Archive for the ‘ Epic Games ’ Category

In Defense of the First Person Shooter, Pt 3: Deep and Wide

This is the most badass iteration of the Power Rangers ever conceived.

Last time, I tried to side with popular opinion–to say that FPSes didn’t go the route of System Shock 2 and instead descended into the depths of mediocrity… but you know what? I honestly don’t think it has. Certainly, there are bad FPSes out there–Darkest of Days and Resistance 2 are proof of that–but there are great ones as well, and there continue to <i>be</i> great ones. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is a smarter game than most people give it credit for, and, indeed, a more intelligent game than most RPGs (generally considered the smartest of games by console gamers, who have never played Real Adventure Games) I’ve played. Unfortunately, to prove that, I’d have to ask for a lot more of your time than you’d be willing to give me today, particularly on a game so readily ridiculed as Modern Warfare 2. But there are others! Halo 3: ODST is an interesting, almost literary story, for instance.

To suggest that the FPS has more bad stories per capita than any other genre is patently false–look at the RPGs released this generation, if you don’t believe me. Whether it’s a space RPG that simplifies and distills ideas from the Revelation Space novels by Alistair Reynolds with a story that’s little more than “gather crew, go on a mission,” to a fantasy RPG that barely reaches beyond the idea that “there were Orcs who attacked the humans, so humans allied with the oppressed elves and stone-dwelling dwarves fought them and won! Hooray! Also, we reused the character archetypes we’ve been using for a dozen games or so, including that space RPG that just got mentioned,” the WRPG isn’t quite the proverbial City on a Hill that gamers and developers seem to want it to be. If you want, I could regale you with the plots of games like Arcania and Divinity 2, two not-bad games that happen to be up among the best big action RPGs released since 2007–they’re quite disappointing. Shooters can, and often are, quite smart games…

So, like I asked in the original post… why is it that FPSes are treated as dumb things?

It's hard to believe it, but once upon a time, Monolith didn't make small, odd multiplayer-only games or mediocre horror shooters. No One Lives Forever 2 is arguably the funniest game ever made.

I had intended to show you how far we had fallen since System Shock 2, but I never really believed that to be the case, especially with titles like Bioshock 2 and Call of Duty 4 being released. There’s some quality writing in shooters that really does top what many other genres are doing. It sounds as if the new XCOM game will be holding a magnifying glass to the radical social changes of the early 1960s. From a purely narrative perspectives, FPSes can be quite bright when they need to be. They’re a bit like The Witcher 2’s Letho–they appear to be hulking, dumb brutes until you get to know them. Their intelligence is often understated, and they don’t cheat the way other games do, faking intelligence through character interaction and nonlinear gameplay.

But before we get into that, let’s recap: FPSes are easy to learn and difficult to master. Most people ignore those last four words, preferring to focus on the “well, it’s easy to get into” aspect. Elitists–and people who pretend that FPSes are dumb are elitists–are the sort of people who seem to think that if something appeals to a broad set of people, then that thing is inherently dumber than the niche thing they like that doesn’t appeal to many. Instead of considering that Watchmen is actually a bad comic with an idiotic moral, for instance, most comic nerds would prefer to say “you just can’t understand it!” Likewise, RPG and Adventure gamers assumed that shooters, with their low barrier entries, were somehow less intelligent than their notoriously difficult to play genres.

Need proof?

Well, if you’ve never read this infamous review, you’re in for a real treat. The core idea was that Doom wasn’t an adventure game, and as such, it wasn’t as smart, since all you did was shoot monsters. There are two obvious problems here: the first is that “this isn’t a thing I like, so it’s not as smart.” The second idea is that it’s simplistic, and therefore, it’s dumb. First off, it’s simple, not simplistic, and secondly, a simple experience is not necessarily an unintelligent one. Look at the game of Chess. It’s generally considered a pursuit for intellectuals, but it’s incredibly easy to learn. I learned it when I was, like, seven, and the only reason I didn’t learn it earlier is because I didn’t really have an interest in learning, and no one had an interest in teaching me. I tought my four year old sister, who has learning issues, to play chess!

Easy to learn, difficult to master, see? The simplicity of a thing does not define the intelligence required to deal with it. Elitists, however, see it as “the more niche it is, and the more I like it, the smarter it is.” The popularity of shooters and the public lack of intelligence of many FPS players over services like PSN has convinced the people who don’t like shooters that FPSes are dumb things. These people, in turn, are trying to make sure everyone, even FPS players, that the genre isn’t as smart as it is.

Presumably it's title Last Light because you'll have an achievement that requires you to destroy all light sources, including the sun, in the game.

First Person Shooters are smart. Deus Ex is a first person shooter, and it’s smart, isn’t it? AND DON’T YOU DARE TRY TO ARGUE THAT IT’S ACTUALLY AN RPG. It isn’t. It’s a damn FPS. It’s also an RPG. In this case, it’s an RPG insofar as you have skill points, dialog choices, and a branching narrative. This actually picks up where we left off and gets into my second major point, which is that choice (and it is choice; choosing between a limited set of options is still choice. Calling it the illusion of choice is foolish–it’s the illusion of freedom) is not intelligence, but people think it is. See, the basic idea is that you place more value on something dependant on your participation in that thing. This is why people who have played with Playstations since the 1990s think Playstations are better than Xboxes, and why I think Hondas and Fords are better than Toyotas and Chevys.  Participation leads to fanboyism, in other words.

In addition to the idea that the more you’re involved in something, the better there is, there’s the idea that people want to think that everything they like is better, and that everything that’s better is smarter. Few people want to admit that they like dumb things, which is “it’s dumb, but I totally love it for that” is such a rare remark, while “no, no, it’s really good because…” is super common. Lots of fights get started because people assume that what they like and what is good are the same things, and what they dislike and what is bad is the same thing. It’s not. But let’s not get into that now, because that’s a huge ball of wax.

The basic idea is: the more you participate, the more likely you are to like a thing, and the more you like that thing, then the more likely you are to say that it is smart.

This is why non-linear games are all the rage now, and linearity is seen as a fault. Because you can, say, choose to go to hub X or Y, rather than go to them in sequence, the game is considered smarter. Obviously, that’s meaningless–after all, the smartest traditional narrative is more likely to be a totally linear one, since the writer can convey a point and make sure the audiences sees everything they need to see, and games aren’t great for that. Choice is good, but it doesn’t mean games without choice are bad. It’s just another kind of good, the way a steak and an ice cream are two different kinds of good.

This is one of the greatest games I have ever played. I seriously recommend you obtain a copy.

Finally, we have the idea of breadth versus depth. Basically, imagine that the amount of game mechanics in a game are coordinates of a graph. Now imagine that each mechanic’s complexity is illustrated by the height on the graph. You have a breadth of mechanics, and each of those mechanics can be deep or shallow. Generally, a game with a narrow focus will have deeper mechanics than one with a wider focus.

There are a few reasons for this. One such reason is that the game’s focus is limited by the amount of input the player has through the control interface. If you’re going to play Max Payne, for instance, you can dedicate all your controls to crafting a deep shooting experience. You can focus on a wide variety of enemy types and avenues of combat (for instance, certain enemies are more conducive to sidestepping and/or dodging than others) that a game like, say, Red Dead Redemption couldn’t do. Because Red Dead offers a broad variety of situations with roughly the same number of inputs, it can’t have the layer of mechanical sophistication that Max Payne does. There’s other stuff too–Red Dead Redemptions level design is open, which is conducive to a more samey combat experience. No matter where you are, you’re generally going to use the same tactics, and you aren’t likely to use change weapons beyond the basic weapon archetypes* unless you find a more powerful gun of those specific archetypes. The AI generally just up to you and shoots, or takes cover and fires. In Max Payne, the AI and level design come together to provide a more varied shooting experience, but… that’s all it does. Max Payne provides a deep shooting experience, and Red Dead Redemption provides a broad sandbox experience.

In short, Max Payne has deeper gameplay than Red Dead Redemption, but the latter has a broader focus.**

Essentially, people look at a simple game type that they don’t have a lot of freedom playing, they watch it overtake these things they really like that they’ve spent long hours with, and all that combined makes them go “hey! That’s not smart!”

Ultimately, that’s an idiotic complaint, but an understandable one. The shooter, ultimately, requires a different type of intelligence–movement in real-time through a three dimensional space while choosing weapons and prioritizing enemies. The name for this sort of intelligence is called spatial intelligence. When you play a game like Wizardry or Final Fantasy, you are using logical-mathematical intelligence. When you play a Kinect or Wii game, you are using bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. A game with a really, really good level of character interaction (at this point, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is the only game that really does this, though Alpha Protocol has it, Fable and Fable 3 try it in a different way; Bioware/Black Isle games do not have this because they are based on RPG numbers, not human reaction, which is why their character relationships are so hollow) uses interpersonal intelligence.

If you’ve taken psychology courses, you know I’m talking about the theory of multiple intelligence. Ultimately, my tests show a high level of interpersonal, linguistic, and spatial intelligence. I enjoy FPSes and Immersive sims. Friends with tests that are more logical-mathematical are more likely to enjoy games like Civilization V, X-COM, and so forth. It’s not to say that you can’t enjoy certain types of games–merely to reinforce what we all know: some people like some things, and other people like other things. This is why.

"STABBY STABBY!" "GRR! NO! YOU KILLED MY FATHER!" "I KILLED YOUR MOTHER TOO!" "WHAT?!" "YOU WILL PAY FOR THIS, EVIL MISTER ALIENFACE!"

So… this is why so many people hate shooters: FPSes are the most popular games out there. This is fact. Look at the sales figures of the games released this generation: nearly all of them on both the PS3 and the 360 (I don’t have PC sales figures, sorry) are shooters. People love shooters. As they’ve grown in popularity, other games, like the 3D platformer, have nearly gone extinct. Their narrow focus, linearity/lack of choice, and apparent historical focus on gameplay over story (which has been disproved by System Shock 2, Deus Ex, No One Lives Forever 2, Halo, Marathon, and so forth) have convinced those people who grew up without FPSes (mostly console gamers who had only ever played Goldeneye before the turn of the millennium) that FPSes just aren’t that smart.

They’re wrong. I think I’ve proved that here.

These same people also like to claim that more FPSes are made than any other game type out there, and point at, say, the death of the 3D platformer, as evidence. The numbers certainly seem to back them up, and even game sites like Kotaku and Rock Paper Shotgun treat shooters like they’re overabundant.

That’s wrong too, as hard as it might be to believe, but stick around. I’ll prove it to you.

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*General weapon archetypes: melee, pistol, rifle, shotgun, sniper, throwable explosive, heavy weapon.

**I was going to draw a graph, but I don’t know how to do that using the tools available at my disposal.

Epic Games vs The World at Large

Hey; I just got a job (at school) and have been settling into it (plus it’s triage time at the schoool), while Thursday last week saw me spending 8-10 hours out of town due to a doctor’s visit. Busy busy busy… but also, money money money. Now I’m all ready to start school next week, and I’m settled into my job, so regular posting has been interrupted, but should resume in a few weeks. I’ll be posting when I can, but it definitely won’t be a set Monday/Wednesday schedule like I’d hoped. Yesterday, I began writing this post, but I got stuck when I decided to check out some elements of Bulletstorm/Gears 1 and found that I’d gotten lost in them, just because they’re so fun. To be completely honest, I’d rather be playing Bulletstorm right now than writing this, but I need to stick to my guns and do this thing. Also, this post is going to have quite a few links in it. I highly recommend checking them out.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was this post on Kotaku, specifically, the statement that “The Destructoid folks, playing an early part of the campaign as the loudmouth hero Cole, were impressed by that thing that Gears of War games aren’t known for: Gears of War 3’s quality writing,” as if the franchise hasn’t got quality writing. Earlier today, another article on Kotaku had a commenter defending the absurd protagonist of Lollipop Chainsaw by pointing out Kratos and Marcus Fenix. This certainly isn’t a problem endemic to Kotaku–after all, I have a friend who, despite never having played Bulletstorm nor having allowed me to talk to him about it, insists that it’s the worst game of all time, purely because of the ads and the unsatisfying demo.

It’s not hard to see why people might feel this way, of course. Just look at any picture of the Gears.

If this were a 90s Marvel comic, his name would be like BLUDGORE or RAGESTRIKE, but it isn't, and that's the point.

That picture doesn’t scream “serious war drama,” does it? No, not really. Likewise, this Bulletstorm vid does not exactly scream “this game is an exciting, hyper-intelligent romp through a pulp universe.” In fact, Bulletstorm’s advertising was so over-the-top that it drew the ire of Fox News, who usually reserve their attention for crass, vulgar, and artless games like Manhunt 2, Postal 2, and Mass Effect.* The thing is, Epic tells smart stories. They make smart games. In fact, they’re some of the best developers out there right now, cranking out shooters on par with Bungie and what-was-once-Infinity Ward, or, in other words, the best shooters in the industry. Go watch Cliff Bleszinski talk about being a power creative, or, failing that, just pay attention to Epic’s games. If you actually bother to pay attention, you’ll understand just how smart their games really are.

I could devote a large portion of this post to the intelligence of Epic’s game design, to talking about the cleverness of the levels, the inventiveness of their weapons (pausing to lament the lack of the Ripper in this millennium’s Unreal Tournament games, of course), the perfect feel of the gameplay, their great AI, and the great variety of their enemies. I could even discuss the beauty of their art (Bulletstorm is one of the finest-looking games I have ever played, and Gears of Wars’ art aesthetic is absoltuely flawless, even if it could use a bit more color), the fantastic soundtracks, or the really good sound design. Instead, I’m going to sum it up in one simple sentence: Epic’s games, particularly this generation’s, have been very good in all respects, because Epic does a superb job in every department of game creation.

I don’t really need to discuss their technical proficiency, so instead, I’m going to focus on their writing, because that’s that one exception to the rule.

I don’t mean it’s bad, of course, because it most certainly isn’t, but more often than not, it doesn’t quite fit. Before I get to that, though, I want to back up the claim that it’s really good–then I’ll come around to explaining what I mean about it not fitting.

I've got nothing clever to say here.

Aside from the chainsaw gun, what do you see? What does the tone of the game’s cover convey? Does it advertise “HRRGRR STRIP THE FLESH! SALT THE WOUND!”? No. No it does not. Borderlands does, but it wears its humor on its sleeve. There’s no way you could miss that it’s trying to be funny, with its psycho midgets and intergalactic ninja assassin Claptrap. Instead, what we have is a solemn poster with a big guy. He’s holding COG tags. Do you know what happends to put that many tags in someone’s hand? Usually death. In a game where people are trying to be all “MURDERDEATHKILLPUNCHFACE!” generally, their covers are a bit more dynamic than Gears of War 2. Usually, in the place of muted colors, wafting smoke, and solemn looks, these games have cocky heroes with explosions and bright colors.

Gears of War isn’t trying to be absurd HURRRRR GRAAAAGH ROOOOOAAAAAARRRRRGHHHH even if it does have a chainsaw on a machine gun and characters with muscles. Try watching the Mad World trailer. After that, go for Rendezvous and War Pigs. Finally, watch Ashes to Ashes. The game’s always been advertised as serious war drama, and its told its story as such. It saddened me to see many comments after the War Pigs trailer that asked “why are they using War Pigs, an anti-war song, to advertise Gears of War?” Most people just laughed at how stupid the advertising was. It was like they were completely missing the point of the game. The fact that it’s an anti-war game is why it’s so great, and, of course, having really fun (not as fun as Unreal Tournament or Bulletstorm due to its slower pace, of course) combat works against that. The storytelling of the series, though, has always been serious, emotional war drama.

First off, the fact that Marcus and Dom are brothers in arms seems to be horribly misinterpreted these days. Whether it’s because of the fact that college frat boys enjoy playing Gears (thus associating the “bro” mentality with the game in the mind of nerdy, hardcore gamers) or because of the fact that culture effectively refuses to see close friendships between men as anything other than sexual/closet sexual, people completely fail to interpret the male relationships in the games. I’m very close with my brothers, and I have friends that I think of as brothers. We’re extremely loyal to each other in that sort of way that can only be described as brotherhood. It’s that sort of family bond. Dom and Marcus, being members of Delta Squad, really do seem like brothers, as do Baird and Cole. Through the games, the characters run the gamut of emotions, and it’s not wonky, cardboard character transformations like you get in most video games. Maria’s death is one of the most moving moments in video game history, and definitely the most emotionally engaging death, especially if you’ve been hoping that Dom would find Maria this whole time. There are no Mary Sues to fuel cheap emotional stabs–after a game and a half of searching for someone, she’s ripped away from you, and worst of all, you knew it was coming, especially after what happened to Tai. You hoped it wouldn’t happen to her, but it did anyway. Gears 2 stood head and shoulders above Gears, and those death scenes were a big part of that reason.

Doesn't really look like Duke Nukem, does he?

Gears 3’s Ashes to Ashes trailer, shown above, is reminiscent of the aftermath of bombings in World War II. Some time ago, I read a book (I want to say it was Flyboys, but that doesn’t seem right) detailing the American bombings of WWII. It talked about how American bombers dropped napalm on Japanese cities, burning them so hotly that people turned to ash where they stood. One woman survived by leaping of a bridge into a river, only coming up for air when she needed to. She had suffered third degree burns on her hands from the rails on the bridge. The next day, she walked through the streets of the city until she came to a temple. A man stood there, but when she reached out to touch his shoulder, he disintegrated right before her eyes.

There are plenty of other bits throughout the game. The entire art design of the cities harkens back to images of Dresden after it was bombed in 1945. The Locust are armed with weapons disposed of by humans after the Pendulum Wars, a 79-year-long period of infighting between the humans of Sera, itself an offshoot of the Age of Armageddon, a millennium-long period of war in human culture. Hints and clues (there was another link but I can’t find it; I could write a whole post on my pet theories for Gears) have been offered that indicate that the Locust may be a result of human bioengineering (I presume the Locust Queen to be some perversion of Marcus’s mother; perhaps Adam tried to bring her back after she died). Throughout the story, the continuing emphasis is that war destroys us. Marcus often expresses regret and frustration in regards to war, like when he meets Anthony Carmine for the first time.

Overall through the imagery, story, and history of Gears, we learn the story’s message: war is hell. While Apocalypse Now communicates this message through psychosis and Full Metal Jacket through emotional detachment, Gears simply gives us war head on and asks “is this what you want?” We are faced with the relentless brutality of Gears, and not once does it take an opportunity to glorify war in any way. Time and time again, the series says “no. This is awful. How could you enjoy this?” To be portrayed as worse than humanity, the Locust have to become complete monsters, with floating torture barges and towering butchers hiding in their gothic caves decorated with skull motifs.

This is Dresden, by the way. This is a crime that was actually committed by humanity against humanity.

There are numerous reasons that people don’t look at Gears as a smart, thoughtful game. For one thing, there’s the stigma that shooters have had since the days of Doom, something I’ve been covering. Then there’s the fact that Gears of War, a shooter, actually took itself seriously, and people seem not to like that. There’s this idea that first person shooters can’t take themselves seriously (see all the hate Microsoft received for Halo 3, which Epic themselves parodied; Gears’ Mad World trailer was parodied by Bad Company.). It’s like everyone is saying that FPSes are big and dumb and cannot “rise above their station.” There are, of course, pictures like the one of Carmine above that exaggerate this image of braindeadedness. In addition, gamers have something of a nerdy resistance to the perceived jock-like nature of Gears’ protagonists–the ignorant idea that a meaty body means a meat-head. And, of course, there’s the games themselves.

In replaying Gears of War, which I haven’t played since the PC port back in 2008, I was struck by the “bro-like” comments made by Gears’ protagonists, such as “nice” after the occasional kill. Finally, there’s the split-nature of Epic’s games. At heart, they’re always absolute blasts more than anything else. If you are not having fun playing an Epic game, then you don’t know how to play an Epic game, because they are nothing but pure, unadulterated fun. Generally, the game’s writing doesn’t always work with that. The gameplay of Gears of War, with its chainsaw, excessively-stylized gore, gorgeous Grub architectural style reminiscent of the Sagrada Familia, and growly, uniquely-designed protagonists all put forward the idea of a game that is somewhat separate from its writing. Gears of War’s visual, auditory, and haptic experience puts you in mind of Epic Meal Time, not Black Hawk Down. It’s a clash.

More often than not, Epic’s writing is often a bit like someone trying to film Casablanca by way of the Wizard of Oz. They’re both great, but the experience doesn’t always mesh with the writing. Unreal Tournament 3 is Epic’s best example of this trend, delivering an offline arena bot experience coupled with a seemingly-unrelated storyline. Even when the story meshes perfectly with everything else, like with Bulletstorm, the advertising kicks in and screams “HAY IM BIG AND DUMB AND STOOPID!” and it puts people off. I don’t know who was responsible for Bulletstorm’s advertising, but I find myself suspecting Electronic Arts. You might notice that the Gears of War trailers, in contrast to Bulletstorm’s, don’t the game’s highlight puerile stupidity–instead, they accentuate its quiet reverence. Ultimately, it feels as though Epic is often guilty of divorcing story from gameplay (but with each game, they seem to realize the mistake and improve!), and too many gamers are busy paying attention to the experience to pay attention to the story itself.

Wait, this has a story? I thought I this was just an excuse to use a dinosaur with laser eyes!

Of course, gamers have never been terribly thoughtful about stories. If they were, we wouldn’t see Dragon Age, Final Fantasy, Mass Effect, or the vast majority of RPGs receiving the praise for their stories that they do. People wouldn’t look back on adventure games and praise them for their clever narratives, and Half-Life 2 wouldn’t have the most praised shooter story of all time. If gamers were actually smart, they’d realize that Modern Warfare 2’s story makes more sense (so long as you pay attention to it, because, like Inception, it has a lot of narration shifts and tiny details you need to pay attention to) than one of the most praised JRPGs of all time, Final Fantasy VIII. Not only that, but Modern Warfare 2 actually has some worthwhile sociopolitical commentary to offer, letting the player be a victim of an unwarranted invasion (putting the player character in the terrorist’s shoes was only the first step, intended to show that people can have good reasons for doing horrible things). Of course, because it’s a shooter that requires attention to detail, and people seem to think shooters aren’t smart, well, most just didn’t bother to pay attention, and called it stupid.

Maybe I shouldn’t expect much of video gamers.

I think Clay Carmine is going to die. I don’t want him to, but I think in their morbid stupidity, most gamers see Gears as its gore, rather than its story. It’s all HAAHAHAHAHAHAHA DIE DIE DIE to them. They’re going to kill Carmine because to them, the story doesn’t matter. They’re Romans at the Colosseum: they want blood; little else will sate them. Carmine’s death will hold no consequence. As a figment of their imaginations, an irrelevant element of an irrelevant plot, they completely miss the point, and the beauty, of the game.

The game says war is hell because life is good, and gamers? Gamers are going to consign Carmine to death, just ’cause they’re cruel, miserable people.

I hope I’m wrong; I really do. …but I don’t think I am.

———-

Speaking of Gameplay vs Story… well, I’ll be writing about that very soon.

*Mass Effect is artless, not crass or vulgar. I’ll cover that later.