Friday, August 23, 2013

Kane and Lynch 2: The Anti-Shooter before Spec Ops

I've never played a game like Kane and Lynch 2.

Most other reviewers haven't either, it seems, judging by their largely negative treatment of the game.  Destrectoid gave the game a score of 1: An "Epic fail" calling it "a broken, messy, sloppy, completely unbalanced joke of a game". Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation gave an overwhelmingly condemnatory review of the game, saying "There's nothing fun about the game...just one piece of nauseating unpleasantness after another."

Which is why I was quite surprised to find I actually enjoyed the game. Indeed, the bar had been set so low for the game that at a point I was in the giddy hyperbole of calling it a masterpiece. Later, after a cold shower and sufficient detoxing time, I recanted that statement, but I still found myself with a surprisingly good game on my hands, and one that had done something few other games before it had attempted to do: make an Anti-Shooter.

By my definition, an Anti-Shooter is a game which uses the common Ludonarrative tropes of the Shooter Genre with the intent to subvert them. The Anti-Shooter is about taking the cliches and characteristics commonly accepted in the shooter and exposing them to fresh critique. By this definition, Anti-Shooter elements can be found in the "Would You Kindly" scene of Bioshock, the nuclear blast sequence in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and even in the over-the-top killpoint mechanic of Bulletstorm. However, while these games subvert some elements of the shooter, they remain at their core traditional shooters. Far rarer are those games whose greater ludonarrative language is geared towards subverting the shooter, but among those few I include Spec Ops: The Line and Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days.

The entire game of Dog Days, in fact, could be taken as an extrapolation of the Thomas Hobbes's quote on the state of the uncivilized man: Nasty, brutish, and short.

Short is the stickler among most people. One of the most often quoted criticisms of it was that even though it was sold the full $60 price, it only provided four to five hours of gameplay. Fortunately for consumers everywhere, that price dropped sharply after release, to the point that it's now an easy $10 on Steam, and it's well worth an afternoon's playthrough.

For full disclosure, I have not played the original Kane and Lynch, Dead Men, nor do I particularly feel inclined to do so. While I'm sure the knowledge of what occurred in Dead Men is helpful for more easily getting acquainted with the world of Dog Days, I feel that Dog Days can and does stand on its own. We do not need the original game to know of the relationship of Kane and Lynch: we see it when Lynch reaches out to shake Kane's hand and is left hanging. We don't need to know of what goes on between Kane and his daughter: we see it in how Kane avoids discussing it just as the duo prepares to undergo another violent spree. And we don't need to know of Lynch's firing on hostages in Dead Men to know that he is not mentally sound: we see it on the battlefield as he mutters to himself, counting backwards from ten in an attempt to control himself and ultimately failing. Many criticized Dog Days for providing little in the way of characterization for its characters. I found the opposite: not only were the duo well-characterized, but they were characterized in a way that showed a remarkable amount of subtlety and restraint (relatively speaking: we are talking about shooters here).

From the beginning, the game is about subverting the conceits of the typical modern shooter. In contrast with the aesthetics of games such as Modern Warfare or Battlefield, which inundate the player with a cinematic view of a gorgeously realized world, the aesthetics of Dog Days are deliberately anti-cinematic.

The camera looks and handles like the cheap handheld camcorder that is the weapon of choice of amateur filmmakers--and snuff films. Lights are distorted with vertical bars, pixelation and digital artifacts pop up when the player is shot, and the muffling of the wind cuts into the audio when the player sprints, while the camcorder bobs nauseatingly up and down as though the person holding the camera is struggling to keep up. When the player is knocked down or killed, the camera falls with them, like the filmmaker was caught in the crossfire.

Then there is the intentional pixellation. Nudity is prevalent in several parts of the game, and the various naughty bits are kindly pixellated for our comfort. Yet there is another pixellation, which occurs when a character, either the player of NPCs, is shot in the head--the entire head pixellates, working as both an easy way to avoid animating headshots, and also as a disturbing implication that whatever happened to the person's head is so horrific it had to be censored.

The Shanghai of Kane and Lynch similarly carries an unpleasant atmosphere. While much criticism has been made of the constant march of brown and grey shooters. Dog Days took that aesthetic framework and took it to its most extreme and miserable. The daylight sky is constantly overcast and rainy, and sterile florescent lights bathe all it covers in an eerie glow. From the cramped alleyways and the alienating lights of the city proper, to the drab, brown-and-gray husks of unfinished buildings and loading docks, Shanghai is to Kane and Lynch what Silent Hill is to James Sunderland--a reflection of their own inner psychologies.

In fact, in many ways is Kane and Lynch 2 like Silent Hill 2, primarily in the game play, which in both games is engineered to be deliberately unpleasant. The shooting in Dog Days is given a touch of realism often overlooked in other games--the two career criminals can't aim worth shit in a chaotic firefight. While all guns are perfectly lethal close up, their effectiveness reduces drastically even at midrange, where most guns can at best leave a violent spray that leaves only two or three bullets hitting their mark if you're lucky. The guns similarly kick back something awful, the sights jittering up and down with every shot.

An unlike many other games, which often involve the players in sanitized fights against enemies on a civilian-less battlefield, Dog Days is rife with civilian crossfire, innocents are gunned down for no other sin than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it's a distressingly common occurrence for a civilian to run out of cover only to be gunned down because I, in a split-second impulse, confused him for a belligerent.

And the combat is tough. Really tough. In contrast with the impenetrable cover of other 3rd person shooters, Dog Days's cover is often fragile and insufficient, and enemies can and frequently do blast through your meagre defenses through the power of bullets behaving like bullets and glass windows actually being the useless cover they are. And its a problem only compounded by the aforementioned poor aiming and the tough-as-hell enemies Kane and Lynch fight against. Often, these enemies seem able to soak up just as many bullets as Kane and Lynch can, and move strategically around the battlefield, flanking the two better than I normally could. More than once did I run down a corner I thought was cleared only to be shot dead by an enemy that had moved into an ambushing position while I wasn't looking.

The end result was me constantly on my guard, paranoiacally checking every corner, every edge of cover once, twice, and thrice to make sure no enemies were ganging up on me, and making sure I had enough cover and distance between them to give me a moment to catch my breath, which I often didn't. And because of the difficulty of fighting the enemies, with that difficulty came an anger and brutality within myself that seemed to mirror the emotions of Kane and Lynch: at least once during the game, when I opened fire on a group of exposed enemies, I had the urge to shout out completely seriously "That's right, eat it you fucks!". It's rare for a game to so immerse me in the world that I feel what the characters feel, but this is a game that did it.

The effect is a nauseating, unpleasant experience, and one that is absolutely perfect.

And the titular duo are just as unpleasant as the world is. Kane might be the more appealing of the two, but even he sports a scraggly, unkempt beard along with a long scar running down a whitened eye. Lynch, meanwhile, is overweight, with a combination of long hair and a receding hairline that does no favors for his face. They are the antithesis of the clean-shaven, whitebread-wonder shooter hero, because rather than taking the appearance of the handsome everyman and making him a shooter protagonist, they took the shooter protagonist and extrapolated the appearance from that. This probably is what two career criminals who use violence as their most common problem-solving means would look like. Their actions, rather than their intended audience, inform their appearance.

But they are not only externally ugly, but internally as well. Kane and Lynch: Even their names evoke deep-rooted evil. In combat, they bark out orders to each other and swear in equal measure, their voices a sandpapery amalgamation of anger, panic, and exhaustion. Throughout the story, they show zero guilt for the horrible things they've done, for the innocents they've harmed and the destruction they've wrought, and by the end it's clear they've not changed one iota. These are two horrible, irredeemable people, and they simply don't care.

Yet the characters are (marginally) more complex than that. When the game begins, Kane is coming to Shanghai to perform the ever-fantasized "one last deal" so that he can use the money to support his estranged daughter. Meanwhile, Lynch has settled down as a low-level thug, even finding a girlfriend who's seemed to tame the worst aspects of them, and is cooperating with Kane on the deal. Naturally, things go wrong, but what's interesting is how horribly they go wrong.

When Kane helps Lynch in trying to shakedown a police informant, they end up in a series of firefights that culminates in accidental killing of the daughter of a powerful and corrupt official named Shanxi, and all hell is unleashed on them. The criminal organization they're doing the deal with is attacked, and when the organization finds out they turn on the duo. Shanxi captures Xiu and tortures her to death, nearly doing the same to Kane and Lynch, leaving them naked and covered in horrible scars when they manage to break free. When they try to escape Shanghai, they are captured by Shanxi only to break free and fight through his private army before finally cornering the man at the top of his corporate building. Kane tries to bargain with the man for a way out to Shanghai, only to have Lynch shoot him point-blank, disrupting any potential bargain they could have gotten out of him and ensuring the entirety of Shanghai is turned against them. Finally, when they try once again to escape, they do so by attempting to hijack an airplane full of passengers, and the game ends with the plan taking off and Kane and Lynch now internationally wanted criminals.

But so much of that could be avoided if Kane and Lynch simply took a step back and tried to go about their problems in a different way. Obviously the event that brings the two together--the arms deal--occurs because both seek to live a good life through the propagation of violence, but it goes deeper than that. Shanxi wouldn't have reason to pursue them if they didn't go after the informant guns blazing and end up killing his daughter. Had Kane and Lynch not tried to stay for the arms deal, Xiu might still be alive, and the three of them could have fled Shanghai and be safe from both Shanxi and the criminal organization. Had they not tried to hijack a plane, well...

What keeps them doing these things? What spurs them on to attempt increasingly violent acts even when the odds are stacked against them?

Perhaps the most clear enumeration of why occurs midway through the game, after the pair have escaped the makeshift torture chamber where Xiu was killed and have been running for their life naked and scarred through the streets of Shanghai. They take refuge in a TV store, and, as the ghostly blue lights of the televisions illuminate them, go over their motivations. Lynch, with his girlfriend dead, sees no reason for trying to meet with their criminal boss (who may not yet know of their betrayal) for the arms deal, but Kane tries to convince Lynch to help him by reiterating his own motivation: He's doing this for his daughter. With the arms deal, he's trying to get money that he can send back to his daughter, to repair the damaged relationship between them. "We can get out of here." Kane says to Lynch. "I want out. But I need this deal. I need to do this for my daughter. And then no more--this is my last job!"

Anyone else should see the illogic of it--hell, their own bodies stand as testament to just how wrong this course of action can and likely will go. But Kane and Lynch, intentionally or not, turn a blind eye to it. Ultimately, for both of them it's the result of what so many other criminals use as justification for their crimes: a fantasy. Both of them dream of using the money they glean from the deal to settle down, Lynch living out a comfortable existence with his girlfriend Xiu, Kane fixing ties with his daughter. Even assuming all things go well it's not particularly well-thought out: Lynch, while working as a thug in Shanghai, has no doubt attracted many enemies over his tenure. Kane, meanwhile, thinks he can solve the problems of his estrangement with money while ignoring the criminal behavior and controlling nature of their father-daughter relationship that brought about the estrangement in the first place (for example, later on, when Kane calls his daughter, he leaves a voice message on her phone, attempting to sell himself doing the entire thing for her, telling her that he loves her, and implying that the endeavor he's undertaking will likely end with him dead, a final move to cement the guilt he tries to put on his daughter to make her want him back).

They're ludicrous pie-in-the-sky fantasies, but Kane and Lynch cling tight to them. In part, it's a dream of paradise that tides them through their their violent hell of a career, a belief that if they just fight enough, shoot enough, and kill enough, they can eventually come out unscathed on the other end. At the same time, however, their fantasies are a way for them to convince themselves they're doing something good. That's not to say Kane and Lynch consider themselves to be good men, they most assuredly don't. But they do want to believe that they can achieve good ends with bad deeds. They want to believe that all their violence, all the ugliness and misery of their lives has a silver lining that justifies it. The tragedy, the one they fail to recognize, is that it doesn't. There is no silver lining for the two of them. There is only a hole they dig themselves further and further into.

In the end, Kane and Lynch are no different than any other shooter protagonist, trying to use violence to fight their way through their problems, but unlike in other games, they are in an environment that reacts semi-realistically to that attempt. Namely, by only adding to the problems they have. Game after game is interested in providing for the player a power fantasy, but Dog Days shows just how utterly unreal that fantasy is by putting it in two of the most loathsome protagonists in videogame history. Nothing works out well for Kane and Lynch because they use their guns to solve their problems. All the gains they make in the game, they lose, and when they've lost everything they could lose, they lose more, because no matter what they still stubbornly cling to the idea that they can save themselves with liberal application of violence.

At one point, Lynch remarks "Why does everyone around us die?" To anyone else, the answer should be self-evident, but the central flaw of both Kane and Lynch is that they have no idea just how wrong they are, like every other shooter protagonist. While in Spec Ops, Walker eventually realizes the horrible reality of what he's done, Kane and Lynch have no such revelation--or perhaps they had it and ignored it. They are irredeemable, both from within and without. They'll continue on their path of destruction until either themselves or the world is destroyed.

So why has Spec Ops become the seminal anti-shooter while Dog Days remains confined in infamy? In the constant decrying of the medium's lack of maturity, this game was passed over entirely based on how "unpleasant" it was. It offered something radically different than what any other shooter at the time offered, and it was critically panned. It is perhaps one of the most ingenious AAA games of recent memory, and nobody noticed or cared.

Part of it, I think, has to do with the scandalous context of the Kane and Lynch franchise. When the first game, Dead Men, came out, a controversy erupted when one of Gamespot's editors, Jeff Gerstmann, was fired for giving a negative review of the game. Such meddling corporate influence has a tendency to leave a stain that's hard to remove for a time.

Dead Men was also, in a way, much more subtle than Spec Ops in its condemnation of the shooter. While Spec Ops out-and-out states its condemnation in the narrative, Kane and Lynch never stop to reflect on the moral bankruptcy of their endeavors, and it's possible this may have flown over some people's heads, particularly in a culture that is so predisposed to taking things at face value.

There was also the nihilistic conceit of the game. While Spec Ops slowly turned the happy jingoism of the military shooter on its head, Dog Days was encroached within the dark moral cesspool of its violent world throughout, creating a bleak and unforgiving experience that left many quite understandably soured.

However, I think the difference between the reception of the games also has to do with the shift in culture gaming society underwent in the two years between them. Gaming culture had become increasingly conscious of their medium's artistic potential in the two year span between the games, and a larger critical base exists now willing and ready to focus on such games. Add to that a string of massacres in America which brought the question of gun violence once again to the forefront of discussion, leaving fertile ground for Spec Ops to take root.

Ultimately, I think both games are fantastic, and a refreshing change of pace for a medium so abhorrently mired in samey mediocrity. I think the low ratings for both games is a criminal undervaluing of their true artistic worth, and I think both deserve much more success than they got. When a game is criticized on having enemies that take as many shots as the player to go down, where the game is only the length of two feature films, and where cover does not act as a be-all end-all bullet-barrier, perhaps we should ask ourselves if we're criticizing the game for being flawed, or criticizing the game for going against the conventions of its genre.

Dog Days is not perfect, of course. The game, perhaps intentionally, remains a hyper-masculine world, and the only positions women are seen in is as innocent bystanders or victims, and the female character with the most lines has at most twelve and uses them all in rapid succession before being killed shortly thereafter. The plot is as ludicrous as most any other shooter, with the duo single-handedly taking on what seems to be the entire military-police force of China in their quest for escape which then suddenly becomes a quest for revenge and then escape and then revenge and then escape again. Yet while it fails in the plot in the same way that other shooters do, it nonetheless succeeds in tone, theme, and characterization in a way that most other shooters don't even bother to try.

There has been much speculation and wringing of hands over a possible sequel to Dog Days, and that hand-wringing has only gotten worse with the announcement that IO has laid off half of its employees. Ultimately, however, I think that Dog Days stands on its own, needing neither Kane and Lynch 1 nor a sequel, and that indeed if those were included, the impact would only diminish. Dog Days stands on its own as a nihilistic response to the violent shooters, and strips away all the paint and polish of the Shooter Machine to reveal the rusted machinery underneath.


Steve Haske on "Why I Love Kane And Lynch 2: Dogs Days

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Games Aren't Taken Seriously Because Games Aren't Serious


Several years ago, David Wong wrote an article about why gamers are still not taken seriously. He pointed out that even in supposedly "artsy" games like Bioshock, the majority of the game is spent mowing down enemies with guns."If you make a movie where 90 of the 100 minutes of runtime is people getting their faces blown off" Wong said. "--even if you fill the other 10 minutes with speeches about objectivism--every critic will use the same word to describe it: 'Mindless.'"

So it becomes interesting when I see the Gaming Blogosphere recently up in arms over Warren Spector's Column on how public acceptance of games is predicated by acceptance of games within mainstream publications, seeing critical game reviews in periodicals like TV Guide or something. He makes reference to "normal people" in his column, which bothered John Teti:

[Spector]...crafts a narrative in which an idealized “acceptance” leads to a beautiful community where “normal people” get to talk about games, and not just “gamers.” (I understand where Spector is coming from with this false gamers/normals binary—game enthusiast communities can be off-puttingly insular to novices—but it’s telling that a prominent game creator would use trollish language that characterizes his own ardent fans as abnormal.)
I'm going to take a big leap of faith here: When Warren Spector says "Normal people", he is not suggesting that gamers are abnormal. Rather, he is talking about people who are not educated of the specific way our gaming culture approaches playing games.*

* I wish to be clear that when I differentiate between "Gamers" and "Normal People", I am not suggesting that people who play games are abnormal. Rather, that such people inhabit a specific cultural niche belying certain understandings which a person not knowledgeable in the niche does not understand.

Modern Game-playing often requires an understanding of the elements which most games expect of their players, which we as gamers now take for granted. Some of this is as simple as the control systems used to play the games, while others are more complex, such as the idea that all enemies need to be killed in an area in order for the game to progress, or that only certain doors in a game world can be opened, while others remain locked or simply set-piece decor. If you can manage to get, say, my 70+ Romanian father playing Half Life 2, for example, he'd be wondering why 90% of doors are locked, while the only ones unlocked in this Dystopian society are those plot-relevant. If you got him playing Starcraft 2, he might be confused why seven single person Hellions take up more space--and cost more, than a single Battlecruiser. Gaming deals a lot in abstraction and simplification, in a way that Film or Literature doesn't have to--actors don't open every single door as they progress through a movie, and in literature a Battlecruiser would be the size of a fucking battlecruiser. As gamers, we have learned to accept these things as part of the games, and ignore what would otherwise break our immersion.

Similarly, there are also other elements of games that we have grown to accept, through constant repetition, as being a part of games. We have grown inured to killing large numbers of enemies with single headshots while ten bullets piercing our own various vitals cause little damage and can be quickly healed up with a rudimentary first aid kit. We don't question it, because for a lot of us, that's how games work. You jump on enemies to kill them in Mario, you shoot large amounts of people to progress the story in The Last of Us.

We accept it to such an extent, in fact, that we ignore it in our critical analyses of games. In their review of The Last of Us, for example, referred to The Last of Us as "The first instance we've had of gaming literature" a statement that seem to ignore that in most work of literature, one doesn't have to kill twenty people every time you want to turn the page. Indeed, a lot of reviews seemed to pass over the killing, as though it were only a punctuation mark to get to the supposed masterpiece of a story. One gets the sense the developers thought the same thing as well.

And while we're able to ignore these elements, the rest of the populace, the so-called "normal people", cannot. For them, it might seem very strange that we have to kill twenty people to progress through a story. It might seem strange that so many enemies are suicidally attacking Joel, even though in cutscenes all observable humans show themselves to be quite intelligent. Indeed, upon seeing those elements, it may even call into question for them the necessity of these killing sequences to progress the story.

And those normal people are right


Now The Last of Us is my pet talking point in this discussion, as I find it rather criminal to lavish such critical praise on the story while failing to provide even half of that critical focus on the gameplay, but The Last of Us is far from the only game to do this. Bioshock: Infinite, Max Payne 3 and the remake of Tomb Raider are all examples of games which have above-average storytelling* but average or below-average gameplay divorced from storytelling. For the people playing these games, the majority of the time will be spent in identical combat sequence after identical combat sequence devoid entirely of emotional depth.

* That is, above the average of storytelling in games. Max Payne 3 may have you slaughter hundreds of people, rewarding you for how creatively you end their lives, but at least it has the common courtesy to acknowledge that Trickle-Down Theory might not be viable as an economic policy.

Which becomes problematic when people fail to notice these elements when they complain about the lack of serious consideration of games by the public at large. In "No One Knows Who You Are, Video Game Criticism Edition", Maddy Myers stated, in regards to the exhaustion by many game critics at the lack of maintstream acceptance:

Why do you think video game writers get burned out? Could it be that they're sick of pushing thirty, or forty, and going to cocktail parties full of people who don't really give a crap about Shoot-Man: The Reckoning (even if it actually is a really good game that non-gamers should care about as a relevant cultural touchstone, god damn it)? Because if Shoot Man: The Reckoning were a movie, or a book, or a ballet, that same cocktail conversation would land just fine.
What game is Shoot Man? Is it critical darling The Last Of Us, the game where the player's primary input was shooting people in the face? Or is it critical darling Bioshock: Infinite, the game where the player's primary input was shooting people in the face? Show that to any cocktail party sometime. Give them a trailer, watch their eyes brighten in interest. Then watch that interest deflate when you put the controller in their hands and tell them to point and fire.

If Shoot Man were a movie, it would be a piece of B-movie trash that involves more deaths than dialogue. If it were a book, it'd be a pulp fiction novel with lurid descriptions of the lead's girlfriend's breasts. If it were a ballet, it'd be a cage match. The thing about those other mediums is that they have been able to consistently show even their high-exposure, blockbuster products to be capable of significant variation, both thematically and in delivery of the content. AAA games are still trapped in a world where the gun is the primary way to advance the story. Shoot Man is no cultural touchstone. Shoot Man is the symptom of a diseased industry, clinging so fervently to its old methods it perpetuates its own isolation, and then has the audacity to say something is wrong with others. Again, the problem is we have consistently deceived ourselves by thinking that the most prominent aspect of a game--the gameplay--is secondary to the narrative. But when Spector's "Normal People" see these games, they see the gameplay first and the narrative second.

Now Roger Ebert, bless his soul, doesn't know shit about games as art. That being said, his perspective provides a useful vision into what most people see in these games. Take, for example, his view towards the critical darling Braid, which a colleague of his introduced to him:
This is a game "that explores our own relationship with our encounter enemies and collect puzzle pieces, but there's one key can't die." You can go back in time and correct your mistakes. In chess, this is known as taking back a move, and negates the whole discipline of the game. Nor am I persuaded that I can learn about my own past by taking back my mistakes in a video game. She also admires a story told between the games levels, which exhibits prose on the level of a wordy fortune cookie.
For all Ebert's ignorance on Games-as-art, he has a point. Where the majority of the so-called "art" of games exists in the aesthetics and in short text-bursts in between levels, how much is there to be considered art*? Ultimately, the game is still at its core a platformer with time-traveling elements, and no matter how much text is placed in-between levels, that does not change the fact that a majority of the game and the supposed storyline is spent jumping from platform to platform hitting Goombesque enemies and dodging cannon fire.

* Now when I say "art", I acknowledge that art is subjective, and if one chooses to read an analysis of the platforming mechanics in Braid, contextual or extra-textual, more power to them, I've done as much for other games (see my satirical Last of Us review). When I talk about art here, I'm talking about more frequently accepted, "common" works of art. Few people would consider a pinball machine to be art, many more would consider Mad Men worthy of the moniker. Both can be art, it's just a matter of what is a more culturally accepted form of art. 

Later, Roger Ebert contrasts Braid and several other games with Melies's A Voyage to the Moon. Again, while it demonstrates that Roger Ebert is erroneously approaching games in a manner similar to films, it also demonstrates one thing A Voyage to the Moon had which Braid does not: Consistency. At all times does Voyage's tone remain fanciful and optimistic. At no point does the film veer into that of a B-movie shooter or gore-tastic horror flick. Most popular games cannot say the same. Even our most popular, supposedly "artistic" games, such as The Last of Us, veer haphazardly between dark and dreary post-apocalyptic storyline and violent shooter fantasy, with most of the time in the game spent on the latter.

Now both The Last of Us and Braid have artistic value, that is not being debated. But both games are symptomatic of a trend in modern gaming culture which believes that by saturating the non-gameplay narrative with as much "seriousness" as possible, it is able to mask the lackluster violent-or-otherwise fantasy of the gameplay. This does not create artistic games. Depending on the perspective, it creates either mediocre games where progression is rewarded with a story distanced from the gameplay, or it creates a movie where progression is accomplished only by engaging with the violent mechanics.

Yet the majority of gaming culture, even those who decry games as not getting the proper recognition they deserve, do not focus on this dissonance, but rail instead against the people and groups that are looking at the aspects of games that gamers are ignoring. Gaming culture is making the same mistakes that countless other entities have made when they were on the wrong side of public opinion. They choose to rail against "the public" as out of touch or ignorant, rather than taking a critical eye to themselves, as the former option is easier, far easier than the latter.


In order to immerse themselves in the "normal" public eye, games need to stop making games for other gamers, but to begin making games for people, people who don't need an elaborate understanding of the myriad assumptions a gamer has in order to engage themselves in the story. Games in which the gameplay is directly correlated with the narrative, and not as filler material. Games which simulate experiences more significant than mere gunplay.

And there are games that do achieve this, if not in whole, then at least in part. Dear Esther is the example of a game which does not necessitate the complex understandings of gamer culture, where the only thing the player needs to know how to do is move and walk and listen. There is a sequence in Spec Ops: The Line where the player can feel the anger, fear, and ambiguity of soldiers that leads to a civilian massacre. The Lizard trial in Heavy Rain involves a tense sequence where the player has to navigate a complex series of button sequences in a way that mirrors the main character's anxieties as he prepares to chop off one of his own fingers. At these points, storytelling and gameplay are merged, both informing the other, and they are better for it. It is possible, but the majority of industry makers don't do it or even try it.

Perhaps designers are afraid of going beyond that. Perhaps, in this world where high graphical fidelity is demanded of them and every high-budget game made threatens to bankrupt the entire company if it bombs, they are afraid to go beyond the tried-and-true methods of game mechanics, which almost always involve gunplay. That's no sin.

But shit is it boring. Why have we gotten to the point where a shoot-out is boring? A shoot-out is one of the most tense, frightening moments of any person's life, and in games they're trotted out so often you see the player firing a gun more often than they breathe. How can we think games are worthy of serious critical examination when they still have such laughably disjointed content? 

I don't dislike Braid or the Last of Us for being ludonarratively dissonant games, nor the reviewers who enjoy them. What I do dislike are both the makers and the reviewers who hold them up as brave and innovative masterpieces of the medium, while both remain constrained to the same formulaic and at times morally questionable gameplay, and I dislike even more that they think the narratives of those games alone is enough to raise them to public acceptance.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Joel Is Insane - The genius of The Last of Us

One of the strongest aspects of The Last of Us is the effort put in to ensure the violence is never desensitized. You’re constantly reminded...that your acts of violence are cruel and brutal, and no matter the justification, it’s still the worst form of human expression. This works to re-frame the meaning of “survival at all costs,” the mindless drive to exist becomes it’s own form of zombification.” -

Ah, The Last of Us. Isn’t it great that gaming culture has finally gotten a game worthy of being art? Exempting all those other games, this is the first true work of art that gaming culture has made. Not only art, a masterpiece. And like a true masterpiece, every single bit of the game combined and supported the central themes of the game. Even the parts you might have thought weren't important to the themes, the parts you thought were completely ridiculous and antithetical to the entire story, even those parts were just part of the genius of this serious narrative.

“I wouldn’t be the only person to wonder aloud if Naughty Dog’s fungal zombie apocalypse simulator is the first instance we’ve had of video game literature.” -

Take Joel for example. A strong, sensible man, beaten cynical by the harsh world around him, who still has the capacity to love. And also completely insane.

You remember how, late in Summer, Joel got behind a sniper rifle with infinite ammo and shot humans that chased after him and his companions even though Joel had already single-handedly killed half their forces already? Remember how those enemies didn't seem to pay attention to Joel with his sniper rifle and focused solely on the small group of people who trying to run away from them? Remember how they were so focused on killing this small, inconsequential group of people that they even brought in their armed vehicle to kill them? Remember how the driver of this armed vehicle, safe inside the car from sniper fire, got out of the car so he could throw a molotov, giving sniper Joel the perfect opportunity to shoot his head off? Remember how stupid you thought that was?

Well you were FUCKING WRONG.

It was just another indication of how genius the narrative was. See, those obviously didn't exist. Obviously, they only existed in Joel's head. Obviously, Joel has been so thoroughly disturbed and traumatized by 20 years of nonstop hardcore life-or-death survival, that he's even begun to see enemies that aren't there. Not just a few enemies, but hundreds of them, every battle he goes into a flashback to his most horrific and violent battles, where there seemed to be more enemies than he could count, and he was in perpetual fear for his life.

The Last of Us isn’t just a story game. It spends a ton of time doing what video games do best: pitting the player against dozens—nay hundreds!—of enemies.” -

In fact, those flashbacks are so pervasive that they make up nearly every combat sequence Joel participates in. Why else would Joel be able to kill hundreds of people without getting killed himself? Why else would Joel be able to sustain so much gunfire without falling, and even heal those wounds completely later with a health kit he made from nothing more than cloth and rubbing alcohol?

Why else would all the bandit camps Joel and Elle go through be filled entirely with armed men? You'd think a few of them would have to be assigned to cleaning up the barracks or cooking food or something. You'd think so many men would have at least a few women, hell, would probably need women to help fight them. You'd think that with both men and women, there'd some children as well, probably playing on the barricades or playing chicken with the pet infected they keep on a leash in the back of the camp.

Why else would Joel knock down human enemies, have them beg for their life and, while Joel is still pointing a gun at him, get up and run straight at him again?

Why else would the Infected still be considered a threat, even though a bunch of screaming targets like that would have no chance against a pack of hungry dogs, much less a group of intelligent, armed humans?

It's all indicative of how completely unhinged Joel is. And who wouldn't be, after twenty years of rugged survivalism that began with losing his old life, his home, and his daughter all in one night? With baggage like that, it'd almost be preferable to have legions of human beings to mow down, because you at least feel like you can actually protect yourself and the ones you love.

Naughty Dog’s vision for this apocalypse demands a believable everyman, not a plainclothes superhero like Nathan Drake.” -

In the end, several questions may remain regarding the story: what about the points where we control Sarah and Elle, and the sequences where Elle has the same endurance and kills just as many people as Joel does? Why doesn't Elle say anything about the clearly delusional actions that Joel takes? What determines when the  cutscenes, i.e. the rare moments of lucidity, occur?

“Oh hey, two bodies in a bathtub. Hm. Hey Joel, what do you think about all those people we killed just outside to get here?”
“I’m sorry Elle, my ears are still ringing from all those gunshots, I can’t hear a word you’re saying.”

I am confident, these questions, and any others like them, will be answered. Ultimately, with this narrative being the serious narrative that it is, it only makes sense to conclude that Joel is in fact heavily delusional and haunted by the violence of the apocalypse he has been one of many victims to. No man could go through the horrid amount of violence he has been exposed to and still be considered sane, not without being a psychotic, wholly unempathetic individual

In such a serious narrative, it would be crass and hypocritical to include such an emphasis on fragility and death in the storyline while routinely dispatching people with reckless abandon in the gameplay. It would suggest, perhaps, that the makers of this serious narrative, have a dismissive view of the death in their gameplay, and view death as important only when they say it is important in the narrative. That in fact, the game was a cynical attempt by the developers to create a narrative lauded as serious, without having to change the underlying morally questionable nature of its gameplay. That the developers view the gameplay as nothing more than an inconsequential means of lowest-common-denominator entertainment to punctuate their narrative beats. And that the supposed artistic leap this game has made in the industry, to the point that it is referred to as "The Citizen Kane of Gaming", is nothing more than window dressing attempting to conceal the underlying nihilistic murder-sprees that remains at the core of the mechanics.

But that couldn't be right, because this is a serious game.