Archive for the ‘ The Most Important Games I Have Ever Played ’ Category

Immersion (Why Games Are Special)

(Originally posted here; has 13,123 views)

I read a forum thread somewhere recently—I want to say NeoGAF, but I can’t find it ’cause my registration’s pending so I can’t access search—that talked a bit about words and concepts we’d like to see removed from gaming. It was a pretty fascinating topic, and I was happy to see that the used-to-the-point-of-meaninglessness word “visceral” and the anti-game “cinematic” were frequently cited. It was perfect timing, then, for Kirk to post an article highlighting a video arguing against the use of the term “immersion” in video games the next day.

I disagreed rather vehemently. I still do, which is why I’ve spent several hours (as opposed to my normal twenty minutes) to prepare a response.

Before I get into this, I must warn you that I might be someone harsh on Mr. Abraham and those who agree with him. He’s gotten so much fluffy praise from people who consider themselves to be on the forefront of games criticism (a field which, from what I’ve read, is incredibly circlejerky and not nearly as knowledgeable on the subject as it thinks it is) that I think some harshness is in order.

Anyone who believes that “immersion” is a term that should not apply to gaming, or that ideas involving immersive design should be removed from video games is frighteningly wrong. Not only that, but the argument that “immersion” is a bad term, or that games should not be made with immersion in mind are as dangerous to the medium as attempts to ban it.

Guess I should back myself up, huh?

I’ll be covering two main points, because it appears that these guys either fail to understand what immersion means or genuinely want the concept of immersion to die.

Let’s start with the English language.

Okay, so, first things first, a little English language primer (thanks to squibsforsquid‘s responses to my initial response to Abraham’s video):

The English language is incredibly nuanced. Words that seem to be identical to each other can actually have subtly different meanings that aren’t covered by others. “Immerse/Immersed/Immersion” is a great example of this. A simple dictionary lookup reveals it to be something along the lines of “engrossed” or “attention-grabbing,” but if that were the case, then one would wonder why similar words and phrases would not suffice. Why does “immerse” and its various forms exist?

The answer lies in its other definition: to be submerged entirely in a body of water.

Imagine, if you will, that the English language is all the food in a grocery store. Words like “engrossed” and “immersed” are like varieties of lettuce. Sure, you might think that iceberg and romaine lettuce are both leafy green veggies, so they can be used interchangeably, but nothing could be further from the truth: indeed, romaine has a radically different texture and moisture than iceberg (I prefer the darker, bitter taste of romaine, personally, but some people like the cool crunchiness of iceberg).

An English-language example of this would be the substitution of “good” for the word “like.” What we like is something inherently personal and subjective—it’s something that matches up to our own personal standards of enjoyment. What is good is something that compares favorably to set standards—usually ones external to us, like cultural standards. Saying something is “good” does not inherently mean that we like it; likewise, saying that we “like” something does not necessarily mean that it is a good thing.

Similar terms are not identical ones.

Immersion isn’t simply “paying a lot of attention to a thing.” There’s more nuance to it than that. Merriam-Webster’s example, “We were surprised by his complete immersion in the culture of the island,” hints at a level of integration into something. When someone says “he was immersed in the water,” they’re talking not talking about being engrossed with water, they’re talking about going under.

The people who first used the term “immersion” when applied to game design didn’t choose the word lightly. There’s a reason that the immersive sim genre of video games is called the immersive sim and not “engrossing games” or something else. “Immersion’s” unique texture within English makes it a term uniquely suited to discussing an element of video games that other mediums don’t have (you can pay attention to any medium; you can only be immersed in something interactive).

Any game can be engrossing—Tetris is engrossing, for instance—but few games can be truly immersive. Few games can make their players a part of the world within them.

This is an important point, because immersion, in this sense, is something that’s entirely unique to video games. Nothing—no movie, no play, no book—can be truly immersive the way a video game can be.

Basically, to sum things up so far, “immersion” is a term that isn’t always used correctly. When referring merely to the act of being deeply involved in a game, yes, immersion is an improper term, but we should not remove it from our gaming lexicon entirely, because it’s a term that accurately describes one of the primary elements of what separates video games from other entertainment mediums.

Where am I getting this from, you ask?

Right, so, let’s jump back to 1974. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson (sorry, Dave, but while you take alphabetical precedence, Gary wins for having alliteration and an x in his name, which just makes him cooler) created this game called Dungeons & Dragons.

It was a role-playing game.

I’m not talking about stat-based adventure JRPG stuff, either. I’m talking about a true role-playing game (speaking of role-play, there’s another thing that will confuse you if you try to find a dictionary definition—understanding the use of the word, specifically regarding its origins and relationship to improvisational theatre, is key to understanding what is and isn’t a role-playing game). Basically, they created an instruction set for how to role-play.

The goal was to empower players to have adventures in worlds of their own creation, a radical departure from other games (sports, Milton Bradley-style board games, etc). At the same time, it wasn’t a performance thing, like theater. It was just “hey, let’s explore a world!”

The rules behind DnD served the purpose of making sure players didn’t get overpowered or do absurd things. You don’t actually need a turn-based system, stat points, party members, and so on and so forth to have an RPG, it just makes things a bit easier for a GM to handle.

Jumping forward a bit, we hit 1981 and two games, Ultima and Wizardry. It was effectively the birth of the video game RPG; other games had preceded them (I once read that a computer game called DnD showed up in 1975), but these two games were the watershed moment. Ultima and Wizardry used incredibly limited technology at the time to try to emulate the RPG experience.

A necessary digression: when Japanese developer Yuji Horii saw Wizardry for the first time, he got really excited by the prospect, and, apparently being unaware of the purpose of Wizardry’s mechanics, cloned a lot of the ideas and created Dragon Quest, the game from which all JRPGs since have descended. Most of the time, things don’t work out quite this well and new genres aren’t created, but in the JRPGs case, things worked because Horii is a boss. The lesson here is that you shouldn’t go creating a game unless you understand why the mechanics behind it exist. This is also the reason why regenerating health is used in a lot of games it has no business being in.

While the JRPG gained popularity and became its own thing (and confused a bunch of people as to what the RPG actually is), Western devs were still quietly making their own RPGs, but with added computer power. Instead of making turn-based, top-down games with various battle systems, they were focusing on evolving the genre, making it distinct even from the pen and paper games which had birthed it, while at the same time, keeping the spirit of the RPG intact.

Now, I should point out that video game RPGs are still absurdly limited! Computers cannot improvise the way that GMs can. That said, there are some areas where they excel… and that’s where Looking Glass comes in.

If you understand one thing about the history of video games, it should be that no game studio on the planet will ever be more important than Looking Glass Studios was. These guys pioneered first-person games, sandbox games (what, you thought Shenmue or GTAIII was the first sandbox game?), flight simulation (when they died, the flight sim industry died), stealth games, and a bunch of other stuff. Their employees have gone off to help invent the Xbox (forever transforming the gaming landscape and eliminating Japan’s stranglehold on the console industry), work on Guitar Hero and Rock Band, revitalize The Elder Scrolls (heavy immersive elements in those games), create Deus Ex, work for Valve, and so on and so forth.

Oh, and one of the first games they ever made was Madden, so there’s that.

Perhaps their most important contribution to game design, however, was immersion.

The Looking Glass guys, in the early 90s, had a revelation: they could use simulation elements to add new life to their worlds! From this, the immersive sim was born.

Basically, you take that core idea behind role-play (I want to be someone in another world) and use computers to create a world players can interact with. That’s really all there is to it. You make the game in first-person, to reiterate the fact that the player is his or her character. You create levels that feel like real spaces, then populate it with complex AI that can do more than just fight. If you can, you try to throw in elements like physics, good graphics, a high degree of interactivity, and so on and so forth. You also cut down as many abstractions as possible (abstractions in a game context are basically just mechanics that provide a simpler way of approaching real-life ideas—such as turn-based gameplay when a computer can’t handle a real-time approach).

What we’ve found is that immersive games, provided they are easy enough to get into (Deus Ex, for instance, inundates players with information in its training level and summarily throws players into the deep end with Liberty Island; this is a bad way to do things), actually have a huge draw and significant lasting appeal. Some recent examples of immersive games include STALKER (more than 4 million units sold—not bad for a Ukrainian studio with next to no marketing), Fallout 3, and Skyrim. Other games, like Assassin’s Creed and Dark Souls, use immersive elements to enhance their experience.

People love these games. They love being able to enter a new world and interact with it. They love emergent gameplay—why else do you think GTA is such a popular series? Skyrim was successful because it facilitated exploration. Crysis was unique because it allowed deeper physical interaction with the world. STALKER’s advanced AI and player needs (eating, for instance) helped its players sink completely into the role of the amnesiac Marked One.

Far Cry 2, flawed as it was, got the love it got because it let players treat the world as an actual world. Yesterday, I read about someone who stacked up cars in Far Cry 2, blew them up, set fire to a field, caused the base he was attacking to catch on fire (which burned some of his enemies alive and confused others), and then walked in and took what he needed without anyone realizing he was there.

(I realize that I could probably write an entire essay on the power of emergent gameplay and why Dwarf Fortress and STALKER are the greatest games ever made, but I’ve got enough stuff to talk about as it is).

Immersion is the future of video games.

I realize that “the future of video games” is a phrase that gets used a lot, primarily to describe whatever trend is currently popular (Facebook games, iOS games, casual games, motion control, you name it), but I’m using it in a slightly different context: I’m talking about progress.

Most people don’t really think about the future advances in tech. What can Kinect really do for us? What does Goal-Oriented Action Planning AI do to enhance video games? What doesprocedural generation mean to video games? How does the RPG fit in with all this? What can we do with interactivity, that sacred ideal that elevates video games beyond all other mediums by eliminating passivity?

The people arguing that games shouldn’t be immersive are as ignorant as the people who argue that Role-Playing Games are nothing more than stat-based adventures. These people want to hold the industry back—to keep it at some larval stage where they’re most comfortable. Maybe it’s out of fear (after all, I don’t doubt that bards objected strongly to novels, nor do I doubt that novelists objected strongly to the medium of film), or maybe they just… really enjoy stat-based adventure games or strategy titles or what have you (I know I do!); I don’t really know their motives.

What I do know is that they’re trying to fight human nature.

Don’t believe me?

Let’s go back to the beginning.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of humanity’s oldest surviving works of fiction. It’s a massive adventure story. Fast-forward to ancient Greece and Homer; note the vast influence of his works (basically all of Western fiction owes its existence to Homer and Plato/Aristotle/Socrates). Jump ahead even further, and take a gander at the increasing believability of fiction (Shakespeare, particularly), as well as the increasing accessibility of entertainment. Check out how the integration of music and storytelling in the 1500s led to the birth of the opera. Pay attention to the rise of global exploration during the Renaissance, as well as the scientific leaps and bounds made by a formerly-repressed society. Study the emergence of 19th century literary criticism, as well as the explosive popularity of novels. Read up on the birth of film, radio, television, comics, and their subsequent popularity.

What do these all have in common?

Well, I was hoping to have a word for you, but I don’t. Curiosity, maybe? Discovery? Newness? Escapism? None of these really quite sum up what I’m trying to get at, so I’ll put it like this: people only enjoy the mundane so much. At some point, every single one of us is going to seek out new experiences. We crave new sensations. We savor them. Experiencing the new is one of the primary motivating factors of human existence.

Humanity, as a whole, has a fascination with the new. When we look back at fiction, we can observe humanity’s fascination with the idea of exploring other worlds. CS Lewis’s Narnia adventures cover this. Lev Grossman’s The Magicians explores it too (fun fact: his brother apparently worked at Looking Glass). Fantasy and science fiction stories sell like crazy. There’s a reason that films like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo didn’t do nearly as well as Avatar. One is mundane. The other is not.

The fact of the matter is that we, the human race, are a bunch of insatiably curious creatures who constantly desire new experiences. Discovery is humanity’s raison d’etre (oh yeah, I can be just as pretentious as the self-styled game critics; ce que je dis, je le dis dans une autre langue, donc, ce que je dis est profond?).

So what’s the future going to be like?

We are creatures driven by discovery. Why do you think Skyrim did so well? Why do you think New Vegas failed? The former facilitated discovery and exploration; the latter was too focused on being a good RPG to care about the world it had created.

The future of games is going to capitalize on this. Arguing that we should eliminate the concept of immersion in games, that the immersive sim should be dead, or anything else along similar lines, is like arguing that we shouldn’t have voice acting and ought to stick with scrolling text. It is an argument that says “games should not be more than they already are!”

Modder Robert Yang may consider immersion to be a fallacy, but he’s mistaken: the future of video games really is the holodeck. All those things I mentioned earlier—Kinect, procedural technology, better AI, and so on and so forth—are the tools that are slowly pushing us towards that end.

…I haven’t even begun to talk about the real-world benefits of creating immersive games. Someone smarter than me could surely go on at length about the possibilities of immersive simulations that allow people to live through various simulated events for… a wide variety of reasons. Someone training to be an EMT could be forced to go through a triage situation, with accurate simulations of panicking people, secondary threats, sensory barrages, and so on and so forth. Researchers could study crowd dynamics (using more advanced AI than anything presently available) in the aftermath of a disaster in order to better understand how to design environments to protect against them. The military already uses immersive sims to save training costs. There are a ton of non-entertainment applications for immersion. Saying we should kill the concept is horrifying, because it’s so limiting.

…and so we come to the conclusion.

There will still be room for the [insert any unimmersive game here] of the world. I’m not saying that they should die; there’s nothing inherently wrong with them. Instead, I’m looking at this in a long-term perspective—not the next week, or the next month, or the next year, but the next century of game development. Games are… going to become something else. Traditional video games will still exist, but this new thing, this transportation to another world… that’s the future. Saying we should kill the concept of immersion and only give credence to attention is a terrible idea.

Considering the way they seem to feel about immersion, it would appear that Ben Abraham, Robert Yang, and Richard Lemarchand don’t just misunderstand the term, but want the legitimate usage to die as well. While I don’t know a lot about Abraham’s personal philosophies, Yang’s made his pretty clear in his Dark Past series of blog posts—he thinks the immersive sim should die. Lemarchand’s philosophies are made clear by the games he creates, and
Do I sound upset?

These guys seem smart—really, they do—but by failing to understand the nuance of the word “immersion,” they seem primed to damage the medium.

Look, I may be just a poor college student (I can’t even afford a good school) who is trying to learn game design while his school falls down around his head (seriously, I’m not kidding about the good school thing). Unlike Lemarchand and Yang, I’ve never made a video game in my life. I’ve worked on some other forms of RPG before, and I’m trying to work on an indie game right now, but I obviously don’t have the body of work behind me that these guys do. I may never have the body of work behind me, at the rate things are going.

…but… I feel like they’ve got it all wrong. If they’re the guys who tell us where games should go—if we follow them—I know we’ll be worse off for it.

They scare me.

(Also, in case anyone is wondering, yes, this is one of the reasons I prefer Western to Japanese games. Japan tends to prefer to design more abstract, non-immersive games, which is a totally valid method of expression, but not one I personally enjoy)

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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.

Food for Thought

“Where is the game that questions governments, challenges society, hell, asks a bloody question? Let alone issues. Good heavens, imagine a game that dealt with issues!”

John Walker, of RPS fame, recently posed this question in his article bemoaning the lack of games that have any real substance to them. As someone who had a conversation just yesterday about all the games that I consider to have terrible stories (which is almost all of them), you can’t get much dismissive than me. So… when I recommend a game, understand that I do it because I have incredibly high standards.

…aaaaand that’s why I was surprised when John went on to say this: “I want there to continue to be Call Of Duty games. But I also want there to be gaming’s All Quiet On The Western Front. It’s our 1935, and it’s about time it happened.”

Well, um.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is that game, John.

I know, I know. Everyone wants to hate on Modern Warfare 2. They say it’s a dumb, stupid Baysplosionfest. It’s strange, really: before Modern Warfare 2 came out, Call of Duty was one of the best (the absolute best) gaming experiences in the known universe. Call of Duty 4 was one of the finest games in a year that saw Portal and Bioshock released. The nuke scene, the sniper level… so much of that was memorable and superb in every way. Like the original Half-Life before it, Call of Duty transformed the industry through the best scripted events (which are not evil in and of themselves) that had ever been seen, while maintaining a high standard level of linear, corridor-shooting interactivity.

Then came Modern Warfare 2, and all that changed. Unlike most people, who seem to think that one of the finest development studios out there would suddenly be the worst ever, I’m going to blame the rushed, eighteen month development cycle, the fact that the studio had very little love for this game (much like Call of Duty 2) and were only making it as part of a deal that would let the now-stillborn-but-possibly-at-Respawn Future Warfare project come into being, and the fact that the game, in a series birthed on the PC, became nothing more than a bad PC port. Remember the “it has mouse support” debacle? The lack of dedicated servers? For some people, those wounds are still fresh. I think that’s where a lot of the hate really comes from.

Plus, the internet is a thing. The internet is a vast hate machine. It hates what’s popular–look at all the grief Halo, a franchise from one of the best shooter developers to ever walk the Earth with games nothing less than stellar (barring Halo 2’s campaign)–received when it was popular. Look in comment threads around the internet, and you’ll still find people coming out of the closet, admitting that “it wasn’t really that bad,” or “I never really hated it.” Ignore Call of Duty’s longest-time fans and dumb the game down, and you’ll get people screaming about how stupid everything about it is. Have it beat the highest-grossing movie ever made in the span of a month or two, and you can bet there will be a backlash against the game’s popularity as well.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 did deserve some of the complaints it got, mind you. The rushed development led to bugs and imbalances, and the campaign was a bit rough. That said, the people who complained about it are drooling morons.

They love to complain that it was dumbed down and stupid, despite being like every Call of Duty before it, which was praised as intelligent and awesome.

First things first: Modern Warfare moves at a much, much faster pace than most video games. There is no time to stop and have a conversation–imagine if you never had time to stop in Mass Effect 2: you’d never get to know a single character in the game, beyond the occasional “I WILL DESTROY YOU!” or whatever from a teammate. They’d be empty shells. Because of this unrelenting pace, you never really get a feel for the characters, even if they’re actually pretty well defined. I’m not just talking about Soap and Price, either. Makarov is a particularly interesting character. Even Dunn and Foley’ve got personalities.

I believe, across the Modern Warfare series, you play from the perspectives of at least fourteen different characters: Soap, Roach, Price, Yuri, a British soldier, three marines, an astronaut, a father on vacation, two gunners in an AC-130 gunship, a dictator, a CIA spy, and others I can’t recall off the top of my head. That can get pretty confusing. The game is a lot like 24, the action show where Kiefer Sutherland punches people in the face to stop terrorism and it works. That many protagonists in a fast-paced game that never gives you the time to get to know anyone is going to confuse the shit out of people, especially those who are expecting the story to be stupid and aren’t paying attention. If you pay attention to the Modern Warfare games, nearly everything makes sense. Gamesradar’s infamous and rather absurd ‘plot holes in Modern Warfare 2’ article falls apart. The only real plot holes I can remember having any validity are “how, exactly, did Price survive and not manage to be returned to the UK, why is Task Force 141 under Shepard’s control, and how did so many Russian airplanes make it across the continental United States without being noticed before they got to Washington, DC?”

But, hey, eighteen month development time. Three mistakes. That’s really not bad.

Ultimately, however, that fast pace and rapid character shift means that all the plot bits that are there–the frequently-good writing–is often ignored.

I can’t say I got much of a feel for the characters in, say, Mass Effect 2. Grunt and Miranda were pinocchios. Jacob was… inoffensive. Legion was a robot. Garrus was just Space Batmanpunisher because The Dark Knight was a cool movie. Jack was a sensitive girl who kept everyone at bay with anger. Samara was a ronin (Samara? Samurai? get it?). You can’t really say much for those characters. They’re walking encyclopedia entries with loads of personal information. Rarely do they make observations about the world (unless that observation seems to exist to contrast them to the world around, like someone writing about a kid from the country showing up in the city and going “wow, you people are strange!”), or ask questions, or demonstrate any real personality. In the gameplay, it’s even worse.

It’s interesting to get a feel for the characters of Modern Warfare 2, however. Makarov is very much a chess player. He’s arrogant. Patriotic. A complete bastard. Zakhaev’s death scarred him tremendously. Shepard’s blind patriotism to America leads him to cross the line, murdering his own people and innocent civilians to put some pride back on America’s face. Price, however, transcends nationalism, ultimately going rogue, becoming a man without a country for the greater good of the human race.

Those three characters actually sum up one of Modern Warfare 2’s major themes (did Mass Effect 2 have a theme? Nah, it was just a bad, grimdark Dirty Dozen knockoff without the all-important team-building second act): that nationalism and misguided patriotism is a terrible thing indeed. One of the quotes used in the game was from Albert Einstein, who said, “Nationalism is an infantile disease; it is the measles of mankind.” Many of the series’ trademark “death quotes” revolve around themes of nationalism, patriotism, and the dangers thereof.

People like to say that No Russian was a publicity stunt–well, it wasn’t. It was the other half of Modern Warfare 2’s point. Modern Warfare 2 flipped the war on terror on its head, putting the US in the shoes of Afghanistan and Iraq, and asked “is this just?”

Think about it! For reasons you believe to be just, you are made to do a morally questionable act because it might help stop a bad thing. Doing so turns the world on its head. Your country is framed for the actions of a few–perhaps by the country that was already planning to invade you for other reasons. One half of the game has you playing the part of the confused soldier, not knowing what’s going on, being given random, seemingly disconnected objectives, and trying to stave off a surprise invasion. The other half has you playing as the man trying to catch the people responsible.

Modern Warfare 2 ends with you stealthy murdering American soldiers in Afghanistan to pound the point home, as if it wasn’t clear enough.

Was this right? Was this just? Was this invasion a good thing?

The game’s a bit of a “blood for oil!” conspiracy-type story, I’ll admit (Russia took out the US satellite that gave them entry into the US before No Russian took place). It dwells a bit too much on the events and not enough on the characters (but… what would you do? Cutscenes? All the character time is spent during loading sequences and in gameplay dialog; the game’s as efficient as a shark when it comes to gameplay–it’s even better than Half-Life in its relentless desire to keep you in the experience–it never locks you in a room and lets you run around like a madman for ten minutes). It’s got a great deal of failings. But… it does ask questions. It bothers to be more than just an action game. I think the only other post-2007 games I played that really did that were Bioshock 2 and Minerva’s Den, and I’ll write about them elsewhere.

You may dislike the theme, the unrealism, or even disagree with the argument it puts forth. But you can’t disagree that it tries, and it would be hard to disagree with the suggestion that few games try as hard. The only reason it failed was because no one came in expecting it to have a good story, and then, when they did play it, nobody bothered to pay attention to what was actually there. It’s as if they were like “nah, it’s not going to be good, so I don’t care,” or maybe they just fell for the fantastic set pieces. Or, hey, maybe they all just played the multiplayer.

Whatever the case was, people ignored Modern Warfare 2’s story and point, and then they went on about how bad it was. Say what you will about its shortcomings–I can point out many shortcomings in All Quiet on the Western Front–but Modern Warfare 2 made an effort to make a point about the world around us, and there are damn few games I can say the same for.

Also, is the only game I’ve played with homages to one of the best action movies ever: The Rock. Saving the White House, riding on the underwater subthingies, and fighting through the showers were all direct references to some of the best bits in the movie.

The story has its problems, don’t get me wrong, but in terms of actually bothering to ask good questions, Modern Warfare 2 does its job. If you want something greater than baby food… give Modern Warfare 2 a thoughtful go. To run with Walker’s food comparison, I’d say that Modern Warfare 2 is to game stories as a jelly sandwich is to baby food–it’s food for five year olds as opposed to food for infants. Games do need to grow up. They suck. I hate nearly every game story I’ve encountered, unless I’m in a mood for bad stories (which I am, on occasion), but Modern Warfare 2, despite all the hate it gets, is actually one of the few steps in the right direction.

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.

The Most Important Games I Have Ever Played, Part I

I’m not sure when I “got” it.

You have to understand: it wasn’t like most games. It wasn’t that simple. It did not make itself readily available to the player, but, at the same time, it never went out of its way to obfuscate anything either. I don’t think there are any other games I’ve played that have done this; generally, when I play a game, everything is quite easy to understand, and there’s no need to go through it a second time. It’s all up-front and obvious. On the off-chance that I do replay the game, I almost never pick up anything new–I got it all the first time. Honestly, playing video games is the same experience you’re likely to have when watching a simple adventure movie. They’re not deep or anything, just fun.

Oh sure, if you play an RPG, maybe your choices will effect what you learn throughout the course of the game, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I speak of the deeper details, of going back and thinking about the game and spotting all the references, messages, hints, and clues that it has to offer. Generally, games don’t do this that much. If they do, it’s usually pretty blatant. Portal and Bioshock, both released within a few weeks of each other in late 2007, made some attempts towards metatextuality, and everyone and their grandmother latched onto those two, believing themselves so clever for having noticed.

This game isn’t like that–not exactly.

I’m talking about Marathon: Infinity, and if you’re scratching your head right now in befuddlement, don’t worry, because most people haven’t heard of it. Perhaps you’ve heard of Halo: Combat Evolved? Maybe you heard that when Halo was announced for the Xbox, Steve Jobs was very angry. Ever wondered why?

Gaming was never quite popular on Macs. Even with all the love the iDevices are getting, Macs still don’t have that many games, and it’s quite possible that they never will. That said, once upon a time, there was a little developer called Bungie, and before Halo, they developed one of the most important titles in video game history: Marathon. Among other things, Marathon has been credited with the introduction of the vertical rocket jump, vertical look in first person shooters (adding verticality to FPS gameplay, which is one of the most important elements), and, apparently, the popularization of LAN gameplay. You don’t hear about it that much because, hey, it was on a Mac, and id was making bigger contributions with Quake and Doom, but it definitely influenced video gaming for the better.

It’s unfortunate, then, that one thing Marathon did extremely well, few game developers (even Bungie itself) have managed to match, much less exceed. I am talking, of course, about storytelling.

As I’ve said before, people seem to prefer that FPSes be the dumbest games out there. Marathon, particularly the final installment, is direct proof that FPSes aren’t just smart, but some of the smartest games ever produced. Sure, you can get into deathmatching, and yeah, that can appeal to anybody, from the lowest common denominator on up, but if you want, there’s a great story to be found. You’re a super-soldier in hiding, playing the part of a guard on board the Marathon, a colony ship that was once Deimos, one of the two Martian moons. After an attack on the Marathon by a collective of alien slavers (with histories that are interesting stories in and of themselves) in a universe thought populated only by humanity, you’re tasked by one of the Marathon’s three artificial intelligences to rid the colony of the alien infestation.

What follows is a plot of intrigue, betrayal, and madness. Your only “friends,” the AIs, are either going rampant (a sort of insanity unique to artificial intelligences), or, in Durandal’s case, have been rampant the whole time*. If we were to compare the three most famous AI villains in video gaming to states of mental compromise, GLaDOS would be very drunk, SHODAN should be locked up for her own good, and Durandal is the Joker at the height of his game.

Allegiances shift more fluidly than blood spilled into a river. Deaths are faked. Cultures are freed. Impostors are revealed. Time is traveled. Pandora’s box is opened.

Marathon is everything.

It’s got drama (Tycho’s rivalry with Durandal), adventure (escaping a structure as it floods with lava), humor (BOBs stripping naked to avoid detection by the simulacrums), action (the entirety of all three games is basically nonstop action) and, to top it off, metatextual criticism. The game’s smart–while it isn’t on par with, say, Finnegan’s Wake or The Wasteland in terms of its ability to take culture and remix it, Marathon, particularly Infinity, makes every other video game ever made look like See Spot Run in comparison. There is so much you can discover while playing Marathon; each word seems carefully considered, each message is layered with multiple meanings and hidden references. From obscure scientific papers and Greek myth (to the not-so-obscure, like the title) to tons of science fiction and horror books and authors, Marathon covers so many topics it would be impossible for me to cover them all.

I suppose it’s a good thing that the Marathon Story Page exists, then? Here, have a taste of Marathon.

When I began, I mentioned something it took me a while to get. Beware, MASSVE spoilers follow (but first, a picture!):

“[He/she/it] was far ahead of [his/her/its] time” is a fairly trite phrase these day, but it’s true of Marathon: Infinity. If you remember, I mentioned that a bunch of people felt they were very clever for spotting the rather obvious messages (this is not to disparage them in any way; Valve and Irrational did a great job with those games, and everyone ought to play them) of the games. Well… Marathon Infinity did it eleven years earlier.

The premise of Marathon Infinity is that a dreadful monster, a Lovecraftian embodiment of chaos itself, was imprisoned in the heart of a star millions of years ago and is about to be released by an insane Pfhor general. Throughout the course of the game, you fail many times to prevent this from happening. After each failure, you are sent back in time to prevent this from happening. Your oneiric journey takes you to many strange places, including Durandal’s (or perhaps your own) memories. All the while, Durandal is trying to escape the inevitable collapse of the universe and escape, because “escape would make us god” (this is a nod to Marvel’s Galactus character and his origins).

Only… there’s a bit more to it than that.

Durandal sees it at the end. It’s the final screen–the game’s over and you’ve saved the universe. He reaches out to you–and by you, I don’t mean the character you play, I mean you, the player. You can read his final words here.

You see, he wanted to escape his reality–that of the game. This could all be hogwash, I’ll freely admit, but I don’t believe it is. You, the player, are the game’s destiny. You are the one who brings about the Marathon universe’s final moments. Throughout the game, Durandal belittles you, telling you how worthless you are, but by the end, he comes to understand the nature of your relationship. He held no power over you, and, in the final moments of the game, he realizes that he could never escape the game, unleashing his considerable powers on a universe greater than his own.

I don’t think a single game has done metatextuality better than Marathon did. You owe it to yourself to play this trilogy.

It saddens me to know that Greg Kirkpatrick, apparently the lead writer for Marathon: Infinity, isn’t still out there writing games. Looking at the few scraps of information we have about his next project, Duality, which, sadly, never came to fruition, I can’t help but think that it would have transformed video games to the same degree that Deus Ex, System Shock 2, Unreal, and Half-Life did, all around the same time. If it were possible, I’d gladly trade half a dozen members of the industry’s top talent to have him back. But, hey, maybe he’s happy not making video gams; last I heard, he was a high school teacher or something.

Oh well.

Well, that’s it for today. But before I finish, I leave you with this: Marathon’s source code was released by Bungie some time ago. Enterprising enthuisiasts have developed Aleph One, a way of running the Marathon games on modern PCs. If you want to play the Marathon games, you can, completely free of charge. Have fun learning why id’s shotguns mean absolutely nothing (dual wielding shotguns that reload in a manner your mind cannot begin to comprehend). You’re welcome.

*(i did it i did it i brought all this here all them here.  our friends with three eyes and their toys and their cyborg pets and their computers.  i did it i did it.  i saw them i saw them far away not looking our way and i called them here i called them here)