Archive for the ‘ System Shock 2 ’ Category

Why Bioshock 2 is the Art Game You’ve Been Looking For

I find it strange that Bioshock gets a great deal of love. I didn’t used to, back when it first came out, because it is a clever, unique, and interesting game, with a lot of cool ideas, but then I played two very important games: System Shock 2 and Bioshock 2.

System Shock 2 revealed Bioshock for what it was–a nice-looking, but shallower representation of the Shock ideal. Bioshock was a simpler creature, lacking the vim and verve of its spiritual predecessor. When you stripped away Rapture, there wasn’t much left. Gone were the guns that broke, the inventory management, the reasons to go back to previous levels and have a look around. Gone were the big ideas, too, and the characters that drove them. The gameplay had tightened up significantly, but even though powers were easier to use, they tended to be far less interesting. The dearth of enemy types hurt the game as well.

Still, it was unique, and it did make a rather interesting point about video games: choice is created by the developer, everything is fake. You are a slave to the game. You do not have total freedom. You are a puppet, dancing at the developer’s whims.

I can forgive Bioshock for not having the best combat ever. Half-Life doesn’t have the best combat ever, but it’s still pretty fun, after all. I can forgive it for not having an inventory system, because they did a pretty good job making the game without it. I have a harder time forgiving the lack of good characters, but Rapture and Andrew Ryan alone made for an interesting world. Putting the game on a numerical core, I’d still give it a solid 9 out of 10 because the <i>experience</i> transcends its many weaknesses.

But… Bioshock 2 is by far the better game.

Wait; let’s back up a bit. Wasn’t Bioshock critically acclaimed? Didn’t a lot of people talk about how great that point was? In fact, wasn’t the largest criticism about Bioshock 2 the fact that it didn’t need to be made because Bioshock was so perfect?

Okay, yes, a lot of people did talk about how great the point was, and they did go on to say that Bioshock 2 didn’t need to be made because Bioshock was complete as it was… but… saying that a sequel to a great game doesn’t need to be made? That’s a really uncommon criticism. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone say “this great game doesn’t need a sequel!” It’s just not a thing people do. So why did Bioshock warrant this claim? Was it really so perfect? Was it the best game ever made, so perfect that it could cure disease, kiss infants, and make you smarter just by thinking about it?

I think not. Generally, a very good game is a game that most people, once they’ve played it, like. They might not have heard of it, it might not have sounded interesting at first, but if it’s truly good, then most of the people who pick it up are going to really enjoy it. Bioshock is rather interesting because the response to the game seems to be rather cool. There’s a surprising number of gamers who actually didn’t enjoy it all that much.

In fact, most common complaint I heard about the game went: “I love Rapture, but the game isn’t very fun.”

It’s interesting to note that Ken Levine, when first revealing Bioshock Infinite, said something along the lines of: “Bioshock wasn’t about Rapture, it was about exploring new worlds.” It makes sense, then, that the biggest appeal of Bioshock would be the discovery of Rapture. Likewise, it makes sense that people might not be hyped for Bioshock 2, even if they claimed to love its predecessor. In truth, the appeal of Bioshock was, by and large, the discovery world–that idea of being under the sea for the first time, the newness wonderful early-60s aesthetic, that first appearance of those freaky men in sdiving suits highlighted by neon, creepy little girls trailing behind them excitedly talking about angels. It’s no surprise, then, that Bioshock 2 didn’t garner the hype that its predecessor did; Rapture had been done, but the game behind it was mediocre at best. No one really wanted to play Bioshock, they wanted to discover something new.

In this way, it makes perfect sense that the biggest argument against Bioshock 2 was that people had already played Bioshock: the appeal of Rapture had worn off, and people had actually begun to dread the idea of playing Bioshock again.

But, you see, Bioshock did need a sequel. While the gameplay itself might have been lackluster, the point it made–this idea that choice is illusory, that freedom isn’t real, that the developer need not be burdened by the medium’s strength, interactivity–was a bad one. It’s sad to me that the developers at Irrational feel this way; indeed, the worst part of Bioshock was the part where it revealed itself to the player, removed all choice, and turned itself into an empty, linear experience. The game was genuinely interesting when it offered you choices, but when the folks at Irrational decided that they’d have enough and decided to remove choices from the game, it became far less interesting.

Any artist will tell you that the best art is that which plays off its medium’s strength. A film built entirely around reading words on a screen isn’t a film worth watching. Likewise, a sitcom that tries to use filmic storytelling isn’t going to work because film’s pacing doesn’t allow all that much to happen in half an hour. Gaming’s strength is its interactivity–as soon as you can interact, that means that the gameplay is choice-driven. A developer who chooses not to capitalize on that strength, instead going for the “choice is fake!” route, does a disservice to the medium.

People like to say that choice is an illusion, but that’s only true if there are no consequences. Over the weekend, I played Back to the Future parts 4 and 5. I had the choice to pick various dialog options, but only one of them was the “correct” option. If I tried to tell Citizen Brown that a character would live a happy life in the future, Marty would invariably say something stupid, the dialog option would be removed, and I’d have to pick whatever option was laid out for me. That’s the illusion of choice. One example I’m fond of using is an ice cream store. A store claiming to offer hundreds of flavors, but truly offering only vanilla, is offering nothing more than the illusion of choice. A store offering a limited selection of different flavors, however, is offering choice, no matter how limited that choice may be. If something changes, then you have, in fact, made a real choice, regardless of the size of the consequence. Maybe it’s simply the difference between chocolate and vanilla.

That Bioshock would effectively argue “there are no real choices in gaming! This is all it can be!” is, then, rather sad. It’s a myopic take on the medium. It’s an inherently limiting idea. This is where Bioshock 2 came in. Where Bioshock said “hah! gotcha! choices are fake,” Bioshock 2 assessed the situations and went for something significantly different.

In Bioshock 2, You are Subject Delta, an early-model Big Daddy, bonded to a little girl, Eleanor. You were killed by Sophia Lamb, Eleanor’s mother. Resurrected after the downfall of Rapture, you wake to discover that Sophia has been turning Eleanor into some sort of superheroic savant, capable of bringing Sophia’s dream of a Marxist family to the world. You need to get to Eleanor. In a way, you are her slave. The entirety of the game is built around making your way to Eleanor to free her. It does not appear you have much choice in the matter–without her, you will die and the world will be doomed. Unlike Bioshock, the maps are actually linear. You appear, at first glance, to have even less choice!

…but…

You meet Grace, Stanley, and Gil, Sophia Lamb’s lieutenants. At each juncture, you have a choice. You can kill them or you can walk away. One of them was a pawn, another was misguided, and another was a key figure responsible for your slavery. Each one tries to kill you, and, as such, it could be argued that each one deserves to die.

I chose not to.

When I died, at the end of the game, and Eleanor absorbed my consciousness into her own, a profound thing happened: she chose to be a better person. She, with the powers of a goddess and the upbringing of a Marxist, realized the power of choice. She realized that we each needed to choose for ourselves the kind of person we would choose to be. She learned that from me. She could have forced the world, kicking and screaming, to be remade in her image, and maybe some would have thought it a better place, but Eleanor realized that it wouldn’t truly have been. I showed her the value of freedom.

Where Bioshock argued that choice in games could be nothing more than an illusion, Bioshock 2 made the counterpoint that, no matter how limited the choices may be, they can have a profound impact on the world of the game, and that is true choice. The value of the choice is not based on the audience’s willing to believe–it’s a burden placed upon the developers. There is nothing that says choice must or must not matter.

Bioshock 2 is a game that capitalizes on interactivity, the element that separates video games from visual media like film and television. It offers a metatextual counterpoint to its predecessor, Bioshock, in addition to making a point about how our choices affect others (unlike other media, as a game, Bioshock 2 actually allows us to see how our choices have an effect), and it does so while featuring better gameplay and storytelling than its predecessor. If you want to argue that games are art, Bioshock 2 is one of the best examples you could possibly use.

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Freedom: On the Authority of the Character

Hey guys. This post is older than it looks, so it might not look as if it were intended to be part of a series. I don’t think it needs editing, though. Previous posts are here and here.

I’ve been playing Skyrim a bit in my free time. Also, I’ve been thinking about character interactions in Bioware games, as news about Mass Effect 3 reaches fever pitch. In addition, I was reading a thread a few weeks ago about graphics, so Uncharted 3 is getting mentioned (mostly by two or three people with Uncharted/Sony-exclusive-title avatars), as is The Witcher 2. I was also in a discussion a month or so ago about Deus Ex: Human Revolution and a (not the winter one, an earlier one) Steam sale allowed me to purchase the DLC at $7.49.

These things all have something in common: Freedom. The other day, I read an article about 2011 being the year of the sandbox title (often associated with freedom), and, of course, I just wrote about the idea of total freedom a few posts ago. There’s a reason for this, but I’ll write about it at a later date. For now, let’s just talk about a hypothetical game and hypothetical freedom.

Game Q, as we’ll call it, generally offers you a lot of freedom. There are a few points, however, when it takes that freedom away. It’s not a mechanical breakdown, though. Where Deus Ex: Human Revolution taught you to expect freedom and build your character as you saw fit, then turned everything on its head in a fit of stupidity, Game Q takes the freedom away when the plot demands it.

Let’s say, for instance, that you’ve pissed off Evil Mister X. You’re playing a mission, sneaking around Factory Z in order to find evidence pointing to the location of The MacGuffin (though you could just as easily have gone in guns blazing, or maybe stealthily executed everyone in your path; whatever you wanted), when, suddenly, Evil Mister X calls you out on the PA system, locks the doors to the room you’re in, and fills it with sleeping gas. You wake up, tied to a chair, bright lights shining on you, with Evil Mister X’s favorite interrogator preparing to stab you with a few exotic-looking needles or something.

You’ve just lost the freedom to play the way you wanted.

Let’s back the story up a bit. Earlier in the game, you did a favor for Evil Mister X. Turning him down puts you in the first situation. He doesn’t hate you this time around, however, so when doing the mission, suddenly the alarms go off, soldiers pop out of nowhere, aggressively looking for the intruder. It turns out that Evil Mister X sent his favorite assassin in to help you out, but, being Evil Mister X, he wanted it done with some style, so the assassin went in guns blazing, ruining your stealthy plans.

Isn’t that a better game than one where you have total freedom to do whatever you want?

See, Evil Mister X is a pretty big bad guy. He doesn’t take kindly to doing things someone else’s way. He does them the way he wants. For him to be a valid character, he needs to appear as if he’s making choices, even if those choices conflict with the outcomes you had in mind. If everyone just listens to you and does whatever you want no matter what, they start to feel less fully realized. There’s something wrong with a game that gives you plenty of freedom, but bends over backwards keeping everyone else in check so they only ever do what you want.

Let’s look at Infamous 2 for a moment.

Nyx, the fire-wielding hot-head (a cliche that annoys me, but whatever) conduit, offers, a few times, to do things that sound totally batshit crazy, like crashing a trolley car into an enemy base to take out all the bad guys with relative ease (but it’ll kill lots of cops). If you choose not to do it, she gets pissed, but that’s about it. So far, she won’t do anything to contradict you (I haven’t beaten the story yet), and that actually kind of bothers me. It’d be nice if I planned to do something my way, and Nyx went ahead with her plan and made a mess of things anyways.

The one obvious problem is that you essentially have the same outcome, no matter what. If you do Nyx’s plan, other people will be mad at you and cops will be dead. If you don’t do Nyx’s plan, she’ll be mad at you… and the cops will be dead. All that really changes is whether or not you wanted it to happen, and then players run the risk of feeling like their choices have no consequence, which, as I’ve previously discussed, is a bad thing. There’s no point in having a choice if the outcome is always the same, after all.

Uncharted is a pretty great example of doing the opposite. It never lets you make a choice, and as a results, its characters can feel more like real people. Never mind that Infamous 2’s characters are way better than anything Uncharted has to offer–they’re held back by having to remain secondary to your choices. Uncharted’s aren’t. They can do whatever the writer wants them to do.

It’s a prickly problem: do you want freedom or do you want real characters?

…why not have both?

If Evil Mister X doesn’t know you’re going on this mission, maybe neither things will occur.

I’ve been running with the idea that, like Deus Ex, Game Q is an immersive sim. The idea behind immersive sims is that the AI often uses non-scripted behavior to make the world feel more alive. Wolves will hunt bunnies because it’s in their nature, not because the game designer said “okay, as you round this corner, those wolves will chase that bunny.” It’s a genre that more effectively creates game worlds which feel alive, and being able to transport us to worlds by making them feel alive is something that games really ought to be doing more often. After all, if they try to tell us a story and allow us to participate in it, then nothing should break that illusion, right? (Oh, man, that’s going to have to be another post for another day. Too long.)

See, scripting can be good–just look at the original Half-Life, one of the greatest games of all time, for proof of that. At the same time, it can be bad when used in excess (see Uncharted, which is so much worse than Call of Duty when it comes to scripting and level design reducing freedom that it isn’t even funny–yet another post for another day). I think Game Q should operate with some level of scripting, but it should only do so in a way that enhances the story or the characters. Evil Mister X shouldn’t do a thing because the game designer wanted him to–Evil Mister X should be ready and able to do a lot of things dependent on the player’s behavior in the game, because that’s who he is.

Ultimately, those scripted behaviors throughout Game Q mean that the player feels like they need to interact in a specific way with any NPC they meet.

If Friendly Boss might help you out for sneaking in to Base Y, maybe you should let him know. If the game is able to track your play style (“player completes missions with 30% sneaking, 10% shooting, 60% disguises”), maybe NPCs might recognize that you did a mission if you keep using that play style, so you might want to consider changing things up. Maybe you know that one of Evil Mister X’s spies has infiltrated your organization (it might even be Friendly Boss!), so you decide not to tell anyone and do everything off the grid so nobody learns about your mission until it’s done.

Basically, I think removing player freedom doesn’t necessarily mean the game stops being free. If you lose your freedom as the result of your actions, then… it was your freedom that got you there. If anything,  your freedom is enhanced when it gets taken away. Ghandi once said (more or less) that freedom doesn’t matter unless you have the freedom to screw up. If you choose something that screws you over… well, that’s still freedom, even if it means being tied in a chair and being beaten by it. As long as Game Q doesn’t permanently take that freedom from you, it should be fine.

Somebody else once said that the people who value freedom are the ones who have it taken away. It seems to me that the game would matter more if you were put in situations where you had no freedom (as a direct result of your freedom, as just discussed), and you had to re-earn your freedom through some way.

Game Q should be able to combine the player the freedom and unscripted nature of the immersive sim alongside the scripted nature of more story-focused games, topping both by having characters that appear to make intelligent decisions based on player actions. They’re still reactive characters, like you’ll find in story-focused games like Mass Effect (I never said they had to be good stories, did I?), ultimately doing what they do based on what you do, but at least they’re not either simple AI behaviors or set-in-stone scripted behaviors.

I guess you could think of this implementation of scripting as… really elaborate AI behaviors. Jamie Griesemer and Chris Butcher, in their presentation “The Illusion of Intelligence,” which discusses the implementation of Halo’s AI, mention how part of the illusion of enemy intelligence was by giving Halo’s enemies a wide variety of things to do and letting them be around long enough to use some of those abilities. The scripting is just a really large event that occurs based on the context the characters find themselves in. It makes them seem better.

Complete (not total) freedom gives you a game that doesn’t feel genuine because its characters don’t do anything big. There’s rarely any human X-Factor in there. You just do things the way you want to do them, the end. The world doesn’t change as a result of your actions beyond, of course, “oh, this mission’s sub-objective was not to be detected, so you lost a chance to earn 500 XP and some dialog options changed.” The choices don’t really have consequences, and, as you should know by now, choices are meaningless without consequences. Likewise, a scripted game is going to be the same no matter what, so, once again, your choices have no consequences, because you have no choice. You do what you’re told and nothing ever changes.

A hybrid of these two should offer the strengths of both while eliminating their weaknesses.

That’s the theory, anyways.

Impressions: Halo: Combat Evolved: Anniversary: Colon

I walk through the ancient, alien halls, mesmerized by glowing symbols I can’t even begin to fathom.

My health is low–fortunately, my shield’s recharged, but still, I’ll need to find health soon. Emerging out of the alien hallways and onto a bridge, a chilly wind blasts my suit. I don’t know how the marines can stand it. The next thing that blasts me is a plasma charge. Shit. Hunters. I could handle them on their own, but they’ve got a dozen grunts, an elite, and three or four jackals backing them up… AND they’re on another bridge.

I die a good ten times or so, trying various tactics that don’t involve engaging the hunters directly, but they (or errant grenades and a hellstorm of needles take me down every time). I just haven’t got the health to survive this alone.

…and then I remember I’ve got a rocket launcher.

The first one goes down on the first hit. The second one, though, manages to take one hit to the face and keep firing. I mop up the grunts and jackals with a few well-placed plasma grenades, and I think I’ve taken out the Elite with one too, so I spin around, fire another rocket into the hunter, reload my rocket launcher–and something hits my shield.

Oh shit.

The Elite charges me, and I empty my remaining twenty-eight rounds into his face. A few melee hits and it’s over–I’ve got just one bar of health and no shield left. I take his plasma rifle and enter the room at the other end of the bridge. In the ensuing firefight, I manage to take out another dozen grunts and several jackals by doing a lot of strafing and weaving, but fail to find any health or ammo. Looks like I’m stuck with plasma for now.

An inviting light grabs my attention. I turn into a small hallway where I notice a shimmer and glow. It’s an invisible elite, but it must have its back turned. Slowly, I creep up on it and punch the creature in the back of the skull, killing it. A second Elite, which I hadn’t noticed (on account of it being invisible) begins firing on me, but a second or two of concentrated fire and he goes down. At the end of the hallway is another big room. I either smile or sneer–I’m not sure which; the onslaught of nostalgia, delight, and the “COME AT ME BRO!” feeling

I know this room.

It’s got Hunters in it.

The first one doesn’t even see me–probably for the best. I choose the overkill option and fire a rocket into his red spot. Thinking I spot the second one out of the corner of my right eye, I dodge to the left–and right into him. The ensuing “OHSHIT! RUUUUUUUUN!” feeling leaves me joyfully giddy. I dash back the way I came and flank the Hunter, but he spins and takes my second rocket in the face. He lumbers after me, but I flank again and go caveman style, using my rocket launcher as a club and bashing him in the weak spot for massive damage.

A few marine corpses–I pause to honor them–provide me with a new MA5B Assault Rifle, just over five hundred rounds of ammo, some grenades, and some new rockets. Then all at once I’m overwhelmed by a wave of jackals, but they’re stuck in the hallway with me blocking the entrance. I hem them in with my assault rifle and toss a grenade. They’re so busy taking cover that they don’t react until it’s too late.

The smell of burnt chicken fills the air, but I don’t have any time to take it all in. Assuming that the explosion killed me as well, a grunt rounds the corner to investigate.

He discovers a few bullets just as they enter his face.

Halo: Combat Evolved: Anniversary is a game that reminds me what fun is all about.

Because of the variation found in guns, AI, and the level design, the gameplay is almost never the same. “Play how you want!” the game seems to say, “we respect you for it!” You also get a great health system that doesn’t push you into cover right away, like most games these days, and you have these enemies with projectiles that are slow enough to dodge. Right now, I’m playing 343 Guilty Spark, and The Flood feel superb. I don’t actually know why anyone hates them. Just sidestep them like they’re projectiles, and suddenly they become super fun! I could swear the combat’s been tweaked. Some bits are harder than I remember them, while The Flood seem a tad bit easier–you can kill Flood combat forms with greater ease than even a blue Elite.

Gripes right now… well, look at that first picture! It’s so… busy. Sometimes, the graphics feel too busy, basically. Also, the people seem proportioned a bit weird, and I can’t even LOOK at Johnson, while Keyes’ lip sizes jump all over the place, and Cortana twitches around a bit.

…but you know what? Halo: Combat Evolved: Anniversary is great so far. I’m having a blast. I’m able to tell STORIES about my gameplay experience. The AI, the guns, the levels… even the controls make everything feel perfect!

This is, quite possibly, the best game purchase I’ve made all year. I haven’t had this much fun with a game in so long–possibly since Marathon! I’ve plunged through SHODAN’s corridors again this gen, I’ve re-beat Half-Life 2, I’ve played Tropico 4, Modern Warfare 3, Skyrim, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Arkham Asylum (finally!), and Gears of War 3 but I haven’t played a single game as fun as Combat Evolved in a long, long time.

It feels great.

Apologies for the poor writing. I’m ultra-sleepy.

On Villains

"Round up the usual suspects!"

What makes for a good villain?

Storytelling 101: stories almost exclusively follow the three-act structure of beginning, middle, and end, and feature both a protagonist and an antagonist. The antagonist is generally either man, nature, or self. These three situations, “man against man,” “man against nature,” and “man against himself” establishes what we call conflict, which is a necessary element of drama. For example, Casablanca is “man against man,” Old Yeller is “man versus nature,” and Citizen Kane is “man against himself.” In Casablanca, the protagonists are allied against the Nazis and the Vichy Regime. In Old Yeller, the story comes to a head when the eponymous dog contracts rabies. In Citizen Kane, the central theme of the story is the character’s internal struggle. Above all else, a good villain must provide some form of conflict.

Before we look deeper at what makes a good villain, let’s look at what makes a great character… by looking at what makes a bad one. We accept that Mary Sues are bad characters. Why? They’re unrealistic and unbelievable. What makes them so? Generally, Mary Sues are written as flawless characters, or characters with flaws that aren’t excessively negative. A Mary Sue flaw would be clumsiness–a good character’s flaw is more likely to be, say, perfectionism or sexism (halloo, Reed Richards!). This personality flawlessness has a tendency to make Mary Sues very bland, lacking in any sort of complexity or contradiction. Good characters are almost always defined by how human they are, and humans tend to be quite complex and often contradictory. That complexity brings us to motive. In the case of nature, which has no motive, this does not apply, but in the case of self and others, it most definitely does. What motivated Captain Renault to do what he did in Casablanca? Why did he join the Vichy Regime? Why did he choose to betray them at the movie’s end? A good character is one who makes choices not because the plot demands it, but because those are the choices that they, as a character, would make.

A plot hole is an element of the story that makes no sense in context. This can be extended to characters–poorly written characters often make their choices because the story needs to do certain things. In some cases, this is called the idiot ball. In others, it’s just because they’re a poorly written character. A bad guy who does nothing but, say, shoot his own men, hurt innocent people, and seek power is not a particularly good antagonist because he’s only doing what he’s doing because the plot dictates that he’s bad.

He's Nimoy with a Robot Moustache! OF COURSE HE'S A VILLAIN

One of the chief complaints about the Transformers movies is that the audience don’t actually care about the characters. The movie never provides us with a reason to care about what Shia LeBoeuf wants. Why should we care what happens to Megan Fox? Because she’s hot? Why should we care about saving the world? It’s not ours. Simply saying that the Earth is in danger doesn’t mean that the audience has any reason to want Shia to win, because, after all, he’s annoying and ungrateful for all the cool things that have happened to him. He’s just saving the world because he has to.

When plots dictate characters, we definitionally get bad stories.

Before I continue, I want to make a point that I’ll come back to later: in a game, you are the protagonist, not some other guy. I could get into a discussion about how this means that a game where the character has fundamentally different motivations than the player is a bad game (because no good game should be anti-player), but that could take a while. Instead, I’d just like to point out that simply being the protagonist does not somehow magically make the story better. Just because The Fallen has personally stolen your MacGuffin does not somehow mean that Revenge of The Fallen is any better than it was when The Fallen stole Shia’s MacGuffin.

This is all, as I’ve said, Storytelling 101. If (as in a discussion I had on Friday) you feel inclined to disagree, then you’ve got to prove wrong thousands of years of accumulated storytelling knowledge to do so, or, perhaps more easily, prove that my understanding of storytelling is flawed. There would be no point in me writing about villains if I didn’t believe I knew what I was talking about, however, so, for the rest of the article, we’ll assume the following:

A good villain is like any good character, having the same complexities that any character should have, making decisions (and thus guiding the plot) based on who they are, not what the writer feels they should be doing. It’s particularly prodigious when what the villain does lines up nicely with where the plot is going.

You can tell he's evil because he's bald and ugly.

This brings me to some of the best and worst villains that video gaming has offered us in the past half decade or so: SHODAN, Zoran Lazarevic, Sofia Lamb, The Combine, The Prophet of Truth, and The Reapers.

I shouldn’t need to tell you that SHODAN is, of course, from the former group. In case you don’t believe me, though, feel free to read Kieron Gillen’s take on the character, which remains, to this day, one of the best breakdowns of a video game character I’ve ever read. She is, in a way, an evolution of Durandal, the antagonist/best friend/antagonist/best friend from Marathon, or, more likely, they were both influenced by the same sources. Either way, singing SHODAN’s praises would take too long and Gillen’s already done it better, so there’s no real point in me saying anything more.

Half-Life 2, one of the most loved games in the world that I have a remarkable capacity for hating, stars the Earth-invading psychic worms known as the Combine. They’re pretty much generic, dystopic alien overlords. We don’t actually know much about them or what they want, and their influence is fairly cliché, unique aesthetics aside. Their human emissary, Doctor Breen, may be the single most boring enemy I have ever faced. Don’t get me wrong, he’s actually performed brilliantly, displaying a fantastic mix of arrogance and sympathy, but… meh? Half-Life 2 never really gives you a reason for doing anything you do beyond “go save Eli.” Exploring the “why” of Half-Life 2’s world or its characters doesn’t seem to be a priority for the game. The game seems to think you should just take it as a given that the overlords are bad and that the resistance is good, without ever doing much more than that. Funny that Rage got ticked for this and Half-Life 2 didn’t.

You can tell they're evil on account of them... um... being... I don't know.

The Reapers are basically the same. In fact, upon meeting them for the first time, they basically say “OUR METHODS ARE TOO AWESOME FOR YOU TO UNDERSTAND,” which is, of course, code for “using plainer speech would have made us sound about as threatening as Dominic Greene.” To its credit, Mass Effect as a whole does a fairly nice job of portraying its universe, with characters like Admiral Kahoku or the Petrovsky’s providing us with reasons to want to save the universe. You’ve got people who are awesome and people who aren’t, which is really cool.

…then Mass Effect 2 comes along and ruins it. For one thing, there are no personal sidequests besides breaking up a fight between two assholes in the Citadel. Most everything is just a case of “go to small, remote location, do a task, shoot some dudes, get an email about it.” It becomes instantly less personal. That, right there, is less of a reason to want to fight. It’s not just that, though. Have you ever messed with the contrast on your monitor to the point where nothing is visible because it’s all one tone of grey? Well, Mass Effect 2 is the same way; turns everything into one shade of grey.

In the first game, you could come across a woman who just wants the best for her dead husband’s son, a politician who gets you to murder her pirate sister… it’s all over the place. Mass Effect 2 makes everyone grimdark. Cerberus is no longer a group of Space Gestapo. Instead, they’re just a bunch of dudes who sometimes do bad things to ensure humanity doesn’t get screwed over. The Geth are no longer crazy space robots who worship more crazy space robots–they’re a form of sentient life with feelings. AI isn’t exclusively bad any more (which kinda ruins the point of the entire first game, which is that yes, AI is exclusively bad all the time). Mass Effect 2 is a game that forgets the importance of contrast and never makes anything purely good or purely bad. It confuses moral ambiguity for storytelling maturity.

He's called the Prophet of Truth because he lies.

Speaking of contrast, Halo has some amazing villains. While you might not understand The Flood, they never attempt to obfuscate their motives in order to seem scarier. They are space zombies that get smarter as they spread, becoming more effective at zombifying things. In contrast, the Covenant are a conglomeration of various alien races, united by an unwavering belief in The Forerunners and the desire to meet them by undertaking “The Great Journey,” which is effectively a galactic mass suicide. You’ve got some great stuff going on there–The Prophet of Truth is forced to become a liar or admit that everything he believes is a lie, for instance. In choosing to give in to his pride, he sets in motion the events that lead to the Human/Covenant war. With Halo, Bungie contrasted a villain motivated by hubris, pride, and emotion with one motivated purely by instinct. It’s id versus ego, if you will.

One element that made The Covenant so frightening was their belief that, through genocide, they were making things better. There are few things scarier than those motivated by the belief that they’re doing the right thing, because those things have the absolute conviction that they are doing the right thing. They care. They are driven.

That’s why Sofia Lamb is one of the greatest video game villains I have ever had the pleasure of defeating, while Zoran Lazarevic is pretty bad.

See, Uncharted 2’s Lazarevic is just a dude who is evil and wants power. He has even less motivation than The Fallen or Sentinel Prime, both of whom are trying to save their respective races. He just wants, uh… power, I think? That’s really it. Compare this to Sofia Lamb, who, over the years, subtly turned the people against Andrew Ryan and his ideals. She relied on human laziness–the belief that we deserve things–to obtain her goals. She’s a brilliant counterpoint to Andrew Ryan, who was all about how we must stand on our own efforts. Taken together, both Bioshock and Bioshock 2 complement each other in a way few games can. Both of them present, effectively, an argument against rigid ideology, and it’s a point that’s well-made, but I’m getting sidetracked here.

Bioshock’s characters were human–motivated by a myriad of various desires. In Stanley Poole’s case, his greed had brought about the downfall of Lamb’s haven, resulting in a desperate desire to hide the evidence. Grace Hollaway desperately wanted a daughter, and Sofia provided that by making her Eleanor’s caretaker, investing Grace in the ideals of The Family. What is perhaps the most frightening thing about Sofia, however, is that she truly believes what she is saying. She is not manipulating lesser people because she enjoys manipulation–she manipulates them because she wholly believes she is doing what’s best for them. She believes, completely, in destroying everything it means to be human.

That’s why ultimately, beating her is so great.

Yeah, you don’t get to kill her. I get that. It saddens me, sure, that after everything she put me through, I didn’t get to put a bullet in her skull. Above all else, she deserved it.

But you know what? I think I my victory was greater than that. If I’d ventilated her brains, she would have become a martyr. She would have died with no remorse. Instead, I destroyed her ideology. I did not merely shake her faith–I annihilated it. When all was said and done, Sofia, stripped of her hubris and arrogance, had to admit that I was right. Ideas might be bulletproof, but it doesn’t mean that they cannot be defeated. As Bioshock 2 ended and Delta died, I watched as the choices I had made brought about a change in Eleanor. I watched her, the living embodiment of all that Rapture possessed, make the right decision. I gave her that. I showed her just how powerful choice could be.

Actually, the fact that she would kill you in front of a small child is evil in and of itself, but nobody ever said a great villain couldn't still kick the dog.

As I type this, I find myself wondering if a video game’s ever been written better.

I’m starting to think that maybe, just maybe, Bioshock 2 is the best video game I’ve ever played. Bioshock, for all the joy it seemed to take in telling us that our decisions didn’t matter, might have been a metacritical critique of the idea that games could ever offer us freedom, but Bioshock 2 was the perfect reply to that. I never was put into some silly, scripted event where I got to shoot some stupidly splicer-enhanced Sofia Lamb. Instead, the game demonstrated to me that yeah, we don’t make every choice, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make choices. I wasn’t confronted at every turn with a button prompt or funneled down some rigidly designed fight tube–sometimes, I just had to make the choice to walk away.

Villains, the good ones, they choose.

If a writer chooses everything for the villain, saying that they ought to be bad just because they’re the antagonist, with no thought put into the choices and motivations of that character, then they’ve created a bad character. This isn’t just true of villains, actually–it’s true of anybody who’s ever been written. A good character is a truly human character, one makes decisions not based on some preordained plot, but on who they are. Asimov once said something about science fiction basically being a reflection of ourselves, but I think that’s true for all fiction. Bioshock 2, unlike most games, has that in spades. Its core moral is ultimately about the power of choice–the very thing that makes video games unique from every other story medium.

It deserves a lot more love than it gets.

Of course, we could just forget about villains and strong narratives and just go for living, breathing game worlds in which our only cares are how to survive the night. That sounds awesome, right? Yeah. It does. STALKER’s awesome. Let’s all go play that now.

In Defense Of The First Person Shooter – Transmogrification

The straw that broke the camel's back.

This is actually technically an addendum (though it may become the introduction) to my series formerly known as The Greatest Game Ever Played. Also, I know I just said I was going to write about Stanley Kubrick, but Kubrick & Me will have to wait. I read an amusing comment that really made me want to write this, so here goes.

XCOM, announced in 2010, blew my mind. A transliteration of the mechanics of X-COM: UFO Defense, XCOM promised to be the immersive version of what we’d seen previously. The series had been abused to hell and back, with only two of its entries being considered great. This looked like a great way to return to the franchise–a different genre, perhaps, but X-COM in spirit. A lot of people complained. To them, X-COM was nothing more than a the equivalent of a simple isometric turn-based tactics game. They chose to ignore that the more important elements, such as base/team/character management and the escalating threat of an alien invasion, were still there. For them, it was turn-based isometric tactics or nothing. They started complaining about a glut of reboots to FPS, and for the longest time, I ignored it. I even let myself get carried away, agreeing that too many games were being converted to FPSes.

At best, they were wrong. At worst, they were liars.

It’s frustrating, really. There’s no genre more hated by a lot of old school gamers, whether they’re the old-school Sony and Nintendo fans, or, more importantly, the old-school PC gaming fans who were only in it for the pixel hunts and waiting their turns at things, than the FPS. It’s sad, because honestly, the FPS is the closest thing to what everyone seems to want video games to be, judging by the sales figures. As I’ve said before, it’s my belief that the most important thing a video game can do is put the player in a world. Why would you want to sit at your computer playing turn-based action all day when you could be transported into a digital world where you fight monsters or gunmen of the apocalypse with doves or frisbees of monsters of your own or whatever? Things like Digimon, Red Dwarf, Tron, and Star Trek’s holodeck have a large appeal partly because the idea that humans could somehow put themselves in a virtual world is an exciting prospect.

That's totally a cinematic, though. Either that or BEST WATER EVER.

Entering the game itself is, somewhere way down the line, the future of gaming. Not the future of all gaming, mind you, because killing off traditional games would be foolish and absurd, but it is something we’re going to see more of as gaming gets more sophisticated. Right now, the FPS is the closest thing we have to that future.

Think about it: all of the abstractions present in other genres–being two-dimensional, having a third person camera, being turn-based, etc–are absent in the FPS. What you see on-screen is what your character is looking at, because he or she is you. The gun is in your hands. The only things separating you from truly inhabiting your FPS character is the fact that you aren’t controlling it directly with your brain. Furthermore, the only games that truly simulate a living, breathing world (while ridding themselves of the pesky number values that RPGs use to determine character abilities) are immersive sims, an evolution of the FPS. Part of the reason that STALKER and System Shock 2 and Deus Ex are some of the most loved games ever is because they allow the player to participate in a world as much as technology will allow. The biggest praise that these games receive  I’m also excited that the genre seems to be making a comeback in the form of titles like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Dishonored, and Fallout 3.

Suffice it to say, I was quite surprised when people began saying that there was a massive trend of games transforming to first person shooters. I mean, I like when games become FPSes. Did everyone forget how awesome Fallout 3, Metroid Prime, and their subsequent sequels were? (This statement is actually more important than it sounds, by the way. Keep it in your head, because we’re coming back to it.) Quietly, I tallied the numbers in my head and came up with a comprehensive list (to the best of my knowledge) of all franchises in the past decade that have ever been turned into first person games.

Hold on to your hats, here is that list, in alphabetical order:

Fallout
Metroid

…and that’s it.

The typical adventure gamer after a few hours of stressful puzzle solving. This is important. Remember this.

Now, you may say “hey, what about XCOM and Syndicate!” I didn’t forget them, but they’re not out yet. We’ll talk about them later. You might also point out Shadowrun and SWAT, but SWAT made the jump back in 1999 with SWAT 3, so it’s not within the past ten years, and Shadowrun has gone through at least three genres, so it’s not like it was a long-standing series that suddenly became something else. Again, we’ll look at them a bit more in-depth later. Right now, I’d like to talk about the two franchises of the last ten years that have been through this transformation.

Releasing in 2002, Metroid Prime was (and still is) hailed as one of the greatest video games ever made. IGN took it a little too far and suggested that Metroid Prime was somehow gaming’s Citizen Kane. Such is the love for Metroid Prime. Its sequels, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes and Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, were also released to critical acclaim. Not a single Metroid Prime game has scored lower than a 90 on Metacritic. You may argue that the games are not strictly first person shooters, and admittedly, it’s debatable, but be warned: if you argue that it’s not an FPS, then we’re stuck with Fallout. Hardly a trend, now, is it?

Fallout 3 also released to critical acclaim. In fact, critically speaking, it’s the best-received Fallout game of them all, being the only game in the series that has scored over a 90 on Metacritic (PS3: 90, PC: 91, 360: 93). It won numerous GOTY awards after its release in 2008, and deserved all of it. Graphical weaknesses aside, it was, like Metroid Prime a solid, great game that nearly everyone I know enjoys. Like Metroid Prime, you might be tempted to argue that Fallout 3 was not an FPS, but, again, you’d be wrong. Mechanically, Fallout 3 is yet another variation on a theme, and that theme is a good one. People love it. New Vegas didn’t fare quite as well, partly because of atrocious world design (in terms of where things were placed, invisible walls, world flatness, and the awful NPC placement), and partly because its shooting mechanics relied more on silly RPG numbers. The shooting just didn’t feel right and felt more like a ploy to force players into VATS. As a result, the game didn’t feel right and wasn’t as fun to play, even if it did have more quests, more plots, and converted a host of mods into official gameplay mechanics. One of the top mods on the New Vegas Nexus removes that silly accuracy dice roll. Also, the FOV was a lot narrower than it was in Fallout 3, leading to an unpleasant gameplay experience. Still, it managed to receive RPGOTY awards in 2010.

You might argue that these games aren’t strictly FPSes, and you’d be right. They are, however, the only games in the past ten years that have made the jump to first person, and I’m trying to be sympathetic to the people who hate these first person transformations. Still, you know what these games all have in common? They’re all great games.

This FPS transformation actually seems to be a good thing, by this point, but if you don’t believe me, I totally understand.

I can't help but feel inspired to play Marathon now.

So let’s talk about older games that have been turned into FPSes, shall we? Off the top of my head, I can only think of, once again, two franchises. The first is Ultima. The second is SWAT.

Ultima Underworld was a great game. It transformed the most important game ever made (don’t believe me? Western game design owes its entirety to Ultima, as does the JRPG, from Dragon Quest to Final Fantasy and beyond) into a first person game. That took guts. Ultima Underworld wasn’t a smash hit–it sold 500,000 copies, which was great for the time (that immediately makes it one of the best-selling cRPGs of all time), but the sales were fairly slow, too. Critically, however, Ultima Underworld was so well excepted that it managed to make it on to numerous “best games” lists, including PC Gamer US’s “best 50 games of all time list.” The sequel, Ultima Underworld, was even better. PC Gamer said this about it: “Ultima Underworld needs to be hailed from the roof-tops for being one of the best dungeon-based adventure RPGs of all illustrious gaming history.”

Do I really need to say more? Ultima Underworld is hailed as one of the greatest gaming series of all time. Had it not made the jump to first person, it wouldn’t have been. You should go buy it right now. Admittedly, it’s not strictly an FPS, but, again, it was one of the few games I could think of that went from one genre to a first person game.

SWAT, on the other hand… originally, it was a Police Quest game, if you can believe it.  The Quest games were legendary in the field of adventure gaming. King’s Quest, in particular, has spawned numerous fan sequels, including a rather infamous game (due to Activision’s skullduggery), The Silver Lining. Admittedly, the series was spawned from the hellish womb of Roberta Williams, but whatever. Adventure gamers absolutely loved the Quest games.

Enter SWAT 3.

This is SWAT 4. But SWAT 3 is cool too.

SWAT 3 was critically claimed and super fun, but I don’t really have much to say about it, because I really want to talk about SWAT 4 instead. See, SWAT 4 is one of the greatest games ever made. It was designed by Irrational Games, those mad geniuses who later went on to develop, in conjunction with 2K Marin (AND THIS IS SUPER IMPORTANT), Bioshock. Irrational Games, at one time, was actually located inside Looking Glass’s studio. Ken Levine used to work at Looking Glass, as did legendary designers Harvey Smith (Dark Messiah of Might & Magic, Dishonored) and Warren Spector (Deus Ex).  Looking Glass and Irrational cooperatively made System Shock 2. System Shock 2 is considered by many to be the greatest video game ever made, and even those who don’t believe that admit that it’s definitely one of the scariest, one of the most influential, and one of the best-written. In addition, Looking Glass also made Thief and Thief 2, also considered to be some of the greatest games ever made. I’d be happy to argue that Looking Glass Studios was the greatest, most important game developer of all time, in fact. My point is that SWAT 4 was developed by some of the best and brightest that the video game industry has ever produced. The amount of intelligence required to play the game, that careful, methodical plotting required to execute a perfect hostage recovery, was above and beyond anything that gaming had offered before (but, hey, FPSes have offered this level of intelligent gameplay for years; people who hate on the genre like to pretend it doesn’t exist. They’re liars.).

Are you noticing a trend here? Literally every game that’s made the jump to FPS so far happens to be considered amongst the finest games ever developed. Literally the worst game on this list is Fallout: New Vegas, and you’d have to be crazy to say that’s a bad game, unless you were focusing solely on the bugs.

So far, so good, right? Let’s talk about XCOM and Syndicate.

But first, have a picture of my daughter. Her name is Eleanor and she's a superhuman. Her mom was crazy but I didn't kill her, because I am not. Also I live inside Eleanor's brain now.

2K Marin, who worked with Irrational on Bioshock, went on to develop Bioshock 2. A better game than the original in every way, Bioshock 2 suffered complaints about the unnecessity of its existence. Seriously, the biggest complaint was not that it wasn’t good enough or anything–these complaints started long before the game was released–but that it wasn’t needed. Bioshock, people wrongly claimed, was original, and now they wanted more originality, not some cash-in sequel with a forced multiplayer component. Bioshock was just System Shock 2 with less depth and a different skin, but they didn’t care about that. Bioshock 2, despite everything it did better, was fighting an uphill battle. After playing it, not once, but twice, I must say, the game’s only faults are that there isn’t a timer at the end, that its FOV is narrow, and that its levels manage not to be quite as memorable.

In terms of storytelling and gameplay, the two most important aspects of any game, Bioshock 2 is absolutely flawless.

2K Marin wasn’t content with building a better Bioshock, it seems. The game’s DLC, Minerva’s Den, managed even to one-up Bioshock, with a truly emotional story that everyone ought to try at least once. The highest praise Minerva’s Den got, in fact, was that it felt closer to System Shock 2 than any other game in the Bioshock series. What I’m trying to say is… 2K Marin helped develop three of the finest games of this generation, and managed to one-up the same company that was born from and once worked alongside Looking Glass Studios in the process. 2K Marin has worked on some of the finest games I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing. These are the guys developing XCOM. Could it be in better hands? I don’t think so.

I want this cyberpunk, I want it all, and I want it now.

Finally, we have Syndicate. You may not know much about the developers, Starbreeze, but they have a reputation for making great games, even if they don’t have great brand recognition. Perhaps you’ve heard of The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. It’s kinda considered to be the best-looking console game of the last console generation, in addition to being the best movie tie-in game ever made. If you’re not convinced of that, it’s within three points of Final Fantasy VII on Metacritic, sitting at an 89. Its pseudosequel/remake, Assault on Dark Athena, didn’t perform quite as well, but it’s still praised quite highly. After their Riddick games, Starbreeze developed The Darkness, which received mostly 8s and 9s from developers, and was praised for its great writing and level design. Starbreeze are rock-solid developers with a good history, and, while their output might not be as good as 2K Marin, Syndicate is looking super good so far.

I’m left with one conclusion: there is no excess of FPS transformations. Six franchises in twenty years (a total of 9 games, if my count’s right) isn’t exactly a lot. If we look at the past five years, we have only three franchises (Fallout, Syndicate, XCOM) for a total of five games (FO3, FNV, Syndicate, XCOM, and MP3). That’s not a lot, not by a longshot. What we also see is that each and every one of the genres that have been released aren’t just widely praised, but are considered some of the finest games ever made. The developers responsible for the two upcoming transformations, 2K Marin and Starbreeze, have made several great games that have received a lot of praise.

So, critics of FPS transformations, your claims that this is a rampant trend of all old games getting rebooted as FPSes is factually wrong. At best count, you have six franchises. If we get picky… XCOM will be the second, following SWAT. You have no legs to stand on and no room to argue.

So shut the fuck up.

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.