Long-time gamer, aspiring writer, and frequent bearer of an afro. As an eternal optimist, I like to both look on the bright side of things and see the better parts of games; as a result, I love a game with a good story and awesome characters...and anything that lets me punch the heresy out of my enemies.
I'm a big fan of Atlus' games, and I've enjoyed my fair share of fighters and RPGs. Just...please, keep Final Fantasy XIII out of my sight. It never ends well for anyone involved.
You can check out some of my game musinga/stories/random stuff at my other blog, Cross-Up. I've also got a TV Tropes thingamajig, and I'm trying to get some freelance work going. Among other things. Like a web serial novel. And getting books published. If ever there was a time for the world to learn the joys of ghost-punching, this is it.
You know, I’ve been thinking. (Cue the frenzied screams of a thousand innocent orphans.)
I like video games. I like a lot of video games -- and say what you will about the industry today, but there are still LOTS of gems out there, so it’s safe to assume that I’m going to keep gaming for a while longer. But even with that in mind, I find a lot of games today frustrating. Aggravating. Inspiring sadness and exhaustion, rather than solace and elation. I don’t like feeling this way about one of my favorite pastimes, but it’s becoming increasingly common. And I think I’m starting to figure out why I have problems with so many games.
I’m tired of feeling powerful. Dead tired.
Now before I go on, I want to take the proper precautions because there are going to be some…topics that may inspire dissent. Wheat lands, swathe me with your divine protection! Barrier! Okay, good, my defense is up. That’ll protect me from any harsh attacks -- not that I plan to make any, but this being the internet, you have to be careful.
I hate Resident Evil 6. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, given the savage (and deserved) beating it’s taken from critics and fans alike. And even though I tried to like it, and was willing to give it a fair shot, and let it stand on its own merits as a new direction for the franchise, I just feel like nothing works. Nothing. I don’t know if it’s worth a three out of ten, because at the very least everything functions as designed. But, I’d say it’s CLOSE to that score. It just feels so wrong in every aspect -- not just because “it’s not survival horror” anymore, but gameplay, story, presentation…everything. I probably should have expected as much given that the demo let me use Helena to great effect -- i.e. drop-kicking one zombie and then hitting another zombie with an elbow drop -- but I was under the impression that a little wrestling would go a long way towards sprucing up what I hoped (at the time) wouldn’t be a dull, nonsensical, wall-to-wall cacophony of explosions and mock-drama. It didn’t.
To say that the melee attacks are a part of the problem with RE6 would likely be an understatement -- but really, I have problems with virtually everything else the player can do. Why can I grab monsters and knee strike them like I’m Gene from God Hand? Why can I power bomb mutants? What’s the point of firing from the ground outside of a few novelty kills that probably aren’t worth the effort? Was it necessary to let the player squirm across the floor on their ass? Why is sliding done by pressing the aim button while running, when logic dictates it should be the melee/shoot button? Why all this added mobility and then constrict players to hallways and corridors that can barely house the average man’s shoulders (much less Chris’) and thwart players’ attempts to navigate with invisible wall-generating chairs? Why do bars that are just the right size, shape, thickness, and durability happen to appear just when Jake needs them? Why is it possible for Sherry to die if she has a healing factor?
See? This is the problem with giving a character -- or a player -- so many powers. I’ve barely even touched on the story, and already the game falls apart in trying to expand and rationalize your skill set. It’s not just a matter of the monsters being scary (or scarier because you can’t snag them in a Boston Crab), but a matter of presence. If beating an enemy comes down to punching their lights out, sometimes even while they’re shooting me, why should I consider them a threat? What makes the guys at the start of Chris’ campaign any different from the guys near the end of Chris’ campaign if the same tactics work, they both have the chance to mutate, we have no idea who they are besides the all-inclusive title of “goon”, and the only discernible difference is what they’re wearing? The answer: there isn’t. There’s no tension, no reason to care except to relieve myself of this horror and be that much closer to doing something more entertaining than RE6, like playing Kirby’s Epic Yarn or standing downwind of my dog while he pees on an anthill.
It’s easy for me (or anyone) to pick on RE6, because I genuinely believe it’s deserving of snark, criticism, and dissection; the more people talk about how much it irritates them, the more likely I assume we are to get something better next time, and there WILL be a next time. Because, you know, Capcom. But speaking personally, I have issues with a lot of games precisely because of their use -- or misuse -- of power. In Final Fantasy 13, Lightning starts off with insane sword and gun skills at the cost of having strong antagonists to get in her way. 13-2 starts off with her as a virtual demigoddess, and supposedly Lightning Returns plans to make her “more powerful than ever.” Lightning’s problem was never that she didn’t have enough power; it was that she didn’t know what to use that power for. Well, that was ONE of her problems, at least.
And that’s not the only game I have problems with. Darksiders 2 let you play as one of the horsemen of the apocalypse, but what set him apart from any other character in an action game besides his appearance and weapons? What made Death unique besides his ability to use two scythes? It sure as hell wasn’t the ability to use a revolver, because Vincent Valentine did that in Dirge of Cerberus (brrrr…just got the chills…). Why does Death even need to use weapons if he’s a horseman? Can’t he just think “Die” and kill his enemies? Why does he even bother platforming and climbing if he can just transform, even temporarily, to boost himself where he needs to go? In the CG trailer for Assassin’s Creed 3 at E3, why is it that nobody can stop Connor’s one-man charge in spite of an untold number of British forces with a presumably-clear shot of him? Why is an assassin throwing himself into the middle of a battlefield in spite of the series’ heavy suggestion of stealth and subterfuge being a key part of gameplay? In Borderlands 2, what makes a Vault Hunter special -- barring the ability to summon turrets or trap enemies in bubbles -- that a collection of soldiers with guns couldn’t do on their own? Why do people -- Claptrap, Sir Hammerlock, the game itself -- try to imprint the idea that I’m some kind of badass for shooting indigenous wildlife or masked, rambling goons? In Tales of the Abyss why is it that the first time I’ve heard of a “second-order hyperresonance” less than an hour before the end of the game, but somehow vital in saving the world? Why can Sora and Riku suddenly fly and cut through skyscrapers with their over-sized keys in Kingdom Hearts 2?
Those are just a few questions that I could ask out of many, all of which are directly or indirectly related to power. But there are two big issues I have in general: power makes you badass and power for spectacle. And in order to explain them, I’ll have to branch out to some other mediums.
By now, I assume you’ve seen The Dark Knight Rises (and the only reason you haven’t is likely because you don’t exist). I won’t debate whether the movie’s good or not -- not here, at least -- but I’ll start by asking a question: who does Batman struggle against in the movie? In terms of abstract concepts, you could say he struggles against himself, his past, or time itself. In concrete terms, Bane is the obvious choice, and so is Catwoman to a lesser extent. But who else? Besides Bane, who else can put up a fight against Batman, even after he’s been out of practice? Bane’s supporters? Nope. Goons with guns? Nope. The police? Nope. An entire army of Bane’s forces organized outside the masked bruiser’s impromptu HQ? Nope. Batman just moseys on through, punching his way to a final fight.
The only one who can even slow Batman down is Bane, but even then Bane is just one person. So who does Batman fight besides him? Cannon fodder enemies -- goons that show up and are soundly dispatched seconds later. They’re distractions used to make Batman look good and the average person look bad…but when Batman gets hit with Bane’s Ultimate Atomic Buster AFTER taking such a sound thrashing, it makes Batman look worse by comparison. Sure, Batman’s a total badass unstoppable face-breaking machine when he’s against untrained gunmen; pit him against someone with equal training and greater mental fortitude, and suddenly the Dark Knight looks more like a big fish taken out of his small pond. This is the problem with power being used to establish a character as badass -- it’s just a matter of time until someone with more power makes you look like a tool.
And then there’s Dragon Ball Z. I don’t think I need to say much about this one, but in case there’s anyone who needs a quick primer, here you go.
Now don’t get me wrong -- I have fond memories of DBZ, and wouldn’t mind watching it again today. And I’d argue that there’s more depth than most people give it credit for, but that’s a topic for another time and place. Even with all that said, there are a LOT of things that DBZ does that are kind of…okay, REALLY stupid. The show starts off with a bang, forcing franchise mainstay and patron saint of spiky hair Goku to team up with his rival Piccolo to save Goku’s son from the wicked Raditz -- who not only reveals that Goku’s an alien from another planet, but that he and Raditz are brothers. Raditz proves that he’s a more powerful enemy than anything Earth has ever faced before, forcing Goku and Piccolo to go to their extremes to finish him off…and even then, it takes the loss of Piccolo’s arm and the death of Goku to pull off a narrow win.
The series could have ended right there -- or could have been the ending to its predecessor, Dragon Ball -- and I wouldn’t have minded. But of course, the stakes had to be raised. Power levels had to increase so that the heroes could take on new villains, and fights could get even more preposterous (and entertaining). And of course, to establish both the new threat and the stakes, most of the good guys had to die or get severely hurt, only for Goku to sweep in and make things right. And this happens more times than I’m proud to admit. But hey, it’s all right, because there’s lots of fighting and mach-speed punching and flying and beams fired and golden hair, and you’re having a genuinely good time watching Kamehamehas and Special Beam Cannons…and then after you see the hundredth plateau in the distance get atomized you start to wonder, “Okay, now what?”
There are lots of good moments in DBZ, make no mistake about that. But there’s a definite shallowness to it, an emptiness that keeps it from earning too much respect. There’s a finite number of times you can blow up a landscape, a finite number of times you can introduce stronger enemies with hax powers, a finite number of times you can establish a threat by crippling one ally, and a finite number of times you can make a character sit on the sidelines because he can’t keep up with the rest of the action. Superpowers and skills and technology are all great ways to inspire awe in an audience, but use them too liberally -- use them at the expense of everything else in your product -- and you commit the greatest sin a creator can commit.
You make it boring.
Nobody WANTS to make a boring product. Do you think Michael Bay and his friends set out to make one of the most hated trilogies on the planet? Do you think Stephenie Meyer gave it any less than a hundred percent to get her story out of her mind and into readers’ hands? Do you think Capcom planned, or even expected one of its IP darlings to be such a mess? No, of course not. They just put gave their ideas a medium to thrive in, with all the theoretical components needed to make a good product, with all the winking nods that would tell the audience “Hey! Buddy! Your life will be soooooooooo much better if you let this into your heart! Embrace it, dude!”
In my eyes, the problem is the same as it’s always been when it comes to a bad product: misappropriation. So much focus is put into one element that the balance is skewed, and other elements end up either ignored or outright absent. When it comes to video games, the element that demands focus -- the one needed for differentiation, personality, player/game interaction, what have you -- is power. Players need to have some form of power in order to emphasize the fantastic nature of the game their playing, and their role and importance to it. At a base level, there’s nothing wrong with that. The problems come when it’s all in excess, at the expense of everything else worth merit, or just the fact that everyone else believes and promotes the idea that power is everything.
“But Voltech!” you cry out, slamming your fist against your desk, with so much force that it knocks over the beverage of your choice. “I know you well, you afro-haired loon! You, a peddler of poetry based on fighting games, has no right to even begin bemoaning the concept of power in games!” And to some extent, you’d be right. Fighting games rely heavily on giving players power…but they balance that out by pitting you against equally powerful opponents. Tiers aside, every character in a fighting game has skills they can use to beat another -- and even beyond that, your opponent becomes even more dangerous when you test your skills against an adaptive human as good as, or better than you. Even if you’re playing as the best character in the game, you stand a good chance of losing if your skills and strategies aren’t up to the task. There’s a big difference between a scenario like that and roundhouse-kicking a zombie.
And make no mistake, there are a LOT of games that not only balance power (if they use it at all), but offer something just as substantial. Trauma Team is a great example -- you play as six doctors with varying skill sets, but all of whom are established aces in their field. The actual science may be suspect (though a step-up from excising flaming demon spiders by stopping time), but the fact remains that you’re using player skill and mental fortitude to clear stages -- engaging with the game and its myriad threats to bring about a happy ending. The old Treasure platformer Mischief Makers works as well; you have only one basic ability (grabbing stuff), but you use that ability in countless ways to beat everything, up to and including a Megazord. Red Dead Redemption evened the playing field and kept the spectacle downplayed; John Marston’s skill set was as grounded in semi-reality as his opponents, creating tense moments and tenser gunfights. Mass Effect, in no uncertain terms, named Shepard as the savior of the universe -- but only through the assistance of comrades on and off the battlefield can the commander gain the strength needed to even survive an encounter with foes.
Frankly, I think that games create a stronger resonance between itself and its players when the characters are actually weaker. Shadow of the Colossus is a fine example -- was there anyone out there who DIDN’T think “Oh man, how am I going to beat THAT?!” when they first encountered a colossus? It’s huge, and powerful, and lurches across the field with thunderous steps, and has skin thicker than the average Hummer. All you have at your disposal is a dinky little sword and bow, and a horse. The most you can do is climb and whistle. You barely look like you can swing your sword properly, your dodge roll sends you tumbling, you lose your balance easily, and you end up getting flung around like a flag in a hurricane every time you clutch a colossus’ hair for dear life. And all of this is to the game’s advantage. Weakness, in its own ironic way, can become a game’s strength if used properly. It can be used from a gameplay perspective to create tension, and drive the player to be the best they can be. It can be used from a design perspective to emphasize each action, each visual and audile and tactile element the player experiences. It can be used from a story perspective to set up the stakes, or make you realize what little hope you have, or at the very least make it easier to keep track of what a character can or can’t do.
Weakness is something that’s to be valued -- something that RE6 has forgotten, and I fear a lot of industry big leaguers are on the precipice of forgetting. We’ve all taken note of the landslide of violent games that have been or will be released in the wake of E3; imagine how much more varied the release schedule would be if games didn’t focus on how awesomely or gruesomely you could slaughter your enemies. Imagine how much more could be gained if you weren’t playing as some faceless gunman or brutish action hero, but a well-defined everyman thrown out of his element and into some wild situation, forced to survive based on wits and a meager skill set. Imagine the possibilities when the concept of “less is more” is rightfully embraced in the industry zeitgeist -- when a single element of design philosophy can say and do more than a dozen mashed together.
I say “imagine” because that’s about all I CAN do. I may be The Eternal Optimist, but in light of RE6, I can’t help but feel a little depressed. RE6 is a game that exists now, and has been in the works for years. It’s a culmination of mismatched ideas designed to appeal to everyone, a sort of monkey’s paw that gamers wished upon with their dollars. It did so poorly, but there are other games that have succeeded…but at what cost? How many games this generation -- or any generation, for that matter -- are geared toward making players feel powerful, or ultra-skilled, or just plain badass? How many more will there be, and under the same rule set and conventions we’ve had for more than half a decade? How many more casualties will we have in the name of progress, and of satisfying a perceived lust for power? What’s the point of it all?
I’ll be honest. I’m not a badass. I’m not ultra-skilled. I’m not powerful. I’m a super-bantamweight with slow reflexes and a slower land speed. A stiff breeze can knock me over, give me a wedgie, and make off with my lunch money, snickering all the while. And you know what? I’m fine with that. I know there’s always going to be a big divide between what’s happening in real life and what’s happening in the game (it certainly helps that there’s a TV screen between the two). I don’t mind playing as -- or even being -- someone else for a little while, as long as the game offers something unique, unexpected, and rewarding. An excess of power isn’t going to offer that. Not anymore. I’m getting older, as are other gamers, as is the industry. And if it’s going to keep on thriving -- if it’s going to keep on giving me, and all of us, experiences that put smiles on our faces -- it’s going to take more than a bunch of fancy moves.
I’m ready for you to start branching out, video games. You’ve done it before -- many, many, many times before. And I know you can do it again.
Whew. Another long one…and such a grim and preachy post. I need to end on something funny. Let’s see here…
Oh, I know. I have a Facebook fan page now. If anybody wants to go over and check it out, that’d be pretty cool. ‘Cause, you know, my birthday’s this Wednesday. Kinda could go for a gift like that. Wink wink. Nudge nudge. Sparkle sparkle.