***Very mild spoilers for Uncharted 2 to follow Ė no plot stuff***
This blog post by Kauza got me thinking. He discussed the ďmediocreĒ shooting gameplay of Uncharted 2 sort of smudging the otherwise brilliant image of the overall package. He argued that the situational happenings (ala the train climb in the beginning) aren't as compelling as the game itself. I disagree.
The reason: I am a passive gamer. You probably are too and just don't know it.
Consider all the mechanics built into the combat in Uncharted 2:
You can slide into cover, stop and pop
You can hang on a ledge, pop out and shoot.
You can hang on a ledge, and pull enemies over cliffs.
You can drop a grenade on unsuspecting enemies.
You can sneak up behind enemies and perform silent takedowns.
You can melee attack, and counterattack.
You can run and gun.
You can blind-fire.
You can throw gas tanks into crowds to use as impromptu explosives.
You can use riot shields to slowly advance on foes, firing with your pistol.
You can snipe.
You can use RPGís.
You can mow down waves of foes with a Gatling gun or Stationary Turret.
Thatís all well and good, but I ignored most of these mechanics. On my first play-through, I just stuck to my ďwinĒ strategies from the first Uncharted: Take cover as far away from enemies as possible, lob grenades when necessary, stop, pop, rinse, repeat. I was probably ĺ of the way through the game before I even started using run and gun, or blind-fire.
I ignored several weapons too. Iím finding I still need the kill count trophies for weapons like the Wes-44, Desert-5, M32 Hammer, and the FAL. I just never cared to use these weapons, really. Sure, I used the grenade launcher when I had to beat the helicopter, but avoided it other times because it had such a limited ammo capacity. Same goes for the handguns I mentioned. I came into the game with a bias for the M4, 92FS 9mm, and the Moss-12 that carried over from the original; so I used these as often as possible and generally ignored the rest.
This is the behavior that needs to end, and what I believe contributes to the mediocrity that we experience in many games. I purposely avoided tools (in this case, weapons) that were built into the game because I had already chosen favorites. This myopic thinking doesnít just apply to Uncharted. Think of your favorite FPS. Letís assume Iíve never played that game before. Without ever having played it, I can still tell you what my two favorite weapons are: The Sniper Rifle, and whatever the one-shot kill weapon is called. Be it the torque bow in Gears, the Bolt Gun in Killzone 2, the Crossbow in Uncharted 2/Half Life 2/Bioshock/Killing Floor, whatever. I will always seek those weapons out, and ditch the rest.
I know Iím not the only person who does this. But why? Isnít it more fulfilling to explore all options in a game? Yes, it definitely is. The reason I often donít? Comfort.
Hereís the rub: if I have decided to play the game then I have a responsibility to my own fun. If I'm not having fun, is it Uncharted 2's fault? Perhaps, but it's more likely that I'm simply not challenging myself to explore all options laid before me.
So Iím going through Uncharted 2 again on hard, and this time Iím switching my character model every chapter break just for the hell of it, and Iím trying to swap weapons as often as possible by not picking up ammo for the weapons Iím currently using. Once the ammo runs out, grab something new. Iím also trying to use different tactics. Would Drake sit tight behind the same piece of cover and methodically, drudgingly pop out and shoot enemies one by one until the room was clear? No? Then why the hell am I doing it?
I like to think that before, I was ďpassivelyĒ playing Uncharted 2. Sticking to norms, comfort zones and weapons I was used to. This time around I consider my ďactiveĒ play-through. Long awaited thesis: there is no reason the ďmediocreĒ gunplay canít be just as cinematic as those scripted ďholy shitĒ moments, itís likely that I just wasnít doing MY job as the player of this badass game. Self inflicted mediocrity is no fault of Naughty Dogís.
I don't consider it a flaw that Uncharted 2 allows its players to be passive and stick to what they know; that's actually a selling point. I just find it to be contradictory to the idea of gaming in general.
*as a brief aside, I'd like to note that Uncharted 2 does have a bad tendency of forcing you into a gunfight when it deems one necessary. As lauded as these new stealth mechanics were, I had hoped they would have given you the option to more or less finish the game without resorting to tons of gunplay. This isnít really the case. On more than one occasion I would go to great lengths to avoid a gunfight, being careful and killing silently, only for the game to decide arbitrarily that a firefight needed to happen to keep the excitement up. In pour the enemies and suddenly all that sneaking around Iíd done was a waste of time. Sigh.
A perfect example of a game that gives you the tools, and lets you decide whether or not to use them is the Prince of Persia trilogy. Most notably the ďfreeformĒ combat offered in Warrior Within:
There are a ridiculous amount of moves in this game. Easily more combos than you can memorize. But I remember memorizing as many as I could so that each combat encounter would feel brand new. The passive gamer in me could have easily found one sick combo that worked 95% of the time on every enemy and spammed it to beat every level, but why? To beat the game? If thatís all I cared about, why play games to begin with?
Another example: Iíve trained up with Kilik in Soul Calibur(s) 2 and 4. I know a decent amount of his combos, and I try to throw as many of the ones I know into any given fight. However, despite how many hours Iíve spent training, I still lose to button mashers and spammers. Be that as it may, I donít mind losing because Iím actually playing the game, and not just mindlessly trying to win. I find absolutely no joy in a button mash/Spam victory. Button mashing is passive gaming. Itís like yelling ďBingoĒ after every number is called. Maybe at some point youíll actually have Bingo, but you clearly donít understand the game and youíre going to annoy the shit out of everybody. If youíve made the decision to play a game, at least respect the process enough to learn the rules.
You likely know someone who ALWAYS chooses Falco in Super Smash. Or they ALWAYS choose Ken in Street Fighter. Maybe you are this person. This is another passive gaming behavior; and frankly, itís just a waste of money. Would you pay full price to see a movie and only watch the first 15 minutes? Those 15 minutes may be your favorite part of the movie, but youíre still not getting the whole picture, or your moneyís worth.
When it comes to competitive multiplayer, Iím actually pretty good about being ďactiveĒ. In Super Smash I tend to suck in 4 player matches when I play as Fox. One on one, I can kick my fair share of ass with McCloud, but in a 4 person fight I seem to have more accidental or just plain stupid deaths. So if I know Iím going to play a 4 person brawl, I usually switch it up to Donkey Kong Ė a stronger, heavier character who I feel is more tailored to fights with more combatants. A passive gamer doesnít do this. They stick to the character theyíve trained the most with, and donít mix up their strategies to accommodate the game.
Same goes for Team Fortress 2. So often Iíll jump into a game and find that no one on either side is a Heavy, or Demoman, or Engineer etc... Instead of jumping into my comfort zone and choosing sniper, Iíll usually try to choose a class that my team could use more of at the moment. And it almost always pays off.
Short story long: you canít make a shitty game a masterpiece, but you can exercise what agency you have to avoid making your game as bland as white toast. Next time you pop in a game you consider mediocre, try surprising yourself with some Strawberry jam on that toast. And by Strawberry jam, I mean: Donít Use Falco. Or do. If you donít normally, I mean. Itís a broken metaphor, shut up.
My friend and I are trying to spruce up our otherwise boring ass whiteboard in time for Halloween. He made the badass jack o' lantern and I contributed the Boo. I might throw in a dry bones too. Any suggestions?
Simple criteria for making it on this list: does it have a knack for getting stuck in my head? Does it remind me of why I love video games in the first place? The following ten are all a given based on those qualifications.
#10 Batman - Stage 1
This song is too grand for the unassuming visuals that accompany it. Imagine Christian Bale in the climax to Dark Knight: Running around taking out swat team members, ninja style. Now imagine that same scene set to this song. Better? I thought so.
#9 Castlevania 4 Treasury Room
I remember going to the BGM section of the options page just to listen to this song. A lot. I love the stumbling, off-putting piano in the beginning; then at the 1:02 mark the song stops fucking around and lets you know it's time to get down to brass tacks. An unforgettable (yet unfortunately forgotten) piece of music. It's a shame that this tune hasn't made a re-appearance in a later Castlevania.
#8 Mario Galaxy ‚Äď Observatory Music
Pure Joy. This waltzy 6/8 song is brimming with whimsy, and it's impossible to feel sad while it's playing. Oh, by the way, you won't get that shit out of your head for DAYS.
#7 F-zero - big blue
The Big, simple, almost silly notes that open Big Blue contradict the complex melodies to come. This is a tune I'll catch myself whistling randomly, on a weekly basis. The song has a death grip on my subconscious, and when it wants to be heard I'm its unaware vessel. I'm ok with that.
#6 Ducktales - Moon
What makes this song great? How about the unlikely 7/8 intro, the delightful interplay of the various melodies, or the saccharin pop that permeates every note and chord? The song is drenched in nostalgia, and makes me long for two-button controllers and blowing dust out of cartridges. Also, Ducktales is a fucking awesome game.
# 5 Windwaker - Dragon Roost Island
If happiness could be captured in music form, this would be the result. This song alone conveys what Windwaker is all about: lighthearted, joyous adventure. I want to stop writing this and go play this game right now. Dammit.
#4 Kefka's theme
Where to begin with this masterpiece? Starts off brilliantly: light, charming, innocent notes lead into a more questionable, unnerving melody that tells you all is not well. Then the facade is dropped, and the song explodes into an outright fascist death march. A sequence that is perfectly suited to its Joker-esque namesake.
#3 Actraiser - Fillmore
Every moment with Actraiser is aural ecstasy; Just when you've gotten comfy with the safe, docile tones of your sky kingdom the game shakes you out of complacency with this turbulent, beautiful, juggernaut of a song. Mark me: this is what will be playing during the biblical Apocalypse.
#2 Castlevania 4 ď Bloody Tears
It speaks to the spectacular soundtrack of Castlevania 4 that I can't even go a full top ten list without including two entries from the game. But I simply can't. Hands down the best Castlevania song ever, and that's saying a lot. Even in simple midi form, this song still makes the hair on my neck stand up. I taught myself the deceptively simple main riff on electric guitar, and used to play it loudly, ad nauseum, with lots of distortion. I'm sure my neighbors appreciated that.
#1 megaman 2 - wily's castle
I could say the theme to Wily's castle is epic, but that word isn't strong enough. This song IS video games to me. It belies the humble 8 bit graphics and transcends the silly comic book story. It makes me feel determined, angry. I have to save the world, and I alone. Hear that driving bass? That means I also have to save it in a big damn hurry.
Take a moment to consider that this is on the original Nintendo. Astonishing.
Almost made the list:
Rush n' attack stage 2
Another gem of the 8-bit era. Worth playing this brutally hard game for this song alone.
Megaman X Storm Eagle
An epic tune, but a little too repetitive in hindsight to make my top ten.
Metal Gear Solid Alert music
Nothing activates the 'oh shit' part of your brain faster than hearing this classic kick into action. Also, I definitely prefer this version to the neutered, chemical brothers-esque alert music from Twin Snakes. Why fix it if it isn't broken?
I found myself whistling the haunting introductory notes of this song on my bike ride to work the other day. I knew it was from some Final Fantasy game but I couldn't for the life of me remember what it was called, or even which FF it was from. I haven't played FF6 in years, yet this magnificent tune lodged itself in the recesses of my brain and decided to remind me of its greatness at 5:30 in the morning. Thanks, Terra's theme, for making my ride to work much more enjoyable. This one's a keeper.
I'm sure I forgot some of my absolute favorites while compiling this list, so throw in a comment and refresh my memory. What are your favorites?
Ah, 6th grade. A time of Pogs, Magic Eye books, and crippling pubescence. I suppose my own hormonal shifts coupled with the visual rhetoric of games like the Nes Castlevania caused me to whip up one of these bad boys on a daily basis, likely during ďScienceĒ class when I should have been reading about Chlorophyll or some shit.
I remember calling them ďdeath housesĒ. Still a good name: brief and to the point.
This crude MS-Paint re-imagining hits the highlights:
-There were always spikes and spike pits.
-Lava was a must.
-There was always a locked door and a key to find in order to open it.
-And then usually some weapon that was ďhiddenĒ that had to be collected in order to kill the boss.
I remember my friends always scratching out the boss to symbolize his defeat. That always pissed me off cause he usually took the longest time to draw. Fucking 6th grade art critics.
And then Jordan Mechner totally stole my ideas and built some game franchise on it. Iím still seeking royalties from Ubisoft. Court date pending.
So how about it? You ever draw these? Have a friend who did?
Resistance, Left 4 Dead, Ninja Gaiden, Gears of War, Killzone 2, Halo, any given WW2 shooter and virtually any action game ever made have one thing in common: hordes of copy/paste adversaries. Sure, this enemy over here may wear a different suit of armor or look marginally different than that enemy over there, but in the end they are still just meaningless meat walls we have to sledgehammer through.
One question that nagged me to no end when I played both Gears of War games and Killzone 2 - where are their women and children? In Gears 2 and Killzone 2 you invade the home turf of each foe, but never encounter a single Locust woman or Helghan child. The simple reason for this is: there are none.
This also makes them boring as hell. One could argue that for the Locust, they are genderless aliens and they reproduce by some other method. But there is a locust queen, so that destroys that theory. Are we to believe that she alone has birthed all of these hyper masculine locust hordes? I donít really buy it if thatís the case.
In Gears, you invade these ornately built Locust structures beneath planet Sera, and they certainly are impressive. But where are the Locust Art museums? Locust churches? It's almost as if they have no culture whatsoever other than a war culture. This is no mistake, it's by design. Epic Games wants you to feel no other emotion than violent catharsis. They donít want to clutter up the gameplay with moral and ethical quandaries. ďDestroy the Locust StrongholdĒ is a much easier objective than ďSet fire to the Locust libraryĒ.
Itís the same deal with Killzone. I'm led to believe this is an entire planet comprised of bloodthirsty, bald men?
I havenít played the first killzone, but according to the wiki page the Helghast are just mutated humans. Mutated to the point where they no longer need women to procreate? There are no helghast children? The game never answers these questions, because if the Helghast do reproduce, suddenly the player would be making orphans of those children.
The distinct lack of women, children, and any semblance of culture other than war and death are tactics used by the game makers to spare the player of any guilt for murdering hundreds upon hundreds of people; all for the sake of creating a more fun game. More fun? Thatís questionable. Less interesting? Absolutely.
There are games that at least attempted to accomplish what Iím talking about in one way or another:
Did you notice when playing Uncharted several of the enemies in the beginning of the game are very shabbily dressed? Not so much towards the end of the game where they get more advanced and start dressing like private military contractors. In the early chapters you are fighting individuals who are clearly poverty stricken. How depressing.
My point is, I actually took time to consider the individuals that comprised the pile of bodies I was producing. Did I just kill some guy who became a pirate out of desperation to provide for his starving wife and children? Whether the game makers intended me to consider this is irrelevant (although they most likely did not). I still felt guilty for what Nathan was doing. For what I was doing. And I think in this way it (perhaps unintentionally) made Uncharted a million times more interesting for me. Iíd heard that Naughty Dog was questioned about whether or not Nathan Drake is a sociopath given the cavalier attitude he retains in the game despite murdering countless people. Iím sure these are levels of depth Naughty Dog did not intend for Nathan, but it at least got people asking questions. I donít think anyone asked Cliffy B. if Marcus Fenix is a sociopath. Because nobody cares.
Shadow of the Colossus is not exactly a fair game to use as an example since the colossi arenít throwaway enemies. I mention it only because it perfectly encapsulates my thesis here: I questioned my motives the entire time in the game, and felt sympathy for the giants I was killing. The game didnít cram this emotion down my throat, however; it allowed me to feel it on my own. I canít think of another game that created so much cognitive dissonance in such a smart, subtle way.
Fire Emblem is a series that will sometimes make you think before you act. Often you will be forced to battle with a country or people you have come to know through the course of the game. Or in a rare instance ***semi-spoilers about Radiant Dawn*** sets of Characters that you control from warring countries are forced to fight each other. This created a wonderful WTF moment. Unfortunately (and at the same time, fortunately) the game takes the easy way out and lets you avoid killing any of your own units. Regardless, it was a very interesting aside in an otherwise uninteresting entry in the series.
Bioshock, Metal Gear Solid 4, and several others have similar ideas going on. Jim Sterling had a brilliant idea for a WW2 FPS from the perspective of a german soldier. Can you imagine your hesitance at shooting American troops?
The lesson here is: be brave, game developers. The market is saturated with games featuring faceless hordes. Try giving weight and meaning to the enemies Iím supposed to fight. Make me question my own motives. Make me second guess pulling that trigger or swinging that sword. Iíll thank you for it.
And no, I don't think this should apply to every game. There will always be a place in Gamerdom for the escapist male power fantasy that a Gears or Killzone provides. Sometimes you don't want to think about the violence you're inflicting; you just had a shitty day and you want to massacre some civilians in Prototype. That's fine.
I'd just like to be made to think about it more than I currently do.
I hated RPG's in high school. Couldn't stand them. They were cryptic, esoteric, unapproachable things that, for god knows what reason, all of my friends adored. I tried my best to give RPG's a fair shake but nothing doing.
I was told that Final Fantasy 7 might be a good first step into the genre. The materia system alone was so utterly baffling to me, I immediately turned the game off at its introduction. Obscure magic systems aside, I also just couldn't get on board with the turn based fighting. I wanted the tactile, visceral pleasure of burying Cloud's sword into the skull of an enemy. Telling him to "fight" and watching him do all the fun stuff for me? Yawn.
Clearly these were games that were designed with a more sophisticated gamer in mind, one that was ok with reading and memorizing a laundry list of commands and configurations. I was not this gamer, and I was ok with that. You guys can keep your hours of level grinding, I thought; I'll stick to Super Smash and Goldeneye.
Then, when a friend of mine got a Dreamcast, he had me over and showed me Skies of Arcadia. There was definitely some cognitive dissonance going on as I watched him play through a dungeon. It' was still turn based fighting, but this game actually looked.....fun?!
I bought a dreamcast for Skies alone, and I quickly got over my hatred for RPG's. When the game was re-released on gamecube as Skies of Arcadia Legends, I bought this new iteration and played through it. Twice.
This game has so much going for it. Badass airship battles with some of the most cleverly designed enemy ships you've ever seen. Spirit attacks that are a sight to behold, and endlessly rewarding to administer to your foes (see: Pirate's Wrath). A small number of party members allows you to grow attached to all of them. Recruiting crew members that assist you in battle and out. Spectacular music that dynamically shifts through the course of the battle.
Then there are the "holy shit" moments. Like the first epic engagement with a Gigas
Do not want
Or when you finally realize that the island that Vyse has been trapped on has become your personal pirate base, and you can upgrade and fortify it to your heart's content. Or learning that your ship has been upgraded from this:
And then getting to see what this new ludicrously sized ship is actually capable of:
My pants just got tight.
Then there's Gilder. Easily the best 4th party member to use in the game, and also the best character in any RPG ever made. Don't believe me? Watch first, then apologize:
Did you hear that? Right before he blows the living shit out of that giant fish with two steampunk style pistols that fire exploding goddamned bullets, he shouts:"Dance for me!". This game destroys your face.
For the record: I don't actually think this game has been forgotten, as I'm sure there is a rabid fanbase that would lynch me by the scrotum for suggesting that. My aim with this post was to refresh the memories of those who already love the game of just why they love it, and maybe convince a few laggards that tracking down one of the multiple iterations of the game is a worthwhile endeavor.
I also wanted to add my voice to the existing demand for a sequel. Throwing Vyse, Aika and Fina into Valkyria Chronicles is a nice nod to fans, but it's not good enough. Sega needs to stop squandering man hours trying to recapture their bullshit mascot's glory days and focus on an intellectual property that actually matters.