of Minas Tirith, and make the last stand at the Black Gate. Finally, as Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli, you’ll hunt some orc by recruiting the Army of the Dead for the Battle at Pelennor Fields before joining Gandalf at the Black Gate. Adding a huge layer of authenticity to the project was the dedication of the development team to recreating as much of the Weta Workshop’s production design. It also help make the game look fantastic, for its time, on the PlayStation 2.

The Simpsons Game – As far as licensed games go, Visceral had a pretty good track record. The Simpsons Game was no different. Supplanting, in my opinion, Simpsons Hit and Run as the best game based on the property, this open world meta adventure did well in my book because Visceral/Redwood Shores worked alongside the writing staff of The Simpsons TV series. As  a result, the game wastes no time putting the screws to video games and its culture – not even EA was safe from satire. What begins as a story of the Simpson family doing their thing in Springfield leads them on a wild quest to uncover the source behind a Simpsons Game strategy guide that literally fell from the sky. Their adventure will take them all over Springfield but also into a video game engine, where they’ll encounter 8-bit versions of themselves and a maniacal Will Wright. The game’s biggest surprise, however, is a boss encounter with show creator Matt Groening who attacks the player by throwing animated sketches of Futurama characters. The Simpsons Game wasn’t 100% perfect–I recall having frequent issues with the game’s camera and found certain platforming sections to be a bore–but it scored extra points for being a really funny game to experience.

Dead Space/Dead Space 2 – Whatever the history books end up saying about the closing of Visceral, no discussion will ever discount their biggest IP project, Dead Space. At the time, it was a great substitute for the lack of a proper Alien game for the console (though I’d argue that Dead Space and its sequel is better than Alien: Isolation). Isaac Clarke, space engineer extraordinaire, is called upon to help restore power to a “planet cracker” mining vessel called the Ishimura and find out what happened after it suffered a communications blackout. What follows is a nightmare of body horror involving an alien race called Necromorphs that have the ability to reanimate corpses into monstrous creatures. Featuring grisly death animations, cool weapons, and great atmosphere and sound design, Dead Space was one of Visceral’s best projects. It’s sequel, Dead Space 2, was built on top the foundation of the first but casts a wider narrative net tin order to explore the Unitarian religion and its connection to a new Necromorph Marker, which somehow Isaac had its blueprints force fed into his brain. With all the gameplay improvements you’d expect from a good sequel, Dead Space 2 upped the horror and spectacle by a significant degree. The moody nature of the game’s narrative is accompanied by an evocative new score by series composer Jason Graves, who used a string quartet for the game’s major themes.

And then there was Dead Space 3. I don’t want to talk about that.

Dante’s Inferno – I’m sure there are going to be a lot of people who will quickly disagree with me but I think Dante’s Inferno is a massively underrated video game. Yes, it was a God of War clone. No, it wasn’t slapping classic literature in the face by adapting a poem over 500 years old. Yes, the Eighth Circle of Hell sequence was a poor design decision. Yes, the story, particularly the between Dante, Beatrice, and Satan, was campy. Yes, EA’s “protest” marketing campaign was a true bonehead move. But to judge the game based solely on these concerns means missing out on what Dante’s Inferno did so very well: the art direction. Cribbing from famous artists and classical depictions of Hell, Visceral’s art department succeeded at building Hell’s vibrant and nightmarish landscape. Whether it’s running across the blistering sands of Wrath, trudging through the literal shit of Gluttony, climbing a phallic tower in Lust, or making a solemn excursion through the Wood of the Suicides, the art design was so phenomenally good when the game came out. Heck, it’s still good.

Dante’s Inferno is one of my favorite games by Visceral and after reflecting on it here, along with other games they designed over the years, it makes sad to know they won’t make more games. We’ll never know what they and Amy Henning had planned for Star Wars and that breaks my heart even more. I can only hope that the fine men and women who worked hard to make good games are able to find jobs at other studios.

Honorable mentions: Lord of the Rings: The Third Age, The Godfather,  and James Bond: Everything or Nothing

Farewell, Visceral Games. Thanks for the memories.

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