So recently I've been getting into a bit of old-school gaming and replaying some games I really haven't thought about much since I was about ten. As a kid I was pretty big into strategy games, FPSs and action games, but we never really had a whole lot of money so I mostly learnt about a lot of games through demos or magazine articles. One game that particularly caught my eye as a kid was Blood 2.
Blood 2, and infact the earlier Blood aswell, were both games I'd played the demos of and the experience had stuck with me, so I ended up buying them recently and playing them through, and ok, I'll admit it now: I'd never been too keen on Blood. I played the demo but I couldn't really get into the gameplay, though it was by no means poorly made it just didn't gel with me very well. I'd grown up on Doom, a game which once you scrape away a lot of the attitudes and hysteria that have built up around it is a very simple and straightforward game. Blood wasn't like that, and I could never really get into the whole zombies, cultists and dynamite thing; Blood 2 on the other hand, I enjoyed a lot, and replaying it now as an adult, and getting to actually play the whole thing, brought into starker contrast why I'd felt so indifferent to the first game, yet enjoyed the second so much.
The Blood games were both shooters that tried to stand out from the crowd, if you imagine Doom, and the sorts of games it inspired, as the sort of 'archetypal', or 'standard', shooter, Blood and Blood 2 attempted to subvert that paradigm, and give you a different sort of gameplay experience. Just as any medium has it's conventions, even in the early days of FPSs, there were games that tried to turn that dynamic on its head, and in Blood's case did so by having you play as an psychopathic character who had little desire for anything other than revenge.
What I realised replaying Blood, but especially Blood 2, was how much they fit into a sort of cultural wave that covered most fiction film, TV and literature included, where a lot of developers, designers, artists, writers, and generally creators wanted to challenge or atleast open up the definition of what a story is and even what constitutes a good character, and tell the types of stories that have mostly been overlooked stories about outcasts, or losers, or even just people who think differently to the way we're told 'moral' or 'normal' people should.
It's not something most people really dwell on or even think about too much but a lot of what we consume as entertainment and media is designed specifically to appeal to certain aspects of our psyche and our baser (and higher) needs; it's why so much of what we watch is full of attractive people, it's also why sex and power play such a big part in dictating content.
We all know what a hero is, right? Atleast in fiction. We know that in the stories we read, or watch, or play, there are these guys (mostly guys unfortunately) who do courageous deeds, or fight hopeless wars, or save kittens from burning buildings, or whatever. We're used to the idea. As a story we tell ourselves it's extremely common, obviously though there are others, and sometimes they're intertwined. Think of jealousy, think of romance, think of betrayal, the chances are you have a clear idea of how that sort of story might play out on stage, on the big screen, in a book, or even on your TV screen, even though the particulars may change depending on medium and the way the individual story is told. Why do we have such a clear picture of how these things would play out? Well it's not because in real life these things are always the same, if you've been betrayed or been in love you know that real life is very little like fiction. No, we've learnt these stories, they've been told to us by society, by friends and family, by our education systems, by the media and literature we consume.
Action films tend to be the go-to when it comes to people lampooning cultural conventions, atleast on the internet and on TV. We have a very precise, very clear image of what an action hero is, which itself borrows from the archetypal general fictional hero. The action film hero tends to have an unbelievably good sense of comedy timing, not to mention a knack for puns, they're often overly muscular, and both are incredibly unlucky enough to always find themselves in all sorts of danger but also ridiculously lucky enough not to ever get shot.
We like these types of characters specifically because they appeal to our wants, we obviously don't want to fight a real war, or have to shoulder the very real emotional and physical pressures that accompany it, but the feeling of winning has a powerful effect on us. We like these almost inhuman characters because on some sort of very basic, very naοve level, they do the sorts of things that we wish we could do.
One of the complaints often levelled at games is that they indulge this sort of very fantastical kind of fiction Doom guy, Marcus Fenix, Master Chief, Nathan Drake. They're all examples of characters that defy the sort of real dynamics of the situations these men find themselves in, existing without PTSD or muscle damage or even any kind of physical or mental injury. Given the ease and good fortune with which they consistently escape danger it might be better to equate them with demi-gods rather than men. And indeed a lot like the demi-gods of Ancient greek mythology (Hercules and the like) they seemingly are a step up between real people (us) and how we would in reality fare in these situations, and how we imagine a god would fare in such a situation: still human enough to feel, just not human enough to crack or to break.
Ofcourse, then as people start to re-evaluate these sorts of stories the internal contradictions start to unravel even in the 90's people were aware of just how ridiculous a lot of these archetypal heroes stories were. And sometimes that was used to satire or parody them. Take, for instance, Rainier Wolfcastle from the Simpsons, or Duke Nukem as he appears in Duke Nukem 3D, or even Jack Slater from The Last Action Hero, all three are sort of tongue-in-cheek homages to the sort of over-the-top, unrealistic action hero archetype that we've grown up with. An acknowledgement by creators that yeah, those types of characters are ridiculous, and we know it, but we still love them.
Attitudes to entertainment, culture, fiction and indeed the messages that get disseminated amongst society in general from public figures or government have changed a lot over the last forty or fifty years, atleast in the West, and the rise of this sort of self-referential entertainment is proof of that. Whereas in the 50's or 60's a lot of the fictional output, especially in terms of cinema and TV, had a very central, singular message, the media environment today is very diverse. We challenge things more, and we also use humour to critique or ridicule things we don't agree with.
I'm a big fan of pulp Sci-Fi, and the sort of 50's/60's cheesy creature feature movies where some sort of monster (anywhere from the size of a man to a skyscraper) attacks. I love the simplicity of the stories, the outlandish monster design and the fact these inexplicable creatures even exist, yet as somebody's who's grown up in an incredibly complex media world I also know how unrealistic a story they tell atleast in terms of their relation to actual every day life. As a modern audience we're more sceptical than ever when it comes to the realistic aspects of our fiction and this forms a big part of why entertainment has changed so much.
It probably should be noted that internal critique or fiction that's aware of it's own failings isn't a new thing, like breaking the fourth-wall, writers have been using it for centuries, it's only with the rise of the internet and greater emphasis on consuming fiction in modern world that it's really gained traction in the way that it has.
Take for instance TV series like Buffy, (or any of Joss Whedon's stuff for that matter), they exist within a self-referential world, constantly paying homage to the very medium they're in. Buffy is littered with constant references to movies, TV shows and general pop culture. On top of this there's an almost 'self-aware' quality at times, and post-modern elements, as the show acknowledges with a nod and a wick the audience's expectations from watching so much TV how the scenario will play out a poignant action scene might play out, and the characters look deadly serious, only for the mood to be broken by the pointing out of a subtle flaw in the logic of what they're doing or a misunderstanding of some sort.
It's that little touch of acknowledgement to the medium that sets them apart and keeps the particularly media savvy audience intrigued. Scream did something similar, seemingly aware of the slasher genre it itself was a part of, and in-doing so keeping the story and narrative flow distinct enough from everything that had come before to keep the audience interested. Which is sort of what I think Blood 2 did, but within the mechanics of an FPS.
Caleb, the lead in Blood 2, has no sense of morality, no sense of right or right, only a desire for revenge. He has a purpose, Blood 2 isn't just a game about murdering random people, but there's no righteous just cause to hide behind anytime somebody questions 'well, aren't you just enjoying killing people in that game?' because the reality is you are. You're not a hero, you're not a 'good guy'. Caleb is a monster, he makes quips as he kills people, he brutally guns down innocents to sustain his own life, and in many respects he's the epitome of the nihilistic anti-hero, only interesting in his goal of revenge and the pain he can cause, but it's a fun game, and a well-made one at that.
I daresay he's a politician's wet dream for the whole 'hurr de durr, games teach kids to kill' argument, but he also a good expression of a society, and audience, kind of bored with the same old heroes (and note: I do mean that just in the masculine), whether we realise it or not the stories we tell to entertain ourselves and one another start to get stale after awhile. Nobody really wants to try new things, nobody really wants to stop doing the thing they know has been successful for so long, and characters like Caleb are the reaction against that. Because though we do want the same types of stories we want see them expressed in new ways we still want romance and action just like they did in the 50's or 60's, but now we want more nuanced characters and stories with more depth. In short, we want something different but the same.
I also think a lot of these characters spring from the fact we've generally realised as a society that there is no one dominant social message there is no 'right' way to live your life, so the overused story of the 'hero' who is the doer, who goes out, fights some sort of battle (literal or metaphorical) and comes back to be rewarded with power and success with the ladies starts to become questionable. Afterall, how do gay men or women fit into that? What about straight women who don't simply want to be the 'prize' for a man, who want to live their own kind of life?
A lot of this came to me after I'd put the game down, and started to think about why I enjoyed Blood 2 so much. I'm generally not a huge FPS person, but I love games that try to do something different, if you've read my blogs before you'll know I'm a little tired of the types of overused story elements we often see in modern games which isn't to say I don't like those types of games, just that I'd like to see more originality in them. For example, I'd love to play a Modern Warfare game where you were a black man or a woman, I doubt it'd make much difference to the overall story but atleast for me it'd feel like I wasn't playing exactly the same game over and over again, I'd love for race and gender to be more of a possible factor when they're designing characters, rather than just chin-size and beard density being all that changes. Also, I'd love to play more games like say Spec Ops where you aren't a paragon of virtue, where your morality or your deeds are called into question; or even games where you're the bad guy directly and unrepentant about it.
I like to see/watch/listen/play stories and experiences that do something different, even if it's just minor cosmetic differences I'm cool with that if it's change remember Streets of Rage 3's palette swapped costumes? Those were cool with me!
I think games need to explore that a little more, be willing to try having characters of different ethnicities, or characters that are out and out nihilistic or just weird, whether that makes the audience like them or not. It's about telling the same stories but doing them in a new and interesting way. Recently with film I loved Cabin in the Woods when I saw it precisely because I felt it tackled the hornet's nest of clichιs that the horror genre has become, which again is something I love, but also annoys the hell out of me. I think games doing something similar and challenging themselves and the conventions they obey is a good idea, we'd have more great games that way.
I think a big part of what Blood 2 succeeds at is being self-aware, being aware of the culture it's a part of, and knowing at the end of the day that it's just a piece of fiction, but at the same time still being a good piece of entertainment and something anybody can get into. You don't have to be ridiculously well-educated with a degree in Post-Modern studies to get the joke, like I was saying with Buffy or with Scream, there's a layer there in which they acknowledge they're just a piece of fiction and because the audience is in on the joke you can enjoy it a bit more. In short, you can be intelligent without being intellectual.
I ended up enjoying Blood 2, for much the same reason as I enjoyed (and still do enjoy) Dungeon Keeper, or Spec Ops, or Limbo or even Half-Life when it originally came out, because sometimes making a good game isn't just about quality, it's also about looking around at the competition and saying 'well, couldn't we do something a little different...?'