Wednesday, March 27, 2013

KISS: Fallout: New Vegas

Keep ISimple, Stupid:
A concise analysis of Fallout: New Vegas

Fallout New Vegas should be the norm for games. It is not. It is the apex.

That's a rough statement to make. FO:NV is by no means perfect - it's hitched to the absolutely horrendous engine of Fallout 3, and there's certainly some holes and weaknesses in its writing. Personally, I could've done with a less clear split between the NCR and the Legion from a moral choice standpoint. But let me say first what Fallout New Vegas does extremely well that many games skimp on or even don't bother with.

Fallout New Vegas creates a detailed setting. Fallout New Vegas creates a plausible scenario. Fallout New Vegas allows the player to interact with the setting and scenario.

Three little things. Three little things that make all the difference.

Games are an interactive medium. It is their nature. It is why they are "games" and not "movies". Games tend to forget this, perhaps because it's harder to make a game interactive, or perhaps because they desire to emulate movies and gain some measure of their respectability. But games are games. Games are interactive. Games have a player, and the player does things. Do the things matter? It depends.

In Fallout New Vegas, the answer is "yes". In very simple ways, too, not big complex ones. Hell, I could probably make something akin to New Vegas just using the Neverwinter Nights module designer. There's factions whose opinion of you is influenced by your actions. There's quests. There's multiple story paths. The world is "functional" and "open", rather than being a super-scripted set of corridors. It's not super-unique programming, it's just normal design for an RPG.

But it's also one of the only games that's bothered to do it.

I can name maybe a few others off the top of my head. "Mercenaries" and "Way of the Samurai" are the main ones that spring to mind. Games where the traditional mission-based open-world setup is broken up by the possibility of having different allegiances and causing different things to happen. The possibility of gameplay having an effect on the way those allegiances turn. The idea of a game being actually interactive. The work put in to make the world feel "real" and "tangible" rather than being a playground or "video game level". Little things. Little things that make the player feel like they're doing something and not just being carted along a theme park ride.

Compare FO3 to FO:NV and you'll see that apart from the totally questionable handling of the setting and tone, the biggest difference is that FO3 is a single story with minor variations, and FO:NV is about a culminating event where the protagonist can be on one of many different sides. And that's it, really. FO:NV gives you a scenario and lets you approach it. FO3 drags you by the hand to a console with three buttons on it and demands you press one. It's almost grudging about it, too, like it wouldn't bother but it feels obligated to do it. And I'm not sure that's the kind of thing we should accept in an interactive medium, especially from a game that brands itself as a "roleplaying" game.

Frankly, that's all I have to say about that.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

"Aliens", "TWD", and a lesson on Tone.

There's a part in the director's commentary for "Aliens" that really stuck with me. In it, James Cameron explains how, in his opinion, Aliens works well on an emotional and storytelling level because it stays consistent. There are changes in mood, yes, but the tone of the work is absolutely consistent. The movie feels like an enclosed reality, where people are afraid for their own well-being rather than making cheeky asides to the camera or throwing off one-liners. The movie depicts an intensely dangerous situation and you can feel this rather than simply being told it. People live and die in ways that make sense - death is sudden and harsh, while struggling to survive takes a huge amount of effort and resistance. Every battle is important, and every conflict can lead to another survivor being picked off.

With that said, I'd like to call attention to two games. The first is Telltale Games' "The Walking Dead", an episodic adventure game following a group of survivors as they attempt to escape from a zombie-infested Georgia. The second is Gearbox's "Aliens: Colonial Marines", a run-and-gun action game where a heavily armored protagonist and his invincible AI buddies shoot their way through corridors full of aliens and even other human beings. These two games represent two opposite sides of a spectrum: on the one hand, a game focused very heavily on social interaction and decision-making, and on the other hand, a largely brainless shooter with almost no real interactivity.

Between the two, Colonial Marines is actually the more "serious" (read: melodramatic) game. While there's a few distasteful quips here and there, the entire story consists of people getting angry and shouty and grim. This is contradictory with the game's actual gameplay, where the protagonists are in no real danger. The opposite of this would be a game like "Uncharted", where the protagonists are constantly laughing and joking despite being engaged in life-threatening adventures where they are literally killing hundreds of people. Both of these tones are inconsistent with a single reality, but rather reflect a warped reality that exists most commonly in videogames.

By contrast, TWD has moods that are appropriate to the situation - some scenes are cute and heartwarming, others are scary, still others are moving and sad. Despite this, it's a far more serious game, because all of these exist as realistic mood changes in a single consistent reality. The zombies never really "go away" - there is no point where they truly act like they're not there anymore. But there are certain periods of levity and lightness even in the face of tragedy, just like there are in real life. Their jokes carry the weight of their situation, rather than being entirely separate from it.

The main accomplishment of TWD is that it is a game where social interaction and interpersonal relationship are actually a huge part of the game rather than a goofy little sideshow to the shooting/stabbing. It does this through a mostly brute-force method, individually creating scenes and then linking them together with an if-then relationship. While the amount of work necessary to create this scenario makes it difficult to expect as a mainstream gaming concept, it should still be appreciated when it exists. The fact of the matter is that TWD, along with its spiritual predecessor Heavy Rain, masks its weaknesses by making the player afraid of making mistakes at all times. Not all failed QTEs lead to bad results, but the player doesn't know which ones are acceptable to fail and which ones aren't. TWD takes it a step further than Heavy Rain by having some failures affect the way characters think of you even if they don't die. Like Aliens, TWD is a small-cast survival scenario, and the gameplay actually reflects this rather than keeping it separate as a cutscene.

If there was going to be an Aliens game - I mean an actual "Aliens" game, a game version of the movie Aliens - which of these games do you think it would resemble? For clarity's sake, I'll make two comparative lists.

Things That TWD Has In Common With Aliens
- Centered around a group of survivors attempting to hole up against a relentless horde of hostiles.
- Focuses more on social dynamics and interactions than direct action.
- Weapons and ammo are tools for survival, and rationing their use is incredibly important.
- Maintenance of a consistent theme, tone, and reality even as the mood darkens and brightens.
- When action does take place, it is highly likely that a character will die during the course of it.
- One of the characters is a young girl whose parents are killed and who is adopted by the main character.
- There is a slight focus on "family dynamics" to create a new home (and hope) for the young girl.

Things That CM Has In Common With Aliens
- It's the same setting.
- A lot of the sounds are reused.
- Hicks is in it.
- yeop

Sunday, March 17, 2013

KISS: "Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots"

Keep It Simple, Stupid:
A Concise Analysis of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots

The setting of Metal Gear Solid 4 depicts a world where the battlefield is under total control, and war is a commodity. The income gained by war serves as a major pillar of the First World Economy, with even countries like the US and Great Britain being largely dependent on it. Wars are fought not for ideology or nationalism or even ethnicity, but instead are simply ordered by private companies to continue a string of proxy conflicts and keep the so-called "war economy" rolling. Nanomachines are used to connect soldiers to a control network, preventing them from experiencing fear, doubt, remorse or even pain, and essentially turning the entire experience into a video game. This entire arrangement is the master plan of an AI system known as "The Patriots", which plans to control society through automated censorship and control.

The concept is explained in further detail in this briefing.

There are several glaring issues with this scenario.

Firstly, despite the ostensible nature of warfare in the MGS4 world, the conflicts seen in the game (an ethnic conflict in the Middle East, a governmental clash in South America, and a rebellion in Eastern Europe) are all based on classical grounds rather than being two PMCs fighting for no other reason than "they were told to". Despite the opening narration focusing on how meaningless and purposeless these wars are, every war depicted in the game has a "classic" reason for it, of the kind that is supposed to be obsolete. This is not only problematic in its own right, but also connects to the other two issues.

Secondly, the "War Economy" exists apparently just to connect the entire first world population to warmongering. Rather than simply saying "the military-industrial complex is intentionally starting wars for their own profit" or something along those lines, the game suggests that the entire first world is wholly dependent on war as a factor for economics. This concept violates the basic tenets of the Broken Window Fallacy. In short, "war as a business" only controls the entire economy if there is enough money coming into make up for everything else being spent on war. In our existing economy, private contractors are paid by governments. The question is "who is buying the services of these PMCs, and where are they getting the money and/or resources to do so?" While mercenary service can boost one country's economy (Switzerland managed to pull this off in the Renaissance), the idea of suspending the entire first world economy on income from the third world seems suspect.

Thirdly - and this is something brought up in both MGS4 and Metal Gear Rising - the relation between this state of affairs and the plans of the Patriot AI System are extremely unclear. In MGS2 the goal of the Patriots is to censor and control world politics, keeping them as docile and controlled as possible. Despite this, MGS4 depicts a war erupting into constant warfare (again, not just proxy wars but actual civil wars and conflicts). In both MGS4 and MGR, the characters simply conclude that the Patriots AIs must have gone "off the rails" from their creators' original intentions. To me, this isn't enough to justify a totally inexplicable state of affairs, especially when those same AIs had a clear (and contradictory) plan in MGS2.

To be perfectly fair there are plenty of neat and interesting things about MGS4, especially in a sci-fi "what if" sense. For example, in MGS4 the rise of private armies means that sleek corporate advertising and appeals to thrillseeking (or escaping from poverty) have replaced duty and patriotism as the primary motivators for recruitment. This, almost unbelievably, serves as actual commentary on the practices used by actual recruiters today, as well as a critical look at an amoral corporate culture.

This scenario could be further compounded by the SOP system, which releases chemicals into the bloodstream that control emotions like fear and remorse, and reward soldiers for killing enemy combatants. In essence, the "thrill" of war is sharply increased, serving as an outlet for a huge amount of masculine cultural output - again, a point where commentary on society could quite easily have been made. The SOP system essentially turns war into a videogame, a metaphor made repeatedly during the course of MGS4 but never really acted upon despite numerous opportunities. We never see the world through the eyes of the PMCs, or talk to them as people. Instead, they are video game enemies just like every other set of video game enemies, with no characterization or humanization. Even a scene as simple as seeing unmasked PMCs relaxing in a camp (perhaps playing video games in their spare time?) could have helped with this. Instead, there is nothing.

Even the basic idea of SOP "makes sense" from a story perspective - after all, the Patriots want to control everything, and exercising complete control over the US Army (down to the individual soldier) makes complete sense. However, it mostly comes into conflict with the existence and proliferation of PMCs, which is also part of their plan despite running entirely contradictory to it. The idea of controlling PMCs with the System makes sense, since it would serve as a failsafe, but the necessity of the PMCs does not.

There are two axes that MGS4 must be judged on. The first is whether or not it made sense as a story, and that is the root of my criticisms. The second is whether or not it teaches lessons that are applicable to reality, and that is the root of my suggestions. The first deals with whether or not MGS4 had a good setting, and the second deals with whether or not MGS4 teaches lessons or has any artistic value.

I'm sure there are many individual keen to say that they felt MGS4 was incredibly moving and emotional, but before those people show up I'd like to note something. The second aspect - the idea of learning from MGS4's setting - isn't some sideshow. It's not some strawman I'm setting up in order to make gamers look like uneducated nerds eager to grasp at any signs of legitimacy.  A huge number of reviewers and gamers thought that MGS4 was legitimately insightful, in most cases because they didn't know that much about PMCs themselves. Like SpecOps, MGS4 represents a false savior for many - it failed to teach them reality, but convinced them that they knew what reality was. I think this represents more clearly than anything why I am so leery of the idea of games being treated like art, and the sort of community that endorses it while stifling criticism and analysis.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

KISS: "Spec Ops: The Line"

Keep ISimple, Stupid:
A concise analysis of Spec Ops: The Line

"Spec Ops: The Line" is a third-person exercise in ludonarrative dissonance - which is to say, a third-person regen-health cover shooter - created by Yager Development and 2K Games. It attempts to "subvert" the "tropes" found in existing regen-health cover shooters despite those games almost all attempting to do the same thing, resulting in a round robin tournament finale where the loser will be declared the boring straight man that all the others are making fun of (spoiler: It's Medal of Honor).

One of the most notable and cited scenes of "Spec Ops: The Line" is the White Phosphorous scene.

This scene depicts a scenario in which the protagonist, while burning enemies alive to death with 84mm incendiary rounds fired from a mortar, accidentally (air quotes) kills some civilians. The player is shocked and surprised to learn that they have killed civilians despite the civilians in question being visibly unarmed and not engaged in combat. From this, gamers learned several valuable lessons. Well, one valuable lesson.

1) Sometimes when you are shooting at people, the people are civilians and shooting them is bad.

One might assume that the basic concept of not shooting unarmed people would be simple enough, but apparently Spec Ops: The Line was a daring piece for breaching this otherwise untouched subject. Perhaps in the future of gaming we can potentially address even more controversial subjects, like "White Phosphorous is technically banned by the Geneva Convention anyways" and "soldiers are actually people so maybe don't kill them all either, especially if they surrender or something".

While many gamers are still reeling from this incredible revelation, it's worth discussing the ways in which other games have discussed similar subject matter with a bit more aplomb.

Call of Duty 4, one of the games that Spec Ops is supposedly subverting, makes it very clear in its equivalent gameplay segment that civilians are not to be targeted. While it could easily be possible to make commentary on the joy that the player is meant to feel by exploding hundreds of enemy soldiers from an invulnerable gunship a mile in the sky, Spec Ops declines to challenge this aspect but instead focuses on the fact that you might be killing civilians. In CoD4, the few civilians in this segment are noted by the fact that they are neither carrying nor shooting weapons, a nuance that apparently escaped Spec Ops' target audience.

Full Spectrum Warrior is a tactics-based game where the player commands one squad composed of two US Army fire teams. In this game, the player does not directly control the soldiers' guns, but rather assigns zones of engagement. The civilians in this game exist in normal gameplay, and unless the player is quick to stop them, soldiers may engage enemies when civilians are in the way. This kills the civilian. Going by the testimony of actual US military personnel, this is far closer to the reality of civilian death in war than Spec Ops' scenario.

ARMA 2 devises similar scenarios - civilians inhabit towns during regular gameplay, and will often be caught up in battles between factions. The high usage of explosives and artillery in this game makes an even more direct statement than FSW, as entire areas will sometimes be targeted for artillery or mortar attacks by individuals incapable of judging the presence of civilians. Contrasted against the direct thermal visuals of Spec Ops' scenario, it's much more reflective of the haze of war. This is compounded by the multiplayer mode in which one side consists of guerillas posing as civilians, a scenario much more in line with the reality of the insurgency in Iraq.

Metal Gear Solid and Rainbow Six even go so far as to say that maybe even killing hostile soldiers is bad - MGS offers non-lethal alternatives such as tranq darts or stealthy avoidance, while Rainbow Six sees some enemies surrendering and offering themselves up for capture.While simplistic, these measures humanize enemies and make the choice of killing or not killing them more meaningful, whereas the always-hostile, always-angry enemies of Spec Ops and similar shooters cannot really be treated like humans from a moral standpoint.

Killing is wrong and bad. This is a lesson that gamers actually had trouble learning and needed help to internalize. Despite this, they seem to still think of themselves as being intellectuals. This is itself a mystery.

Monday, March 11, 2013

"You'll Want To Protect The New Lara Croft"


Tomb Raider is a 2013 release, re-inventing a classic adventure series with a grittier, more survival-based mood. It depicts heroine Lara Croft as a younger, more inexperienced, more vulnerable character and details her transition from a "normal" girl to a hardened killer as depicted in later games. Through the game we see aspects of her character that we took for granted in previous games explored from a more human element, giving them extra weight and allowing for the kind of character development that prior games sorely lacked.

All of this is fucking bullshit.

Tomb Raider 2013 is a change, yes. It is a transition from one genre to another: a transition from "action-adventure" to "action-survival". Which is to say, a transition from a genre where female protagonists are incredibly rare to one where they're actually really common. Here is a list of survival-horror games that have female protagonists:

- Silent Hill (3 only)
- Fatal Frame (series)
- Resident Evil (series)
- Clock Tower (series)
- Parasite Eve (series)
- Haunting Ground

Now compare that to the list of action-adventure games with female player-characters:

- Tomb Raider
- Metroid
- Beyond Good & Evil

The difference between the genres is pretty clear. Women are "allowed" to be in survival horror games (not exclusively, but in a far more balanced ratio than any other genre) for the same reason women are "allowed" to be the leads in Slasher flicks - because it's part of the appeal. One could give a reason like "men have natural survival instincts to protect women", but if that was the only reason you wouldn't get detailed gruesome deaths combined with fanservice (Haunting Ground especially was absolutely HEINOUS for this). Action-adventure games have a certain dignity to them, a certain empowerment. Protagonists in action-adventure games do not die horrendous, upsetting deaths. They get shot a few times and their ragdoll kicks in and that's it. They do not get impaled. They do not get assaulted. Their corpses are not lovingly panned over once the deed is done.

The question is, why did Tomb Raider "need" redefining? Why did it need reinventing? Look at that list again. Of those three franchises, "Metroid" fucked everything up with Samus' characterization in Other M, and BG&E is a neglected afterthought that the game industry only keeps around to point to when people say there's no female protagonists. So what was so bad about Tomb Raider being a fairly normal action-adventure game, akin to Uncharted or Metal Gear in terms of tone?

I can't say what that is on my own. But anyone who remembers the initial E3 debacle remembers things like a PR executive mentioning "rape", or the exaggerated ways in which Lara squealed and cried (rather than grunting and yelling like an actual woman in danger would). Things that make it seem less like "this is just a serious action game" and more like "there's something really creepy going on here". Yes, they eventually brought in Rhianna Pratchett to write the game based on her writing on games like "Overlord" and "Heavenly Sword", but that doesn't exactly match the tone they were going for, does it?

So maybe I don't know EXACTLY why Tomb Raider 2013 is a grim, serious reboot where Lara is constantly soaked in blood and afraid for her life. Maybe I don't know for certain that it's some creepy kind of sexualization designed to replace the overt form present in previous games (and who can really say that it was worse compared to what's essentially gore-porn?) Maybe I can't cite exact quotes from the dev team apart from all the ones made at E3 that they hurriedly rescinded. Maybe I don't know this shit.

But here's what I do know: they took a female protagonist out of a genre where she was one of the few representatives of her sex. Then they put her into a genre where women are incredibly common and sexualized despite being horrifying and gory. They put her into the same genre as THIS FUCKING BULLSHIT. They reduced her agency and capability, ostensibly for the sake of  telling a more realistic story. But that hasn't happened to a male character, has it. That hasn't happened to Nathan Drake. That wouldn't happen to Indiana Jones. No, he's fine. He's cool. Everything's cool.