Call of Spacey: Advanced Oversimplification

Finally got around to playing last year’s Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. The game itself was more of the same (now with contextual double jumping!), another jingoistic rail-shooter with hilaribad writing and three billion dollars of production value up on the screen, but I came for digitized Frank Underwood and was more or less delivered digital Frank Underwood. In this case we have a motion captured Kevin Spacey as a transparently megalomaniacal CEO of a futuristic private military company, Atlas. (Sidenote: this game is basically Metal Gear Solid 4-2.) Spacey, aka Jonathan Irons, manipulates the outcomes of a series of terrorist attacks to grow the company to a level of might greater than that of any of the governmental superpowers.

At some point Kevin Underwood Irons announces on live TV that he is going to destroy the US because of how they have historically abused their miltary might to send millions off to their death to kill millions in other countries, and our intrepid band of US Marines go “hoo-rah” and run out to kick his ass. In power armor. Because Advanced. Warfare. But let’s look at Evil CEO Jonathan Iron’s justification for declaring war on the US.

The World is asking one question: Why did I attack the United States? The United States has had the world in a constant state of war for over a hundred years. Time and again we have seen the catastrophic results of this belligerent, militaristic policy. These wars haven’t led to resolution, or peace. These wars have only led to more wars. The United States has set the agenda because they wielded the biggest stick. Well no more. This is not the beginning of a war, this is the end of all wars.

We then cut to our hero flying an Advanced Plane of some sort (multi-talented fellow, that Troy Baker) as he narrates, “After San Francisco, the entire free world turned against Atlas.” What about the not-free world (define that however you like)? Or perhaps anyone with a bone to pick with the US? We just cut to our hero blowing shit up in New Baghdad (natch, Irons is Saddam 2.o, complete with his American-funded weapons) without any need to sort out the geopolitical ramifications of any of this. More importantly, however—how exactly is Jonathan Irons wrong?

I may be reading this too literally, but as far as I can gather from Advanced Warfare‘s Wikipedia entry, the events of Irons’ betrayal occur circa the year 2060. “[A] constant state of war for over a hundred years”, indeed. If we take 1960 as the starting point for Irons’ accusation, we have some 55 years of justification already, and it’s not hard to imagine another 45 following the same course. From this future-historical perspective we neatly skirt the Just War philosophizing of World Wars I and II and go straight to the heart of the matter: Vietnam, the Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq…

OK, perhaps consolidating economic and military might under corporate power with one absolute leader isn’t such a great way to clean up the world’s (undeniable) problems. Regardless, the game demonizes Atlas and Iron’s intentions by revealing them to have undertaken cliché human research projects in cliché underground labs and ultimately condemns them by their use of biological warfare against military and civilian targets, but it’s all a transparently facile way out to paint Irons as a sociopathic mass murderer. It’s a cop-out. Just like it’s a cop-out when in the final moments Kevin Spacey has a gun to the main character’s head but says he won’t shoot because he’s “not a monster”. A convenient hand-wave to confirm to our audience that, yes, he is a monster, because only a monster that makes utilizes bio-WMDs would deny being a monster, while allowing our hero to survive long enough to kill the hell out of the bad man.

But what are we to do when faced not with caricatured evil, but nuanced evil? Nuanced evil very nearly exists in Advanced Warfare, both in the form of profits and power-obsessed Irons before his descent into stereotypical madness, but also in the evil wrought at the hands of the rightfully accused United States of which we see only the innocent dead and the righteous warriors who act unilaterally to destroy the out-of-control superpower Atlas, not because it is unethical to concentrate that much power in one mans hands (why did no one protest this sooner?) but because he dared to do unto the US as the US has done unto others: call them a naughty name and start blowing shit up.

Sadly most games and other entertainment media seem ill-equipped to handle any kind of incisive look at the nature of war, money and politics. For every Holly Hindsight look back at “the horror, the horror” of the Vietnam War we have a dozen “hoo-rah” celebrations of Western might in film and television. For every Spec Ops: The Line (which really should have been the end of the military shooter genre, if anyone had paid attention to that game at all) there are a dozen Call of Duty: Black Opses (perhaps someday, literally). If writers and designers were to start attempting the job, however, I think a good place to start would be to cast our heroes as villians and our villians as heroes. Let Atlas enact “justice” upon the vulnerable United States and then deal with the consequences of those actions. What a great opportunity for sequels—Advanced Warfare 2 could then deal with the freedom fighters/terrorists rebelling against the corporate power that has completely superseded representative government in the West, in a world where the rich are just as affluent as ever and not interested at all in the removal of their new corporate overlords.

Missed. Opportunity.

For some reason it seems we have ceded the necessity to think even remotely deeply to “indie” feely-experimental games. But I think one of the many lessons that Spec Ops taught us (not to shoot a dead horse) is that effective critiques of violent media happen best inside of violent media. The key to thinking more deeply about how we approach our own nationalistic warmongering horseshit in games is not to make flash games about puppies with feelings that we can link on our Facebooks (although if that gets you off go nuts), it’s to think more deeply about the very games in which we warmonger and find ways to subvert them, both through critique and alternative readings of those texts but also, hopefully, through games being developed that intentionally re-read and subvert those texts themselves within the context of violence and war.

Also, I love a light-gun QTE shooter as much as the next guy (actually probably more so), but I seriously hope that Black Ops 3‘s campaign does a little something more to innovate the CoD formula than “now I have power armor ho-ho-ho” because were it not for the desire to see Kevin Spacey’s mouth continue to speak words while large areas of his face remained distressingly immobile I never would have made it to the end of this nonsense. Exo Zombies sure sounded neat (John Malkovitch! Bill Paxton! Bruce Motherfucking Campbell!), but not $50 extra worth of neat. I realize all this motion capture is expensive as hell (maybe it’s time to go back to FMV cutscenes?), but if the three Activision studios slaving away on these games can’t start to ask interesting questions of themselves, then they’re at least going to have to innovate on the core design assumptions of the franchise if thoughtlessly killing endless waves of the faceless other in the name of American Superiority is supposed to remain interesting.

Deal with the Devil: The Genius and Failure of Doom 3

Like every other id Software release, Doom 3 is a master class in game design, a technological powerhouse, and an absolute blast to play. And like many other id Software release, Doom 3 is an absolute mess. Monster closets, jumping puzzles, futuristic weaponry that has no concept of a tactical light — if these aren’t enough to discourage you from finishing the game, the sheer exhausting relentlessness of the action and overwhelming horror may well be. There is no downtime in Doom. You’re either being jumped by monsters that teleport in behind you, or frantically scavenging for ammo while hoping that no monsters teleport in behind you. It’s oppressive. You can’t see anything. It’s brilliant.

We can’t talk about Doom 3 without talking about Half-Life 2, so let’s get that out of the way. Both games were released in the same year, both had incredible expectations riding on them as the successors to legendary shooters, and both featured new graphics technologies that would serve as the base for a slew of other important games. Half-Life 2 was just better in virtually every regard. It looked better, it played better, it had environments that consisted of more than dark industrial corridors, it had a proper story, it had proper characters. I could go on. The game is nearly 10 years old, but has yet to be surpassed in narrative shooter design. Half-Life 2 is one of gaming’s crown jewels, surpassed in its form arguably only by Portal – which owes its technology and several of its key ideas to Half-Life. So maybe it’s unfair to talk about it in relation to Doom 3.

Where Half-Life was visionary, Doom was conservative. Doom 3 wanted nothing more than to be Doom 2 by way of System Shock — a pure twitch shooter with a strong element of horror. To this end it succeeded greatly. Would Doom have been better if it had traded its claustrophobic darknesses for an expansive sci-fi world? Probably not, as Raven’s Quake 4 did just that — using the same id Tech 4 engine powering Doom 3, no less — and it was pretty terrible. Granted, part of that was due to the inherent weakness of id Tech 4 in making anything look good except overwhelming blackness, but that’s what it was designed to do, and it did it so very well. The internet loves to make fun of the lack of a proper flashlight in Doom 3, but that lack is integral to the level design. If you have a flashlight out for anything in Doom aside from peeking behind a staircase to see if there’s ammo hidden back there, you’re doing it wrong. In Doom 3, player and enemy attacks light up the screen. Fireballs thrown by demons cast dynamic shadows across the walls of the military complex; plasma rounds illumine entire rooms with their blue glow. Ten years later, it’s still a glory to behold – just try not to look too closely at the textures.

Even the monster closets are crucial elements of Doom’s level design – don’t get me wrong, I never want to play another game with this degree of over-engineered insanity ever again, as I much prefer a more organic and believable solution to the fourth wall breaking issue of enemy spawns. But they’re just so perfectly engineered in Doom 3. Most modern shooters are obsessed with their lackluster story and their tired setpieces, to the point where there just isn’t a particularly compelling design argument for their existence. Doom‘s design is built around two fundamental principles — immerse the player, and unease the player. The scope of the game could be more focused, but the tension never releases. Like Far Cry 2, it is a game where there is no winning – only varying degrees of justification of survival. Even the defeat of the end boss feels lackluster, partially due to uninspired setpiece construction, but largely due to the absolute lack of heroism in the Sisyphean emptiness of Doom‘s never-ending battles.

Of course, none of this diminishes the serious problems inherent to Doom 3. You’ll never see me defend the jumping puzzles, or the Lost Souls, or the absolutely godawful gun feel that got genetically passed on to other id Tech 4 games, of which there were mercifully few. Let’s face it — id Tech 4 just wasn’t the all-encompassing successor to the Quake 3 engine that it should have been. And if I’m being honest, Doom 3 was not at all the successor to Doom 1 and that I would have wanted. Perhaps Carmack and company envisioned the original Doom to be as depressing and disturbing as Doom 3, complete with unsettling hell levels with demonic babies and human corpses everywhere, but were severely limited by the technology of the time. When I look at the original Doom, however, all I see is a batshit little game that doesn’t take itself seriously and uses the forces of hell as a source of fun rather than a source of horror. I rather hope that this is the kind of game we get when Doom 4 is finally unveiled, but if not, we can at least hope that there’s a little of that genius still left at id. If we’re really lucky, maybe we’ll get another Half-Life to go with it, and ten years from now I can be foolishly defending Doom 4‘s honor in the face of its chronically poor timing. Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’m going to go play something a little more life-affirming.

Single White MMO

If the present state of first-person shooter development is in a rut, then massively-multiplayer role playing design is in a dark, echoey, spreadsheet-filled crevasse. I make it a habit to enroll in every open beta for every MMO that I can get my hands on, just to remind myself how beautiful the world is when I’m not hooked up to an IV drip feeding me 90% purity World of Warcraft. I even straight up bought a copy of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn because a) it’s Final Fantasy and b) I’m an extremely lonely mammal. For a while I thought about doing a blog series about trying to find friendship inside an MMO, but like my aspiration of starting a book store in The Elder Scrolls Online, the whole plan fell apart when the sinking realization set in that I would have to actually play the godforsaken game.

The knowledge curve on any given modern MMO is just terrifying. I may have been playing endgame-level content in World of Warcraft at one point, but I just loaded it back up a few weeks ago and could barely remember how to get around in the game world, let alone how to effectively grind my Mage back into endgame-functional status. I wanted to love Guild Wars 2, but after a few dozen hours I still don’t understand what the point of the single-player experience is, and every time I load into PVP I start panicking and dying and trying to wrap my head around how my mid-level gear is functioning with temporarily boosted top-level character stats. Then my brain melts and I eat a box of Cheez-Its while watching Seinfeld. I suppose it’s not dissimilar from DotA – if DotA added 632 systems on top of its existing mechanics and made you play single-player grind fests between matches.

If none of that makes sense to you, be glad you are of the uninitiated. If all of that makes sense to you, and you think I totally missed the point of MMOs, and I have no idea what I’m doing, and I’m a noob, well, you’re probably right. But that’s just it – I don’t want to have to know what I’m doing. The insane amount of knowledge and time required to hit the point in a traditional MMO where you are playing the actual game and not just farming means that you have to be invested enough in reaching that point that you are willing to endure a generally solitary experience until you arrive. MMOs are extremely unfriendly places. Even social-only MMOs like Playstation Home are about as effective for socializing as a pub match of League of Legends, and there’s even less to do. And even if you reach the endgame in an MMO, there’s nothing to guarantee you’re going to fall in with a competent enough guild that you can actually run the endgame – you might just end up, as I did, with a handful of weirdos that have a habit of disappearing and selling off their accounts to gamers on other continents as soon as they get a chance.

It’s all quite horrifying, and if ESO, WildStar, and WoW Expansion 5: This Time With Fewer Pandas are any indication, it’s not likely to change anytime soon. I was intrigued by the Jane Austen MMO Ever, Jane for about a minute, before I realized that to be endgame-functional for that I would like have to read all of Austen’s works at least five times each, when all I really want to do is run around shouting “Oh, Mr. Darcy!” and swooning a bunch. Maybe I’ll do that anyway. I hear great things about The Lord of the Rings Online, a game that has its own music festivals, but I’ve already been to a Renaissance Faire in real life.

Social bonds in the real world are generally formed when humans are thrown together in a situation and forced to work together toward a common goal, defined however you will. Critically, this must involve communication, and not just communication but communication about more than just the goal. People can meet people all day long, and they can click on little monsters until they blow up with other people all night long, but those interactions in and of themselves are not particularly meaningful. This is why Guild Wars 2 made the MMO a largely single-player experience by removing virtually all need to group up. There must be a need – if I can’t find some girls to join me when I roll up on Mr. Darcy in his PS Home crib, then there’s not much of a point in interacting with the digital gentleman or forming the social bonds. There must be the need for meaningful social interaction and the capacity for meaningless gossip. And it will never happen if developers can’t figure out how to make an MMO that those of us who don’t want to have a desk full of spreadsheets and commentaries on The Silmarillion are actually interested in playing. Perhaps I’m in the minority, given the success of Magic: the Gathering, Football Manager, and Pokemon, but there’s got to be gamers out there that are interested in socializing about something other than theory-crafting or killstreaks, right?



I wonder if Seinfeld is on.

On Fail States

I’ve recently spent an unreasonable amount of time playing “puzzle” games (for lack of a better genre signifier), punctuated only by bouts of Dark Souls 2. I think I finally “get” Dark Souls. It’s a genuinely singular experience, and I feel like a much more complete person now that I’ve uninstalled it. Some part of me wonders what would happen to my general happiness if I uninstalled every game I own revolving around killing or dying – except Titanfall and Unreal Tournament, of course, because I’m not insane.

A friend was watching me play Thomas Was Alone and the first thing he asked was, “How do you die?” Not, “Who are these cute little anthropomorphic rectangles?” or, “What is the objective here?” or, “Who composed this score because, my god, it is the most beautiful thing I have ever heard!” It was, “How do you die?” The friend in question is not a gamer, but, like most people, plays games, and I found his question to be more insightful than he had perhaps intended it. From the viewpoint of that moment in time, games were not something that brought joy to our lives, they were not something that caused people to grow closer together, they were not art pieces that showed us something unique about life, they were experiences in which you fail and die. They were Dark Souls.

As a medium, games have an incredible power to induce reflective, emotional, and thoughtful experiences, a power that is often underutilized. I’m sure that Dark Souls has imparted its share of emotional moments to gamers, although when I read about them they are invariably about the hard-fought victory that is surmounting the game’s fail states. Dark Souls is intentionally inscrutable, and even as a lifelong gamer I find its depths bewildering and uninviting. On the other hand I have regularly expressed my displeasure with dreamy non-games (again, for lack of a better genre signifier), which in addition to lacking fail states, lack any sort of true interactive state as well. To a degree, this vast gulf in game design can be attributed to the simple cause of the designer knowing their target audience, but I think it is actually indicative of something much more serious and in need of remediation – the identification of gameplay with the fail state.

In what I will loosely, and certainly regrettably, dub a “pure” game (Soccer, Chess, Civilization 5), matched opponents compete over fixed resources (points, pieces, hexes), meaning that there is a win state and a fail state – the one necessitates the other. But in the vast majority of narrative games, there is not such a clear oppositional structure. The player does not “compete” against an AI, the player is striving against a fixed series of gameplay gates in an effort to reach “the end”, however questionably defined or executed. Generally, this has no clear reward, aside from bragging rights. Crucially, these gates can take any form – they do not have to be failure points.

In Thomas Was Alone, it turns out there are sections in which a character can “die”, but the character is immediately and without comment respawned, typically not far from where they “died”. Thomas Was Alone is not a particularly hard game, and its not a particularly long game – but yet it manages to present a beautiful, thoughtful narrative paired with gameplay that remarkably fits that narrative. When the experience of play and the experience of story are aligned, there doesn’t need to be failure to motivate the player. When the narrative is dull, the play uninteresting, and the two out of sync, then gated failure is all you have.

I love competitive games, and I love winning, but in a narrative game I am not interested in reaching an arbitrary win state by surmounting pre-ordained combat points, opposed only by battles that exist as a fixed constant. “Success or death” is a paradigm born out of a lack of options; it is not a paradigm we should promote for its own sake. It is all inextricably tied to the concept of games as killing simulators – we have transferred the anxiety of death in real life as ultimate fail state to the world of games, and assume that in order to produce meaning we have to approach death as failure in games, over and over. If this is truly the case, then Dark Souls is among the most meaningful games – among the most meaningful experiences – ever created. However, I do not think a fixation on death produces meaning, and a fixation on failure does not produce hope.

If my writing has been focusing on the darker side of gaming recently, it is only because I see so much of it in game design. So much of gaming is inherently shallow – empty experiences that may be enjoyable but do not aspire to show us anything special or unique about ourselves and the world. And that’s ok – games can be fun for its own sake. But when we’re looking at heavily developed narrative games – games that demand our time, attention, and intellect – I think we should expect more than a fun combat loop punctuated by failure gates, frustration, and eventual victory. I’ve grown weary of investing a dozen hours into a game like Last of Us, gritting my teeth with frustration at the seemingly never-ending series of battles devoid of narrative weight or emotional investment, all for the the thirty second payoff at the end. Both single-player and competitive games need to stop asking how to sell five million copies of another dark sci-fi/post-apocalyptic man shooter, and start asking how to make more games that teach us about friendship and sacrifice. Fail states do not teach us anything except how to surmount them.

Metal Gear?

While it seems prudent to withhold judgement on MGSV until it has come to completion in the form of The Phantom Pain, Ground Zeroes presents us with some interesting questions, foremost in my mind being: “What?” This is decidedly different from the “Huh?” I was left with at the end of Sons of Liberty, or the “Pardon?” that kept echoing through my skull throughout the final hour and a half cutscene of Guns of the Patriots. It has always been the prerogative of Metal Gear to confuse and annoy gamers, but up until now it is not a series I have known to under-deliver or show contempt for its own characters.

I don’t want to get into a protracted discussion about the relative dollar value of a 60 minute experiences, but let’s say for the time being that we accept Ground Zeroes’ content value as an entertainment product. I have seen multiple publications compare Ground Zeroes to the tanker level in MGS2, but I think that it bears reviewing what the tanker level of MGS2 brought to the table. The tanker in MGS2 was Metal Gear in a bottle: explicit anti-war screeds placed in the mouth of heroic figures, cool near-future tech, David Hayter, charmingly incompetent guards, recurring villains that refuse to die/stay dead, general insanity, a boss fight, and Harry Gregson-Williams. Ground Zeroes has the last one. And while the long cutscenes and the villain named Skull Face whom Snake doesn’t even interact with do have that MGS vibe, the whole affair shares seemingly more DNA with the later seasons of 24 than it does with Kojima’s previous work – and not just because Kiefer Sutherland is now inexplicably the voice of Snake.

Why the focus on torture? What are we supposed to take from a 60 minute experience which boils down to: sneak into base (which is not nearly as large or as dynamic as you would first think), extract teenage boy who has had bolts drilled through his ankles, sneak to girl (whom you might know if you bothered to play Peace Walker, although it is a non-numbered MGS game last time I checked) who has had not one but two bombs implanted inside her, and extract her just to have her blow up as everything else blows up somewhere else where some guys are shooting at some other guys. It’s all very nonsensical, which is classic Metal Gear, but at the same time taking itself very seriously, which is the opposite of classic Metal Gear. But, for a moment, let’s go back to this girl who has had not one but two bombs implanted INSIDE her – this stroke of heinous genius has been commented on enough, but still bears attention. Our mother of bombs is for all intents and purposes unconscious throughout the game. Then, when she finally gets a chance to speak (up until this point the only other time we’ve heard her voice is on a cassette tape of her torture), she speaks only to inform us that there is a bomb inside her that has not been removed, and promptly blows up. This is the entirety of her character arc. As an actor in this universe, Paz exists to be tortured on tape, to inform the men on the chopper that she is going to blow up, and then to jump out of the chopper and blow up.

Let’s forgo the feminist rage for now and simply consider this as a Metal Gear game, divorced of social issues. Metal Gear is better than this. There is no heroism here, no grand soliloquy from a dying character on the nature of war and a reflective yet ultimately life-affirming moral. There is just a character arc made of nothing and torture porn. It’s sloppy and immature. Perhaps the same could be said of previous Metal Gears, and to be fair, they were kind of a mess. But they were the kind of mess that threw you a wink and existed within the chaos; they exulted in their own insanity. A woman who is not given a voice but is given the dubious honor of being Metal Gear Solid’s first death by vagina-bomb is not insanity, it is grotesque. And perhaps The Phantom Pain will redeem all of this, deliver a full storyline that reminds us why we love Metal Gear and give a voice and purpose to Paz, and she will not have died horrifically in vain. Or maybe the entire point is the horror – maybe Kojima Productions felt that they needed a stronger point to the “War is Hell” message and needed to drag the series down into pure despair and hopelessness. But that is not what Metal Gear was ever about. I hope that someone at Konami remembers that.

For Want of a Narrative: Far Cry 2

Warning: Major spoilers for Far Cry 2, up to and including the ending, follow.

I heard Michelle call out to me through the gunfire. There was still someone out there, thinking they could get an angle on us, but somehow I knew there wasn’t time. I found her lying at the bottom of a hill, feet from a flipped over Jeep, gasping for air, begging me to help her. We’d been here before, and I knew exactly what to do. The syringe went into her arm, and I pushed down on the plunger. I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that we were going to be ok. Except this time, she didn’t get up. Lying there, she asked for another injection. I grabbed a second syringe, panicked, and slammed the needle into her arm. She started crying, almost blubbering, and begged me for another hit. I only had one more syringe; if she didn’t pull through I didn’t know what I was going to do. I put it in her vein. I administered the medicine. She went limp. It was over. Bullets hit the ground next to me. Our assailant thought he was going to win this. I stood up, put two rounds in his skull, and was driving away in the only vehicle to survive the firefight before his body stopped twitching. I was going to kill them all.

And kill them all I did. In the world of Far Cry 2 there is no winning, there is only a body count. As narrative games become more mature, more nuanced, we’re starting to see more and more attempts at a narrative that actually has something to say other than “Aliens bad, Space Marines good.” I appreciate this, although such games largely do so in the narrative space of the game, rather than through gameplay elements. Even Spec Ops: The Line (which I played before Far Cry 2, and was probably the last narrative game to really impact me in a meaningful way) delivers its critique of the military shooter and war in general through its cutscenes and loading screens, not through its gameplay. Far Cry 2, however, will not speak to you in such a way. It will not tell you who is good or bad (The Jackal’s dialogue aside), it rather invites you to murder. It puts a gun in your hand and asks “Would You Kindly” kill absolutely everyone in this poor, war torn African country. Wouldn’t you like to burn down, explode, and otherwise destroy this lush African landscape on your quest to… what exactly? Like Martin Walker in Spec Ops, the player in Far Cry 2 has presumably every opportunity to say, “Fuck this, I’m out,” and leave the country while he/she still can. But they don’t. And there is only one reason: there are still people left to kill.

It might be a stretch to say I enjoyed Far Cry 2, although I certainly was compelled to play it. I had to know just how far I would go in the name of bloodlust and nothing else. Pretty far, it turns out. But apparently not as far as the game industry. That Ubi Soft released another game in this series shows definitively to me that this game was wildly misunderstood, especially by its publisher. Playing Far Cry 3 is also quite a compelling confirmation of this fact – if Far Cry 2 asks you to murder for its own sake, 3 asks you to murder for irony.

We’ve been talking about violence in video games for nearly as long as there has been violence in video games, but the conversation has largely trended toward the moral and not the critical. The question is not, “Does the act of killing a virtual human in a fantasy world instigate real world murder?” The question is, “What does the act of killing virtual humans in fantasy worlds contribute to the experience of the game and the narrative of the game?” In the competitive space, killing fulfills a very concrete role, the competitive foundation of the game itself. It is kill or be killed by an equally matched opponent. I do not think this necessarily absolves competitive FPSes of making lazy design or ethical choices, but nevertheless we can see the function that a gun serves. But in narrative gaming, how many titles can we point to that made sense out of the gamification of mass murder?

Far Cry 2 unpacks the killing impulse, lays it all out on the table for us. It is nihilism itself to kill, it says – the game ends with the presumed suicide of its anti-heroes, the last link in the chain of murder begat by murder. And while we pass off our hobby as “escapism”, it has become increasingly clear to me and I think to others that there is a great emptiness at the core of modern narrative games, games that largely resolve themselves at the end of a gun, or a sword, or some other instrument of destruction wielded by a protagonist that is infinitely more powerful than their opponents. Modern narrative games are largely not about their narrative, they are about killing – even “family-friendly” Nintendo games feature Link cutting a swath through enemies with his sword, or Mario stomping goombas into the afterlife. And while I have no moral dilemma about these design choices whatsoever, the continued failure of these power-fantasy death mechanics to support interest in themselves or the limp narrative that passes for video game writing in this the era of game budgets that are counted in the tens of millions is rather disconcerting.

For a medium that is constantly trying to tell us how cutting-edge and meaningful it is, mainstream narrative/single-player games have very little indeed to say. In years past, I used to find refuge in adventure/puzzle games that leaned heavily on a narrative at the expense of any significant sense of gameplay or interactivity, but even if one is willing to accept a game that is barely a step above an interactive movie, the quality of writing has still not risen to match what we see in film/books/comics/etc. I therefore find a great sense of satisfaction when I find something that uses gameplay as well as narrative to show us something that we haven’t been shown before. Far Cry 2 met that challenge, and showed us that we are all backwards, nihilistic murderers. That was in 2008. It’s 2014, and I don’t think the game industry has got the memo yet. Or maybe it has, and it’s just too busy taking the cash grab from microtransactions, Sequel X, and not-even-thinly-veiled-anymore power fantasy to care. Or, perhaps there really is no present alternative to the murder simulator as game given current technology, and we just have to put up with it until some new tech or idea enters the marketplace to provide an alternative. However, given the quickly developing state of games criticism and the paradigm shift we’re seeing towards highly successful indie projects, it seems possible if not likely that these ideas and alternatives could emerge within the short term. For this we can only hope, for hope is the only sure antidote to nihilism.

Dispatches from the Front: Titanfall

If there’s a single reason why I haven’t written anything on this blog over the past few months, it’s that there just hasn’t been anything in gaming that has particularly captured my imagination. I have been playing, that’s for damn sure – I’ve successfully forced myself through many AAA blockbusters since I complained about Amnesia 2: Electric Pigaloo, and given up on equally as many. Which is not to say that I’ve found safe haven in indie titles either, although as the indie revolution drags on I find that the (sincerely wonderful) indie games I’ve enjoyed over the years are not the most replayable of games. They belong to a time and a place, like Shaun of the Dead or (to bring in a suitable blockbuster comparison) Avatar. And it’s not to say that I’ve found nothing worth the hours of my finite existence – in the past six months I got quite invested in the Witcher series, and for what I think is the first time ever actually finished a campaign in an RTS when a week solid disappeared to StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty. Then came Titanfall.

I’ve wondered for a while if competitive multiplayer isn’t where my real gaming/writing interests lie, although I’ve had several false starts in the process. I continue to play and watch DotA regularly, and do intend to write about it someday, although the sheer wealth of knowledge required to track strategy at the top levels still intimidates me. To my eternal shame, I’ve spent about twelve hours with Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, which is the most hateful of games, and I still can’t wrap my mind around why I have to point my gun at someone’s feet if I wish my bullets to go in the direction of their torso. I rekindled my on-again, off-again dalliance with fighters for a brief while, but the genre’s greatest strength, its ability to impart vast complexity to what at a top level is an incredibly simple format, continues to be its greatest weakness. In the week or so leading up to the release of Titanfall, however, anticipation for the shooter and the company of a friend brought me back to some of my favorite shooters – a format that I haven’t had much love for in recent years.

It all started with Quake Live, which is a fascinating mishmash of utter brilliance, mercenary paywalling, and dismal user interface design. The game at the core (Quake 3: Arena), however, remains genius and compulsively playable, and I would love to see more of this kind of resurrection of old competitive games. At the same time, I would love to see a new proper arena shooter, seeing as how there hasn’t really been one for quite some time. Which brings me to the other game I’ve been playing: Unreal Tournament 3. I didn’t play much UT3 when it first released, because all I could see was how it was inferior to UT2k3/4, a game I loved more than was probably reasonable. It didn’t help that no one else seemed to be playing it either, or even talking about it, probably because it had the misfortune of being released two weeks after Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.

Titanfall is very much like those games I love. Which is to say it’s nothing like those games I love, although it’s a hell of a lot closer than just about anything else that’s come out in the last six and a half years. If I had to give a name to its lineage, I would call it the test tube baby of Tribes, Shogo, and (natch) Modern Warfare, and while Unreal Tournament may have been the creepy next door neighbor, I don’t think he ever got asked over for dinner. Still, I cherish two of those games, and tolerate the third so long as its not muscling out all other design options (which is never), and in Titanfall you can parkour† onto the back of a giant mech and shoot its brains out.

I’m watching YouTube videos to learn movement skills, and reading message boards to develop better strategy. I’m genuinely sad when my friends are too busy to team up with me online. This is the experience of normal gamers on AAA Shooter 20XX every year, so why is this all so new to me? It can’t be because the game is perfect – Titanfall suffers from a conspicuous lack of original game modes and some very questionable weapon balancing, not to mention the “great idea, terrible execution” campaign. The only thing it possibly could be is that Titanfall offers a wonderful sense of fantasy.

When Modern Warfare came onto the scene in 2007, it brought with it two significant contributions: one, the single-player campaign that supplied a palpably jingoistic fever dream that stroked even my atrophied Westernist delusions; two, a course commitment to joyless military combat shooting for the majority of multiplayer shooter development. This concession to the dudebro demographic of online gaming was of course already gaining steam with the previous Call of Duties, the Battlefields, and the first Gears of War, but the Modern Warfares and Black Opses that followed is what truly set the pace. There were alternatives, to be sure, some worthwhile and most very much not so, but these alternatives lacked something that is truly necessary for a moment in gaming, a critical mass of players and coverage.

Titanfall has the hype, it has the fantasy, it has the joy of playing that a sci-fi shooter should carry with it – but most importantly it is accessible. It does not, like Tribes: Ascend, take many hours of play merely to become baseline competent with its core weapon. It does not, like Planetside 2, overwhelm newbies with an enormous map and ambiguous global objectives. The trademark Titans are available to everyone, in every match, even the terrible players. For all its faults, the campaign mode provides a structured introduction to the game concepts for new players that is far less laborious and more effective than a slapped together single-player campaign, and more polished and less hilariously pointless than the attempts at a campaign in, say, Unreal Tournament 3. Add to all of this a fantastic overall art design and an engine that should run smoothly on your mom’s computer, and you have a very inviting game.

I love it. I hate everyone that uses the upgraded shotgun in Hardpoint. And I hope that Titanfall really does start a new trend in multiplayer shooters – not of parkouring and giant mechs, but one that brings us back to fast, borderline insane, unquestionably brilliant multiplayer FPSes. Keep your 16v16 War is Hell simulators, give me five guys or gals, some jump pads and some railguns, and I’m in. Until then, I have some wallrunning map traversal to practice.

† I know I’m supposed to mention Mirror’s Edge as a source for Titanfall, but seeing as how Mirror’s Edge was less a game and more a retroactive circle jerk, I don’t think it really applies here.