I celebrate Gone Home more than I like it. I celebrate Journey more than I liked it. I even celebrate the end of Mass Effect 3, despite hating its fucking guts.
OK, I didn’t celebrate that at first. But I’ve come to.
So, why? Why celebrate bad games? What do I even mean by ‘celebrate’(1)? Well, it’s just like celebrating a birthday. You may not be happier about being another year older, another year closer to the grave. But it’s a marker. It’s something you acknowledge with joy and happiness because it represents something good: Another year survived. Acknowledgement of yourself. A belief that you, in your existence, are a good thing.
And sometimes it’s like that with games.
Gone Home was a bad game. Let me be emphatic: Gone Home completely and utterly failed on its own essential core engagement. It sought to entertain and challenge the player through an exploration mechanic that allowed them to discover an engaging story on their own, but the exploration felt shallow, the discovery felt artificial, and the story was flatly not engaging. It was a failure on many levels, and while I believe there’s a good game to be mined in that space, Gone Home is not it.
Journey attempted to engage its players through a mixture of engagement mechanics, using beautiful visuals, the appeal of a real life yet anonymous compatriot and a reduction of the monomyth to game mechanics. Yet I found it cold and unwelcoming; its deliberate pace and frequent stops ruining its momentum. I preferred Flower, with its glorious mix of colour and movement and sound.
Mass Effect 3 did its damndest to try and end the series right. Took me a while and a lot of persuasion to see it, but I accept that it did. It understood the essential thematic note of Mass Effect is “cycles”, and that the game consistently adhered to a structure of “destroy, control, or subvert” as to how we approach those cycles. At the end, the series chose to lay that bare, to reduce itself to its most basic truth and asked the player to value the choice, not the result of that choice. The ending fucking failed none the less, don’t get me wrong. The cycle it chose to hinge its ending upon made not a whit of goddamn sense, because any cycle worth the kind of wholesale, galaxy changing grandeur the ending aspired to really did need to be utterly insurmountable by normal means, and the one they chose flatly wasn’t. The original “dark energy” cycle issue would have been a better one, since ‘dark energy’ could have stood in for the original (and better) version of the Reapers from Mass Effect 1: A problem that couldn’t be argued with, couldn’t be subverted and could barely even be fought. (I think this solution was even better, since it was all of that and tied neatly into the mechanics of play.)
But look at all this. Just look at it. A non-violent exploration game about coming out got made, not just as a tiny garage thing but as a decently sized independent release. Can you imagine that even five years ago? This is worth celebrating, even if you don’t like it. It also sold half a million copies. Celebration is called for!
Journey didn’t win me over, but it represented one of the best attempts to explore what you can do with pure mechanics, a defiant middle-finger to the likes of Bioware and David Cage, a refutation of the notion that games must follow books and television and film. That right there? Worth celebrating.
And finally, a giant studio, even in the midst of being fucking assholes about so much else in that game (Looking at you, Chobot; looking at you, bullshit multiplayer mode; looking at you, arrogant DLC ending message.) genuinely attempted some fucking art. Fine, it failed. Failure happens. Hell, games flub pandering cheap endings too. But at least Bioware tried. At least it actually gave a shot at it. At least they looked at their own game, and said, “Y’know what? No. A boss fight versus the Illusive Man? That’s cheap. That’s unworthy of this. We need to end this right.”
How often do you think that kind of call gets made? How often do you think a game company is prepared to take that kind of risk?
And hell, the reverse is true all too often. I enjoyed the hell out of Batman: Arkham City, but can we please admit the thing was the most pandering pile of bullshit we’ve seen in ages? Here’s Arkham Asylum, but bigger! With more characters you recognise! Oh shit, we’re killing them all off! Crazy! No, not crazy. Bullshit.
Hotline Miami? With due respect to Campster and his excellent commentary, I don’t see it. Here was an indie game that aspired to nothing more than the lurid kill-thrills of the AAA world on a smaller budget. I enjoyed the hell out of it, don’t get me wrong. It was a well-executed thrill-killer, sure. The mechanics were tight and the gameplay addictive. It got that right. But I see nothing to celebrate about it.(2)
Here’s to you, Fullbright. Here’s to you, That Game Company. Here’s to you, Bioware. I fucking hated your games. You did good.
(1) I did ponder whether I was using 'celebrate' here to simply mean 'admire', but no, that's not accurate. I admire and celebrate Gone Home. I celebrate, but do not admire Mass Effect 3's ending. I admire, but do not celebrate Hotline Miami. Admiration is about the content, celebration about the context.
(2) That said, I’m open to persuasion here that there was more going on. I’m not about to write it off completely.
1. Most video game sex scenes are forced into the game as a selling point rather than to benefit the plot; and,
2. Most video game sex scenes are positioned as the culmination of romance, treated as a reward for the player completing the romance quest chain. This is a fundamentally horrible way to look at sex that reflects some genuinely sick real world attitudes about it.
3. They're fucking awful in and of themselves anyway.
Oh, there's a bunch more in the video (go watch it) but I don't think I've done the video a disservice with that truncation. And y'know what? For the most part, he's absolutely right and just about every sex scene I've ever witnessed in a video game is faulted by at least one of the two. The worst of the bunch are absolutely those of the Mass Effect franchise, which hit all three of those points with gusto. Seriously, go back and watch that Mass Effect 1 sex scene again. Just... just ugh(1). The Dragon Age: Origins sex scenes are either better or worse depending upon which qualities offend you more; they're longer and more painfully presented, they're just as obligatory, but at least they're marginally better positioned. (With most of them, the sex scene is not the culmination of the romance, at least.)
But I must leap in to defend Bioware somewhat because they have, even if it is merely in the same manner as a stopped clock with the time, gotten it more or less right at least once, with the Isabela sex scene in the flawed but under-rated Dragon Age 2. Let's break this down point by point.
1. Obligatory selling point
So, there's no real getting around this: Yes, the sex scene still trips on this point. The romance options thinking is still very much intact, and they exist within Dragon Age 2 precisely because they're an expected feature for Bioware RPG fans.
But at least here the romances do in fact make some sense. The themes of Dragon Age 2 revolve around loss and gain; Hawke gains power and success in the world at the same time as all they love is stripped away from them. They escape the blight, but at the cost of their sibling. They rise again to wealth, but their other sibling is pulled away from them. Hawke gains repute and prominence, but only after the death of their mother. Their house moves from a crowded shack in Lowtown to an empty, cavernous manse in Hightown, which is exactly the point.
Here, the romances at least have a thematic point: They're a new connection for Hawke, a way to try and fight back against the continued loss and heartbreak. It makes sense for Hawke to seek out love in this plotline in a way it never did in any of the Mass Effect games.
And of all the romances, none of them make as much sense on either side as Isabela's. If the sex scene must exist, at least here is a character designed to make the most of that. Isabela's two most prominent features(2) are her hedonism and promiscuity. She's a foul-mouthed, hard-drinking cheerful sex fiend who appears to have slept with half of Thedas and is delighted to tell you all the sordid details. She exists to shamelessly drink, fight and fuck until she is exhausted and sore, before hauling herself out of bed to do it all over again. With this character, at least the sex scene makes sense. It would be strange for her not to have one.
2. Sex as culmination and reward
But if I can only offer a half-defence against the first point, I can offer a much stronger defence against the second. This sex scene simply does not play into this problem. Let's give the context.
Isabela first appears sometime in the middle to the end of Act 1. When we meet her, she is scantily clad, drinking heavily, and then kicks the shit out of three yokels trying to strong-arm their ways into her non-existent pants. (It's basically a case-study in how to introduce a character.) Hawke can be all business with her, or decide to be mildly flirtatious. If Hawke choose's the latter, at the beginning of act 2, she invites herself over to their house and propositions them. Rather refreshingly, Hawke can act quite coy here, if so wished. The sense is very much that she is pursuing Hawke, rather than the inverse. Assuming Hawke doesn't refuse her, the two of them tumble upstairs and into Hawke's bed. Afterwards, she either implies he wasn't quite as good as he think he is (if Hawke is male) or that she really was that good (if female). And then, with some horror, she questions if Hawke was just interested in sex, or if they might actually be bringing emotion into it. If Hawke admits to genuine feelings, Isabela curses Hawke out for ruining the moment, and leaves in a huff. Over time, she comes to instead reject her previous emotional detachment and eventually a true romance forms between Hawke and Isabela.
Note the positioning here: The sex scene actually initiates the romance plot. It's as far removed from the ending as can plausibly be done. You have the option to stop it; Hawke can be completely businesslike with her to remove any chance of sex, or can simply turn her down after she comes around to the mansion. (And to Isabela's credit, if turned down, she handles it gracefully.)
There's no way in which this can be perceived as a reward for completing a quest chain. It's initiated with a bare minimum of involvement from the player, you can decline the rest of the chain off-hand afterwards (and even begin romancing another character afterwards) without Isabela being offended, and the entire thing is very much framed as being more about her choices than Hawke's. It's about as stunning a rejection of the idea as can be done.
3. Just fucking awful fucking.
Well, this one is subjective, granted, but go ahead and watch the scene.
I know Jim'd disagree, but I'd argue it's pretty good! It's much more wonderfully lusty and passionate than that godawful Mass Effect scene, and it even manages a splash of humour in it. More than most, it gets across the idea that the two people here are having sex because they find the idea fun and appealing. It's not perfect, but compared to most videogame sex scenes it's a masterpiece, and it's definitely nothing to be ashamed of.
Overall, I'd argue that the Isabela scene, more than anything else, argues pretty strongly that Bioware could deliver on its promise of mature sex scenes. It's shown it can do so in the past. Of course, the fact that they are promising them is really the problem here. This basically slams home point one; they're a marketing feature rather than anything else, and while you can work within that to at least make it work, it'd be better if Bioware just abandoned the idea that every RPG must have one sex scene. In the end, we'd be better off if Bioware stopped trying to give the fans exactly what they want and instead followed their own artistic ambitions to create something that spoke to them, even if it spoke to no-one else.
Then again, maybe not(3).
1. The Kaidan one is particularly awful because they used the same basic animation as the Ashley one, meaning the focus is entirely on fem-Shep's body. It's pretty much the most textbook definition of 'male gaze' ever invented.
2. Yes, I know.
3. If you liked Mass Effect 3's ending, go ahead and consider this an attack on the ridiculous backlash that ensued. if you hated it, you can consider it an indictment of Bioware's prior efforts at being artistic in any way. Me? I'm conflicted about the ending and don't know where I stand on it.
Well, that'll teach me to post throwaway comments I think won't be seen.
OK, since I was fairly upbraided for a too-short post, let's throw in a nice big meaty one. One thing I've not seen discussed a whole lot in Papers, Please is the use of screen layout. Since it's a fair part of why the game works, I thought I'd try to throw in a bit of discussion of it. Some minor spoilers below, but not a whole bunch.
So, roughly the screen is divided into two sections, which are themselves divided into two more. (Yeah, I know. The top section has no firm divide, but the wall above the booth neatly divides it up anyway.) The left hand sections are smaller than the right hand sections, and the bottom sections larger than the top.
You can make a good argument that section three is actually two sections, the personal space and the desk space. That's correct, but I'm just going to ignore it for this analysis.
There's a lot of interesting stuff all this layout design produces. Generally, our eyes are going to drift to the largest area available to us, section 4, which is where the main gameplay occurs. The second largest area available to us is section 3, which draws our attention somewhat less and is the second most important area to gameplay. Notice also the position of our stamp and examine tool, way over on the right. Putting them on the left would be more convenient to us, as we need to keep our attention between sections 3 and 4. Being put there is a deliberate inconvenience, one that encourages us to spend our valuable dollars on upgrades.
The thing is, though, that all four sections of the screen will eventually be used in one way or another. The Man in Red shows up in section 1, for example, while terrorist attacks always occur in section 2.
Sectioning the screen off like this serves a few purposes, which work to further both the gameplay and the thematic strengths of the game.
First, as has been widely observed, it works to constrain the player by limiting the amount of space to juggle multiple documents. While section 3 allows a player to take a document 'out of play' to save space, the end result is even more wide mouse swings that chew up valuable time and frustrate the player. Documents easily wind up overlapping and it's common to lose a document in the pile. Thematically, this winds up making the player more willing to be terse with immigrants, trying to reclaim time and ignoring the options available to potentially help people with more difficult cases.
But secondly, it also serves to train the player to ignore the top two sections, even though many of the important events of the game take place there. Indeed, very little story is ever conveyed to the player in section 4. (Occasionally a document will be written there for story purposes.) The story mostly takes place in sections 2 and 3 with occasional moves in one. Reinforcing this focus away from the top sections is a colour scheme that favours more more colours and higher contrasts in sections 3 and 4. Players are encouraged to ignore the throngs of immigrants who queue outside, and are trained to ignore people the moment they step out of their booth. This is one of the key reasons why the suicide bombings are often as shocking as they are. Go back and play Day 6 again; the shutters of our booth actually close before the bombing occurs purely to give the player time to worry, wonder what's going on, and find the suicide bomber walking toward the guards at the top right of section 2. (Placed as far away as possible from our focus on the line between 3 and 4.) Spotting the bomber on day 2 is much simpler; he jumps the wall right near our focus and the shutters snap down as he does so.
Another way this ignorance is reinforced is by the differences in size between the left sections and the right ones, and how this affects immigrants upon being denied. Since section 2 is so long, an immigrant accepted to Arstotzka takes a full 29 seconds before moving off screen. By contrast, one denied takes a mere 15 seconds, nearly half as long and for most of the time vanishing against the queued masses. Out of sight, out of mind. The player is encouraged to think more on the people they've let in than the ones they've thrown to the wolves.
That's reinforced by one other clever touch placed in section 2.
While the barricades marked by the red square have no in story purpose, almost any player who has played Papers, Please knows what they are: They represent the point at which you will receive a citation if you've missed something. Thus, the player is drawn to look at the immigrant they've let in for at least that long. That distance is roughly twice the distance between the beginning of the queue and the booth.
While Papers, Please works on a lot of levels (indeed, the layout is a fairly minor one) it still shows the amount of thought that went into the title. The gameplay is designed at every stage to hyper-focus the player, leading them to ignore the humanity around them and instead perform their technocratic duty, while still leaving on screen the various nods to humanity, letting the player spot them in their own time and consider them later.
OK. I'm a huge fan of the Poker Night series. They're fun, frequently witty, and feature a lot of really fun characters. But let's go through those characters, shall we? We have, as opponents:
• One hyperkinetic, three-foot rabbity thing;
• One six foot tall dog in a suit;
• One robot;
• One tiny guy in a luchadore mask; and,
• Four white guys.
Look, yes, I know. I'm pushing the feminist card here, but it really is notable that out of ten characters of the series, only one of them is gendered female, and she's a dealer, not an opponent. It's unfortunate, and really could be improved.
Fortunately, they do have something of an author's saving throw at their disposal: Poker tends to be a single gender experience; it's often an experience to let loose, engage in vice, and let loose without regard for the opinions of the opposite sex. So while I'm still not prepared to say that it's just fine to have no female characters, an idea proposed on GameFAQs has merit: Make Poker Night 3 Ladies Night. Instead of a sexy female waitress, give them game a bit of beefcake, and give us four ladies drinking, throwing around some ribald jokes, and basically giving a womanly twist to the franchise.
So, who would we cast in it? I think they'd need to meet four criteria. Three are optional but desirable, and the fourth is compulsory.
First, they need to be visually iconic to a franchise. Claptrap isn't the main character of Borderlands, but he's immediately identifiable by someone even passingly familiar with the franchise. You need to be at least that recognisable.
Second, they need to be plausible at a poker table. Some ladies just aren't going to like the idea of a rough and tumble night of poker, others are. You don't need to be a rakish poker shark, just not the kind of gal who'd feel very uncomfortable there.
Third, they need to be somewhat comedic in presence. Look at all the characters chosen so far: Sam & Max, also Tycho, are from comedy comics; Brock is from an action-comedy cartoon; Claptrap and the Heavy both work as comic relief presences in their videogame franchises; Ash's Evil Dead/Army of Darkness games both had comedic edges; Strong Bad was from a comedy web-original series. The banter doesn't work without that comic sensibility.
Finally, and most importantly, they need to be obtainable by Telltale. Look, let's be honest. Even though Poker Night 2 did an amazing job grabbing three opponents from outside the Telltale stable, they were still not massive franchises. To be blunt, they're not getting Lara Croft. Being from a Telltale game is basically a gimme, but anything Valve is probably good to go, and anything from a low to mid-level media franchise is plausible.
So, let's take a few stabs at prospective characters.
1. Elaine Marley
(Image from Tell-Tale press kit.)
Absolutely a must have. She hits every criteria dead on the money. She's from the Monkey Island series, which includes Telltale. Her persona is less goofy than her leading man's, but she's still a comedic presence. She's visually iconic. And it's hard NOT to imagine this rough and tumble pirate's governess at a poker table. Frankly, she's the obvious first pick, and I'd be very disappointed not to see her.
2. Alyx Vance
Arguable. The sidekick to Gordon Freeman is a tomboyish mechanic, who would certainly be at home at a poker table. She's visually iconic to the Half-Life franchise, and Valve's been co-operative before with Tell-Tale so we can assume she'd be obtainable. But she's never a comedic presence, and it's hard to see how she'd work with the group for banter. Let's put her in as a possible, but unless nobody else is a good option, you'd really want to go elsewhere.
3. ... ?
But that's just it: Nobody else is a good option!
Really, who is? Brenna or Kara from Penny Arcade? Not iconic. Sybil Pandemik from Sam & Max? Not iconic. Molly from The Walking Dead? Not iconic, not comedic. Clementine? Not plausible at a poker table. Marizpan from Homestar Runner? Not plausible. Lara Croft? As noted before, unobtainable. Gran'ma Ben from Bone? OK, she's very, very close. She is iconic to the Bone franchise, plausible at a poker table, comedic. My only worry is that she's, well, not a very well known franchise character.
Here's the thing about it: It's not entirely Tell Tale's fault, or at least, not the Poker Night team's fault. It's the videogame industry's fault as a whole; there's just not enough iconic female characters out there. Note also that even the two or three plausibles I mentioned include not one main character.
Jim Sterling is right. No, no it's not. The game is awash with violence, and indeed, that's very much the point. Comstock's reign is characterised by quiet, institutionalised violence. (See the 'stoning' at the start of the game.) By contrast, Daisy Fitzroy's rebellion is defined by blood in the streets and fire in the belfries. And, of course, you can make the very solid argument that all of it is Booker DeWitt's fault. That's Booker DeWitt, whose past is awash with murder.
So why is it that I too groaned every time we went back to the shooting, despaired every time I was looking down the barrel once anew?
Well, for two reasons. First, the violence is bad. Second, the violence never lets up.
The gunplay sucks.
This is the biggest problem the game faces: The shooting in Bioshock Infinite is lousy, and it's all it's got. Thus, the gameplay doesn't come across as reward in and of itself. There's a lot of reasons for this: The health pickup system is poorly implemented, the guns feel underpowered and unimpressive, the vigors samesy and uninteresting. The removal of Big Daddies likewise seriously hurt the gameplay tremendously; since Big Daddies didn't attack you until you shot first, they broke up the gameplay into segments of furious combat preceded by quiet moments of preparation and planning. This natural ebb and flow was what gave Bioshock much of its pacing and strength. Infinite, by contrast, simply doesn't have any. I'd write a more in-depth analysis, but cheerfully I don't have to: Christopher Franklin did a definitive takedown of the problems in Infinite's mechanics. Go view it; it's excellent.
But you know where the game excels? Everywhere outside of combat.
Everywhere outside of combat.
Bioshock Infinite is amazing in so many respects. The art direction is astonishing, it's one of the most beautiful games we've seen in a very, very long time. The characters are engaging, well written and well voice acted. It's full of little moments that lift and drive us; my favourite is Elizabeth dancing at the beach. The central mysteries behind Columbia are fascinating and well designed. We're motivated by these scenes, by these mysteries. They become Bioshock Infinite's core engagement, the reason to play.
As such, the violence becomes a roadblock. It's the price you're paying to get what you came for: More chat with Elizabeth. More audio-recordings giving away the history of Columbia. A chance to stop, and just look at the gorgeous art direction.
It also hurts that this means the most engaging part of the entire experience is the first twenty minutes, before you even fire a shot. You get to see this wondrous world, and how it works. When you fire a shot, of course, it stops working. And it becomes a lesser thing, an arena for combat. Civilians vanish. We get less of a sense of it as a whole. The world building takes a back seat, and the shooting comes to the fore.
This doesn't mean there should be no shooting, of course. And simply reducing the number of fights would only go so far. No, you'd need the right ones.
And yet, the shooting is still too much.
Quick: Other than someone named Ryan, name someone you killed in Bioshock.
Was it Steinman? Peach Wilkins? Maybe Sander Cohen! I don't know; there's a lot of options.
Next task: Outside someone named Comstock, name one person you killed in Bioshock Infinite.
Roughly half of you named Slate, and half of you named nobody at all. Because aside from the two Comstocks, you don't kill anyone named in Bioshock Infinite. It's endless waves of nameless mooks from start to finish.
And y'know what? That's a lousy take for what is, essentially, a film noir story. Oh, I know. It doesn't look like a noir. It's all bright colours and sunshine, for the most part. But y'know, when you look at the structure, we have a hard-boiled detective. A dame with her own agenda who can be both your friend and enemy. Your mysterious 'employers' who may well have been the same people who told Columbia of your arrival. This is a solid noir setup. And in the best of noir, violence is never random. It's rarely a shootout in an empty warehouse. No, it's the single bullet in the back of the head, somewhere on some deserted dock. It's the poisoned cup in a lover's den. The car pulling up outside the fancy restaurant and unloading tommy guns into the mob boss. Sometimes it's low key. Other times it's loud and noisy. But it's always brutal, and always personal.
At it's heart, beyond all the questions of entertainment and meaning and core engagement, this is why Infinite's violence rankles. It feels wrong. And, to be fair, one senses Irrational understood this! Your opponents are human this time, rather than twisted splicers. They even give one couple a cute meta-reference at one point to humanise them.
But they still don't get names. They're still just part of the endless murderfest. In many ways, they're the worst of both worlds: Human enough that it feels queasy gunning them down. Not human enough that you care. There's a million deaths here, not one of them a tragedy.
What's galling about Bioshock Infinite's violence is that none of it matters. It's endless slaughter for the sake of endless slaughter, with no real passion or motivation behind it. Sure, the story of Bioshock Infinite is, in so many ways, one of violence. But that doesn't make this violence the right kind for the story. It's not Spec Ops: The Line's angry denunciation of the player's want for violence, or Far Cry 2's subtle accusation of the same. It's not Shadow of the Colossus's lament for the destruction wrought by murder. But nor is it Bulletstorm's joyful anarchy, or the original Bioshock's desperate, horror-movie inspired fight for survival.
It could have been any of these things. Show us the citizens hit by our stray bullets during firefights and remind us of the cost of what we've done. Create a villain loathsome enough that we cackle at destroying him, and cast Booker as still a cheerful killer through and through, no matter what he may claim otherwise. Or give us the option to avoid a violent encounter and then confront us with still choosing to take it on anyway. Any of these might have imbued those gunfights with meaning. But it didn't. And just placing them within the context of a violent story isn't enough. It's still nothing violence, roadblock violence, padding-out-the-game to AAA length violence. The story around it may mean something, but the gunshots don't.
I do think people who say they want a non-violent Bioshock Infinite are wrong. But I understand why they say that: The violence itself offers so little, while the non-violent parts offer so much. Taking away the violence would hollow out the experience too, though. We don't need a non-violent Infinite. We need a right-violent Infinite, instead of the one we got.