HEY, welcome back to GP! You should probably check this thread out here if this is your first time back on the forum since our upgrade. Suffice it to say, some things have changed! CLICK HERE to read more about it, including some new functionality.
I was looking through the comments section of an article on Kotaku a few days ago. I forget what exactly the article was about, beyond the fact that it was related to E3. There was a quick series of comments in regards to "casual" gamers and whether or not shooters had ever been games for "casual" gamers to use to introduce themselves to games with, and whether or not one of the original posters was hating on casual gamers. The conversation sparked a realisation in me. Now, I'm not going to sit here and claim to be some sort of ultimate authority on games and trends and psychology; I'd say the incredibly laid-back title of this blog belies me any right to claim major authority on those topics. Rather, I'm going to be saying what I personally have realized from that string of comments, and you readers can interpret it however you want. I will say that for me, it was a rather obvious yet eye-opening revelation as to the whole "casualisation-dumbing-down-Candy-Crush" phenomenon the games industry is still going through.
My mom plays the hell out of Candy Crush. She plays it so much, she won't install it on her phone, her reasoning being that she'd never get anything done if the game were always close a hand. She borrows my dad's phone to play the game, and the two of them have admittedly been somewhat obsessed with matching games for many years now. I personally don't understand the appeal, as I sit in front of a PS4 playing Watch_Dogs and Transistor (two games I might build another post about, just a heads up) and Warframe and dozens of other vastly more complex titles. The sort of games considered "hardcore" as opposed to the banal "casual-ness" of Candy Crush and all games on mobile devices. I myself have overcome my disdain of many mobile games (check out Epoch and Epoch 2 for really well-designed cover shooters, of all things) but I remain somewhat derisive of games that seem built to target the lowest level of skill.
But, after that conversation, about how shooters may once have been the casual entry point, I stepped back and realized something about video games as compared to every other form of entertainment.
Video games, lumped together into one giant category of interactive experiences, are perhaps one of the most variably demanding forms of entertainment mankind has ever produced.
Books and movies, for example, require little skill or investment of their users beyond an investment of time, though books do require that pages be turned, and that is even less of a problem with Kindles and PDFs. Those forms of entertainment will, in my opinion, endure more or less forever because of their inherent simplicity. Anyone can theoretically watch a movie, because watching is the only required activity to do so. Reading a book does require one to be literate, but the places of the world where we can compare video games to books in terms of required skills and complexity are not places where general literacy is in catastrophic decline. Not to make light of people who cannot read, I must say. I'm just saying, reading on average requires little beyond knowledge and the ability to somehow have a page moved.
Even most sports games don't require an outstanding level of skill or physical fitness if they are only played recreationally. And the comparison of sports perhaps makes the greatest metaphorical comparison to video games in regards to the barriers to entry.
There's a reason soccer is one of the most popular, most played sports on the planet. It requires at minimum two movable objects and a kick-able sphere. Soccer literally could not be simplified beyond that point and remain soccer. Basketball, likewise, requires nothing beyond a ball and a hoop (the once-hanging-by-a-thread hoop that used to adorn my garage saw literal years of use from all sorts of ballplayers) Baseball, on the other hand, requires a particular type of ball, a bat, a glove, an wide-open field, multiple people, a greater degree of skill. The barrier to entry in baseball is far higher than the barrier of entry to soccer. Even if someone only has a few components of baseball and makes use of them, they remain consciously aware they are not playing actual baseball. Two people throwing a ball back and forth are playing catch. I'm not sure what the proper word is if someone tries to hit a ball on their own with a bat and no other people engaged, and I'm sure not going to try and come up with one here. American Football likewise requires a large group of people and specialized equipment and playing spaces; football actually counts double because both the injury and non-injury possible variants (regular football, flag football) require specialized gear to reduce the risk of injury. Yet all of these sports are still fairly simple in what players are required to do to play them. The point here is that, even if various sports have various requirements for specialized gear, recreational sports in themselves require little skill beyond the ability to hit or throw balls in specific ways.
Now, we reach the point of video games. Of what is required for recreational video game play. It is here that the greatest difference between video games and most other forms of traditional entertainment become apparent. Most games stacked in the court of hardcore experiences demand such abilities of information processing and multitasking, watching several points of interest onscreen while navigating the buttons on increasingly complex and obtusely ostentatious controllers, the average person would be utterly overwhelmed. The first home console game controller for the Atari 2600 had a single joystick and one button. Thirty-or-so years down the line and the two major competing consoles have a minimum of fourteen buttons and two sticks on their controllers. Sixteen, if we count clicking in the sticks as buttons. If we count the touchpad, the PS4 controller has seventeen distinct buttons. Don't even get me started on the implications of motion and voice control in regards to game complexity and ease of use.
My father used to dabble in Halo CE and play cartoonish racing games with me while I was growing up. An assignment for a game design course last year saw me set him down in front of the recently released Darksiders 2 for observation as to how he played and reacted to the game; he was overwhelmed by the demands of the game and while he made it past the intro stage, the level of skill he'd exhibited was, quite frankly, childlike (he frequently failed/died at wall-running and platforming sections, often failing to preform the required moves, and simply spammed the heavy-weapon charge attack, never touching any of the other buttons or even attempting to look into any other means of attack once he got that down. He also never dodged). Getting used to moving the camera took him some time. The level of complexity inherent to the game was well beyond what he was comfortable with. Primary and secondary weapon attacks, dodging, locking on, holding buttons to equip gear and hotkeys, for lack of a better term, on the d-pad for health potions, everything mapped to specific buttons on what is, objectively, a device that is almost on par with home theater system and DVR remotes in terms of complexity of design and ease of use and understandability; quickly understanding these things and making use of them was beyond him. Yet he's often resolutely blazing through various match-three games on his Mac in his spare time in the office. I imagine my mother, who has solely played with games like Candy Crush and Bejeweled, would have been cut to pieces by the first two skeletons.
This is, perhaps, the explanation behind the casual game explosion of recent years. Everyone now has a game-capable device in their pocket, but not everyone can break through the barrier to entry of more classical game types like first-person shooters and RPGs and open-world action games. At least, they don't have the time or the interest to develop the skill required to get into the more traditional franchises and their respective genres. But publishers and developers realized that rather than let an enormous portion of humanity as a market go untapped, they simply ought to shift their focus. Rather than try to force the experiences of PCs and Consoles into smartphones and sell them to people who would normally never play games, they built the gaming equivalents of soccer in terms of requirements and complexity.
All you need to get into Candy Crush is a phone and the ability to recognize when three similar shapes are touching and then tap them. That's a far cry from being able to hold a button to lock on to a frozen magical skeleton winding up to cut your head off, and launching a long, button-press-delayed, multi-weapon combo that leaves him utterly destroyed. It's a far cry from needing to line sights up and fire on a target that is running towards you and shooting you, throwing your aim off with damage-scope-wobble. It's a far cry from having to try and escape the army of cops chasing you after you jacked a car and accidentally ran one over, and you're still getting the grasp of the rules and controls of the game itself, and there's now a possibility you can hack traffic lights and blockers and steam pipes to tie the cops up. It's a far cry from any activity in any major game genre from the last decade or more. It speaks to the growing complexity of video games, where thirty-or-so years ago the most complex games were about shooting blobs of pixels moving down at you, or avoiding four colored ghosts while you tried to eat little dots. Nowadays, we're powering through incredibly realistic depictions of real-world cities, shooting fireballs out of our hands and draining every ounce of neon from Seattle, or hacking one of dozens of traffic lights in Chicago to try and cause a crash that will destroy the car of a target, or getting into a zero-gravity gunfight outside a space station hundreds of miles above the planet. I once considered modern technology from the perspective of my ninety-five year-old grandfather, and I realized that to him, the 2010s must seem like something out of science fiction. Video games are that perspective in microcosm.
Here, in this analysis of complexity barriers, the baseball metaphor pays in spades. My dad could beat the intro stage in Darksiders 2 by spamming the charge attack, but he consciously knew there was a wealth of depth and options he was neglecting, like how throwing a ball back and forth is not baseball; it is catch, and is at times far less enjoyable than baseball proper. Yet if catch is all one is able to play when presented with the game proper, how enjoyable will the experience be? There will come a time in such situations where the knowledge of one's active dismissal of depth and options and complexity for the sake of simple playability will outweigh any enjoyment that might be gleaned, because some people simply don't have the time or interest to acclimate enough to break through the barrier to entry of complexity of modern video games. I'd argue my dad was rapidly approaching that point by the time he beat the intro stage's end boss. Forcing complex products onto people who will be overwhelmed by said complexity, people to whom that complexity is a barrier to entry into the medium as a whole, will not make them embrace the product. It'll ultimately leave them with an unenjoyable experience. Is it not better for all of us to leave the "casuals" to their soccers-of-games, and the "hardcores" to their baseballs-of-games? Ultimately, those are the particular experiences each group of people enjoys the most, and isn't that the point of video games, nay, of entertainment, in the first place?
WARNING: The following post contains some spoilers for the story of GTA 5. If you haven't played through GTA 5 and wish to avoid spoilers, steer clear of this until you have. You've been warned.
I hadn't planned on buying GTA 5 this year, but remembering how much fun I'd had with Red Dead Redemption, another Rockstar open world game that I had had no plans to buy, and hearing the internet rave about it, I gave in on launch day.
Let's just say that I'm very glad I did, and leave extolling the game's greatness to others.
GTA 5 is more or less an enormous piece of interactive satire where you can shoot people with RPGs and miniguns in various states of color filtering and slow motion. Virtually every character, organization, and mission is wholely contributing to this: Dr. Friedlander, Michael's therapist, who always ends his sessions right wen Michael is about to make a personal breakthrough and never fails to mention the expense of his services; Franklin's aunt Denise who ascribes to a truly over-the-top brand of feminism; the Facebook-esque social networking site LifeInvader (and the working environment of LifeInvader); the slew of radio commercials ranging from running prisons for profit to an obvious Call-of-Duty jab named Righteous Slaughter 7 (rated PG: Pretty-Much-the-Same-as-the-Last-Game) and the Piswasser beer brand and cartoon liberal superhero Impotent Rage and the old british people who are obsessed with incredibly personal effects of various American movie stars. Michael's description of capitalism in his second mission with Franklin. It's all pointing an finger at modern society, and making its point with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and that is perfectly fine, save for the inklings of the far more serious, and arguably more engaging, story potential buried underneath.
While GTA 5 is almost pure satire, there's an undercurrent of story. Tritagonist Michael de Santa, who faked his death in a bank robbery that serves as the game's opening tutorial, over time has to deal with the ramifications of being forced back into the business after a misunderstanding with a local drug kingpin, not the least of which is his psychotic former partner and friend Trevor Philips (who is himself almost a bit of satire, the man who has the personality that would honestly be needed to actually go on those infamous GTA rampages that we've all gone on). The moment when Trevor walks into Michael's kitchen in the middle of several simultaneous family arguments and creates instant silence by virtue of his presence is a great moment of unusual seriousness. There are a few other moments like this, but there was one that really stood out as the quintessential moment of the story that could have been.
About midway through the game, Trevor suspects the true fate of the third member of his and Michael's old crew, and promptly flies off to GTA's version of North Dakota with Michael in frantic pursuit. As Michael drives to the graveyard that supposedly holds his own dead body, the game plays voice-over flashbacks of his arguments with his wife over his plans to cut a deal with the FIB so he can escape the bank-robbing business with his life and family intact. It was on that mission, as Michael drove through the snow remembering, when the game objective said "go to your grave," after reaching the waypoint, when Trevor and Michael stood next to the purposely mis-labeled grave that contained the body of their old friend, each man pointing a gun and daring the other one to shoot while debating whether or not what Michael had done was justified, that I saw the story that was lost.
GTA 5 could have been a serious crime drama with a hint of Tarantino style. There's a moment in the game where Trevor and Michael are driving to a bank out in the sticks to case the security that Michael, over the course of the ride, insinuates that Trevor is basically an especially violent hipster, much to Trevor's chagrin. It could have been the story of a former criminal who happens upon a younger one who wants something more from life and resolves to teach him to how to get it, while at the same time dealing with his personal problems with Los Santos' criminal underworld, trying to do right by his dysfunctional family while keeping them safe (and keeping them ignorant of his resumed extra-legal activities), and confronting the demons of his past with his old psychotic partner. It sounds more like a story in the style of Breaking Bad than a interactive piece of satire. The bare half-bones of that story are in GTA 5, because most of those moments happen in some fashion or another. But rather than focus on the story those moments could create, we're treated to a yoga instructor who's obsessed with the anus; a corrupt FIB agent who only seems to care about screwing over GTA's CIA equivalent; a sleazy talent show host who manages to twice get on Michael's bad side where his daughter is concerned. A business man (it's never stated just WHAT he does, just that he does something) who has the crew steal various cars (one straight off a movie set) for kicks and possible resale value, and later plans to kill a nearly finished movie to cash in on the insurance and build condos over the historic set lots (it's bares mentioning that Michael becomes personally involved and invested in this particular picture). Imagine, for a moment, a GTA 5 that wasn't built as satire. Where Trevor wouldn't wait maybe three missions after Michael escapes from angry Triads who mistake him for Trevor's boyfriend (it's a long story) before kind of happily saving Michael from an corrupt FIB task force on the basis that he needs Michael alive so they can pull off a heist on the Union Depository. That moment is great in the story that GTA 5 is, but certainly wouldn't happen in the story that GTA 5 could have been. There, Michael would have had to fight his way out with no one but his original contact Dave backing him up. Maybe Dave dies and Michael's identity becomes compromised, his address and name out there to all the criminals of the life he tried to leave behind, his deal with the feds now public knowledge to Los Santos' criminal element. Instead of the business man sending some private soldiers to Michael's house over the aforementioned movie, Michael's home would be attacked by other former criminal associates, or current ones, and that's when Trevor would be forced to make his re-appearance, not for the sake of a score, but for the sake of the family his friend screwed him over for, a family that Trevor consistently tells Michael he doesn't fully appreciate or protect. And why would Trevor risk his life to help Michael save his family? Because when Trevor ranted that no one actually cared what happened to him, Michael said that he did (this is in the same mission where they later draw guns on each other in the graveyard (apparently, all the serious story potential was coalesced into this single mission)). Just imagine that for a second. How great would something like that be?
It's worth noting that Rockstar has succeeded with telling character-driven, serious stories that were not almost pure satire before. GTA 4 and Max Payne 3 are fairly decent examples, and Red Dead Redemption managed to tell one of the most gripping and engaging tales in an open-world game in history while still managing to make subtle reflections on the world by way of its characters.
Now, I'm not saying that GTA 5 is not an absolutely incredible achievement. It is. Words really can't do the game as a whole justice. And, sure, the satire is not bad by any means; it's extremely entertaining and at times thought-provoking and encouraging of self-reflection. But that ghost of a more serious, completely character-focused tale occasionally emerges, and I can't help but wonder what might have been.
Now, before we start, fair warning: This is a spoiler-storm for two entire games, one which is barely four months old. So if you hate spoilers, play or watch them first, and don't blame me that you weren't warned. Because you were. On a different topic, this is not actually a typical post as such; it is a paper I wrote as the final project for a college course, and it seemed so perfect for this that I couldn't not put it up.
Shooter games are probably the most prolific type of game in the current age. No matter the perspective from which things are being shot, shooters have effectively ruled the video game market since 2007. Every once in a while, a game, and usually a shooter, comes along that turns expectations on their head. Bioshock in 2007 was a first-person shooter that hit players with one of the greatest twists and nature-examining bits ever; the player character was following orders from an NPC by way of implanted subliminal commands the entire game. A single innocuous phrase â€œWould you kindly-?â€ was the trigger that sent Jack off to do the dirty work of Atlas. While he secretly believed he was acting out of his own will, he was nothing but a puppet. In the context of games, it was a mirror; it said that gamers do what they are told, but also that they aren“t responsible for what they do in the game because they cannot act otherwise. It was a magnificent, captivating idea that helped propel Bioshock to the territory of gaming icon.
In 2012 and 2013, two games were released that serve as poignant examples of games as devices of story, gameplay, and genre-study. Spec Ops The Line and Bioshock Infinite. Spec Ops was game with a secret agenda that only made itself clear at the end; it was a mirror held up to the military shooter, to the shooter genre. It asked the player character whether or not he could own up to his numerous atrocities throughout the course of the game“s story, but it also asked the question of the player, letting the player know that they were as complicit in the events of the game as the virtual avatar they controlled. It wasn“t condemning; it was merely acknowledging something virtually everyone takes for granted, and it did that by providing a experience fully dedicated to ultimately asking that question, from its story to its gameplay to its escalation of violence and even its loading screens. Bioshock Infinite, on the other hand, was not a game with a hidden agenda. It was a game that strove to be the best game it could possibly be; to tell a deep, engaging and highly thematic story backed up by awesome satisfying gameplay. Community opinion on the story itself is a resounding agreement; however weird or initially not-understandable the ending might have been, the story and world Infinite built were top-notch. It is in the gameplay where opinions become divided, where the claims are made that things are less than perfect. The most interesting, and the one that allows the comparison towards Spec Ops, are the arguments that by tying itself to the genre of the first-person shooter, Infinite effectively restricted itself and its ability to tell its story by building gameplay around shooting people in the face and dumping the ultra-violence that seems to clash with the world right into the laps of players.
Spec Ops The Line on its own is an engaging story. Dubai has been hit by a massive sandstorm, and the US Army 33rd Battalion, under the command of John Konrad, went in to help evacuate the few survivors. Months later, a transmission from Konrad noting the complete failure of the evacuation leads Delta team into Dubai, under the command of Captain Martin Walker. Delta is initially there only to determine whether there are any survivors and to call in support if there are. After a series of violent misunderstandings with the armed refugees of Dubai, Walker makes the decision to go into the city proper in order to find Konrad and get him out. What ultimately follows are various horrific acts perpetrated by all parties, even Delta and Walker. By the end of the game, they have more or less lost virtually all moral righteousness they had at the beginning, if they had any at all. Walker has inadvertently bombed civilians with white phosphorus, destroyed the only remaining water supplies in the city, potentially willfully opened fire on unarmed civilians, killed all but around eight men of the 33rd battalion, and throughout refuses to take any sort of actual responsibility for his actions, deflecting blame onto others, be it the collective enemy of the 33rd or the singular enemy of Konrad, who shifts position from a person to be rescued to a person to be killed after the phosphorus strike, and is ultimately revealed to, from that point, to have been a figment of Walker“s mind trying to justify his actions. It“s a tale of loss, loss of life and morals and sanity and perspective. The endings don“t make up much for the rest of the story either. Walker can kill himself and take responsibility for all that he has done and immediately end the game, or kill the illusionary Konrad or fail to choose between the two options, which has the same result as Walker shooting himself. Shooting Konrad leads to another three potential endings; Walker is found by a new group of US soldiers some time after making the choice to continue to abdicate responsibility for his actions by virtue of not killing himself, and the pseudo-confrontation can end in three ways. Walker surrenders and is taken, it is hinted, back home a broken and traumatized man, yet still alive despite all he has done. He acknowledges it in the final moments, but he pays no price for his crimes beyond the incumbent acceptance that he has committed them; Walker can attack the soldiers on command from the player, and can either survive and kill incoming waves of reinforcements, ultimately assuming the position of his illusionary Konrad as a madman fueled by violence and survival waiting for apparently good men to come and get him after all his attempts to help people in need ended in disaster, or he can die and achieve something akin to catharsis in being killed for attacking fellow soldiers just there to try and help, something he and the player had spent the whole game doing and being.
While Spec Ops tells a truly gripping, gritty and introspective story, the story itself pales in comparison to the point Spec Ops makes by way of its story. It uses the story of a soldier descending into madness and violence and self-abdication to hold a mirror up to the genre of shooters and to the player. It asks what the player and the player character get out of doing what the game makes them do; it lays bare the base reasons of power fantasy and hero complex of both the player and player character; it deconstructs the genre it is a part of, and asks the player to do the same. As Brendan Keogh puts it in his study of Spec Ops, Killing is Harmless, â€œIts theme is not one of criticizing the military shooter, but critiquing it, asking questions about its nature. What is actually going on in these games that some of us play with reckless abandon, and which some of us dismiss outright? What do these games contribute to the broader culture of disassociated violence and dehumanized others? What does it mean that as these games increasingly depict war with more realism, reality itself begins to look like a video gameâ€ (162). Keogh goes on to note that Spec Ops doesn“t provide any answers, just questions. That“s it purpose, to make us question a genre we have accepted, ways of thinking that genre has put into us, why we enjoy the genre. It“s both a question and call to the players to question.
Spec Ops doesn“t just use its story to make its point and make players ask questions; it uses violence, and its very gameplay to emphasize and set up the point where it reveals what it“s all about. Keogh notes that the game becomes more and more violent and brutal as the story goes on and Walker and Delta shift behavior from disciplined soldiers to that of characters more in line with typical, bravado-fueled shooters. â€œThe progress of the executions perhaps feel slightly out of sync with the rest of the game; they become almost too maniacally brutal before I even realize that Walker himself is slowly changingâ€¦As we begin fighting the 33rd, I perform an execution on a soldier to gather ammo for my rifle. Walker shoots the man in the kneecap, waits a breath, then shoots him in the head. It“s unnerving to say the least. Punching a man in the face to kill him was desperation. Shooting a troop in the head to kill him was cold-hearted efficiency. This relishing in the man“s agony is justâ€¦wrongâ€¦I shoot a man dead and [Walker] shouts, ”Got the fudge person!“ I kill another and he shouts ”And stay down!“ He isn“t removing targets now; he is killing people. More so, on the brink of insanity, Walker is acting more and more like any typical shooter protagonist- more specifically the trash-talking Gears of Gears of Warâ€ (40, 84, 92). On the front of gameplay, there is an truly interesting interpretation by the team behind Extra Credits, a web series written by James Portnow a game designer and college professor, that looks at games in a serious manner and searches for interconnected, deep meanings to components and themes in games. Extra Credits did a two-episode series on Spec Ops, one spoiler-free and discussing its mechanical merits, the other spoiler-packed and discussing the game“s themes as relating to the gameplay. As Keogh already gave the themes, Extra Credits comments on the gameplay are remarkable. They note that game isn“t actually fun to play, and the base gameplay itself is a little bland, but that those things are used to build a subtle context within the player for the story. â€œThis game is great in a lot of ways, and can be very engaging, but it is distinctly not fun. Even the running and gunning have been reduced to a banal slog, but even that helps to reinforce the game“s pointâ€¦ The shooting felt a little 2006-ishâ€¦yet it all still works in this gameâ€¦ I believe at some point during the development, the team sat down and asked themselves ”What does the gameplay we can create say?“ and then used that to reinforce the narrative which was at the core of the game. The banal gameplay is used to give you a sense of the uncanny. They juxtapose a very serious narrative with obviously, overtly game-like play to give you a sense that something isn“t right here. This continuously off-putting feeling you get as you mow down waves of enemies and shoot exploding barrels is meant to give you that psychic disconnect that the main character is experiencing. Well before the narrative gives you any clue that there might actually be something wrong with your main character, you subconsciously feel it through the play. And because you feel it, you“re even more sensitive to it in the narrative. You pick up on things that you might have missed because they“ve already clued you in that there is something there through this weird, dissociative playâ€ (Spec Ops The Line Part 1, Spec Ops The Line Part 2).
Bioshock Infinite was probably one of the most anticipated first-person shooters of the current console generation, up there with Halo 3 and Modern Warfare 2. It served as the spiritual successor to the original Bioshock, keeping the name and theme of a FPS with superpowers to supplement guns, but shifting setting entirely. Instead of an underwater capitalist utopia gone horribly wrong thanks to genetic engineering in the 1940s, Infinite takes place on the floating city of Columbia in the year 1912. And rather than genetic alteration serving as the source of the city slowly crumbling, this time around the player as the game goes on, it is rather discontent and civil strife stemming from the city“s repressed non-white and working-class population. Rather than ending up at Columbia by what seemed to be pure happenstance, protagonist Booker DeWitt is initially there of his own free will to retrieve a woman named Elizabeth and return her to New York City as payment for a debt.
Infinite grapples with a lot of things over the course of its story; it deals with themes of religious fundamentalism and fanaticism, with civil rights, with the treatment of soldiers, with physics and alternate realities and responsibility and redemption. Antagonist Zachary Comstock covers the religious angles, believing it is the destiny of Elizabeth to wage war upon the world beneath Columbia, and is willing to torture and brainwash her to get her to do so. Daisy Fitzroy encapsulates the themes of civil rights and of violent opposition to oppression inevitably leading to a loss of higher morals. Cornelius Slate speaks for soldiers whose ranks and status were taken from them for speaking out against Comstock“s apparent re-writing of the military history of Wounded Knee and the Boxer Rebellion. Jeremiah Fink, a ruthless industrialist who exploits his workers and his brother“s discovery of holes in reality to create the highly advanced technology and super-power-granting Vigors of Columbia, serves as the picture of the powerful businessman run amok. Booker serves as the point of self-discovery and redemption. He eventually learns that he came to Columbia from another parallel reality to rescue Elizabeth, who is actually his daughter he sold to Comstock cover his debts. The process of crossing between realities made his mind rewrite his memories from his already existing ones, creating the idea that he was in Columbia to take Elizabeth to New York to pay off his debts. It is also ultimately revealed that Comstock is the Booker of Columbia“s reality. After Wounded Knee, Booker sought forgiveness for his actions in baptism, but refused to go through with it, believing it wouldn“t absolve him of the things he“d done. Comstock was the result of a Booker who accepted the baptism. Determined to ensure that Comstock ceases to exist in every possible reality, Booker allows Elizabeth to take him back in time to the moment before his choice at the baptism and drown him before he can make the choice to accept or walk away from it. It is in this moment, unlike at the start of the game, when Booker looked into a tweed knitting of a Bible verse claiming to wash one of their sins and scoffed at it, when he believed completely that he could find no forgiveness or redemption or make up for the things he“d done, that Booker accepts that he can in fact set things right, that he can find redemption and forgiveness. A post-credits scene reveals Booker coming to in his office in New York, believing on some level that everything he went through in Columbia did not happen, but the scene ends before any true confirmation can be made. In the context of parallel realities, such a final scene that almost seems to be the â€œit was all a dreamâ€ trope turns out to be acceptable.
Bioshock Infinite tells as grand a tale as Spec Ops The Line, but unlike The Line, Infinite has no hidden agenda, no desire to hold the genre of FPS games up to a mirror and do the same to the player. It“s rather a game that seeks to tell a deep story and provide challenging engaging shooter gameplay to go with it. And it is here that opinions on Infinite become divided. The dominant opinion of the detractors is that gameplay, and furthermore ultra-violence, detract from Infinite“s story and setting by limiting themselves to the conventions of the genre. As Joseph Bernstein, a writer for tech and culture site Buzzfeed.com, notes in his piece Why Is Bioshock Infinite A First-Person Shooter? â€œI dreaded the game becoming a shooter again because the rules of the genre are so at odds with the very magnificence of Irrational“s game. So gorgeous, so varied, and so ingenious is the universe of Bioshock: Infinite that the very last thing I wanted to do as I played this game was to sprint around finding cover and chaining headshots. Columbia is a world you want to traipse around touching, not a world you want to race around destroyingâ€¦ The penultimate stretch of the game involves coming to terms with the memory of a dead character. Again, it“s an important story moment, one that calls out for a sensitive handling. Instead of solving a puzzle, or navigating dialog, or any of the ways that you might be expected to confront long-suppressed emotional pain, the ghost challenges you to three long and frustrating gunfights. Yes, you shoot a bazooka at childhood trauma. In most games, absurdities like this don“t bother us, because we don“t expect much from most games. In BioShock Infinite moments like these, when the demands of genre bleed into the narrative, we feel disappointed, even betrayed. And however accustomed to the first-person shooter we are, the genre has a host of very weird, very jarring conventions that are never more incongruous than in this game.â€
Furthermore, like The Line, Infinite is at times extremely violent. But unlike The Line there is no gradual build-up of violence to serve the story, because such build-up is not needed. The first combat encounter in the game, with a group of Columbia policemen, begins in a cut scene where Booker rams the face of one officer into the rotating blades of the skyhook, a device used to travel on the shipping rails of the city. The player is summarily instructed on how to preform execution attacks: hit and hold the melee button when an enemy is low on health. Executions play out as little first-person cut scenes depicting all manner of grisly ends at the blades of Booker“s skyhook. He will snap a neck with the rotating hook; will bury the hook into the chest of the victim then power it up and send the body flying through the air; he will stab one of the blades into the neck and power up the mechanism to pop the victim“s head clear off their shoulders; the list goes on. Violence isn“t restricted to melee executions either. Some of the game“s superpowers, Vigors, have truly shocking results when used on enemies with low health. Lob a fire grenade from Devil“s Kiss and watch an enemy slowly burn, screaming, into a pile of ash; hit them a lightning bolt from Shock Jockey and watch their head explode like a bird on a telephone wire; sic a pack of crows on them with Murder of Crows and they“ll be covered in blood and scars for the next ten minutes, whether or not they“re dead; hit a human enemy with an upgraded Possession, and after they shoot their allies for a few minutes, they“ll blow their own head off. Speaking of blowing heads off, headshots from all but the most explosive or weak weapons in the game will result in the total disintegration of the enemy“s head, leaving their now-headless body to drop slowly to the ground. Cliff Bleszinski, former director of design for Epic Games and creator of the Gears of War series, had some choice words to say about the violence on his tumblr page, â€œThis is one of the few games that I“ve loved that I felt the violence actually detracted from the experience. The first time I dug my skyhook into someone I actually winced. I love shocking people in these games (it“s not called BioShootBeesAtThem) and I found that nearly every foe I zapped to death had their heads explode, Gallagher style. After the 400th head I was like ”Come on, already!“ Funny right? That I“d say that? I know, it“s weird. Maybe it“s the fact that they did such a fantastic job of making this nuanced world that hitting you over the head with those moments felt out of place for me.â€
The ultimate issue with Bioshock Infinite is not that it tried to make a point, and failed to; it“s that it had no point to make beyond its story. It was a game with a story like few others in existence, and a good portion of the gaming community believes that the gameplay of the genre it tied itself to was not up to snuff to convey that story. As Michael Abbot, blogger on the game site Brainy Gamer states â€œBrilliant as the game is- and as earnestly as it tries to explore social-political issues- Infinite is tethered to its mechanical nature as a shooter in ways that undermine its aspirations. It“s possible to love the game for all it does (And tries to do), but still feel smothered by its insistence that so much of my experience is delivered staring down the barrel of a gun or other destructive weapon. The issue for me isn“t about being pro or anti shooting games; it“s about how standard FPS design limits the possibilities of a narrative that clearly desires to dig deep. How might I have behaved, and how might I have reflected on Infinite“s provocative world had I not spent so much time shooting or avoiding being shot? The game“s story isn“t about shooting at all, but the player“s lived story is, and that collision is hard to overcome.â€
Bioshock Infinite and Spec Ops The Line were both well-received critically. While Infinite is probably the more well-known of the two (and probably has sold more copies) it is their fundamental differences in success of their usage of game components that make them so compelling to hold up to one another. The Line took its gameplay, its excessive violence, its fairly mind-bending story and used it all in service to the single point of making players question the shooter genre and why they played it. Bioshock Infinite, on the other hand, had all of its aspirations put firmly on its story; it had no grand point to make on the nature of games and players. it simply tried to be a gripping, enjoyable experience. Yet Infinite, to listen to over half the internet, suffers because of that. Its gameplay is fun, but does the setting and story a disservice by being so restrictive in what it allows the player to do. The Line took the gameplay of a shooter and built its story and critique out of the that gameplay, while Infinite built its gameplay, then made its story, or perhaps built its gameplay around its story. The Line has excessive violence and banal gameplay to enforce its narrative and thematic undertones, while Infinite has excessive violence becauseâ€¦ it does. Perhaps the violence and FPS gameplay is meant to thematically mesh with the character of Booker, a former Pinkerton enforcer who was, it is implied, fired for being too brutal in his work and who committed acts of violence so horrific in his time in the military that his attempt to find forgiveness created an alternate reality. But if that is why the violence is there, why players can more often than not only interact with the world by shooting at its inhabitants, that fact is not so obvious as the violence and gameplay deficiency in The Line a result of the descent of Captain Walker into madness. Booker is, if one does not count his reality-travelling false memories as madness, sane throughout. He“s not a very good man. He“s actually quite the opposite, but there“s nothing in his initial character to suggest that he is capable of such acts of violence or only capable of settling conflicts with the use of weapons. And that may be the ultimate point; that content and gameplay must, in all respects, match the setting and story built throughout and do so in a way that makes sense and is tangible. Spec Ops The Line could gradually amp the violence to obscene, uncomfortable levels and have slightly average gameplay because doing so was in the service of its story and setting and ultimate message; the reasons behind the violence and apparently restrictive gameplay of Bioshock Infinite perhaps reveal themselves after careful consideration of the characters, but those reasons are never made obvious, sacrificed as they are upon the alter of the broader tale and world the game has built.
Abbot, Michael. â€œThe Problem With Bioshock Infinite“s Combat.â€ Brainygamer, 4 April.
2013. 11 Jun 2013. http://brainygamer.kinja.com.
Bleszinski, Cliff. â€œShocking, isn“t it? (BIOSHOCK INFINITE SPOILERS AHEAD).â€
Dudehugespeaks.tumblr, 3 April. 2013. 11 Jun 2013. http://dudehugespeaks.tumblr.com/post/47064613574/shocking-isnt-it-bioshock-spoilers-ahead.
Floyd, Daniel, Portnow, James. â€œSpec Ops: The Line.â€ Video, 6:59, 9:28. 2 Episodes.
Penny Arcade, Sept 6-Sept 13. 2012. 11 Jun 2013. http://www.penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/spec-ops-the-line-part-1
Keogh, Brendan. â€œKilling is Harmless A Critical Reading of Spec Ops: The Line.â€
Marden: Stolen Projects, 2012. PDF e-book. 40, 84, 92, 162.
Remember a few posts back how I joked about Dead Space 3 being the second most controversial title of 2013? Well, I think I might be wrong in retrospect.
In retrospect, Fuse is probably the second most controversial title coming out this year (DmC still manages to hold the Number One spot here I think, even four months later). FUSE releases late this month, and it's going to be a sad launch.
Now, before I say WHY Fuse's launch and subsequent existence will be sad, I feel I need to offer some context. Fuse wasn't always Fuse. It debuted two years ago as a cinematic trailer by Insomniac, under the name Overstrike. And it was good. Really good. It had futuristic, kick-awesome weapons and technology, the unofficially-patented Insomniac-Pixar-style graphics, an incredibly sarcastic protagonist, plenty of humor, and The Hives. It was even going to be a multiplatform title, a first for Insomniac. Needless to say, everyone was excited.
Then, Overstrike dropped off the grid, and nothing of it was heard for over a year. When it did re-emerge in 2012, it wasn't Overstrike anymore.
No, really. It literally wasn't Overstrike. It was Fuse.
The new name came with a new graphical style. Instead of the Pixar-style, things were fairly realistic looking. Everything seemed to be all grimaces, blood, a couple different colors, and walking away from exploding robots. And rap and dubstep. Further releases of information only drove the collective hopes for the game that much deeper into the ground: Jacob, the guy who wore a tie underneath his bullet-proof vest and was introduced by rage-scream-drop-kicking a man through a window after being compared in terms of self-control to a pacifist and Bhudist monk, was now a rogue LAPD detective who spent his off-duty hours going Punisher on criminals who got off on technicalities. The humor seemed to be all but gone, and despite the gun that shot and created black holes, among other awesome weapons on display, the majority opinion was that the game was dead to us.
This opinion didn't deter Fuse. Trailers kept coming, doing little to dispel the opinion most had taken: Dalton, who used to ask his supervisor if the base served breakfast in addition to coffe (and lied through his teeth about the actions of his team), cut a man's eyes out in a flashback sequence. Naya, originally a thief, turned into a raised-by-her-professional-assassin-dad professional assassin. The team medic and techie, formerly just the team techie, hated people in general. And was apparently often in and out of prison.
Yet, for all the skepticism of the community at large, actual gameplay analyses from sites had little beyond good things to say about Fuse. It's been an interesting watch, as most commenters complain about twelve year old focus testers and how generic and stupid Fuse looks.
But now, the demo has gone public. And I have to say, I'm damn impressed. And depressed.
I'm impressed because, based purely on the demo, Fuse seems primed to be able to hit the ground running. It's one of the few cover-capable shooters I've played ever that doesn't map dodge-rolling to the same button as taking cover, it has THE most powerful pistol since Halo CE's magnum and Resistance 2's magnum with exploding bullets, the Fuse-powered guns (well, the one I've used (I've played exclusively as Dalton so far)) are really fun to use. In fact, that kinda describes the whole experience in a nutshell: fun. Granted, it is a purely co-op experience, and co-op remains something of a double-edged sword. Fuse, or the demo of Fuse anyway, certainly has the feel of a game you need a group of friends with mics, or at the very least a group of people with mics, to truly get the most out of playing with other people. My experience going alone was good: the AI didn't seem particularly stupid or suicidal or unhelpful.
Playing with other people was interesting and fun, but it still felt like it was intended to be played with friends and a means of instant communication, rather than with random strangers and no mics.
But here's why it depressed me. Here's why Fuse is going to just be straight-up sad.
Because so many people aren't going to get it.
So many people still hold the change of name and tone against Insomniac that they're given up on a game that, from my perspective anyway, doesn't deserve it.
Fuse, going by the demo anyway, seems like it'll be a really fun game. Sure, it's not Overstrike, but it's as close as we're ever going to get.
I'd say we need to get over our love for the greatness that was the Overstrike debut trailer and accept Fuse for what it is, what it is being an actually very fun, well done and still fairly funny third person shooter. There's a gameplay walkthrough on youtube, where the team is sneaking through vent shafts. They're going to come out in the men's room of a certain floor, and one of the stalls is occupied. Dalton orders Jacob to kill the guy mid-leak. Jacob follows through, and is summarily berated by Dalton for not letting the man finish.
In fact, here's a link to that video. The moment I've just described starts at 7:30.
The demo itself featured probably the most hilarious way of getting around what was likely story-spoiling content I've ever seen. A screen popped up saying "The following gameplay sequence has been declared "too amazing'' to bee seen by the naked eye. Insomniac Games is currently developing Amazification Goggles TM to be handed out with every retail copy of Fuse. Until then, please accept our apologies as we transport you to the next part of the experience. DISCLAIMER; There is no such thing as Amazification GogglesTM."
The second time I played through and reached that point, it said "Insomniac Games would like to congratulate you on discovering a rift in spacetime. You will now be deposited fifteen minutes into the future. Don't worry, your skinny jeans will still fit."
Also, I really have to admit something in regards to Fuse: it's one of those games. The kind of games where simply watching the gameplay doesn't convey the fun of the gameplay itself. It's a game that needs to be played to be understood. A game that needs to be actually experienced to be appreciated.
For me, the Fuse demo was the deciding factor in whether or not I would get the game later this May. I'm personally very impressed, and know that there is something more than a stupid, mediocre, generic shooter beneath the explosion-laden trailers. But there are probably enough people who haven't tried the demo purely on principle, or because they can't/won't see past those explosion-laden trailers. Enough people who won't buy the game on principle, no matter how good the people who give it the unneeded benefit of the doubt say it is, people who can't move on from what Fuse used to be. By virtue of its past, Fuse seems destined to turn into one of those overlooked, underrated gems. The kind most people scoff at when they see it in stores or the bargin bin years from now, but the kind that everyone who took the plunge when it first hit know was a product of quality and fun. It's almost like the problem of Psychonauts, but in reverse. Instead of it being a great game without any budget for competent advertising and a accidental falling-out with a major retailer that killed its chances for being the huge success it should have been, Fuse feels like it will be a great game that inadvertently soured the fanbase and killed its chances at being the huge success it should have been.
Last year was probably the biggest year in video games since 2007. Y'know, the year of Bioshock, Call of Duty 4, God of War 2, Halo 3, The Orange Box, The Witcher, Assassin's Creed (it was a Big Damn Year, is what I'm getting at.) In 2012, we got games like Mass Effect 3, Spec Ops The Line, Assassin's Creed 3, Halo 4, Dishonored, The Walking Dead, and too many more quality titles to name and not turn this post into one giant list.
It's those last two titles that I want to talk about (or write about, whatever) here. Dishonored and The Walking Dead. I got Dishonored on launch day, and never really paid any attention to The Walking Dead. I've recently looked into The Walking Dead, and am attempting to slap my past self in the face for passing up the series. But now, let me take a moment, and say why both games are games everyone should play. I might even say games everyone needs to play, but that might be a bit too strong a phrase.
Dishonored, for those who don't know, is a semi-sandbox first-person stealth-action game (wow, that's a lot of dashes.) It puts players in the role of disgraced, framed royal bodyguard Corvo Atono who gets broken out of jail by a small underground resistance movement and sets about taking his revenge, aided by magical superpowers granted to him by the otherworldly entity, The Outsider (he has black eyes, by the way. Figured that was worth mentioning.) Now, that all probably sounds cool, but also well-worn. It's not. Really, it's not. Because of all the emphasis Dishonored places on player choice; you can choose whether or not to kill anyone in the entire game (literally, you can beat the entire game without killing a single NPC, even the targets,) you can choose what kind of magical superpowers you use (you can freeze time, possess people, teleport (honestly, that teleport power might be one of the coolest of the bunch, simply because it is so easy to use, and so very effective and awesome) blast people with wind, see through walls) you can choose what kind of gear you wield (do you use a crossbow to take out people silently? Then get clip and fire rate upgrades for it. Do you get into a lot of sword fights with guards? Get an upgrade that makes it easier to break away from sword-locks.) To sum it up, Dishonored is basically Deus Ex for modern gamers. For those who have never played Deus Ex, it was a game that basically let you play exactly how you wanted to; want to sneak around and shoot people with sleep darts/cattle prod them? Go ahead. Want to go just run around and shoot every enemy in the face? Go ahead. Want to beat people senseless with a crowbar? Sure. Want to shoot a fellow military-cop at the top of the Statue of Liberty and take his assault rifle when the only witness is a terrorist? Why the heck not? (I'm not exagerating there. You can actually do that. Look up kikoskia's Let's Play Deus Ex series; It's the twelfth video.) Dishonored is the same type of game: want to teleport around and choke everyone out while you have time stopped? Go ahead. Want to run in and shoot everyone in the face? Go ahead. Want to summon a swarm of rats and stick a razor trap to one, possess it, and guide it to a group of guards? You ingenious bastard, you, go do that right now.
What's even more amazing is how Dishonored's story and environment adapt to how you play through the Chaos system; stay sneaky and keep the body count low(Low Chaos), you get a much more, well, "upbeat" tale, I guess. The rebels are all cordial with one another, a religious soldier asks his friends to put him down so he doesn't spread the rat-plague to them (there's a rat-plague too, I might have forgotten to mention that) the old boatman who drives Corvo to all his missions is very friendly, and you often get extra goodies in the form of money and power-granting Runes for taking the non-lethal routes with key targets. The actual ending itself is also very much a happy one. Kill everything between you and your targets, and then kill your targets too(High Chaos), and you get a much darker tale; the rebels are at each other's throats, those religious soldiers murder their pal who swears he isn't sick (even though he clearly is,) the boatman hates Corvo's guts, the Empress's daughter can come across a tad sociopathic, and the ultimate ending is not at all a happy one(There are two ending possibilities for a High Chaos playthrough, and they're both exceedingly bleak.) Dishonored is truly something to behold in how it molds the world around the player in accordance to the player's actions. Leave a lot of corpses in a High Chaos playthrough, there are going to be a lot more rats around, and more plague victims (Who basically act like zombies that spit bile into your face instead of eating it (your face)) and heightened security. Even more impressive, Dishonored is a new IP; in an age of sequels and reboots and special editions, Dishonored is something totally new. It's something a group of people decided they were going to make, current market research be damned. On that merit alone, it deserves some respect.
A word of warning, though; Dishonored is a fairly short game, so unless you're incredibly obsessive-compulsive about your games, or have a good deal of cash to drop, maybe just rent it and beat it twice. It really is worth experiencing.
The second game, The Walking Dead, is something I've just recently discovered. And it might be one of the finest examples of emotional story and impactful player choice that I've ever seen in a game. Come to think of, it does player choice better than just about any game I've played, too. Most games have a system of choice that ranges between one of two extremes: "the right thing to do/nice" and "*******/psychopath." The Mass Effect series (Especially Mass Effect 3) is really a great example of this; when a fan comes up to you in Mass Effect, you can entertain his adoration, and slowly move him away from the idea of emulating you in a way that is tactful and considerate. Or, you can blow him off, shove a gun in his face(not necessarily in that order) and oftentimes indirectly have him get himself killed trying to prove he's capable. Clearly defined good guy and ******* paths there. In ME3, you can cure the Krogan's sterilization disease, or not cure it and let them think you did so you get their help and the help of the race that sterilized them in the first place (the exact methods of tricking them vary; you might have to shoot an old friend from ME2 to make it happen.) However, only the people who have Urdnot Wreav, Krogan traditionalist and mirror-image ******* to a Renegade Shepard(and really, who actually HAS Wreav in a serious capacity?), would see tricking the Krogan as the right thing to do (And even then, very certain conditions gave to be met so you don't need to commit murder to be able to trick the Krogan.) In all other cases, tricking the Krogan is clearly the ******* choice. I'd get into the choices of inFamous, but I'm getting off-topic here.
The choices in The Walking Dead aren't clear-cut "Nice" and "*******." They don't really even fit under those terms in the context they're presented; they're simply choices that reflect what you think is the best thing to do. Do you let the woman getting eaten alive by zombies live and continue to get eaten alive so the zombies focus all their attention on her, allowing you to safely scavenge resources for your people? Or do you put her out of her misery and bring every zombie in town down on your head?
Maybe not the best example, but it's still very much a quandry in the context the game presents it in. It's not a "Is this the nice thing to do, or the ******* thing to do?" It's more a question of a "How do the needs of me and the people depending on me balance against this one person?" How about this: you have ten people in your group who are all hungry, but only four items of food. Which four people get to eat? That's actually a choice you have to make, and while that might sound easy (you'll probably already have an idea of who you like and don't like by the time this choice comes around) it's not. Do you give some food to the jerk dad of the pseudo-leader of the group, to get on her good side? Do you keep the two children in the group fed (also note that doing that will make another member like you more)? When you're down to the last piece of food, do you save it for yourself, or decide that someone else might need it more? I spent a good half hour debating with myself over who got the food (in the end, I gave the kids, the jerk dad, and an ex-air force pilot the group picked up in-between episodes the food.) I've got another great example, but I don't want to spoil it for late-comers like myself. Let's just say it involves... y'know, I'm not even going to hint at what it involves exactly. It's that impactful, and that great an example of a no-pre-defined-morality-choice.
It's not just the choices themselves, but also the effect they have. Do something one member of the group approves of, they'll have you back when things get tough (provided they like you.) This is even more apparent through the game's dialogue system; various choices in conversation are shown that dictate the tone of your response. While some might seem trivial, even the seemingly least-important choice of several in an conversation can be the one that certain characters will remember, and they will keep that in mind for a good long while. Tell the leader of the group that she is acting like a bitch when she gets angry that one of the group saved you from an imminent zombie death (this is in the first episode, before you become a part of the group,) she'll remember that comment and it will set the tone of your interactions with her for the rest of the episode.
But probably the most important factor of The Walking Dead is how emotional it is and how easily you fall into caring about what happens in the game. Most people probably know who Clementine, the little girl whose safety is you responsibility, is by now. I myself did my best to look after her (and shield her from the harsh reality of a zombie apocalypse) in Episode 1, but never quite felt like she was influencing what I did. Come Episode 2, I'd thrown myself whole-hog into looking after her, and cared what she thought of what I did (there were two big moments near the end that really drove that fact home for me.) In Episode 3, when she showed me the stickers she'd put on her walkie-talkie (a keepsake from her missing parents) I was struck by how absolutely adorable that was (it's not just the stickers; it's how happy she is about them.) Not only have I grown to care about her as the game goes on, but the game itself almost mirrors my feelings; by Episode 3, Lee Everet (the player character) is calling Clementine "Sweet Pea."
It's not just Clementine though. It's everyone and everything. I won't say exactly what, but something happened recently in Episode 3 that literally had me close to tears over how desperately sad it was. When Lee returns to his hometown of Macon, and finds it overrun by zombies, with the group of survivors hiding in his family's pharmacy, the continuing search of the place left me shocked and feeling for Lee potently (there's a moment when you get the keys to the pharmacy storeroom. It's emotional and sad as hell. I won't say any more, but trust me on that.) Heck, listening to the answering machine in Clementine's house in Episode 1 will get you feeling down.
I'll say it somewhat straight: I'm not entirely sure if The Walking Dead can be called solely fun. It's absolutely exhilarating, often times comes across like a well-written TV show, and will undoubtedly choke you up (no matter how cynical, jaded and tough you think you are.) It's more of an experience; it's like Heavy Rain without the plot holes, with a little girl to protect, and zombies. That might not be the greatest analogy, but it's the only one I can think of that even comes close to describing The Walking Dead in other terms.
These two games, The Walking Dead and Dishonored, are games that place an unfeasible amount of importance on player choice. Dishonored builds its world and ending around the choices of the player, while The Walking Dead makes sure the player has no easy choice to make and that they feel the impact of each one, whether it's immediate or something that lasts for multiple episodes. They are games that everyone should play.
In my last post, I discussed a little something I call "The Dark Knight Rises Effect." It describes a situation where a piece of media is released, a piece of media that comes from a series or creator with a long line of high-quality products to its/his or her name. Often, it's a sequel, or the third entry in a franchise. Take all these things together, throw in amazing trailers that make you think each time you can't get more excited for the product to finally reach the public, and let the expectations overboil.
This is The Dark Knight Rises Effect: where expectations for something ultimately become so incredibly high, meeting them is effectively impossible. I used this as a possible explanation for the hate heaped on Dead Space 3, but realize now that I might have picked the wrong game as demonstration. Dead Space 3 had plenty of detractors from the first announcement trailer, and everyone, even die hard fans, were subtly unsure if the game could deliver.
Bioshock Infinite on the other hand could not be a better example.
The craze started about three years ago when at E3 2010, Irrational Games teased us with pre-rendered trailer showcasing a suspiciously Big-Daddy-like-creature with an exposed chest cavity in a flying city (that really can't be stressed enough) time-bending phonographs, and flower telekinesis. Later that year, they released ten minutes of gameplay footage, and set the industry on fire. After shooting it with lightning. And then hurling a giant, superheated ball of condensed cooking implements at it.
This giant, superheated ball of condensed cooking implements.
From there, things only got better. We were treated to a stellar fifteen minutes of gameplay at E3 2011, saw a female NPC companion who was quickly shaping up to be able to stand on her own with the best NPC companions(i.e. Alyx Vance, and no-one else, really) and an portal to an alternate-reality 1980s where the Jedi have their Revenge. Needless to say, just about everyone was frothing at the mouth for this game.
Then, things started going bad. A number of key individuals left Irrational, and Infinite was delayed several times, setting a tentative release date in late 2012 that was eventually pushed back to 2013. We feared the worst, but Infinite personified the phoenix metaphor and rose from its ashes with a redesigned story and batches of incredible trailers. Our faith restored, we began eagerly awaiting the day of its release.
It's that point, where we assured ourselves everything was fine again and resumed business as normal where Infinite was concerned (business as normal being godly expectations and an near inability to wait as long as Irrational was asking us to) that gives us The Dark Knight Rises Effect. In face, The Effect is made all the more potent by Infinite's near collapse and resurgence; it bounced back from near disaster, and looked even better for it. If our hopes were sky high before the trouble started, they started skimming the surface of the sun when Infinite proved it was not to be denied.
We've got such incredible expectations for Bioshock Infinite. Expectations that, unless we maybe take a breath and admit to ourselves that as much as this is our FPS-Second-Coming, it's likely not going to be perfect, Bioshock Infinite inevitably won't live up to. Because nothing is perfect. However much we might deny it, nothing is ever perfect. It's a simple truth we so often refuse to acknowledge, and we are always worse off for it. We expected the greatest, most perfect Batman movie in history with The Dark Knight Rises, because how could we not? Nolan had Batman Begins and The Dark Knight and Inception under his belt. We saw ourselves as within our rights to expect the perfect Batman movie. We got what was arguably one of the greatest Batman stories/movies ever, but perfect? No. It wasn't. It couldn't have been. Yet we, for whatever reason, begrudged it that lack of perfection.
I get this is a joke video, but this was also used as a serious argument for why the movie was terrible. This one thing. Think about that.
What I'm saying is this: we can't expect the same thing from Bioshock Infinite because we can't expect the same thing from anything. We can't expect Infinite to be the perfect FPS game, with tight shooting, superpowers, awesome guns, a truly clever story with characters that we actually care about and a plot that is more than fist-pumping bravado and that maybe makes some insightful commentary on society. I'm not saying we likely won't get all of those things, I'm just saying that maybe we shouldn't instantly expect them all to be done perfectly. I'm saying we shouldn't expect Infinite to be the perfect game. We should instead expect it to come as close to perfection as it can.
Because that is the unrealistic expectation that is far harder to fail to meet. And in all likelihood, it's the game we'll end up getting. The game that almost reaches perfection, but is so damn good anyways that we don't care that it's not perfect. That's the game we ought to be expecting.
Let me start this off by stating what this is exactly so as not to confuse you: this is not a full review. I have not yet beaten Dead Space 3. I'm only as far as chapter 5 or 6. This is more a "My thoughts on this game so far" piece.
Now that definitions are out of the way, let me state something else:
Apparently, half the game review sites played a completely different game from the one I'm playing. That, or they had absolutely unrealistic memories of prior Dead Space games and used the memories as reference for how scary Dead Space 3 is by comparison to Dead Space and Dead Space 2.
I'm saying this because, despite everyone and their mother saying Dead Space 3 isn't scary, it's actually...well, scary. But scary in a subtle way. This is not a in-your-face scary like a slasher horror film. This is a scary that is built on atmosphere and frantic combat with incredibly durable groups of space-zombies who can attack from virtually anywhere. It's a scary built around environments that speak of horrific deaths and create a dark tense feeling and around creatures that are utterly unnerving yet act in ways familiar enough that their non-human nature doesn't matter. And screaming. Lots of it. Though in Dead Space 3, the screaming mostly seems to come from the enemies rather than the hapless minor characters. All of it backed up by the classic Dead Space music that makes everything feel frantic and exhilarating and scary.
I'm not saying there aren't standard "monster-jumps-out" moments. There are those. And they work, because of the atmosphere of the game and the durability and lethality of the monsters. One of those necromorphs with no legs and long stabby-spine (I forget it's exact name) suddenly dropped from the ceiling in chapter four after I left a small briefing room. I half-screamed when it dropped, and started panicking when I jumped on me and I had to force it off by mashing X and seeing after the fact that there were three more slashers running down the hallway towards me.
Now, we've established that Dead Space 3 is actually scary (at least, it's scary to me; your experience may differ.) Another gripe half the internet seemed to have was the writing and story.
Again, they must have gotten the alpha version with the unrevised script, because I've not seen much hard-to-follow nonsense or stupid dialogue in my time with the game so far. The one thing I can't quite accept is the fact that Unitologists can kill all the EarthGov military battalions except for one (and they even do a number on that one, too.) I'm sure that religious fanatics toppling a seemingly well-armed and secure government/military has happened more times in reality than any of us care to think about, but it's a bit of tough pill to swallow that the people who let themselves get killed by Necros and apparently forgot gunships existed are also capable of nearly toppling the government. I honestly expected the human enemies to come in the form of EarthGov agents. We know from the novels that some members of EarthGov don't think necromorphs are all that bad (I seem to recall a couple key scientists in Altman's time considering necros to be the next stage in evolution) and the events and credit-sequence dialogue of Dead Space 2 made it sound like there was some grand conspiracy where EarthGov and the Markers were concerned (the Markers are in a fact a personal sore spot for me where the story is concerned, but I'll save that for another time.) Bottom line, my only problem with the story so far is that Unitologists can nearly wipe out the military. Other than that, I've yet to see much by the way of fault, excepting a sudden appearance by Carver to snap Isaac out of Marker-script translating mode, followed by a just-as-sudden disappearance (likely a scene built to be seen from the perspective of co-op.)
Oh, also I should probably mention that all my time with the game so far has been in single-player. I'm saving co-op for after I beat the game (and maybe unlock the Devil Horns weapon.)
So, what's the deal with all the hate being heaped on Dead Space 3?
I see it as something of a The Dark Knight Rises effect. We had the third major entry in a series of utterly spectacular pieces of media, and our expectations were about as high as the moon. Then, the creator (or, in this case, creators) proved that they aren't quite as perfect as we thought they were, and while they delivered a stellar product, it was also a product that could in no way meet the expectations of the frothing, frenzied public(I LOVED TDKR, just so we're clear. Loved it to death. I spent my last day before starting college seeing it again in the theaters.) We were again expecting the scariest game of the modern age, the penultimate of interactive horror. What we've gotten is an stellar horror title with some tweaks to previous systems (universal ammo (which doesn't suck!) and the removal of stores and RIG stats (okay, that one kinda sucks, but I'm willing to overlook it because it means I get to wear the RIG that looks the coolest without worrying about the loss of stat bonuses)) and an almost perfect co-op system (no tag-along AI partner.) I get the feeling that a good deal of the gaming community had TDKR-level expectations for Dead Space 3 and when the game failed to live up to those expectations, even though doing so would effectively be impossible, we decided to do what we do when something fails to meet our standards; mercilessly pick it to pieces and metaphorically ostracize it.
Now, if this might be the case with so many, why do I love this game so far? Maybe because I wasn't expecting so much. Maybe I'm just easily scared. Maybe I love the Dead Space franchise so much I can ignore whatever flaws may be present. Maybe the game really is that good, and almost everyone who writes reviews was just feeling cranky and vindictive.
What I know for sure is this: I had faith in Visceral from the announcement trailer, and so far, my faith has been completely justified.
Dead Space 3 is probably the second most controversial title coming out this year so far (the Devil May Cry reboot from NInja Theory takes the Number One spot in that category). Series fans have been bemoaning the seemingly action-oriented style of the forthcoming entry, but I myself simply sat back and shook my head at another case of how up-in-arms gamers can get.
In a way, Dead Space as a horror franchise has something of a troubled past. The original Dead Space was so nerve-wracking and frightening that, according to Visceral, many people have confessed to never actually finishing the game (it was mentioned in an Game Informer that featured a cover piece on the announcement of Dead Space 2.) I myself could be counted among that number; I rented the game and couldn't bring myself to play past Chapter 4. I often likened it to the Regenerator section in Resident Evil 4, but stretched out in length to encompass a whole game. (For those who don't know what I'm talking about, just google "Resident evil 4 regenerator" and watch the first youtube hit. Everything will make perfect sense.)
Dead Space 2 was different, in a good way. It somehow found the right balance of terror and action to make one of the greatest horror games in recent memory and it also managed to create the most realistic, humanized video game protagonist in history.
Now, Dead Space 3 is on the horizon, and a good deal of the fan base is worried. The tone of the trailers and the inclusion of co-operative play where at a time all any of us had to go on. I personally didn't worry; I trusted Visceral to be able to maintain the terror factor, no matter if they were throwing in human enemies and introducing universal ammo.
Then, the demo went public.
I've play the public demo twice now. Once solo, once in an online co-op match. And I have to say, I'm a tad concerned. The thing is that I'm not entirely sure what it is I'm so concerned about. I've given it a good deal of thought, and I think I've managed to put my finger on it.
The demo of Dead Space 3 feels like it's in New Game Plus already.
Dead Space and Dead Space 2 both featured New game Plus options. I can't speak for the feeling of Dead Space in NGP, but I can speak for how it felt in Dead Space 2. It felt less like I had to worry about my wellbeing, and more like I could plough through the game like a Necromorph-targeting Terminator so long as I wasn't stupid with my ammo. I was strapped in a RIG that gave me bonus damage and packing a host of upgraded weapons that could make mincemeat of most enemies. It was an odd feeling of empowerment that also oddly worked, that clicked, after the first playthrough of terror and resource conservation.
Dead Space 3, in the public demo, somehow already has that feeling of empowerment. Don't get me wrong, it made me jump, gag, and the lack of visibility from the snow certainly had me on edge, but it didn't feel like I was struggling to survive being stranded on a arctic world full of space-zombies. Which was how it should have felt. It felt more like I was killing my way through a arctic world full of space-zombies. And while those both sound like the same thing, there is a very subtle, yet incredibly impactful difference between the two. It's the difference between New Game and New Game Plus.
I'm not quite sure why the demo felt the way it did. Maybe it was because it was a section that had already been shown and I had a vague idea of everything that would happen. Maybe it was because the lazer dots for the plasma cutter seemed too close together. Maybe it was because dismemberment seems to be a bit less crucial this time around (shooting a necromorph in the torso twice causes the torso to fall off and three long clawed tentacles to sprout from the waist.) Maybe it was because Isaac's reaction a necromorph thresher maw is annoyance (however funny it might be). Maybe it was just that I hadn't played a Dead Space game in nearly 3 years and had allowed my mental memories to create unrealistic expectations.
I was at first a stalwart defender of Dead Space 3, encouraging those who were freaking out over the action-heavy style to calm down and trust Visceral. After playing the demo, I can't say that my faith has been lost, but it is somewhat shaken. I don't know if I just expected too much, or if the feeling of the demo might very well be indicative of a wider problem with the game. But even as I consider that possibility, a part of me understands it. In terms of tone, Dead Space 3 is very different from the previous games; Dead Space and Dead Space 2 were all about survival. They were about finding yourself in a nightmare then fighting your way out in as desperate a manner as possible. Dead Space 3, from the looks of things, seems to be more about problem solving. That is, solving the problem of the necromorphs. That is, going on the pseudo-offensive on a world that might hold all the answers. You're not trying to survive and escape, at least not as the base, original goal; you're there to kick ass and take names in as desperate a manner as possible. It makes sense, I'll admit that. It's a logical progression of Isaac's character; he's had more experience with surviving and killing necromorphs and dealing with Markers than literally any other human in existence. He's Ripley in Aliens, by a factor of two. He's the expert, the go-to guy, but he's also completely capable of fighting the creatures (because come on, you can't really fight Xenomorphs without a loader exoskeleton). One of the trailers even alludes to this; some unknown party wants help dealing with the ice-planet of Markers and necromorphs, they come to Isaac for help, he sends them to Ellie, and Ellie sends them right back to Isaac.
So what am I ultimately trying to say here? I seem to be jumping all over the place, analyzing the tone, offering criticisms and explanations and whatnot. What I'm getting at is this:
the Dead Space 3 demo felt off, if only slightly. It was still scary, it was still fun, and I still have faith in Visceral.
Call of Duty is a funny series. It's fourth entry took the industry by storm, and virtually every multiplayer mode since has borrowed from it in some way, while it's campaign told a somewhat gripping modern military tale that wasn't wrapped up in patriotic bravado. It was like a Daniel-Craig-Bond military story, serious and acknowledging the darker side of something we normally glamorize.
After Call of Duty 4, Modern Warfare 2 came out as one of the most anticipated titles in recent memory. Then, something changed. People began decrying the series after Treyarch took it's stab with a ultra-violent return-to-WW2-form. Modern Warfare 2 was good enough that the detractors remained the minority, but by the time Treyarch blew the previous games out of the water in terms of story with Black Ops and Infinity Ward finished up the tale of Modern Warfare with MW3, hatred and scorn for the series and those who played it had become the dominant viewpoint in the gaming community (discounting, of course, the review sites).
The sudden outburst of hatred for the series is something I have always found odd. I myself grew somewhat indifferent to the series after Black Ops, and while I understood the arguments the haters and less-fervent detractors had, I myself never really grew to hate the Call of Duty franchise. I just stopped caring about it.
As I said, I had grown indifferent to COD after Black Ops. Black ops was, at the time, the best Call of Duty yet. Sure, the gameplay was just a tad stiffer than it's modern, Infinity-Ward counterpart, but it more than made for that in terms of story, with a protagonist that actually spoke, and a awesome psuedo-alternate/secret-history conspiracy and story set in the Cold War. To put it simply, by the time Modern Warfare 3 rolled around, I didn't really feel like bothering myself with Call of Duty.
I thought that 2012 would be no different with Black Ops 2. But as I heard whispers of reviews saying just how much had been added, I started to take notice. Watching a full in-depth review revealed something that pretty had me half-heartedly hooked (the branching storyline with multiple endings).
The branching storyline, and promise of extensive replay value that comes with it, somewhat sealed the deal. I got Black ops 2 more for the story mode than for the multiplayer, which I'm sure puts me in the minority and has left many of you readers scratching your heads at to what kind of gamer I could possibly be. After I got the best possible ending, I started investing time in multiplayer. Then college classes started up again, and I saw Call of Duty in a whole different light.
Now, let me explain something about college: it is the most fun, intensive, stressful, amazing education you'll ever go through. By way of a for-instance, I'm currently taking an Animation 101 class, amongst others, and in my first project I created a little 2-second movie in which two birds, one hang glider, a caped superhero, a fighter jet, and UFO fly over a man relaxing in his backyard. But the process of creation was as stressful as it was fun. College is an odd environment: for the time I've been in my second quarter, and for a good deal of my last quarter of classes, I never really felt like playing a game when I got home. This stood in direct contrast to my routine of high school, where sitting down and playing for about an hour and a half was the second thing I did when I got home after taking care of necessary bodily functions. There was something about the environment and feeling of college that just left me wiped. I didn't feel like putting in XCOM Enemy Unknown and dealing with the intensity and fun stress that comes from saving the world from an alien invasion. I didn't feel like putting in Max Payne 3 and shooting guys in the face in slow motion as I dove down a set of steps in a soccer stadium. I didn't feel like playing anything. Until I one day decided to just play a few matches of Black Ops 2 multiplayer. And felt/realized something astounding.
Call of Duty multiplayer is, to put it simply, mindless. You can jump online to play for an hour, and it's simple, mindless fun. You run around a couple different maps, shooting people and getting shot. That's really all there is to it, besides maybe swapping weapon load-outs on your custom classes when you feel like. And that's the brilliance of it. It's simple, base fun. You run around and shoot and get shot and it's simple and fun and mindless and perfect for when you just want to unwind in a way that doesn't require you to make major decisions or deal with story or anything else.
Call of Duty remains as reviled as ever, but I myself, in college and needing a mindless manner of unwinding, have rediscovered the series. And I'm loving every minute of it.
Borderlands 2 is a crazy, over-the-top, hilarious, violent, gun-filled good time. But, Borderlands 2 (and the original) is also a picture of a really, really sucky future of uncontrolled arms companies doing whatever they want.
That may not be obvious at first, but let's take a look at the antagonists of the game, the Hyperion Corporation. Sure, they build guns, but they're also in the process of a violent, indiscriminate take-over of an entire world. Emphasis on the indiscriminate part. Towns of ordinary innocents (or as ordinary as you can get on Pandora) are often destroyed and the populations executed. There's a Hyperion facility that is officially titled "The Wildlife Exploitation Preserve." And they don't just run unethical elemental experiments on the local wildlife there either. They capture ordinary people, supplied by bandits (The same bunch they're supposedly on Pandora to get rid of, by the way) and run experiments on them. And don't even get me started on the laws of the Hyperion city Opportunity. Littering is punishable by death, and complaining about existing laws is considered verbal littering. Jack also admits over ECHO many times to public participation in previously mentioned executions and torturing. Also, let's not forget, that aim-stabilizing technology in Hyperion guns? For those of you who have the Borderlands 2 strategy guide, and have read the thing cover-to-cover (or maybe for those of you who don't/haven't) there's a section on each weapon manufacturer. In Hyperion's it features a few choice quotes from Jack that seem, in context, like they're used in a public, or at least inter-corporate, capacity. Said quote involves Jack admitting he stole said aim-stabilizing technology and had the original creator murdered, while he (Jack) took all the credit for the design. The man openly admits he stole intellectual property and had it's creator killed. And he's walking, no, STRUTTING around free as a bird. Probably freer, actually. Birds can't teleport or got to their private moon-station-ships shaped like their company logo that can launch mortars and deathbots on command.
Now, Hyperion is obviously the antagonistic corporation, so they may seem like a bit of an extreme case to use as evidence. Fine. Let's take a look at the Dahl Corporation. Years ago, they set up mining operations on Pandora, searching for crystals. Their unaffiliated, third-party miners discovered the Crystalisks, semi-docile alien life forms that ate and grew crystals. When the third-party miners refused orders to murder the innocent alien life forms to facilitate the process of crystal-harvesting, despite the fact that there were other areas in the planet that naturally produced crystals that could be mined, the Dahl representative in charge had them all killed. She then attempted to murder the Crystalisks, and was killed by the creatures in turn. This debacle, along with competitor Atlas muscling in, led Dahl cut it losses and leave thousands of employees and workers stranded on Pandora, including character-NPC Patricia Tannis.
Taking all this into account, I'd say a reasonable conclusion about the future the Borderlands series is depicting can be made: it's a future where corporations are apparently not regulated nor bound by laws in any fashion. They can murder and steal and go imperial and god knows what else, and no-one seems to care. Everyone knows what these corporations do since, in one of Gaige's pre-DLC-release ECHO logs, she notes that Hyperion's occupation of Pandora is apparently a subject of discussion in many news outlets. The whole galaxy somewhat knows what these corporations get up to, what they get up to being war crimes/crimes against humanity/environmental crimes/violation of workers' rights. And not one is called to account in an official capacity. The only punishment that is suffered is through their own losses of resources and the occasional death-by-angry-Vault-Hunters. These are inter-planetary arms companies. The fact that they are inter-planetary would suggest some form of inter-planetary law or government. Unfortunately, it is also apparently one that does not care what crimes it's gunsmiths commit.
Let's get one thing out the way first: Assassin's Creed 3 is a astounding game, and easily the best entry in the series. It's brought back the Templars-as-extra-anti-anti-heroes dynamic, and has the most interactive gameplay of the series, among other things. But, while running around about a week ago, I realized something. A logic/plot hole of near unparalleled proportions.
Said plot/logic hole is the fact that the Assassins of the 18th century are using mass-produced flintlock firearms. That might make sense at first; they've got Templars to kill, so they just go for a quick and readily available choice of ranged weapon. It's not the fact that they use guns that gets me. It's the fact that they aren't using their own vastly superior super-guns that ought to exist, but don't.
To understand what I just said, some context will be required:
In Assassin's Creed 2, we got the Hidden Gun attachment. It was a single-shot gun mounted in the hidden blade. We kept it for the rest of the Ezio trilogy, and in AC Revelations, we saw it's first use: Altiar using it to kill Abbas.
It's that first use that is the source of the logic/plot hole. The Hidden Gun, throughout all its uses in the Ezio trilogy, functioned in a manner superior to that of the flintlock firearms in AC3. I don't know exactly how it was reloaded, but I do know that it seemed to be much faster and a much less contrived process compared to reloading a flintlock. I'm not asking why don't the Assassins in AC3 use the hidden gun, I'm asking why on earth doesn't the Assassin Order have the best, most advanced firearms on the planet by the time the Revolutionary War rolls around?
The first use of the Hidden Gun by Altiar was in 1247. The first actual recorded use of a firearm anywhere in the world wasn't until 1390 in Vietnam, even if Russia whipped out some primitive form of hand-held gun in 1382. The point I'm trying to make is this: the Assassins invented the firearm, in the form of the Hidden Gun, over 100 years before anyone else in the world. By rights, they should have taken the base technology of the Hidden Gun and expanded upon it, creating hand-held versions that weren't bound to the Hidden Blade vambraces. The fact that the Assassins of Italy didn't already have at the very least quick-loading pistols by the time Ezio joined in 1476, 229 years later, makes no sense. They had the ultimate head-start on what would become one of the deadliest weapons in history, and they didn't take advantage of it. In Brotherhood, when the man who helped install Monteriggioni's cannons tells Ezio about rumors of "hand cannons" Ezio should have replied with "Oh yeah, we've had those for years." The Assassins should have firearms built by the Order that are far beyond anything else in the world, because the Assassins made the firearm 134 years before anyone else would. Connor shouldn't be walking around with flintlock pistols imported from Britain; he should be walking around with Assassin-made pistols akin to the clip-upgraded ones in Dishonored (it's like a revolver, but with more wood). By the time Connor joins the Assassins, they've had almost 530 years to build off of the Hidden Gun. That's more time than modern weapons development took to go from wooden flintlocks with ball-bullets to metal automatics and semi-automatics with conical bullets.
The fact that the Assassins didn't jump on this gun head-start of epic proportions and that they don't have their own ultra-advanced firearms is nothing short of astounding.
WARNING: THIS ARTICLE WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS FOR ASSASSIN'S CREED, ASSASSIN'S CREED 2, ASSASSIN'S CREED BROTHERHOOD, ASSASSIN'S CREED REVELATIONS, AND EARLY STORY POINTS OF ASSASSIN'S CREED 3. IF YOU DON'T WANT TO BE EXPOSED TO SPOILERS, DO NOT READ ON.
Assassin's Creed. It's a series that has come quite far since its love-it-or-hate-it debut back in 2007. Nowadays, it's up in the ranks of the most revered and most profitable series in the industry. But, I feel the need to discuss something particular about the direction the series took after the original, and something the most recent entry is now guiding it back to. The portrayal of the Templars.
The original Assassin's Creed pulled off one of the most difficult and daring story choices: it dared to ask who in the game had the moral high ground. It tossed players into a world of absolutely zero black -and-white morality, and nowhere was this more evident than with the 9 targets players killed. Now, granted, these 9 men were all terrible people in their own right, but at the same time, the game gave them righteousness and altered the perspective on their actions in their final moments, where their true reasons and motivations were revealed.
It was this that made the Templars in Assassin's Creed such great villains: the fact that almost all of them had some moral authority or redeeming factor to their seemingly terrible crimes. Talal ran a slave-trading operation, snatching people off the streets and putting them to work for the Templar order. But at the same time, he was grabbing beggars, *****s, addicts, the people in society who had nothing. He was taking the downtrodden bottom of the social ladder and giving them a purpose, along with likely some basic housing and food.
Garnier de Naplouse ran an hospital like a laboratory, conducting painful experiments. In his introduction, he orders his guards to break both legs of a escaping patient. There's no doubt that this is a man who needs to get a retractable blade shoved between his ribs. But after the deed is done, his explanation of his experiments throws every previously conceived notion out the window. He pulled his subjects from brothels, prisons, sewers. He took the criminals, the homeless, the destitute. As he puts it when Altiar says that the patients will be free to return to their homes, the places they have to go back to are scarcely any better than the hospital. He goes on to say that not only did these people have nothing physically, they were suffering mentally, and he hoped to help them by whatever means possible. He even notes his guards, calling them madmen before he did his work on them. He ends by saying he knows beyond a doubt he helped many of his patients. Whether or not the benefits of his experiments outweigh the costs is a question never answered.
Another Templar, Jubair, burned books and upstart apprentices. His reasoning was that not all knowledge was beneficial. Some knowledge was just plain wrong, some knowledge could lead people to do terrible things. He cites the Crusades as a prime example, then asks the big question: how is Altiar killing him any different from him burning books? William of Monferrat took food from the people of Acre, ran a brutal ship where crime was concerned, and conscripted citizens. He took food so that it could be rationed equally among people in times of famine, ran the brutal ship to eradicate crime (which he totally did, by the way), and conscripted people to teach them about order and discipline. The Templars in Assassin's Creed were the greatest of villains because they weren't truly evil: they were doing the wrong things for the right reasons.
This aspect to the Templars, of having a pure motive, committing an heinous act for the betterment of others, was something the following sequels apparently forgot to include. The Templars in Assassin's Creed 2, Brotherhood, and Revelations were evil power-hungry dicks because... they were evil power-hungry dicks. There were absolutely zero redeeming qualities to most of the Templars of those three games. Marcus Barbarigo is a guy who tried to kill his best friend to get said friend's wife, and got said friend's wife anyways due to the friend's brain damage from the failed assassination attempt. Later, he steps into power as the Doge of Venice (he helped poison his predecesor, by the way), and when he's finally killed, all he has to say for himself is that he's not ready to die yet. In fact, lines like that were pretty much all any of the targets said for the rest of the Ezio trilogy, save the few times when they admitted something that advanced the plot, or made poor attempts at justifying their dickishness, like Juan Borgia's explanation of his orgy-parties as "giving the people what they wanted" and noting that he did not regret anything, or Octavian de Valois claiming that all he wanted was respect after he held a man's wife at gunpoint. The only Templar of the Ezio trilogy that even comes close to the moral-gray-area wrong-for-the-right of the first game was Vali cel Tradat, a former Assassin who betrayed the Brotherhood because the Assassin's sided with the Ottoman's against his home nation of Wallachia. His reasoning was that if the Creed couldn't let him protect his homeland and family, what good could it possibly do for the world?
So, for those keeping track, over three entire games, there was one character who only slightly evoked the moral reasoning the original nine gave. But Assassin's Creed 3 gets back to what made the Templars so compelling. It gives them back that doing-the-wrong-thing-for-the-right-reasons aspect that they've lacked in the last three titles. William Johnson tries to take the land of the natives because he knows full well that no-one, not the colonists in the cities nor the leaders in Britain care anything for their wellbeing, and he sought to protect them from threats yet but sure to come. John Pitcairn wanted to set up talks with the Patriots so that they could try and end the war through peace talks. Sure, he might've been consolidating Templar power, but he was also trying to keep a lid on a war.
Assassin's Creed 3 is almost a re-invention of the series: it stars a new protagonist, has a revamped control system, alters the in-game economy and assassin recruit system, and lets you sail a ship. But it's drawing of the thing that made the first game so compelling, and what the rest of the games in the series somehow left behind: that fact that the Templars weren't just another bunch of generic evil villains but people who want so badly to do the right thing that they're willing to commit atrocities to do so, and the idea that there's very fine line between whether the Templars of Assassins are the ones with the moral high ground, make it the best in terms of story since the original. And why the Templars in Assassin's Creed 3 are the best Templars since the original.
I'm a major comic book geek, and I'm just going to assume no-one reading this blog has found the time to read the truly excellent and slightly-nausea-inducing Marvel Zombies.
For those who don't know, Marvel Zombies chronicles an alternate Marvel comics reality where most of the superheroes we all know and love were turned into zombies and subsequently devoured most non-zombie members of their respective supporting casts. The twist placed upon this idea is that every zombiefied hero retains their mind and personality. The zombies are the main characters for the majority of the tale, excepting a brief interlude by Black Panther and some mutant followers of Magneto, but even they play backseat to the truly unique story where the flesh-eating monsters have personalities.
It's this concept, that of zombies having personalities and being the main characters, that intrigues me in terms of games. To my knowledge, there is only one video game currently in existence where the zombie is the main character (Stubbs the Zombie) and even then, it is not post-zombie-apocalypse. Rather, players cause said zombie apocalypse by raising their own personal army of undead followers as Stubbs.
I'm talking about something completely different in this post. Stubbs was not a game that took itself seriously (gas station robots basically banged cars to put gas in them (I kind of wish I was just making that up)). I'm talking about a game that takes place post zombie-apocalypse, staring sentient zombies as the main characters, hunting down and observing human survivors. Such a game could maybe be a bit of chore to play, admittedly, but could also be a very deep examination of the human race from the position of an outside observer.
Going back to comic books again, The Walking Dead (now also a hit show on cable) is an artfully done series about surviving a zombie wasteland. It forces the characters into truly unbelievable, horrific situations (the Governor and his gladiatorial zombie ring are a prime example(and I can't imagine the worst of his antics made it past the TV censors)) and puts the characters in horrible moral dilemas, where the cost of personal survival is made frighteningly clear. It's a gripping tale where you read with bated breath and often can only feel astounded at what it predicts we as a species are capable of doing in the name of survival.
Now, picture such a scenario, but from the view of an outsider, both in terms of local group and literal existence.
A game that forces human survivors to tackle tough dilemas as The Walking Dead does, but in which everything is being witnessed from the viewpoint of the beings ultimately responsible for the need to make those choices. And keep in mind, these zombie characters are sentient, fully self-aware. How would they react to what they see humans do simply to survive against them? How many would be able to live as they are, or with themselves, knowing they effectively drove their progenitors to such terrible lengths? What's more, how would these sentient zombies interact with the survivors in ways other than trying to eat them? Would a guilt-ridden survivor wander into the wilderness, planning to suicide-by-zombie, and encounter the sentient zombie player character? If so, what would that player zombie do? Kill the survivor? Maybe listen to their story, perhaps offer moral support or absolution, or offer only a quick end after hearing whatever tragedy that survivor has lived through or perhaps committed?
Just saying. Marvel Zombies proved that zombies can work as main characters, and we all know that zombie stories can serve as the environment in which we can ask hard questions about ourselves and our nature as a species. Now combine those two in game form.
Tell me that wouldn't be awesome, or at the very least, thought-provoking.
A word of warning: because I'm discussing the ending of a game, this will have a good deal of spoilers in it. So if you haven't played and beaten Deus Ex Human Revolution, and you don't want the story spoiled for you, don't read this.
Now, a lot of games that involve player choice and morality try and hit players with a really big, important decision at the end of the game. Mass Effect 2 made players choose between destroying the Collector base or leaving it intact and in the hands of the Illusive Man. inFamous asked whether or not you were willing to re-activate the Ray Sphere and potentially kill thousands of people to increase your own power.
These are all well and good, but there is one thing that ultimately holds them back: the choices are clearly defined as good and evil. The Illusive Man runs what is essentially a very science-centric terrorist organization, and he's asking you to give him a base full of highly advanced technology (Remember, this game takes place in 2187, and the technology in the base is considered advanced). The Ray Sphere causes a huge explosion and sucks the bio-electric energy out of any normal people caught in it the blast, transferring it to the activator and giving them superpowers (provided said activator has the proper genetic code), but Cole already has electrical superpowers by the time this choice is presented. What I'm saying is, there are clearly right and wrong options here, despite what your personal opinions on the nature of the choices might be. There is one that is clearly good, and one that is clearly evil.
Here is where the multiple endings for Human Revolution come in.
The final choice in Human Revolution asks players to effectively determine the future of the human race after a wide-spread hacking of human augmentations caused all those with augmentations (Save a few notable characters) to go insane and attack/kill those who weren't augmented.
In the final mission, if you tracked down all the trapped key story players, you'll have four distinct choices available, each favoring a different side of the overarching issue: human augmentation.
The four decisions available each represent the main viewpoint of either a specific individual or group.
David Sarif, founder of a biotech corporation and a firm believer in the potential of augmentations to improve the human condition, wants to blame a anti-augmentation group and ensure augmentation technology has free experimental reign.
Hugh Darrow, the originator of augmentation technology, and the man behind the augmentation-mind-hack, wants to reveal the entire truth of the situation (Illuminati conspirators were developing a augmentation-controlling kill-switch) to ensure people stop using augmentation technology altogether.
Bill Tagert, founder of an anti-augmentation movement and member of the Illuminati, suggests informing the public of a false contamination of nueropozyne (a drug used by those with augmentations to ensure the enhancements bond properly with their bodies) to ensure restrictive measures are placed on augmentation corporations, thus furthering the Illuminati's interests by restricting the availability of augmentation technology.
A final option is offered by the news AI Eliza Casan; to destroy the installation all the previously mentioned characters (including the player character) are on, and leave humanity at large to figure out the answer to the question augmentation poses.
While it seems like there are some obvious good and evil choices here (who would willingly side with the Illuminati?) there is an achievement that is earned once all four endings have been chosen. The first time I beat Human Revolution, I loaded up my just-before-the-moment-of-choice save file, and picked the other three (I went with Sarif's suggestion the first time around). The actual endings are monologues by the player character Adam Jensen, describing the mindset and reasons behind picking the choice the player made. As I saw all the remaining monologues, and listened to the reasoning behind them with an open mind, I realized something astounding.
There was no truly correct choice. All options had incumbent rights and wrongs to their arguments. Darrow's option was based on the idea that the powerful would manipulate technology to dominate and oppress the less-fortunate, as the Illuminati came so close to doing in the actual game. Tagert's option hinged on the idea that augmentations granted untold power to anyone who could access them, allowing them to defy the laws and orders of society and morality because of the power their enhancements would grant. Sarif's was motivated by the continual pursuit of enhancement of society and ourselves through technology, through the idea that augmentation technology could effectively lead to the perfection of the human race. Eliza's option was based around the idea that no one person has the right to determine the future of the human race, and that humanity is collectively capable of making wise, beneficial decisions on its own. The most important part is that the end results of the choices are never actually shown. Only hinted at. We see a cybernetic fetus in Sarif's ending; A removed, yet still functional, cybernetic arm in Darrow's; a group of people(clearly Illuminati) entering a room in Tagert's; a couple of triangles(the game's main symbol) floating up to the surface of the sea in Eliza's, symbolically indicating the player's death. As stated before, there is no correct choice, because through the lack of shown, overarching consequences, no choice can actually be defined as right or wrong, good or evil, based upon the ultimate outcome, because there is no ultimate outcome. The player is left to define what choices were right and wrong.
It is this, this perfect rationalization of all the four options and the removal of the ultimate end result, that makes the final choice of Human Revolution one of the best, if not the best endgame choice in the history of the medium. It asks players to actively think about their own motivations, and think about which option and underlying reasoning they truly agree with. It effectively removes right and wrong from the process of choice, and instead asks the player to choose a future for humanity based upon which choice seems the most reasonable, or which one most conforms to their own beliefs. It is the ultimate player choice, with the most important factor in the world hanging in the balance, and four options that fail to conform the titles of 'right' and 'wrong' and rather ask the player to examine his or her own beliefs and thoughts on where such a choice might take humanity.
To everyone who hasn't yet played Deus Ex Human Revolution, I have only this to say:
you are missing out on a fantastic game. One that has one of the greatest endgame moral dilemas of multiple endings, all of which you need to experience to truly understand the dilema itself (hey, that sounds like a good idea for another blog bit). I'm not denying that Human Revolution is a great, extremely fun game.
But I do have one thing to say, and that one thing ties directly into a potential problem with the forthcoming Dishonored.
Deus Ex Human Revolution touts its multiple gameplay styles and in-level approaches to objectives. You can shoot your way past everyone, sneak around and tranquilize a few key guards, smooth-talk your way to your objectives; the possibilities are really only limited by the augmentations you have chosen for Adam Jensen.
You earn experience points towards level-ups and new augmentations by taking out enemies and completing objectives. And it is here that Human Revolution breaks, not in the moment-to-moment gameplay, or overarching story, but in what it promised and ultimately failed to fully deliver on.
You can play stealthy or go guns blazing. You can kill every enemy you target, or shoot them with single-shot non-lethal weapons. These are the main differences between the clearly distinct and defined playstyles of Human Revolution. And one is far more rewarding in terms of experience points than the other. Playing it nonlethal and stealthily earns you three times a much experience per downed enemy and half to twice as much experience when accomplishing objectives if you remained undetected and didn't set off any sort of alarm. This is the system that breaks the overarching promise of Human Revolution. It says you can play any way you want, and you can. But one manner of play is clearly more beneficial to character progression than the other. Now, one might say that this is simply to reward those players who take their time and elect to follow a harder path. Heck, I said that to myself a few times, but now find that isn't justification. Human Revolution essentially handicaps the lethal-weapon favoring, guns-blazing players by limiting the experience they receive. Even if you play a lethal, stealthy game, you'd either need to make every single kill a headshot (and you'd need certain weapon attachments to be able to do this to enemies later in the game), or just kill three enemies as often as possible to be able to incur the same amount of experience as a stealthy non-lethal game.
Now, how does this fit into Dishonored, yet another game saying you can play however you see fit, and one that gives you all the tools and supernatural powers to do so?
The devil, as they say, is in the details. From what the developers have said within interviews, Dishonored is a game that can be beaten without killing a single enemy, even plot-crucial targets. Doing so would be feat, no doubt, and incurs an achievement/trophy, but it also does something else. Something far more potentially game-breaking in the grand scheme of promises than simple XP number-crunching.
According to the developers, depending on how many people you have killed by the time the finale rolls around (the game keeps track of the number of people you've killed, and what kind of game character they were (civilian, target, guard, ect)) the ending will vary wildly in tone and events based upon the number of corpses you've left in your wake.
Again, a case of favoring non-lethality and stealth (potentially stealth, but non-lethality to be sure) and rewarding such behavior, but with something far more important. They are rewarded literally with a better ending, as is my current understanding. The very end of the game is dependent on how many people the player has killed up until that point, and those who charge in, pistol roaring and sword carving a crimson path to their targets and vengeance, will be given an ending far worse than those who hid in the shadows and choked their targets out simply because of how they chose to play. Another game that, when the fine details are examined, turns out to not quite practice what it preaches.
Now, will this be the case at launch for Dishonored? I cannot say. I have nothing to do with its development. This ending-based-on-kills may very well change in the near two months to come before Dishonored is released to the eager masses, myself among them. Or it may remain as is, and we will simply have a much more compelling reason to try our hands at a manner of play some of us would otherwise not attempt. Or maybe I simply misinterpreted the words of the developers. Anything is possible at this juncture. But the fact remains, we cannot know for certain until the game is in our hands, and one of us has beaten it.
I don't intend to let this realization ruin Dishonored for me, nor did I mean to do so for anyone else, but the favoritism of certain playstyles in games that claim to have no set-in-stone path to completion certainly has left a bit of a bitter taste in my mouth.
I'm a long-time Assassin's Creed fan. I've stuck with the series from the very beginning, even when half the people who played it said it was too repetitive.
Then the sequel and a suave italian bad-ass came around, and everyone started paying attention and loving the new additions and protagonist. People loved Ezio so much, he's had three full games (counting Assassin's Creed 2) focused solely on his character. And, sadly, it's in his swan song title that he decides to get kinda weird.
Just to be clear, I love Ezio Auditore as a character. I think he's awesome, a bad-ass, and totally noble; basically the absolute paragon of human virtue and (coolness) if you can forgive the fact that he kills power-hungry, moral-less conspirators in his day job. And night job. Basically, his job is killing people. And that's alright. Because everyone he kills absolutely deserves it. It wasn't the constant killing of Templars that made him weird in Revelations. Rather, it was how he spent his off-duty hours, with Sofia Sartor.
As I said, I've invested in Ezio's story. I wanted as much as the next guy to see him maybe settle down and have a life, as he rightfully deserved, though I didn't figure it would happen, given that the only opportunities he ever had to do so were either killed (Christina) or only ever hinted at and never expanded upon meaningfully (Rosa).
But then Revelations rolled around, and Sofia was introduced. By rights, everything should have been peachy with that, but something felt off from the moment they started chatting idly in Sofia's bookstore and it became clear she was going to be the love interest that Ubisoft could not afford to kill off. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but I eventually figured it out.
Ezio is nearly two decades older than Sofia. Seriously. Check the Assassin's Creed wiki. Their birth dates are on their pages there, I crunched the numbers, and Ezio has 17 years of seniority on Sofia.
Now, I'm not judging at all. Love is where you find it. But the fact remains that watching old-man Ezio flirt mildly with Sofia just left me feeling kind of weird, and maybe a bit dirty. Though, if the actual age difference didn't really matter, why was I so put off by this?
It's Ezio's beard.
That beard essentially makes the whole age-difference thing about a hundred times more pronounced.
Don't get me wrong; Ezio would still look older than Sofia, even without his beard, but he wouldn't look nearly as old if he could just be bothered to quickly drag one of the five bladed implements he has on him at all times over his face once every three weeks. Look up a picture of Ezio in Revelations, then picture him without his beard, and tell me that he wouldn't look about ten years younger at least if that shag wasn't there.
The fact that his romance with Sofia feels just a little weird, and that Ezio kind of seems like a dirty old man-cougar, can all be blamed solely on that beard.
Dead Space 2. It's a extremely disturbing, near-pants-wetting, exhilarating ride through a space station on a moon of Saturn that is full of space zombies that shrug off bullets. Anyone I know who's played it has loved it (including myself), but earlier today, as I watched a compilation of all of Isaac's hallucinatory scenes, I realized something astounding.
Now, for newcomers, or those who just haven't played it in a really long time, I'll provide a little context:
In the first Dead Space, Isaac was part of repair team sent to the USG Ishimura, a mining vessel that Isaac's girlfriend Nicole also happened to be serving on. As it turned out, the mining team had dug up an ancient artifact known as the Marker that induced crazyness and was the only thing holding back the Necromorphs buried deep under the surface of the planet Aegis 7. Isaac(silently) trudged through hell, eventually coming in contact with Nicole who helped him get the Marker back to the planet.
Then, a twist was revealed, in the form of a double-government-agent member of the team Isaac came with.
Not only was the Marker a man-made copy of an actual alien device, it had also been manipulating Isaac well before he even arrived on the Ishimura. Nicole had already killed herself in the initial Necromorph infestation, and Isaac had been following a Marker-induced phantasm for the entire game.
Now that we have the context of Dead Space 1 out of the way, some is needed for Dead Space 2.
Within it, we learn that Isaac is not only still suffering severely from the Marker hallucinations, but he has also been helping build new ones, and (this is the kicker) was the person who convinced Nicole to accept a position on the Ishimura in the first place.
All of this ultimately culminates in a series of shaky, jagged hallucinations induced by the Marker Isaac built, in which the Marker-susceptible parts of his mind essentially troll him with his feelings of guilt and terror about everything that happened in Dead Space 1. These hallucinations, from when Isaac finds out he was trying to shove a syringe into his own eye, to the ever-present bloody corpse of Nicole, make for some great moments of reserved fright. But they also serve a much deeper purpose.
In one of the final scare-hallucinations, Nicole's body grabs Isaac by the throat, throws him around a small room, then pins him to a wall and demands to know exactly what her memory means to him, and why he can't let her go. He explains that Nicole, even the memory of her, is the only thing that really matters to him whatsoever, and he can't let her go, or he has nothing left in life.
This scene, while touching, helps convey the main message of the hallucinations:
Isaac is essentially fighting his own experiences and emotions for a good portion of the game.
And this is why the hallucinations make Isaac one of the greatest video game characters ever.
They show the one part of games that is never really touched on much: the psychological effects that going through everything in any game must have, especially when dealing with horror titles. There are virtually no other titles I can think of that actually take the time to discuss the psychological effects and scars the experiences the player characters goes through leave on them. The only real example I can think of is the alluded psychosis/war crimes of Dark Sector protagonist Hayden Teno, and given that Dark Sector had about six or seven other sub-plots of past actions and motivations running rampant beneath the immediate story events, none of which were ever really resolved or even explained, and that Hayden doesn't seem to mind the in-the-now viral superpowers or triple-figure endgame body count, it almost doesn't count as an example.
Isaac Clarke fought through a broken-down spaceship full of space-zombies, followed around a hallucination of his dead girlfriend, then found out that she was actually dead, and potentially (the jury is still out as to whether or not this actually happened) fought off her necromorphed corpse after escaping Aegis 7.
If we were dealing with any other game protagonist, in the sequel, they'd shrug it off, and get on with the job of killing space-zombies. Maybe they'd be a bit quiet at the start, but that would be the extent of them showing they were bothered by what happened to them in the lat game.
But with Isaac, he doesn't shrug it off. He doesn't just get over it and do the job. The game starts in an sanitarium. That alone should give a bit of a clue as to how much the events of Dead Space 1 affected him. He's fighting these feelings of terror and trauma, but also of guilt. He pushed Nicole to accept the position on the Ishimura. He essentially is the reason she was on that ship when Necromorphs overran it. He is the person most responsible for her death, and we are told that through the hallucinations and Isaac's reactions to them. We are actually able to see and play through the manifestations of Isaac's fear, trauma, and guilt over the events of the previous game.
It is this that makes Isaac Clarke possibly the most realistic game character ever, in emotional terms. As I said, the number of games that give any indication of psychological problems on the part of protagonists due to the events of the actual game are slim to none. Isaac is the exception that proves the rule. We know for a fact in Dead Space 2 that everything he saw on the Ishimura haunts him, and we know he feels guilt over the fact that Nicole is dead because of him. We know exactly how damaged he is after the events of Dead Space, thanks to the hallucinations. These bring his underlying trauma and guilt to the surface through the Nicole-apparation's monologues, especially during the section where Isaac re-visits the Ishimura.
Now, not only do these clearly shown feelings make Isaac realistic, they also do the one thing that is the most important for any fictional character in any medium of entertainment: they humanize him. Sure, he speaks in Dead Space 2, he swears, cracks jokes, gets angry, but it is the underlying psychological damage that the hallucinations show us that really drive the humanization home. Here is a man suffering from the unimaginable things he's seen and done, from the space-zombies to having to live with the knowledge that he put the woman he loved on the ship where she died. The way the information that he has these emotional scars and feels that guilt is conveyed through the hallucinations, and such things are humanizing. We can understand them, rationalize them in the context of Isaac's character, even relate to them. Losing someone you loved or being put in nightmarish situations are things anyone can sympathize with, some of us even relate to.
Honestly, no-one will probably realize the characteral/humanizing implications of the emotions implied by Isaac's Marker-induced hallucinations the first time they play Dead Space 2. I played form start to finish four times, and only figured out all of this after seeing a video of the hallucinations, with no intervening gameplay, and recognizing what they meant about him mentally in the context of game characters, and even that was after multiple viewings of the video. But the fact remains that the hallucinations show us beyond a shadow of doubt that Isaac Clarke truly bears emotional scars and baggage from his past experiences, and this is something that virtually no other game series has ever shown as a part of their protagonist's development.