I played the first God of War game years ago, and remember it being very entertaining, but canít recall exactly how it behaved. Did it have the same nuances and childish behavior that annoys me the way this latest installment does? I really canít remember, but I want to think no. I want to think this game inhabits a special place where no other videogames dare to enter.
To be clear: This is a fun and entertaining game that makes no qualms about what it is and where it fits in the gaming world or what its fans want from it. It is violent and masochistic and testosterone-filled and all the other things that make it enjoyable for adults the same way apocalyptic, speculative Fiction or pulp crime novels are.
But itís still in love with itself, and I donít see how anyone can be a fan of that.
Letís take the evidence in order of most egregious:
1) These goddamn, unskippable landscape shots. I get it, okay, I completely understand that a lot of people worked really, really freaking hard to make this game beautiful. They are amazing at what they do and I totally appreciate it. I do. But when you shove it in my face every time I enter a new area, zooming out to show some magnificently rendered backdrop, then panning it and zooming back in close to Kratos, then panning away to something else, then zooming back to Kratos again, then pausing before I finally get to fucking move; well, it really only makes me think of some attention-starved child jumping up and down so a stranger will show them recognition because no older people in their family will. Is that what this game is striving to be, the attention-seeking little brother of the series? Everyone, seriously, you did an amazing making this game beautiful, but showing off undoes all of that. Gamers appreciate subtlety too, I swear.
2) Whatís the point of a puzzle if you show the person how to solve it before they even get to try? Here, enjoy my 3/4s finished Sudoku. This is the way GoW: Ascension assembled every single riddle in the game. They show you what tool you need to solve it, and how you can manipulate that tool for the desired result; all before you even have control of your character. Remember those long-winded landscape shots I was complaining about? Yeah, they usually involved showing you exactly where you needed to go next and the exact steps you need to take to get there. Why am I playing this game at all then, I might as well watch someone beating it on YouTube. At least then I can eat cereal or something. Essentially, this game doesnít want you to play it, just witness it.
3) You canít move until the game tells you. You not only have to watch the landscape scenes, you have to watch as the enemies emerge and surround you, creeping closer and closer before you finally get control. You have to inhale every second of the scripted (albeit beautiful) sets before you can move, which not only puts you at a disadvantage but irritates the hell out of you. We are a reactionary bunch, us gamers, and to steal that honed ability from us is unteaching us everything weíve been taught. I would enthusiastically accept an example of where that works. You can go against the grain and you can piss people off, as long as thereís a point. Not allowing gameplayers the ability to control their character as the enemy advances is akin to a TV show just randomly blacking out video throughout an episode. Is there anyone who likes this? Anyone?
To recap: of course this is a great game. It gets dragged down a little bit by the factor that all the other GoW games are freaking amazing, but stood alone this game is fine. By that same token, this game stooded (sic) alone without the GoW name probably doesnít make it commercially or critically, which should tell us something. You can make things really pretty, and you can throw together a semi-coherent story, but the key will always be gameplay. And it doesnít have to be innovative or complex or unique, it just canít annoy the gamer. And I doubt Iím alone in being annoyed by this game. From the way it obsessed over itself to the way it solved puzzles for you, I felt less like a gameplayer than a spectator. And without that established line it isnít a videogame.
Thereís a precedent for this. Resident Evil made a really good game with number 4, then they made a completely CGI rendered movie with the same characters, and it was good. Then they made Resident Evil 5 (which I didnít hate, but seems like a lot of people did). Then they made number 6, which everyone seems to hate, and I donít plan to play. So maybe we reach a certain point where games canít be games anymore, but they can live on in other mediums. Maybe make the next GoW game a CGI movie.
People really like the original Star Wars movies. People also like Dash Rendar. People dislike the Star Wars movies that came out after Dash. Thereís a lesson to be learned there somewhere.
Any time you look at a really good game with a critical eye, you feel like youíre being unnecessarily difficult. Fussy. You enjoyed the experience, but still felt like something was missing, or that the game wasnít quite meeting its potential. Like things were being left on the table, only they werenít significant enough for your critique to come off as anything but complaining. Itís the way I feel every time I watch The Walking Dead. The experience is fine, but the potential of what the experience could be leaves me frustrated. And I found myself reaching a similar end as I concluded Tomb Raider.
I liked the gameplay. It varies enough and frequently adds new elements so that I never reached the Burnout Phase. The story is lacking, at times incoherent, but thatís common enough in videogames, so it never stood out to me as especially bad. This is more a reflection on the lack of care put into the literary side of videogames than the amount of literary care put into Tomb Raider. Where I do sigh with annoyance in this game, is when it comes to the suspension of disbelief. And this is an issue I often struggle with in videogames, because I feel like Iím being overly-critical. Only, Iím not sure if I feel this way because Iím overly-critical with everything, or if videogames just continually set such a low bar that this feeling comes up often and therefore Iím feeling it at such a high percentage that itís affecting how I interpret them.
I donít really care that there are magically lit caves with ever-burning candles or stoked and abandoned campfires everywhere. It doesnít really bother me that I can magically upgrade skills and weapons based on magical points Iíve accumulated by reaching certain areas or cracking open empty crates. I can look past abandoned documents and relics and whatever else scattered all about for me to find that fill in the backstory (in the same obvious way a voiceover does). I can put those obstacles aside for the sake of gameplayer sanity. Weíll consider it a stretch of the truth in order to enhance the experience. That makes sense.
I can even let the fact that Laraís carrying 4 large weapons, a grappling tool, rope, ammunition, a torch, and several other odds and ends she picks up along the way go. Other games have opted for the 'you can carry one two-armed weapon and one one-armed' method, others have levied for the cache system with limited space but you can store it and it all carries over from one save point to the next. We can just make it a rule that all these things are completely fine in the game world. Even Lara in her tanktop and jeans can somehow find a way to carry everything she ever finds with her. Fine.
Itís the inhuman amount of physical abuse that her character repeatedly takes that gets me. I found myself continuously shaking my head a she fell from the sky, rushed down rivers, tumbled down cliffs, survived explosions; her body slamming into anything and everything along the way. I would put the rough estimate of broken bones at close to 207, not including her arms and ribs several times. Just the sheer amount of times she falls multiple stories onto her side would cripple a person in a lifetime, not to mention the 36 hours or whatever this game takes place in.
Which leads to another belief problem: we play these games over hours, which take days, and sometimes weeks to accumulate, but a game like this exists in a finite amount of time, none of which makes sense. This is partially bad storytelling, but itís also developers taking advantage of their audienceís expectations. We donít experience the game in the same time as the game character does, by this I mean no one (well okay, probably some small sect of purist does) sits down and plays this game from start to finish in one sitting. This is true of almost all games, especially AAA titles. And so we as the player can never empathize with whatever wear and tear the protagonist experiences over the course of the journey. And initially Tomb Raider does an amazing job of drawing you in and forcing you to feel cold and hungry and alone and tired. But this quickly slips away as there is never a penalty for not eating or resting. And Lara never finds more comfortable clothes for herself. Even with the swarms of men she kills, all dressed with down jackets, she never grabs one off them, even though she expresses how cold she is.
And lets talk about those swarms of men. All men. No female enemies on this island. Just Lara killing a bunch of men. Killing hundreds of them as they just flock to one spot to attack her. There is some cool stealth stuff you can do (much better than Iíve seen other games who attempt it) but more often that not itís you hunkered behind a barricade taking outÖwhatever your enemy is. Which is a major problem in most videogames: no one really understands the enemy, or why the enemy attacks so aggressively, and so stupidly.
In terms of gameplay it makes complete sense, enemies are a type of puzzle. You have to figure out how to kill them with strategy and with a thought to ammunition and what enemies might appear in the future. But in terms of coherence, there is often more logic to be found in the endlessly pacing red turtles in Super Mario than there are in most games today. At least the turtle has a linear motivation. He paces, thatís his job, he doesnít care if you enter his space or not, heís just living his life and you donít exist to him. Games with aliens have an easier time justifying why their enemies attack than games based in reality. Itís easier to believe there are mindless aliens than mindless people, but itís also easier to justify killing swarms of aliens than swarms of humans. Tomb Raider touches on this at the very beginning, when Lara kills the first person. Theyíre trying to show us that this is a huge moment for her, as it assumedly is--for her and anyone else. Taking a life is obviously traumatizing for all but the insane, only Lara then goes on to quickly take out a dozen others with no sign of remorse. And then hundreds more as if itís common practice.
The game tries several times to explain itself, Lara mutters about why there are so many of these men, only calling out your own flaws doesnít justify them. And Iím not sure they ever quite make a justifiable claim as to why these men are so adamant about killing you. About why theyíre trapped here sure (how they got here, still no idea?), but it takes so much for a person to just throw themselves into a life-ending situation that players are obviously going to question why all these men would do it. To say theyíre brainwashed doesnít meet muster. Not to mention the fact that you, alone, are always able to win. I mean, yeah sometimes you die and get a gameover, but then you restart and eventually figure it out. But this is constant in games. One vs Many and the one wins, over and over, everytime. Itís just insane. And the game again tries to explain itself, with soldiers calling out ďhow does one girl keep beating us?!Ē but that still doesnít justify it.
I remember playing the first Tomb Raider and I loved how in one of the early levels you come across this giant waterfall. And if you go to a ledge high above it you could do a swan dive into the water. It was so cool to me how a character I was controlling was actually reacting to the environment around them. Hitting the jump button didnít result in the same motion every time (and I know the game introduced this element from the start, but it was at the waterfall that this specific action triggered, you couldnít just do it anywhere, it was specific to this one place), but actually pushed the character into behaving almost human. What was even more impressive was that if you aimed wrong while diving off the cliff, Lara would slam head first onto the earth and break her neck, her limbs crumbling into a heap around her. So not only was the character behaving in a realistic manner by altering her reaction to the environment, but there were also consequences to those actions. Death has always been the calculating factor for difficulty in videogames, but here was an instance where death existed outside the advancement of story, and instead simply mimicked reality. There was no purpose of the swan dive, it just looked cool, and there was no purpose to allowing Lara to land outside the water area and break her neck, itís just what would happen if she really did mistime her jump.
There are probably six or seven instances (maybe more) in which the Lara in this new Tomb Raider falls from similar distances, or hits giving objects with equal force as that ledge-to-ground-by-waterfall dive. She lands on her back or side, hits tree limbs and crates and metal and any other number of debris on her way down. She grimaces, but then gets up and the game continues on. No broken bones, or mention of internal bleeding. Sheís a little more bloodied, a little more dirty, a little more scraped and cut. At one point the gameplay goal becomes getting to a first aid kit, though once achieved itís not clear what her actual injury was or what she really did to fix it. And left to guess, it seems to be trying to fix the injury she suffers at the very beginning of the game, and the one shown in every trailer for the game.
So essentially an old wound is reopened, but no new ones are accumulated on this very painful journey. Games take a lot of liberties with storytelling, often falling on clichťd or flat ideas in order to drive the gameplay. After all, games are valued for how fun they are not how well they tell a story. So Iím okay with the many liberties a game decides to take in providing motivation for characters to get from one level to the next, but I also feel let down by the missed opportunity for players to really experience this game. With graphics getting so much better, to the point where characters resemble real people in so many amazing ways, there is opportunity to suck us into the major moments of games. We can feel like we are really there or that we are making decisions right along with the character weíre playingÖif we donít get pulled out of the moment. If we donít lose our suspension of disbelief. And every time a character falls through the compartment of an abandoned bus/train/plane, smashing their head against seats and crates, their limbs breaking glass, finally stopping their momentum by landing directly on their spine (from a 20-foot fall), then the ground gives way and they fall some more before finally getting out of the jam, dusting themselves off and muttering a joke to themselves, my disbelief is no longer suspended. And itís much easier to lose it than gain it back.
1) If the current generation of consoles hadnít included online capabilities in their machines, I never would have bought the add-on equipment required to gain internet access. Iím not a big fan of multiplayer and I view any additional cost beyond the system itself as taking away from the pool of disposable income I put towards games.
2) If PSN wasnít free I would never subscribe to online play. I donít know how much Xbox Live costs, but Iím pretty sure whatever it is I wouldnít pay it for the same reason as above. I donít view the amount Iíd use it as equal to the 2-3 used games a year (or whatever it works out to be) I would buy with that money.
I am certain of two other things:
1) Without the previous two circumstances landing in my lap as they did, I would not have had access or a desire to play games like Closure/The Unfinished Swan/Braid/etc. (though this is only partially true, these games can be accessed through Steam and the like, I have little inclination to play them on the computerómainly because I enjoy controls Iím familiar with, but mainly because I have a Mac, which reduces the pool of games considerably) and would never have even tried them out.
2) I would be ignorant to what I was missing, and Iíd be worse off for it.
There is a larger issue than my frugalness at play. Games (like anything else) trend towards the masses, and what the masses want is longevity over substance and additional gaming beyond the campaign, like multiplayer. I want neither of those things, which makes it hard for me to find well-funded games that I believe worthwhile. There are some creative teams who find a way to marry what the general public wants and what I want, but this is the exception not the rule. In order for me to find narrative-driven games that donít linger for the sake of padding on gameplay time, I have to turn to innovative independent games made by small companies.
I prefer the linear experience built around larger ideas that strive to inform and affect the audience, but have a hard time finding this in many games that are built with a mainstream audience in mind. They are most concerned with graphics, framerates, and prolonging a redundant experience and compounding it with DLC. I understand why these factors matter, they just donít matter to me, and I think itís hurting videogames as a whole. This medium is no longer in its infancy; it has now matured and reached a critical point in its life. Does the industry become a mass-produced form of entertainment that focuses on the commercial profitability of now rather than the long-term health overall (say, like MLB or the NFL) or something that strives for artistic longevity that can be both thought-provoking and profitable (like the movie industry).
Iíd like to think there is room for both AAA titles and independent ones, but for someone like me, the appeal is oceans apart. The only time I ever buy a AAA title is after the price has come down at least 33%. Almost entirely out of principle I refuse to buy a game at full priceÖbecause I know it has been altered in order to meet the mainstream demand. I am buying a game for a single player experience, yet paying for the flotsam and jetsam I will never touch. If you think about it in binary terms, for online play there is PSN for everyone and there is PlayStation Plus for those who want a more abundant experience. For games there is just one option, take it or leave it. I guarantee there are millions of people who would buy a Call of Duty game just for the multiplayer. I would buy a Call of Duty that had no multiplayer. But when it comes to the fiscal rationality of the 21st century, videogames are stuck in a time before they even existed. You can go see a movie at a theater and pay a premium price, or wait until the movie comes out on video and download that movie at a lesser price, or you can wait until it comes out on Netflix and get it at no price above your monthly subscription. All along the way the people who made and produced and financed the movie get a cut. Videogame publishers refuse to believe this is a replicable model and insist that people buy the game at full price at all times. Games come down in price, sure, but at a slower rate than the market, and anyone with the slightest bit of ambition can find a game online at a much lower price weeks after its release. If Call of Duty came out with a strictly single-player experience for a discounted price, I would happily but it. Activision doesnít want my money though, theyíd rather I buy it used on eBay.
I recently purchased Closure for $15. This is $15 that I will never get to resell on the used market. I canít gift this game to a friend, itís linked forever to my account. Thatís $15 that many AAA titles will never get because they make you buy in completely. For comparison, say you wanted to watch a baseball game, but in order to attend the game you couldnít just buy a seat. The price of your ticket would force you to buy a hot dog, two drinks, a program and popcorn. What should be $20 has now tripled in price and given you things you never asked for in the first place. Of course itís great to have the option to buy a hot dog or a soda or a program once you arrive at the stadium, but to force those things on you before you even sit down is crazy. If teams started doing this it would only serve to force fans into other means of watching the game, which is the problem the videogame industry has been facing for years. Instead of thinking of ways to make games more available to consumers in the way that they want them, corporations try to punish users who donít buy the games brand new (requiring passcodes to access multiplayer, for instance). Which means nothing to people like me since restricting online play is comparable to a restaurant telling a vegan theyíre out of bacon. So why canít I just pay for the campaign of a game? Why do I have to get trophies and multiplayer or anything else outside the scope of the game? Why does the videogame industry refuse to evolve in this aspect, when in every other they completely revolutionize? I wish I knew.
Unfortunately, a lot of games dip. They start out fun, maybe because the gameplay is new or style is unique, but inevitably become stale. You do something over and over enough and eventually you start cutting corners. You look for the fastest way out because you no longer care about playing the game, but are invested enough that you are playing simply to see the end. Iíve found this usually happens to me when frustration meets repetition. When I am playing the same stage and doing the same things within it, but unable to progress for whatever reason. And so I reach the Burnout Phase.
Hitman: Absolution (the game I just completed) is a good example of this. I spent most of the first half doing my best to subscribe to the gameís reality. I patiently tried to solve each stage the way I was instructed and would reward me the most points. I tried not to kill non-targets, hid around corners and learned guardsí routines, went out of my way to find tools that could be used as distractions. I did all this because I wanted to believe that this is what a person would have to do if they were trying to infiltrate a compound. They couldnít be spotted, then run and hide for a minute and things would be cool. So if I got spotted I would restart the checkpoint and approach the level a different way. But each stage is built like the last, and I never felt like I was in control. The game is dependent upon patience: That the player is willing to play through each level multiple times and hide out in corners to time how the enemies moveóand do this for hours and hours on end.
It reminded me of Mission Impossible for N64.
It reminded me of hell.
At a certain point I no longer wanted to play this game anymore. Eventually my patience ran out and I stopped caring about the world the game was trying to create. Iíd get into shootouts and kill targets in the least-stealthy way possible, simply because it was the quickest and I just wanted to get through the game. If you set levels up so that there is no variety of objectives from one to the next, it wonít matter that there are interesting and rewarding ways to solve those objectives, youíll still feel like youíre playing the same stage over and over. When that happens I will do my best to find ways to cheat it. I donít want to do this, but I also donít want to be stalled out in ANY level (in ANY game) for more than a few minutes/tries, especially when I feel like I just completed the same thing the level before. Testing my patience is the fastest way to take me out of the reality of a game. It makes me realize Iím playing a videogame, which makes me realize Iím doing something that might not be the best use of my time, which makes me wonder why I ever bought the product. For a linear videogame, I imagine this is not how you want your audience to feel. You want to challenge them, obviously, but you donít want to piss them off. And it can be a very fine line.
Hitman can be a fun game, but the story was uninspiring and the gameplay got repetitive early on. Maybe variety would have made it interesting to me, or a story that wasnít riddled with clichťs, or maybe I would have been disappointed no matter what. I find myself reaching the Burnout Phase in the majority of linear (usually third-person) Action games that I play. It could be that the genre just isnít for me (though Iíve found some games of this type to be extremely fun) but I also think developers need to focus on why players might hit this wall. Is it storytelling or is it poor design; or maybe a combination of both. Maybe something else entirely.
There really is no reason to complain about Hitman. This game presented itself as something (a stylistic, far-fetched, man-vs-the-world action adventure) and had the decency to stay true to what I was told to expect, and I will appreciate any form of creativity that respects its audience that way. My main concern, and this goes against everything we have been conditioned to as game players (and really as humans), is that Hitman was too long. In so many cases, with so many things, less is more. But because we are paying a premium for a service, we want to be able to squeeze as much out of that service as possible. If an Action game like Hitman is only 4 or 5 hours long players will feel robbed, even though for both gameplay and storytelling purposes itís detrimental to drag these games out much longer than that. These kinds of games are less interested in telling an intriguing story as creating an atmosphere, only atmosphere doesnít hold up over the stretch. Then the only thing keeping a playerís interest is the gameplay, which also struggles to hold up after a certain amount of time. And this is where repetition meets frustration.
The last thing I want is for something like a gimmicky car chase to break up the monotony, but aside for a heavy mix of gameplay elements that continually allow you to grow, any game is bound to get stale. When thatís the case it makes sense to shorten the length. The only way to avoid the Burnout Phase is to end the game before the audience reaches it. Of course, if they could bring down the price as well, then wouldnít that just be preparation meeting opportunity for all us gamers.
For most people, videogames are not considered a legitimate form of storytelling. Of course, story is a very loose term, as one can (if they so choose) argue that Michael Bay films are considered a legitimate form of storytelling. But whether or not a single person or a mode of telling can generate a quality story isnít the point. The point is that for most of the Art world, no videogame can even be up for consideration.
This mindset is a form of Ouroboros, where in the infant stages of game development creators needed devices to progress their games, and often would settle on the simplest (least likely to be rejected by the casual person) way: You play a character and that character is attacked by something (usually hordes of something). This type of gameplay is how many people learned to understand videogames. Enemies spawn relentlessly in Mario and the turtle in the little green shell will pace eternally until you kill him. Monsters attack you in Doom; Ganonís minions battle you in Zelda. Lots of things die in videogames and you are constantly under attack. It isnít that developers necessarily want things to be murdered, itís that in order to progress a story something has to be at stake. In almost every case, it is the protagonistís life (which isnít so foreign a concept in books or movies), because that is immediately understandable to any audience. Survival is as natural as breathing. Early on videogames were entirely a visual medium that did little to explain why things were happening or to attach any type of meaning to actions, but they didn't need to because players were too busy trying not to die to focus on story.1 Players became used to this theme and came to expect it, maybe even demanding it, so developers continued to use it.
What all this means is that there was never any onus to make videogames story-driven. It made much more sense to focus simply on the idea of having the player keep the character alive, and then thinking about what sort of quest he/she should be on. Games slowly began to shift in the direction of an overarching, complicated story rather than just a linear, one-dimensional quest. Games like Resident Evil and Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy VII and VIII pushed to be more than just the playable character avoiding death. But they still aren't what most people would call literary. They still are themed in specific genres: Horror, Action, and Science Fiction, that come with them certain pretense and rules. And while I can appreciate what those stories were doing and how they complicated their characters, I never felt like they were telling something relatable to me2 Regardless, it has been 15 years since those games came out with the intention of telling a story, but somehow we are just now starting to see videogames where character (and player agency to interpret those characters) is more important than the plot. For me, the tipping point was Limbo.
Limbo is fantastic in its simplicity. It has all of the standard elements that those raised on videogames expect. There is no dialogue, you are constantly under the fear of death, timing is everything, there is no concrete (see: long-winded, over-the-top, bloated) story for you to pay attention to. But Limbo is telling a story, and in a way that you can miss if you want to, but can be extremely rewarding if you choose to notice it. The game is broken into three acts. The first acquaints you with the game: You wake up and walk and walk and walk, avoiding giant spiders and flaming tires and hidden bear traps. You donít know what youíre striving for, but you sense itís something important. Cast against a black and white backdrop, you are nothing but a silhouette, the only sign that youíre alive coming from the sporadic blinking of your solid white eyes.
In the second act there is more walking, abandoned military industrial complex, more bear traps. Towards the end of this act the game literally starts turning on its head. Music plays a role for the first time and itís haunting. Notes inundate your senses and each time you die (you die a lot in this game) all you hear is their dark melodic ringing as you wait to try again. Then, as the world rights itself, you catch a glimpse of something that plants the seed in your head. Youíre probably more than halfway through the game at this point, and up until now you donít really know what the protagonist is after, or if heís even after anything at all. Maybe you think youíve been given a clue hinting towards his goal or maybe you've come to accept that he isnít after anything at all. That the point of the game is that itís pointless. That you are, after all, trapped in purgatory. Some sort of metaphysical, surreal comment on you as a player. I canít say your wrong, no one can, which is what the best stories do. They allow you to form a conclusion that can simultaneously be 100% right and 100% wrong. But you catch a glimpse of something, a meaning youíre striving for, and then just as sudden as it came itís gone, and act three begins. Act three is similar to the previous two, with lots of walking and death, but also electricity and some battles with gravity. The last scene of the game comes without pretense. There is no final boss or especially hard set of obstacles. But it ends magnificently and youíre given your second scene. The final scene. And again you get to decide for yourself what it means. For me it made the entire game make sense. It was subtle and perfect and allowed me to form three conclusions before I ultimately decided which one I think it meant. Itís what every story should strive to do: make you care, make you think, make you change your mind.
Teachers like to give students the short story Hills Like White Elephants. If youíve never read it you should go find it right now. Itís all over the Internet and about two pages long. You finish it and shrug your shoulders, asking what the big deal is. Why would a teacher bother showing this to anyone. Teachers love this story because everyone thinks it's boring when they first read it. Pointless. But then the teacher tells you what itís really about, and you look the story over again and suddenly it means a lot more. All of a sudden it becomes a really interesting story, because it says more with what it doesnít say than what it does. The best storytelling is done by giving the audience just enough so that they arenít lost, and the elements to decide the meaning for themselves. Videogames were built on the premise that you tell the audience everything up front, not giving the player freedom to interpret their own conclusions. Mario is rescuing the princess, and she isnít in this castle but if you go to the next world she might be there. Eventually youíll find her. The challenge isnít in discovering why Mario might be rescuing her or why Bowser might have kidnapped her, itís in avoiding falling to your death or running into a green-shelled turtle. As we play we never see ourselves as Mario or wonder why he is making the decisions he is. With Limbo, the same dangers are there, but we do put ourselves in the protagonistís shoes. We do wonder why he doesnít just lie down and die. We feel that he is making active choices in his fate, and through him, we are as well. We are committed and involved and a part of the decision-making process rather than just a spectator. Through two simple scenes. This is what videogames can be; this is what videogames should be. Art.
1Voice capabilities didnít enter the world of games until after the traditional storytelling mode was set. In fact, games rarely even incorporated written words into a game, and if they did it was in block text separate from visualsósimilar to how a silent film applied dialogue. Off the top of their head, I'm guessing most people canít think of any game that had spoken dialogue pre-Resident Evil (outside of the soothing baritone of the NBA JAM announcer). And if you can you are awesome, but I canít.
2 Perhaps Cloud and Squall have some teenage angst that many people can relate to at different points in their lives. But you'd have to play the game at the right time to sympathize with it. And even then, they really try hard to make you lose that sympathy. Doth protest too muching.[img]
Hereís the thing: I read Goosebumps books in my youth. Like most kids born in the 1980s, I was drawn to the semi-terrifying idea that something terrifying (and non-ordinary) could happen to everyday kids. That one day there could be an evil sponge living under my sink or that my parentís lawn gnomes came to life at night or that my next door neighbors were vampires. A few variations of these books had the choose-your-own-adventure gimmick where at the end of a page you could make two choicesÖone sent you to page 59 and the other had you flipping to page 113. This non-linear style had you jumping all around the book and forced you to make choices. You got to CHOOSE what the character would do, which was fascinating as a kid (the key was to leave your finger as a bookmark when you flipped to the page of your choice, cause more often than not one of the choices meant death. So in reality you didnít really get to choose most of the time, you were forced into an option. But the illusion of choice was there. Sound familiar?) But therein lies the problem, Iím not a kid anymore and the idea of a choose-your-own-adventure story sounds as about appealing as paying bills.
So why is there a flood of videogame developers throwing the idea of ďmoral choiceĒ into videogames. Especially when so often this concept falls flat. One only has to look at the outcry at the ending of Mass Effect 3. ďChoice,Ē fans cried, ďwe were promised choice.Ē Commonly, the choice given in videogames is whether or not you will allow a character to live, but routinely these games are so filled with killing and violence that the morality of it is minor. Take Infamous, for example, where several choices have lasting effects. You can give people aid and supplies or you can keep them for yourself. Being good grants you certain powers; being bad offers a different set. Sure your ex-girlfriend might scold you for making a selfish decision and your best friend might chide you about making a selfless one, but who cares? Either way youíre still playing the same game. The filler in between might matter to some people but for most itís larger plot points that they pay attention to. And largely those remain the same.
We donít get choice in novels. We donít get choice in movies. We donít get choice in music. Art is created with a direction in mind and the consumer doesnít have a say in it. I realize that all media is different and videogames have their own set of guidelines and understanding of how theyíre consumed, but giving a false sense of choice is just bothersome. And saying that because videogames are interactive they lend themselves to giving choice to the player is like saying because a book is in first-person I will interpret the character as myself. You can have choice in videogames, but they have to be committed to it. FULLY committed. The choice has to matter and have long-standing repercussions on how the game is digested. The decisions of morality made have to vary wildly from the opposite choice, making so that the next decision we encounter could never have been presented had we gone the other direction with that first choice. There has to be consequential impact, just like there is in real life (forked road, yellow wood, all that). Essentially, developers would have to create more than one story thread, not just have one story and bend the decisions players make around it, tweaking things slightly here and there. Games like Heavy Rain and The Walking Dead are examples that attempted to tell a story and give the player actual moral choice, but they fell flat. What feels powerful at first ends up feeling like a ploy, as the sum of your choices generally leads to the same conclusions as a different set of choices. Different 20-second cutscenes feel tact on, not like a reward.
Too often moral choice is used as a device to give the player a sense of power, when it really should be used to give them a sense of powerlessness. They should second-guess and regret decisions, not forget about them moments after theyíre made or make them knowing that they don't really matter, as the story will trudge forward the same way despite their input. I need to know there is no turning back; that no two decisions can lead to the same conclusion. Otherwise, I'm still just keeping my finger on the page.