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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?!”

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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

  read


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
[/b][/size][/color]

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.”




[b]
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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