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Second Shot: A Case for Wet

Is the largely forgotten Wet worth a second look? Miguel Penabella considers the game in relation to grindhouse films and the phenomenon of the “B-game”.

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Wet

Is the largely forgotten Wet worth a second look? Miguel Penabella considers the game in relation to grindhouse films and the phenomenon of the “B-game”. 

Wet contains multitudes: a midair shootout while plummeting thousands of feet above the Earth, grimy Chinatown and Hong Kong alleyways straight out of kung fu B-movies, an aircraft boneyard renovated as a rusted obstacle course, a funk-soundtracked sequence infiltrating a mansion perched on shoreline bluffs, tequila-drenched criminal bastions flavored by the aesthetics of Cowboy Bebop or exploitation films like that of Jack Hill and Russ Meyer—all filtered through a nostalgic layer of film grain, mimicking the grindhouse movies the game invokes.

Developer Artificial Mind and Movement’s 2009 video game pilfers the aesthetics of grindhouse and crafts with it furious spectacle with an assured sense of style. By calling attention to its B-movie influences, Wet emphasizes how much of a B-game it is itself, and this lowbrow sincerity allows the game to dive head-on into enjoyable experimentation and wild display.

Wet is far from a great game, but it’s useful in thinking about how games culture engages with lowbrow genres and the ongoing faultiness of games criticism, taste, and similar “trashy” works themselves. It’s pretty telling that one of the last lines in the game is “Fuck you”—Wet does its thing and fucks off, and like the unapologetic mercenary protagonist Rubi Malone, the game shrugs off player desires in favor of sustained disregard for taste and convention. This is a game that has no desire to be liked, and in this irreverent nonchalance comes a sense of intoxicating freedom when you meet it at its own level and accept its roughness, silliness, and juvenility. A final exchange tells us, “We are not enemies, but we are not friends,” a thought that sums up Wet’s relationship with games culture and the player engaging with it. It asks the player neither to like it nor dislike it, an attitude that cements Wet’s lack of lasting impact on video games. But that flippancy is exactly why I’m drawn to the game, because Wet touts a reckless confidence in lowbrow genre formulae that I rarely see in the toothless, stylistically bland landscape of video games.

In contrast to overblown big-budget AAA works like The Division or Just Cause 3, there are spaces in smaller games like Wet to challenge customs and exhibit stranger ideas and imagery because of decreased expectations that come with leaner audience numbers. These games belong in the nebulous AA space (which this article expands upon), including mid-market commercial games like D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die or Remember Me and existing between big studio control and perilous indie constraints. Like the rarefied midrange dramas in cinema, there’s a correlation in economics too. As the middle class of AA games shrinks with time, then the opposite poles of too-big-to-fail AAA games and miniscule indie/freeware games continues to balloon every passing year, leaving this middle space in a tightening chokehold. Lower budget games may be occasionally clunky, but they make up for their shortcomings often with stronger art styles (MadWorld) or matchless gameplay (Vanquish).

Wet

B-games like Wet are frequently uninhibited by the lofty expectations of the AAA space and are thus granted room for stylistic ingenuity and playful generic experimentation. Video games are typically genre affairs like horror, action, sci-fi, and fantasy, but rarely do they capitalize on this stylistic and thematic agency bestowed on lowbrow genres’ positioning outside mainstream tastes. While more handsomely financed and produced works can find firmer footing among critics and audiences, lower budget genre works often confront established tastes usually to subvert or provoke (artfully or not). Take for instance the visual poetry of filmmaker Sam Peckinpah’s Westerns like The Wild Bunch or Ride the High Country, movies that deconstruct notions of masculinity and violence that have been lionized in earlier, cleaner iterations of the genre. Artists like Sam Peckinpah work within genre to question the mythologization of its own archetypes and to transgress the tidiness of Western heroism and morality in favor of moral greyness. Watch again as these ideas are revised decades later with films like Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, critiquing the genre’s uncritical attitude towards the encroachment of indigenous tribes’ lands and fundamentally declawing the aestheticization of violence in Peckinpah and Sergio Leone’s films.

Most video games are unwilling or unable to convey anything meaningful about the genres they operate within because the medium is predominantly insular and isolationist. Games and gamers are allergic to the idea that video games are a political culture and that healthy discourses are conversant with intersectional topics like feminism, critical race theory, and queer studies. Indeed, most video games aren’t even subversive or transgressive, instead failing to question its very problematic designs. Games infrequently position themselves against their ideological and formal structures, and rarely do games upset and reassess the political undercurrents associated with their evocative, violent, and problematic images. Only a few effective genre games come to mind, particularly Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days as a revisionist shooter that implicates our own spectatorship with the ugly violence enacted onscreen, and also Moon: Remix RPG Adventure, a JRPG whose game-within-a-game structure parodies the convoluted genre it invokes. Nevertheless, most games unquestioningly adopt genre conventions but rarely do they have anything meaningful to say or critique about them. Part of this problem lies with video game culture’s lack of consciousness (and critical interest) in the formal mechanisms that comprise theories of genre, because without a unified language to equip criticism, how can games subvert the set of meanings that accompany a genre’s grammatical specificities?

Wet

What we have instead are video games typically content with simply employing its generic formulae for simpleminded pleasure rather than for meaningful engagement with real-world politics and themes. Games are not subversive in the way 1950s melodramas like Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life sardonically scrutinized the United States’ troubling relationship with racial identity nor do many games straightforwardly address feminist themes like that in recent genre offerings in television and film like Orphan Black and Mad Max: Fury Road. Video games, for the most part, lack these themes. Wet is certainly no high watermark for video games but it mercifully also lacks the pretense of anything but nonsense. In its narrative framing via a throwback 1970s aesthetic, Wet emphasizes indebtedness to B-movie and exploitation cinema, raising pressing questions on video games’ own cultural niche-ness.

Wet involves a mostly forgettable story about mercenaries and globetrotting violence centered on the aforementioned bounty hunter Rubi Malone. More interesting is the way this story is framed: plentiful interludes recycled from advertisements, announcements, and trailers from 1970s drive-in movie theaters disrupt the game’s narrative as though Wet is itself an obscure grindhouse flick being screened at a drive-in. The game maintains a flickering film grain effect with scratches on the “film stock,” and the screen occasionally breaks apart or dissolves as though the projector has broken or the reel has run loose off its track. Thus, Artificial Mind and Movement locates the game in a strange limbo between the remembered nostalgia of the 1970s and the modern world of video games. If video games are so entrenched in genre subcultures, then kinship with forgotten, lowbrow B-movies of the 1970s makes sense. Images of grindhouse sleaze and pop violence cohabit retro intertitles asking us to “Enjoy the show!” or animations with catchy jingles to head over to the movie theater’s snack bar. In between bursts of gameplay, we’re greeted with real-world previews for obscure coming attractions like Dr. Sin’s House of the Living Dead or PSAs about criminal charges for damaging or stealing the drive-in speakers. Aligning games with grindhouse aesthetics have been done before in similar-minded works like House of the Dead: Overkill, Shadows of the Damned, and Red Dead Revolver, bridging together iconographic subcultures.

Wet

What Wet wants to do is to try and become a cult classic in the vein of movies like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! or Barbarella, but the nature of video game taste and reception renders such objectives impractical. The cult status of venerated grindhouse films, B-movies, and midnight movies relies on the establishment of good taste. In cinema, such marginalized “trashy” movies achieve cult status as countercultural alternatives to serious-minded high art, offering subversions of the mainstream status quo. Movies like Pink Flamingoes, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Eraserhead weren’t initially reputable enough to garner regular matinée releases, and their infamous status as cult classics came about only through reexaminations of camp style and mainstream tastes. With video games, everything is marginalized and trashy, and any distinctions between high and low art are essentially non-existent.[1] What we consider the best storylines in games are usually mired in trashy genre formulae: the zombie film-esque machinations of The Last of Us or the cyborg-mech soap opera of the Metal Gear Solid series. Rarely do games offer straightforward, serious-minded human drama without first filtering its story, themes, and style through typically male-oriented genres, and consequently, the status quo of games is itself lowbrow. Video games aren’t transgressive because there’s nothing to transgress; everything is trash.

I single out Wet because it gleefully embraces video games’ trash status, and because of this, its spirit is markedly less cynical and self-important than many recent games like the overly dour Watch Dogs or the insipidly violent Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. Wet may not move the medium forward, but it does its best given its limitations and understands video games on its own terms. It’s a game that’s willing to emphasize its video game-ness much like the playful maximalism of No More Heroes (and Rubi Malone could very well join the rouges gallery in that game). Much of Wet is structured around arena fights where Rubi must disable a “spawn door” where enemies emerge infinitely, thus calling attention to things typically kept invisible for the sake of “immersion” like enemy spawn points. The game relishes moments of reflexivity, poking fun at the illogicality of game design: Rubi expresses disgust while waiting in an elevator thinly disguised as a tiresome loading screen but later uses the moment to break into an unprompted, joyous harmonica solo to offset player frustration with spontaneity and jubilation. Indeed, Wet’s willingness to turn trash and faultiness into momentary exultation lies at the heart of B-game values. Wet’s slow motion action takes heavily from the Max Payne series and its platforming from Prince of Persia or Assassin’s Creed, but its lack of overall finesse means it must exaggerate its derivative style as something more flashy and wild than its precursors, gesturing at something even more glorious.

Wet

The base appeal of Wet belongs in its berserk gameplay: diving across gaps while shooting, sliding between enemies while dual-wielding pistols, slashing through the air with balletic acrobatics, zip-lining and tumbling through frenzied spaces—Wet is very much concerned with over-the-top action. The game encourages perpetual movement because actions like wall-running and sliding triggers a slow-motion ability that actually allows you to shoot even faster. Wet opens up physical spaces in ways Max Payne doesn’t. Rubi can run up a wall or an enemy’s torso and backflip off its surface, entering slow motion to acrobatically twist and turn in midair while spraying bullets at enemies. Instead of climbing down a ladder, Rubi can straddle it, therefore freeing her torso to bend backwards and allowing her to shoot enemies while sliding down. The pistol holds infinite ammo and Rubi never stops to reload, thus granting absurdly constant assaults in the style of John Woo action films. I find most shooter games dull due to lack of bodily movement and energy; Wet’s constant flow of action set to irreverent punk rock and groovy funk music lends the game an energetic and propulsive quality in contrast to similar games largely composed of silence and inertia. Wet joyously urges players faster and faster, pushing action game set pieces to ostentatious, baroque heights.

Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the underrated, ridiculous action sequence highlighting some of the most impossible acts of athleticism as Rubi leapfrogs from moving vehicle to vehicle while shooting and slicing roving enemies on a freeway. She will wall-run across semi trucks and narrowly evade cars flipping through the air, preceding the breakneck maneuvers of a similar (albeit tamer) sequence in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. She barely touches any surface, instead walking on air as she vaults across vehicular carnage like a wrathful Valkyrie thundering through a battlefield. Rubi’s feverish exploits intensify with a Rage Mode triggered repeatedly throughout the game, transforming the screen into an impressionistic canvas of devilish reds smattered with inky pools of black and white. Violence is rendered abstract as though swimming in blood, and enemies appear as nothing more than silhouettes that vanish in puffs of smoke when destroyed. Punk-infused surf rock blares loudly on the soundtrack, offering a face-melting trip of sound and fury.

Wet

I’ve argued that most video games’ preoccupation with sound and fury signifies nothing and that Wet’s forthright honesty in this nonsense is refreshing given a landscape of cynical, hyper-serious junk, but perhaps we can identify something potentially forward-looking amidst the debris. What transcends the trash of the lowbrow is Rubi Malone herself, a leading woman protagonist with a distinct, confrontational voice both angry and unapologetic. If games disenfranchise the voices of women, then Wet’s blasé protagonist embodies a figure that has been silenced for so long and is now yearning for agency and articulation. The game thus becomes an allegorical space for violent mediation from the marginalized. Rubi is a vengeful female warrior enacting decidedly gendered violence in a similar vein to works like Bayonetta or the recent Tomb Raider reboot. The traditionally underpowered woman is now granted a space for the obliteration of male aggressors, granting a welcome feminist power fantasy where she can chastise them for calling her a “bitch.” Wet is not a particularly deep commentary on gender and representation, but it’s nice to see a game pushing back against male centrality with a woman not too easily good-natured. Rubi Malone is what G. Christopher Williams notes all the way back in 2009 (probably the only piece of writing that meaningfully engages with this game) as a sex-positive woman with the signifiers of feminine sexiness like a bare midriff but also confrontational clothing like a leather jacket, combat boots, and military fatigues. Rubi is reminiscent of punk figures like Patti Smith or the riot grrrl aesthetics of Sleater-Kinney, of women weaponizing their sexuality and foul mouths to castigate male aggressors.

Regardless, Wet doesn’t have the kind of obvious influence and appeal as genre hits like Bayonetta or Max Payne, but its low budget roughness and adversarial quality against taste captivates my attention. Its most thematically striking sequence occurs in a room lavishly decorated with real-life Renaissance and Caravaggisti artworks from painters like Leonardo da Vinci and Jusepe de Ribera, but all Wet can do is stage a violent shootout amidst this room of art history. If we read Wet as investigating the divide between “low” and “high” art and its relation to camp trashiness, then this shootout communicates to us that all games can do in the presence of meaningful art throughout history is to enact senseless violence. The player can wall-run on a Renaissance painting and splatter blood all over mournful Neapolitan art, and stray bullets from the gunfight will inevitably pierce through these priceless canvasses. What all this amounts to is the literal destruction of art by the player, and in so doing, Wet reveals the inherent illogicality and self-destructive tendencies of the medium. Tearing down our preconceived notions of art is surely a fool’s errand, but this sequence remains to me one of the most honest forms of expression video games have accomplished.


[1] For further reading, check out “The Death of Beauty” by Justin Keever for Unwinnable

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Miguel Penabella is a freelancer and comparative literature academic who worships at the temple of cinema but occasionally bears libations to videogames.

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