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The Player, The Participant, The Commentary


There are a lot of films out there that try and make some sort of commentary about the audience. A recent example is the film Cabin in the Woods, written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard and directed by Drew Goddard. The ultimate statement of the film is that horror films, and films in general, have a tendency to follow tropes in order to please the audience, because while the film makers may want to do something new or different, the audience will be unhappy and even righteously angry.

It can be easy to miss this point, of course, as it's just a really fun romp and tightly put together. Some of the best commentaries work simply as entertainment as well as a statement of sorts.

I wanted to take a break from my usual pessimistic and/or days gone by writing to actually speak about things I really like. It's a rarity for me, as it's usually easier (and more fun!) to complain than it is to gush. Yet it is equally important to discuss the successes of this industry as often as the failures, and two games in particular have managed to use video games as an interactive medium to make some really interesting commentary.

I do not mean things like "breaking the fourth wall", either. For example, halfway through the game of EarthBound a man approaches the main characters and then asks for the player's name. He addresses the player directly, and after getting the player's name he leaves. This is never mentioned or brought up until the end of the game in a rather interesting moment I shall not spoil. Nonetheless, while it is involving the player in an interesting fashion, it is not making any real commentary on the involvement of the player.

The two games I shall be discussing are Bioshock and Spec Ops: The Line, and I will be discussing spoilers rather liberally. If you want to go into these games blind, I advise you turn back now.

While marketing Bioshock, 2K Games and Irrational put a bit of emphasis on the Little Sisters and how you'd have the choice to do good or bad. In fact, there were quite a few mentions of "choice" and how your decisions would impact the end of the game. Anyone who has played the game knows that, in truth, Bioshock was an awfully linear game that didn't really give the player options at all.

Which was the whole point.

The "Would You Kindly?" moment was pretty damn epic for a number of reasons. The first was the nature of the twist, taking something you noticed but never considered significant and turning it into something important. A simple phrase has been manipulating the player this whole time, and in the end the player is told that a man "chooses" and a slave "obeys". In the context of the story, this is where the character is allowed to "choose" and go from slave to man. It is just one of the many elements that make the story rather deep.

There's another layer here, though. After all, if you go back and replay the game you have no choice. All you can do is follow Atlas' commands to the same point, the same destination. It doesn't matter if you save or kill the little sisters, or if you instead choose to ignore them and focus on your arsenal of weapons. These things are just window dressing. In the end, a player is locked into the decisions that the designers have allowed.

Players, in other words, have no freedom.

Think about it. Even in Minecraft, a "true" open-world sandbox game, the player is limited to the laws of the world. You can never punch a tree and get chicken or an AA12 automatic shotgun. You punch the tree and you get wood.

This singular moment in Bioshock is almost a criticism on the notion of "choice" in other games, in particular at a time when it was becoming more and more popular to give the player dialog options and multiple endings. Five years later and it is just as true a statement as it ever was. Replay any game and you'll find that whatever you did, it is superfluous. Mass Effect 3, for example, was always going to end with Shepard defending the Earth against the Reapers. It was always going to have the same destination. The player never had a choice in that.

Yet is this necessarily a bad thing? Not really. Yet I still find it an interesting little insight into the truth of games. A developer can promise you the world, but it is still a world governed by laws built by the creator.

Spec Ops: The Line does something different, though. In a lot of ways the game is a commentary on the popularity of all these modern war shooters, but it is also calling the player's motivations into question.

It isn't spelled out immediately, and while it is technically thrown into the player's face towards the end it is a point that can easily be missed. Written upon a loading screen and spoken by Kurtz is a simple statement.

Do you feel like a hero yet?

Think about a lot of the current Call of Duty and Battlefield games. Even when they're trying to portray war as a terrible event where horrifying things happen, the actions of the player are still presented in a very "Oo-rah!" shouting, chest thumping, clap on the back manner.

What's that? There are Helicopters at the rendezvous point? Here, take this ROCKET LAUNCHER and use it to blast those helicopters down! Yeah! Wasn't that friggin' awesome how they exploded and crashed into those buildings? Good job! You're the man! Hey, why don't we put you in a tank now? Yeah! Look at all that shit explode! Listen to those bullets bounce right off the tank! You're the man!

Yet Spec Ops takes a different approach. First of all, while it is another game with "choices", they aren't stereotypical good/bad choices. You have the option of saving civilians and letting a CIA operative that's going to help you die, or saving the CIA operative and letting the civilians get killed. You get the choice to be merciful by shooting a man who screwed you over in the head or letting him burn to death, slowly and horribly, his screams echoing in the air as you walk away. You never have the option to let everyone survive, though. You have to choose for something bad to happen, because nothing going on in this game can be described as "good".

In particular, however, is the White Phosphorous. For those not familiar, White Phosphorous is a chemical that basically causes very slow burning death. It's the sort of thing that post-traumatic stress syndrome is made out of, and Spec Ops: The Line wants you to know that. As such, before giving the player a chance to use the weapon they demonstrate it on some NPC's, letting the soldiers writhe on the ground screaming in agony. They demonstrate the effect of the weapon.

Then, a few scenes later, the player is given the option to use it. Unfortunately there is no choice to avoid using White Phosphorous, though I have the sneaking suspicion the developers had intended to allow a second option. Nonetheless, the player now has a visual in mind of what White Phosphorous does. After the player uses it, they are forced to walk through the devastation they just caused only to learn that they also killed innocent civilians.

This is where everything takes its darkest turn. This is where the main character begins to deteriorate mentally, convincing himself that it's all worth it, that they're trying to make things right. At the end, however, it never really does.

I must confess, I think I really need to beat the game a second time to make complete sense of it logistically. The notion that Kurtz was always dead and that the protagonist was talking to himself the whole time whilst his comrades just went along with it is a bit much to chew on. However, the key thing is the motivation. The idea that the character is looking for glory within all this carnage.

The game may as well be addressing the player directly, and in a lot of ways they are. Why are you playing a game like this? Why does all this death make you feel like a hero? It calls the player's own motivations for playing such a game into question.

Spec Ops: The Line may not have the best gameplay and its story isn't flawless, but it should be remembered for trying to make such a big statement in games, and in a manner we don't get to see very often.

In the cases of both Spec Ops: The Line and Bioshock, they attempted to make rather self-aware commentary about the medium of video games. It's more than social commentary or trying to make some broad philosophical statement, it's an analysis of itself. This hasn't really been done often in modern video games, and is just the sort of notion that challenges Ebert's concepts of how games "cannot" be art. These are two excellent examples where player interaction do not interfere with what it is the developer is saying.

This is also one of the reasons I'd love to see this industry get more creative types involved in the development process, at least where story is concerned. Yet that is a whole other argument altogether.

In any case, these were two examples of games that sought to do something grand with their writing, and while Bioshock managed to do so much while Spec Ops: The Line was rather flawed, ultimately both are worth checking out. With luck we'll begin to see more games looking to offer something a bit more deep than the Michael Bay blockbuster style.
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About ccesaranoone of us since 1:39 PM on 07.08.2009

After a little over a year's hiatus I have returned to the Destructoid Blog fold. Despite how thinly-spread my writing efforts have become, I still sometimes feel the need for a canvas in which I can sloppily splash the paint of my thoughts upon in hopes to have something resembling a thing.

So who am I? Right now I'm a writer over at GamersWithJobs, a blogger, a YouTuber and a Podcaster. I specialize in games analysis and criticism, and would like to use the Destructoid blog to share in some of my experiences working on these projects.

Note that I will be linking things I've been working on, but I will do so with the intent of embellishing on thoughts unsaid or detailing some of the work for any interested in also being content providers. Perhaps some of my experiences can help you out along the way.
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