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1:09 PM on 09.21.2015

Steps of Subversion: Halo 2 and Sons of Liberty...

It takes a certain genius in crafting a great video game narrative. You have to account for player agency, pacing, stylistic decisions that bring in narrative focus that could take away gameplay options, and ensure that your protagonist is (in some form or another) proactive enough to avoid the (often times misused) accusation of the story "simply being a movie." Of course, a developer could more evenly separate story segments and gameplay more frequently to alleviate problems, and I have no problem with that. However, increasingly with the industry, we're seeing a trend where stories involving the gameplay intertwine with one another; a trend where gameplay comments on story and vice-versa, and that, in my opinion, is some variation that I adore when done well.

All the world's a stage with bad actors

There have been examples of video game narrative or gameplay subversion (like with Super Mario Bros 3 all being a play or how it's impossible to beat Vile the first time around in Mega Man X), although not quite as much as when we get into the sixth generation of video game consoles, and never quite as up-front. Games in the seventh generation-onward, such as BioShock, Spec Ops: The Line, Dark Souls, Splinter Cell: Blacklist, or Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons frequently employ content to upset the established order of what players come to expect that delves into the mechanics to create a deeper impact on the player on the gameplay, the syuzhet and fabula construction, or both. Halo 2 and Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty subversions are of different caliber, however, since they come into play as both huge blockbuster sequels to original games as well as swap-out the much loved and recognized main character and introduce someone new in the storyline. While there are a LOT of other topics to discuss, the addition of a secondary protagonist and their changes on the game itself will be the main focus on this article.  *WARNING: this article features plot spoilers for Metal Gear Solid 2, 3, V, and Halo 2 and 4*

At the marketing stage of each game, everyone thought their fan-favorite protagonist would be the center of attention. We had Snake sneaking around terrorists and Master Chief defending Earth from Covenant baddies. There was no warning or noticeable indication that Raiden or the Arbiter would take center stage (or at the very least share it). While Halo 2's marketing could be excused as a case of 'creatively truthful' advertisement (as the Earth levels of Halo 2 ARE all Master Chief centered), Sons of Liberty outright swapped Raiden out for Snake in preview videos. For Halo 2, the only indication we would be getting the Arbiter at all was the reveal that Elites would also be featured in the multiplayer.

The beginning sections of both Halo 2 and Sons of Liberty felt like a comfy pair of slippers. Snake infiltrating a secret location to discover a new Metal Gear with Ocelot thrown in the mix? Hell yes. Master Chief laying down fire as the Covenant slowly erodes humanity's defenses? Oh, you know me so well. Only, at the end of each respective segments of story, we begin to see certain changes in the story. Things that we don't expect to happen. Snake FAILS at stopping Metal Gear Ray and it's uncertain whether he actually survives the encounter (although his narration at the beginning reveals that this is a memory from two years ago), and the Covenant RETREAT from Earth and (even more surprisingly) the fleet they bring isn't the usual overwhelming flood of death they're known to bring. Something feels very off for both cases. In the case of Halo 2's opening cutscene, we're split between the Master Chief receiving a medal of valor and the Arbiter receiving public torture and humiliation. Why did they bring this weird Elite into the story? Is he the new bad guy? What about Snake? Maybe the story is setting up seeds that will bear fruit years later with Snake spending his time preparing for the next infiltration.

Then, we bring in the new guys. We see here a huge divergence between how each developer handles its new protagonist. The Arbiter seeks redemption in the eyes of his religion, believing that his new-suicidal task is a glorious chance to clean his name and reputation. On the other hand, we have Raiden, a new Foxhound operative infiltrating Big Shell and save hostages from a terrorist group claiming that their leader is Solid Snake. Oooooo, drama.

Raiden art from Metal Gear Solid HD Collection

Both games have a big tendency to rely on player memory of the previous game. Sons of Liberty (hereby referred to as MGS2) begins as close to the first Metal Gear Solid game (referred to now on as MGS1) without just remaking it with a new engine. While other splendid writers have gone over the minutia of similarities between MGS1 and MGS2 (read here for a great break-down), the main thrust of the argument is how strikingly similar it is to the general beginning of the game first "Solid" game - Raiden infiltrates the compound with limited equipment while Colonial Campbell provides insight and instructions for him, all the while asking about Solid Snake and hoping to live up to the legend (like the players most likely would be). While his abilities are more acrobatic than Snake's, Raiden has roughly the same physical capabilities as Snake. He's likewise tasked with stopping terrorists, while encountering a bevy of side-characters who flesh out the story, themes, and begin to unravel a larger conspiracy going on behind the scenes (once again, VERY much like MGS1).

However, by the end of the third act, we come to a grinding halt as we uncover the Patriots, Jack's past, and learn about how Solid Snake actually fits into the entirety of the puzzle. The game suddenly becomes a critical analysis of itself in dealing with player objectives and the players' desire to be empowered, thinking themselves to be like the legendary Solid Snake. The player even comes to a crossroads of either completing their mission instructed by the twisted Patriots, which would also save a young baby, or die and allow Solidus (the main enemy of the game, though still manipulated big bad) to kill you and go after the Patriots and free the world. In order to advance to a win state, you have to kill Soldius. Raiden tosses away his dog tags and comes to the conclusion that he wants to find his own way in life where he isn't following anyone's beliefs, but his own. In a very anti-climactic ending, Jack reunites with his girlfriend contemplating their lives with their future child with Solid Snake chasing after Ocelot, the biggest story thread we, as players, were teased with, yet never given.

The new protagonist not only gives the audience an eye for reexamining the plot in a new light, with interesting new avenues of storytelling, but, in the case of MGS2, we now reexamine how the mythos and expectations of the first MGS1 game actually dictate the progression of the narrative. The gameplay and the story surround the idea of you are following Solid Snake, both figuratively as Raiden follows in Snake's footsteps through VR training, seeing the aftermath of his actions, and getting involved with the story threads that Snake started in the previous game and continued in MGS2, as well as metaphorically game-wise as MGS2 follows in the established footsteps of MGS1's design, beginning narrative structure, and archetypes. Raiden's inclusion in the game reinforces the idea, through gameplay and narrative entwined, of manipulation based on expectations and deconstructs the very series it embraces.

Snake and Raiden at the end of MGS2

The Arbiter in Halo 2 is, literally and figuratively, another story. After the Chief's Earth excursions, The Arbiter embraces his title for the sake of religious redemption and opens up a side of the Covenant we've never seen before - where the story treats them as "people." While getting his troops amped up for battle with a heretic force, Half-Jaw remarks that while the lives of his troops matter to him, the Arbiter's does not, with The Arbiter agreeing full-heartedly earning a reaction of curiosity from Half-Jaw. In an attempt to kill a heretic to their religion, Arbiter plans on destroying the station their on with him sacrificing himself - the Elites honoring him with praise as they make their way out. After he is saved, the Prophets confer with him the aggravating nature of the Elite's political stances. Moreso than the humans, we have a deeper understanding of the Covenant's inner workings as a society rather than just the "front-line soldier" excursions Halo: Combat Evolved had showcased. Even by the fact that the Arbiter is tasked with killing members of the Covenant who have turned heretical brings about far more complexity to the equation as the enemies (though the same by gameplay standards with Heretic Elites and Grunts) are refashioned into a splinter faction based on ideological differences.

While Master Chief is doing the same types of story errands on one side of the narrative (namely, exploring Forerunner ruins and Covenant ships, blowing things up, leading troops into battle), the Arbiter does FAR more heavy lifting in the narrative with his disillusionment with the Covenant and eventually his own religious beliefs. The Covenant civil war that springs up in the third act actually effects The Arbiter in a more fascinating way than the Chief, who the game gives the task of killing every living creature that isn't a homosapien. The Covenant is split in two and the player finding allies among some of the Covenant species you've been siding with, while gunning against the others you fought shoulder-to-shoulder with on previous missions. It's impact moment seeing how quickly allegiances could have turned for the sake of religious fervor. The Arbiter's gameplay is almost identical to Chief's in every way, save for the starting weapons for The Arbiter's levels (usually Covenant-based) and his ability to camouflage. Rather than take the narrative structure and try to comment on the gameplay (like in the case of MGS2), the gameplay remains a fixed point for both protagonists, but in doing so places the focus on how differently each hero's story unfolds and the differing experiences between them.

The Arbiter and Half-jaw

For both games' sequels, the narrative/gameplay dissonance (or rather, "re-focusing") was abandoned for simplicity, though this is not a condemnation of not attempting experimentation. Halo 3 removed the gameplay effects of the Covenant civil war to the point of only the Elites being your visual allies in the cutscenes and gameplay, with The Arbiter unfortunately taking a backseat to the Chief - and the only way to play as him was in co-op. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater was a far more simple tale filled with gameplay and narrative that mostly worked in-sync with each other, rather than trying to make the player aware of the artifice of the medium. Perhaps these changes were brought along by audiences negative reactions to new protagonist, or perhaps it was caused by player feedback feeling as though the game muddled the waters of understanding gameplay standards, or maybe it was because the developers believed the players would already be weary of that type of trick and decided to refocus their energies elsewhere. I can only speculate. In any case, changes were made for the sequels where the tried-and-true faces for the franchise (or a very similar face and voice, in the case of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater) were brought back to the forefront.

As of right now, both the Metal Gear Solid and Halo franchises' most recent games (Metal Gear Solid V and Halo 4) have found great balances between narrative experimentation without denying players' their sense of accomplishment through gameplay with the most recognized faces of the franchise taking center stage.

Cortana and Chief

V Has Come To

Both MGS2 and Halo 2 utilize secondary protagonists not only for increasing narrative scope, but also to affect player interactivity. Whether it's causing the player to pause at their own actions, shift their own sense of objectives and levels of sympathy, or even cause them to reexamine the predecessor's original design, these new protagonists ensured that, in one form or another, players are forced to adjust to a new status-quo in contrast to the series previously established blueprint. And without these introductory steps to post-modern and subversive games, the video game landscape, I feel, would be a very different place for the industry, let-alone for games pushing the boundaries between interaction and narrative.



11:45 PM on 08.22.2015

We need to lay off Assassin's Creed...

Annualizaiton of any franchise is open to free-range criticism.  Perhaps the iterations are too often.  Perhap there's too much of the same idea constantly every year to see ANOTHER version of it.  Perhaps it's not the best at what it currently does.  There seems to be an exception for the Assasin's Creed series of games. 

Don't get me wrong.  Annualized Assassin's Creed games aren't exactly my jam; however, there is a quailty about them too many ignore.  Outside of the boring as Hell "modern-day" segments, the Ass Creed games attempt to recreate different periods in the context of particular eras.  Sure, it's the same core values of gameplay placed over different time periods, but it's on closer inspection that you begin to see the differences. AC goes into detail about historical context, including character, places, and events.  There's enough provided to where we understand the narrative context of the characters provided and how they fit in with the story.  Whether it's the first Assassin's Creed with the information on the Crusades, Black Flag's delving into the importance of plantations, or many of the other entries in the series concerning historical realities, Assassins' Creed (regardless of how they turn out) at least TRIES.

Call of Duty shits out yearly addentums to their 'blow shit up' graph.  Assassin's Creed at the very least has in interest in exploring historical truths to enrich the experience.  Assassin's Creed Unity is broken.  Even to this day, it has some problems with audio, gameplay, and visuals, but at least it tries to incorporate the Assassin storyline in the French Revolution and incorporating real life people in this fiction.  The very main protagonists are usually flawed individuals who are struggling against the society they live in for the sake of happiness and morality (more than I could ever say about most serialized games).

The AC franchise is NOT perfect, but at the very least, we should try giving credit where it's due where the developers spend so much time including the reality of these games. 

Anyway, just my two cents on this silly topic.


12:35 AM on 08.02.2015

Why Gears of War 3 faltered...

WARNING: This article contains personal opinions about art that you may not agree with.  Shocking, I know.  It also contains spoilers for "Gears of War 3".  So, for those of you dedicated to not being spoiled about any aspect of this game, I suggest you turn away now.

Gears of War is a series I hold near and dear to my heart.  Imagine a picture of a man screaming at the top of his lungs while pummeling a raw piece of cattle steak hanging from a cielieng; now imagine that translated into a video game - that's Gears of War and I wouldn't have it any other way.  Though I genuinely love the series for its brutal combat, its heavy-metal aggreatvated world, and the total focus on tone over realism, the third game of the series was a bit of a let-down.  Why was this the case?  Well, I'm about 5 Budweisers into a case, so I'll be happy to give you my point of view and then regret this blog in the morning.

Problem #1: Shine on, you crazy diamond.

In the Gears of War series, the Lambent are the "Flood" of the Gears universe.  Imulsion is the fossil fuels of the world of Sera, a wonder-resource that powers everything.  It turns out that it's actually a parasitic organism that (after some time) infects its host and turns them into exploding monstrosities committed solely to killing other life and infecting others with imulsion.  Alright cool.  Yellow-glowing space zombies.  The problem is that the enemy types of the Lambent go too many tennants of the Gears of War gameplay pillars.  As the lambent foes explode when damaged enough, there is a significant chunk of gameplay choices and styles of bloody executions that go amiss.

You can kill a Locust opponent with gunfire, but in some cases they can be "downed" allowing the player the use their weakened state as a shield, an impromptu grenade delivery system, or a punching bag for all of your choices of executions with a variety of weapons.  The Lampents are never "downed".  They fight until the explore, and while that fits in with the "fight-till-you-drop" mentality of space-zombies like the Lambent, it denies a HUGE portion of gameplay options for the fans; it's particularly saddenign to be denied the primeval scene of one creature (you, in this case) eviscerating another when it was such a big highlight in the series.  In constrast, the Flood in the Halo games infect common enemy types to create a new kind of creature that solely cared abouy causing destruction and infection rather than thinking out a sound combat strategy.  With the Lambent, some of the foot-soldiers even start to take cover and hide, using tactics, which goes against the idea that they're merely mindless monsters wanting to infect others.

Alongside the aforementioned problems, the Lambent are WAY too numerous.  For enemy types such as the Flood in Halo, the Zombies in Half-Life, or the ReDead's in Ocarina of Time, they are used enough to the point of being a pallette clenser.  You have the main course of combat for whatever game you enjoy, but it's these enemies that change up your style and force you (for a little while) to defeat your enemies with particulars that you don't usually employ in combat.  It should be the Locust-style of enemy being the main course as they're equal to the players in terms of weapons and strategies, not the Lambent who bring such a small range of combat, but, sadly, they're the ones that permeate the beginning 1/5 of the game. 

Problem #2: "I'm sorry, your name was...?"

The first two Gears gave master-courses in introducing archetypes as permanent members of the squad.  Whether or not they were well-established is up to personal interpretation, but I felt that the four main members of Delta in the first game played their part well and were defined enough to be memorable and slightly layered.  In Gears 2, it was taken to a whole new level where our established Gears were given more personality and characterization, but we also got to experience great characters who had a surprisingly small amount of screentime.  Between the stoically religious Tai, the enthusiastically naive Benjamin Carmine, and the foul-mouthed good ol' boy that was Dizzy, all of the members of the COG managed to give the player STRONG imprints of personality.  Even side-characters like the curmudgeon Chap or the oddly formal Prescott left an impression.

Then we turn to Gears 3.  We have a multitude of new characters: Clayton Carmine, Jace, Sam, Bernie, Adam Fenix.  I couldn't tell you one iota of what made those characters interesting, save Adam's guilt complex that is criminally overlooked in the games.  None of these characters leave an interesting impression outside of their designs.  Jace is a great counter-point to the black-male extreme personality to the Cole Train, but he's just so boring you might as well plaster a walking box of oatmeal onto the game.  The only trait we know about Sam is that she's a woman and that she may have an attraction to Dom.  That's about it.  For the developers, it seemed more like an opportunity to introduce more character skins to online multiplayer than characters who could have fleshed out the universe a bit more through contrast and comparison.

Problem #3: Gravitas, gravitas, gravitas...

In a game like Gears of War 3, it's important to have your macro-level story perilous and be a cause of interest for the players, such as the surivival of the human race  What needs to be even more impressive are the personal journies in each game's story.  In the first Gears, Marcus had to prove himself against he treasounous charges laid against his feet  In Gears of War: Judgement, Baird and the squad have to overcome the tribunal against them for their supposed crimes against their government.  And even in Gears 2, it was a story of Dom finding Maria and the personal anguish in the attempt to find her; Gears 3 had almost none of that.

Gears 3 begins with the notion of Marcus sacrificing his military career, freedom, and respect of his fellow gears in order to try to save his father, and him failing.  Unlike, however, something like Gears 2, it is not a constant tale of constant expansion where the audience realizes what pains and lengths the character has suffered for thier beliefs, like Dom in Gears 2.  With how little Adam and Marcus interact in Gears 3, we get nothing that we already didn't assume from the prologue segment of the game where Marcus loves his father.  If good writers want us to sympathize with the character, take us through Hell and back with them, but also make it clear what they believe in and what they want. 

At the end of the game, where Marcus kills Myrah with Dom's blade, there doesn't feel like there's any build-up.  Maybe there should have been a moment where he wondered if humanity deservered to live after all of the horrors they not only committed to the world of Sera, but to their fellow humans, or maybe it could have been about the idea of Marcus trying to think of a life without warfare and struggling with it, but neither came to pass.  Adam dies and tells them to "live on" for him, but there really isn't any context for these people when living (comfortably and in peace) is what they've been trying to do.  Thematically, there should have been something more personal, that cuts deeper, than just ANOTHER "man survives evil" tale in the universe.  There's something to be said about storylines, dialog, and characters embracing brevity, btu don't make it so short that they don't even register as deep layering.

End Results:

Anyway, those are my views on Gears of War 3 without call for analysis.  I hope you have a good night, and I really hope I don't regret writing this in the morning.  I do hope that The Coalition make Gears of War 4 into an INCREDIBLE game, but I'm just ruminating on the problmes we've seen in the most grand of epic finales.



9:19 PM on 07.09.2015

Better with Age: Nothin' but bits

With every new generation of video games, new franchises are crafted to entice audiences. Some falter, some succeed, and some are lucky enough to get sequels that stretch into a new generation with the same interest as they had in their ‘christening’ introduction. One of the ‘new classics’ that succeeded is Gears of War, which had become so influential that it single-handedly popularized cover systems in action games. Warning, this article may contain spoilers.

Gears of War takes place on the planet Sera where humanity has been driven to the brink of extinction to the point where the human race has destroyed almost all of the planet’s surface, and countless lives, to survive; it’s really just three bad days away from being TOTAL post-apocalyptic. Humanity has been fighting 15 years against the Locust horde – a subterranean race of man-like monsters that are set on humanity’s total extinction, and humanity has been given no reason why. The COG, the military dictatorship government, is the last functioning organization to combat the Locusts, and are drafting every able bodied man to fight in the war to where they pardon prisoners, one of them being our main hero, for service.

The survivors of the planet-wide destruction caused by the COG to slow down the locusts, the Stranded, see the COGs with disgust, fear, and hatred. Marcus Fenix is our main protagonist and is punished for his attempt to save his father with life in prison by abandoning his post - a prison where horrific acts had been sanctioned by the system against the prisoners, like skinning them alive and hanging them from meathooks.  This is the kind of government the Gears (soldiers of the COG) answer to and serve. It’s a fascist, military-focused collection of flag-waving nationalists – imagine Nazi Germany without racial hatred and focusing solely on identity with your country. It seems like the COG are almost WORSE than the Locusts, but we just seem to be following their story. From the intelligence and visual storytelling we can see, the COG also believe that torture, murder, kidnapping, and even rape are fine as long as it allows the government to endure.

The subtle brilliance of this choice in allegiances means that the audience gravitates towards the Gears as individuals rather than to their government. And with that focus, the emotional and dramatic turmoil these soldiers endure feel more prevalent since they are the only glimmers of sympathy the audience sees in this world. Ironic, given that they are almost universally criticized as stock, overly aggressive, dude-bros that only care about destruction. Our heroes are not bright-eyed rookies; they’re older men who are experienced, knowledgeable, but tired and depressed that this conflict still carries on.

The first Gears is STILL a visual treat, thanks to its stylistic presentation. The Gears wear heavy, beaten-up armor carry the weight of having been through countless battles that alongside the weapons give the impression of heaviness, the destruction of sprawling and beautiful architecture being lost to firefights feels like the tragic destruction of culture and history, and the then-novel idea of using grays and browns for the palette makes the world feel like it’s slowly dying. Together the crumbling structures and the emergence holes for the Locusts demonstrates that this world is, literally and figuratively, falling apart where the place you thought had nothing but sure footing can be broken and taken away in an instant. Many of the levels in Gears of War feel are as haunting and terrifying as some of the best horror games invoked by a mastery of lighting, mood, and atmosphere with a heavy dose of mystery and suspense where the Locust enemy is involved. What’s fascinating about the Horde is that most of their allies and weapons revolve around animals of the planet, making it seem like even nature and the environment itself is against you making NOWHERE feel safe and that the humans of Sera are the unwelcomed party.

The game often will throw enemies at you that you will be severely underpowered against until the right circumstances (like the Bezerker), evade or destroy them only with the right environmental tools (like the Corpser) or downright impossible to defeat (like the towering Brumak in the first game). They also throw the player off-guard when crying out “Seek Him” or “Hominid” paradoxically combining Hulk-like language-grunts with intellectual word choice, making you feel like these creatures are just as intelligent as your allies, especially given how they also have learned to use all ranges of weaponry and cover. The games have this fascinating juxtaposition between intellectual musings with testosterone-fueled animal aggression, even in the advertising with the now-famous "Mad World" commercial.

As mentioned above, Gears popularized cover systems to the point of the mechanic oversaturating the market. While unfortunate for some, the Gears series has always stood tall as one of the best in the genre. The cover system works like a dream as you roady-run (with a swinging ‘hand-held’ camera desperately following behind you for the feeling of tension) to a wall and slam into cover against brick or stone with a satisfying metallic hit of armor-against-wall. Blind firing is anyone’s guess in terms of accuracy, but the real joy is popping out of cover and unloading a clip of ammo into your enemy’s skull. All the weapons in this game have a good bit of kick-back to imply their power and with weapons such as the Lancer, the Boomshot, and the Longshot, we get to be treated to the gory remains of the enemy with all the gut-squirming crunches, wet chunks, and crimson splattered blood laid bare for the player to see. BRILLIANTLY, the developers decided to even make the act of reloading a part of the game where hitting a button at just the right opportunity gives the player a temporary damage boost, an engaging mini-game in itself in the middle of a firefight. On the flip side, get it wrong, and your gun will jam causing your player (and likely THE player) to curse and become frustrated.

The gameplay is all unified around the idea of anger, fury, and bloodlust. Whether it be from the joy the player gets from hearing the eggshell pop of a headshot, or the hearing your selected character screaming in rage as they chainsaw through an enemy, this game never lets you forget that if you’re not out for blood, then you’re playing the wrong game. The curb-stomp execution in particularly feeds an invidual's primal desire to decimate your opponents.  The choices of weapons and characters you select are universal across the board. You will not be more powerful or weaker choosing a particular character, nor will you be able to level up weapons (save for Horde mode in the later games, but that’s a bit of a trickier area of discussion). This helps reinforce the idea that every character (at least from a design point-of-view) has the same amount of fighting and death potential as anyone else.  You're not going to be fighting a level-50 pro with all the bells and whistles he unlocked while you struggle getting the first unlockable sub-weapon; instead, the player is given all the multiplayer tools at the word "go" and focuses on understanding spawn points, places for cover, and the entire map.  Regretably, the 'rolling-shotgun' mechanic worked too well in the multiplayer in too many instances of online firefights, dragging down what should have been calculated combat to mere luck and repetitive dominant strategy to where only the shotgun-wielding players endured.

Oh, can we talk about the Lancer? I LOVE the Lancer! This weapon has become downright iconic because of the practical combat use in the games, but also because of its design and function. This weapon is PURE Gears at its substance – we have on assault rifle that has the gall to attach an actual chainsaw to the end of it; yeah, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but the idea of glorified overkill falls right into the franchise’s comfort zone and has become THE weapon to represent the games, like the Assault Rifle for Halo, or the power-up mushrooms for any of the Mario games.

This world is brutal. It does not care who you are, or what you want or deserve. Many protagonist characters (and not just random background extras) die in brutal and undignified deaths to constantly remind you that the war on this planet is Hell and unfair. The sick, the elderly, the young, the old, men, women, children; Gears of War and its sequels are not squeamish in killing those who the audience comes to know and care for, and in horrific ways. And most of the time, these deaths are heart breaking in the series because of how well you know these characters, or how much you see these characters affect the protagonists. In fact, I could count on one hand who among the cast had a “hero’s death” in their last moments of living in this entire series. 

After all is said and done with the Locusts, the Gears games have an uncomfortable suggestion that humanity, despite finally setting aside differences to destroy the Locusts, have known war since the earliest days, and even with the Locust threat eliminated, there’s an unsettling feeling that humanity’s obsession with war and death will continue long after the fight against the Locusts has ceased, with almost every attempt to “destroy the enemy” has created unexpected backlash after unexpected backlash.

Gears of War is a game that doesn’t have a brilliant macro-level story, but it’s in the details that this series shines. Looking forward to the future, I do hope that The Coalition do well with Gears of War 4, and bring glory to the series that started with Epic Games, the people brave enough to say, “yeah, a gun’s pretty cool, but how about a CHAINSAW-GUN?!”


7:17 PM on 06.04.2015

The Story Doesn't Matter? (aka "Ignore the Pepperoni")

* Spoilers for the game: God of War


Recently, I had been discussing several hack-n-slash games and comparing their merits to one another with another online user on Destructoid’s comment section. We had been discussing Bayonetta, a game that I lauded for engaging and surprisingly complex combat, but felt that its story was fairly hackneyed and poorly written. He responded by saying that “you don’t play hack-n-slash games for the story.”

That got me thinking, “why don’t you?”


Our industry has grown leaps and bounds in a very small amount of time (my guess revolves around programmers, artists, and writers proving outside criticism wrong), and it’s perhaps the most obvious in our writing. Where at one point, any basic connective tissue between one fight to another in a game was acceptable in a huge profiled AAA game, now it’s almost the unwritten law that if you’re attempting a narrative it will be judged accordingly as a narrative. And one of the biggest turning points of for storytelling in games was God of War.

While its various sequels and prequels never managed to capture the same amount of story-telling craftsmanship, the original God of War was the story of Kratos, a fallen Spartan warrior attempting to kill Aries, the God of War. At the end of the tale, Kratos kills Aries and his sins against his family are forgiven, however, he will never be rid of the nightmaters that haunt him, even as the newly-proclaimed God of War. Classical Greek tragedy, but it also ties in terrifically with the gameplay in terms of his rage fully displayed in his design and animations, not to mention in how that anger comes across with player interaction.


This isn’t just the sole triumph of storytelling in hack-n-slash games. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, and DmC: Devil May Cry are all examples of games that actually focus on making solid stories with great character arcs or thematic content that explores interesting ideas.  So, why is it that whenever games have sub-mediocre stories in a narrative that the developers put into the game, suddenly you’re “not supposed to enjoy it for the story”?

Let me put it to you this way: imagine you and a friend are hungry. You see a pizza shop and order a slice of pizza – they’re specialty pizza that your pal raves about. You happily munch down and agree that it’s a satisfying slice of ‘za, but you can’t help but notice that the pepperoni takes away from the overall flavor of your meal. You tell your friend about this, and he replies, “Well, you don’t really eat it for the pepperoni. Just ignore it.”

Why in the world would I ignore it?

The pizza makers specifically put in the pepperoni for you to enjoy, and now I’m supposed to ignore it? Sure, I can pick off the pepperoni, but it doesn’t seem like I’m giving the pizza the exact attention it deserves with layered analysis throughout….damn it, now I’m hungry.  Anyway, this probably overly long metaphor ties into this idea – why should I ignore a part of the game the gamemakers specifically placed into their product?

It’s not like they couldn’t make a game that was just pure gameplay mechanics. After all, we have Pac-man, Tetris, or Centipede that are just mechanics only with no context to an actual story outside of what the player imagines (and even then that’s a generous assumption). But it’s not just the games of yesteryear that can ignore a narrative – SimCity, Worms, and even Crackdown have just basic premises rather than a half-hearted attempt to make a narrative.

 Eastern Blocs

Game franchises like Halo, Mortal Kombat, and Tomb Raider that were once scoffed at for their thin narrative capabilities have made a turn for (what I consider) the better by taking charge in how they handle their plots in the actual stories they tell.  I don’t believe that a game’s genre excuses poor storytelling when developers attempt to place one in their art. A game’s story doesn’t need to be as complex as Inception to garner the status of being a good story.

Movies that have simplistic stories can also be rich in characters and plot progression, including uses stylistic choices in a particular to bolster a good narrative.   Movies such as Nashville, Mad Max: Fury Road, Naked, Die Hard, and The Avengers all have rather simplistic macro-storytelling, but it’s in the minutia of plot and character progression which makes them so compelling.

Coversely, games such as Resident Evil: Revelations 2, Vanquish, HomeFront, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed 2 aren’t bad stories because they’re simple, they’re bad because they’re poorly written. Inconsistent character motivations and tone, muddled plot focus, or a poor sense of personal stakes for the characters make for a dreadful time for anyone who chooses to sit through the story the developers chose to include.

So, I plead with any players who will read this: please, don’t just write off a bad story because you like the mechanics, especially since those games are not beholden to anyone to have a lackluster story, and criticism could help curtail future offenders. And to the developers who keep putting in these limp attempts at story – if you don’t want to put any effort in the pepperoni, then please don't put it on my pizza.

Besides, I'm more of a Hawaiian pizza guy myself.

Although, to be fair, I'm more of a Hawaiian Pizza guy


11:00 PM on 12.22.2013

"Welcome home, John": Halo 4 and Humanity...

[size=4][b][color=#3399ff]Analyzing Video Game Narratives: Halo 4

I love the Halo franchise.  Since the wee age of 11, I have devoted countless hours to the franchise, I would argue, that is the biggest sci-fi saga of our generation.  However, devoted zealotry for the franchise aside, most of the stories in the video game entries of the Halo universe have stunk.

Halo: Combat Evolved remains engrossing not as a narrative piece, but as an introduction to the mysteries of a rich universe Bungie has crafted.  Halo 2 and 3 were all about wrapping up the loose ends of the macro conflict between the Human-Covenant war, but, in the end, while you may have felt for the characters and the situations, the original “Halo trilogy” was no GattacaODST and Reach came along and Bungie began its steps towards writing a better story, but it was still nothing to write home about.
When 343 Industries announced they were taking over the reigns of Bungie, I had reservations. How would the franchise fare with a new creative team behind it, rather than the old, trusty guard?  As it turns out, better than I could have hoped for.

As most great sequels and iterations in franchises, Halo 4 works with the motifs of the series, but manages to do so in a fresh way that doesn’t feel like it’s coasting on the successes of previous games.  Before the player even picks up a gun, they’re treated to a cutscene all about the creation of the Spartan programs as Dr. Halsey and an unidentified Naval officer debate over the ethics over the soldiers.  While Halsey claims that her work saved humanity, the officer quickly points out the fact the soldiers weren’t conscripted, but rather abducted children forced into becoming tools of war, and, as the officer claims, have effectively lost their humanity.  And that’s the entirety of Master Chief’s story in Halo 4 – humanity and the price paid to keep it.

Rather than representing the last line of defense for humanity, John (Master Chief) is an antiquated soldier, as the military has developed a new line of advanced, military-conscripted Spartans.  One of the last remaining Spartan-IIs, John’s years of military indoctrination, warfare, and loss, has led him to be an anti-social warrior with few friends and even fewer emotional outlets.

This leads to a character with as much importance to the story as our military man of few words – his A.I. companion, Cortana.  Since her introduction in Halo: Combat Evolved, Cortana has been just as much of a constant of the series as the Master Chief.  Cortana has always provided the emotional levity needed in the Halo stories.  Besides providing military strategy and technological know-how, she has been John’s friend, opening him up to joking around and expressing himself outside of the military chain-of-command, even more so than the Chief’s relations to other soldiers.  If not the only source, she is John’s strongest connection to being human, ironic given she is nowhere near being one physiologically.

As hinted at in previous games, Cortana is finally going rampant.  In the Halo-verse, A.I.s mentally deteriorate to the point of insanity after seven years, and she has lasted for eight.  Desperate to find a way back home to save her, the Master Chief unwittingly unleashes The Didact, an ancient alien bent on subjugating humanity to deal with the universe’s most terrifying creatures – the Flood. The Didact, like Kahn in Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn, is an enemy from the past seeking revenge and retribution for the war ancient space-faring mankind had inflicted on his people to escape the encroaching Flood.  To save the galaxy from the threat, he plans on fighting the Flood, by converting his once-enemies, with whom he holds a strange type of begrudging respect, into cannon fodder.

The Chief and Cortana meet back up with UNSC soldiers to help deal with the situation, while during the events of the story, Cortana begins to lose her grip on reality. Frequently endangering herself and the Chief, she begins developing crippling guilt over her jeopardizing the mission.  Eventually, the story reveals that The Didact intends to utilize an ancient weapon called “The Composer” to convert human beings into monstrosities that can successfully fight the Flood. 

When a heated argument with Captain Del Rio of the Infinity comes into focus, Cortana loses her cool and yells that she cannot allow The Didact to escape.  Before being disposed of for her obvious state of rampancy, the Chief saves her, in the face of opposition from Del Rio, and begins a plan to stop The Didact.  One scene later, after coming hair’s breath away from being destroyed, Cortana expresses her melancholy over how she has always been a real personality, but never a real person.  And here is where she begins to understand the inevitable.  While preparing for the assault, she asks John to figure out which one of them is the machine with a twinge of bitterness as he squanders what humanity he has as a weapon.

One of the biggest turns in the plot revolves around The Didact actually acquiring, and firing, the Composer on a research station where all of the humans on it, except the Chief, are immediately killed and converted.  In their last horrible moments of living, Cortana witnessed the violent end of all the scientists’ lives.  Serving on the battlefield, she isn’t a stranger to death, but it is a different case now that she is confronting her own mortality.  After Chief attempts to refocus the conversation on going after The Didact, Cortana ignores him, talking about how they’ll pair him with another A.I. after she’s gone.  Seeing death so clearly has destroyed any fabrications about getting back to Dr. Halsey and fixing her condition.

She is going to ‘die,’ and there’s no hope to save her, but, as usual, the Chief refuses to abandon her.  The only idea she wants to get through to John is that even if he’s paired with another Cortana model, it won’t be her; even with the same model, it won't be the same one that shared those experiences with him.  Above everything else, she wants John to be prepared for her death and to remember her after she’s gone.  Chief even falters trying to console her as the very real possibility of losing her begins creeping into his mind.  John ends the conversation by saying that the fight for her survival isn’t over yet, to which she dejectedly repeats, “Not yet.”

We finally see a flaw in the most perfect soldier in the universe – his denial.  So dedicated is the Chief to accomplishing his goals and saving who he intends to save that failing never crosses his mind.  In this sense, he is almost childishly naïve of the reality of the situation, which has benefited him in the past, but, at long last, is hindering him in a situation he never thought he would face.  This scene is near destructive given the Chief's denial of the situation and Cortana's pain that he won't see reason.

Near the end of the story, the duo plan on detonating a nuke on The Didact’s ship to keep him from converting the entirety of humanity on Earth into Prometheans, the terrifying foot-soldiers of the Forerunner.  The Chief activates the weapon inside the vessel knowing full well that he will not be able to escape.  At the last moment, Cortana saves him, shielding him inside a barrier. Cortana tells Chief that she is far beyond saving now, with the Chief adamantly refusing to accept reality, pleading for some other option.  After a sad goodbye, she disappears leaving Chief to be saved from space by the UNSC.

At the end, Captain Lasky attempts to console John over the loss of Cortana with the Spartan replying that a soldiers job is to protect humanity, no matter the cost.  This brings him dangerously close to becoming the two-dimensional caricature many have criticized the character of being. Lasky reminds him that soldiers aren’t just machines, but people to, and they're no less human.  The Captain leaves him to grieve with John recalling to himself the conversation he had earlier with Cortana about which one of them was “the machine.”

Halo 4[/b] is about humanity.  Not on a grandiose sense of species awareness, but of what it means to be alive as a human being. Her ‘sickness’ and death allowed Cortana to finally feel what it was to be alive, to be afraid of the inevitability of dying.  More importantly, her rampancy made her appreciate what life had to offer, including John.  For John, it’s a much more complicated issue for the usually uncomplicated soldier.  By the end, he doesn’t become a man with a burning desire to leave the military, have children, and live life to the fullest – nor would it have been appropriate for this arc.  He doesn’t even answer whether or not he’s a machine of a man.  He just begins to question what he is, even if he might not ever have the answer.

The final cutscene in where John is being stripped of his armor perfectly symbolizes what 343 had done to the Chief.  Removing the legendary status, the advanced armor, and the weapons, underneath it all, John is a battle-weary hollow shell of a man unsure of whether he is even human anymore.  It’s a far more destructive ending than an exploding Halo ring or a gunfight with an enemy – it’s the deconstruction of the quiet soldier we never thought of examining in the first place.

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