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The guy on the right has a daughter too, Sam. Did you ever think about that?

For me, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory was about being Sam Fisher, Modern American Ninja, and fighting the battle for his soul as he walked the line between hero and monster. The game kept careful records of how you dealt with guards; you could sneak by, incapacitate them, or kill them, but violence reduced your score. Most enemies could be interrogated for more information by grabbing them from behind and making vague threats. You had separate buttons for lethal and non-lethal melee attacks, extremely limited ammo (you could have up to three clips for your assault rifle on each mission), and a wide variety of less-lethal projectiles to experiment with.

I felt like a real hero. I could work hard to avoid killing people as I achieved my objectives, and the game not only enabled that, it supported it. You’re the kind of person who prevents wars, stops trouble, and does so with the lightest touch possible. You could be an unstoppable assassin, but you aren’t. You’re better than that. You know you’re a hero because you go out of your way to do no evil. I would kill in self-defense, and then feel regret afterwards, wondering if Sam’s surrender would have been more ethical than killing innocent soldiers and grunts. I was given the luxury of thinking like that, whether I was up against naive South American revolutionaries, conscripted North Korean soldiers, or US veterans turned civilian contractors.

It hasn’t stayed that way. With Splinter Cell: Conviction, some people have talked about the inability to move bodies as indicative of the series’ turn toward action over stealth; personally, I’m more disturbed by the inability to complete the game without a huge body count. You can sneak through some areas, but others are unabashed action sequences in which you must systematically kill everyone in the room. Or a whole series of rooms. Or basically kill everyone in a multistory office building. They don’t count your kills and deduct them from your score anymore; quite on the contrary, they give you special tools so you can kill more people faster.

In Splinter Cell: Conviction, I wade through the corpses of my fallen enemies, and interrogate people by smashing their faces into concrete. I don’t feel like a good person. I’m not Batman, Dark Knight, doing what has to be done to protect the people from evil. I’m John Rambo, the empty male power fantasy. It’s kind of sad; like Rambo before him, Sam Fisher has been transformed over time into an empty, unstoppable killing machine.

The battle over Sam’s soul used to be mine to fight. But this time, the writers decided the outcome for me. He lost. He slid down the slippery slope and became a butcher.

So much for conviction.

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Batman and Joker
“You are truly incorruptible, aren’t you? Huh? You won’t kill me out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness. And I won’t kill you because you’re just too much fun. I think you and I are destined to do this forever.”

Batman doesn’t kill people. It’s too easy: Once he does, he wouldn’t be able to go back to never killing. He’d do it again, and again, because it’s easier to solve problems that way. And where does it stop? He kills a killer, a rapist, then a drug dealer, a robber. A corrupt cop or politician. Bruce Wayne is a dangerous man, and Batman is just a vigilante. He can only justify his own existence by not killing people.

In most games, the player doesn’t have that freedom. They trivialize life: That businessman was funding terrorists, therefore, he deserved to die. This criminal was mugging someone, therefore, you can cut him down in a fight. If it’s just pixels on the screen to him or her, mass murder is meaningless, leading to the mindless and endless body count of most games. The player sits on their computer and kills dozens, hundreds, even thousands of simulated people, without a second thought. Even games with alignment systems and complex moral choices rarely give the player the simple choice to not murder by the truckload. It’s just not exciting otherwise!

In my plays of Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, I’ve been torn in many situations. You get a higher stealth score for avoiding a body count, but aside from that, there is no penalty on most missions for killing the bad guys. Several even have no penalty beyond score and severe chastisement from your superiors for killing civilians or allied soldiers. There are various less than lethal tools at your disposal for dealing with enemies, but often the easiest and most efficient solution to a problem is a bullet to the head. If you choose to ignore your score (and it doesn’t matter much to me), then the choice to kill or not to kill becomes one for you to decide for yourself. I like that choice — a lot.

The freedom to embrace a Batman morality to your heroism, declining to kill those you run across simply because they’re your enemy, is a freedom I crave in many games. I wanted it in Far Cry 2, and railed against the simulation boundary when it deprived me of the opportunity to play a character I could believe in. I want the freedom to play the fantasy of a badass hero who has the sense of mind not to become a heartless butcher of men — and the freedom to fall short of that ideal, to fail in its pursuit. In many games where I can’t do this, I’m shaken from the game, and lose some of my sense of immersion. Not everybody wants to enter a fantasy where the only answer to evil is to kill everyone. Sure, it’s easy to solve the problem by killing them. Batman would say it’s too easy.

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The first time I played Far Cry 2, I thought, “What a shame. This could have been a great game. But I just don’t like it very much.” After an hour or two of play — and a real effort to enjoy it — I put the game down, never to play again.

Thanks to a combination of the Far Cry 2 permadeath experiment and the blog of the game’s Creative Director, Clint Hocking, that would change. The better part of a year later, I started the game again, picked a new character, and this time, I played to completion. And I liked it. Visually, it’s amazing. There is no problem there. Mechanically, it’s fantastic. I do think those checkpoints on the roads are a serious mistake, and should have been removed or at least set to respawn only after 24 hours or more, but aside from that, the game was a lot of fun, and I hold tremendous respect for it. So why did I almost miss out on this gem?

One basic reason. Because I was so incredibly alienated from my own avatar. In a game that strived so much for immersion, this was absolutely devastating.

If the plot advances in a video game because my character does something stupid, immoral, or unjustified, I find myself disgusted and divorced from any investment I had in the character. I wrote about this problem with Prototype not long ago. Far Cry 2 has the same problem Prototype does in this regard, but it’s another order more severe. This is partially because Far Cry 2 is far more immersive, but it’s also because the alienating moments are more frequent and severe. I want to explain exactly what about Far Cry 2 was so alienating to me, but it will involve spoilers if you haven’t played the game, so be warned.

When you select a character in Far Cry 2, you’re tasked with choosing from one of various totally immoral characters that I could not identify with at all. Being unable to identify with these people was a strike against my immersion when playing as one of them. Still, I readily accepted the backstory that I was there to assassinate a notorious arms dealer, and I could understand why such a hard-bitten killer like myself would be the one chosen for this task.

The introduction grabbed me, and I was incensed (in character) that The Jackal found me and my orders when I was incapacitated with malaria. This was probably supposed to make me like him, but instead of liking the guy, I just thought “Bad idea, letting me go. He’ll get what’s coming to him.” When fighting broke out in the city, I grabbed a couple guns, jumped through the back window into an alley, and fled town. Unfortunately, I collapsed, still sick with malaria, and was captured by one of the two factions and forced to work. Oddly enough, the guy was mad because he imagined that I’d shot a bunch of his boys back in town during my escape, even though I didn’t fire a shot. Once this tutorial mission string was over, I went into town and did a mission for the underground, for much-needed malaria medicine.

Initially, when I met the journalist in Mike’s Bar, I started to form a plan. “Aha, this guy has interviewed The Jackal. Maybe if I work with him, I’ll be able to get closer to finding my target.” This relatively sane strategy was not within the range of creative thought available to my thuggish avatar, however.

According to my journal, the only way to get to The Jackal was through acting as a hired killer for the bloodthirsty factions. So, I figured, I’d take sides with the UFLL. I would do so reluctantly, of course; I knew nothing about these factions, but at least the UFLL had propaganda superiority and thus were likely to have greater popular support. Plus, the APR boss seemed a bit slimy. My strategy was that I would fight with them until they trusted me enough to give me information I could use in my mission.

Alas, this back-up plan was boxed when my avatar decided that was not within his temperament. Rather than follow my own idea of an at least partially sane strategy, I was degraded to acting as a complete mercenary, forced to play both sides when missions on one side dried up, befriend self-centered psychopaths who kept encouraging me to be even more murderous, and generally kill people left and right for blood diamonds.

By this point, I’d given up on playing Far Cry 2 with my first attempt. I just couldn’t get invested in a game that was about being a stupid psychopath thug. I mean, I’d played GTA III: San Andreas and GTA IV, and those had similar problems, but at least I could follow the reasoning of those characters. CJ and Nico were missing a few brain cells and had a severe deficiency in their respect for human life, but they had personal systems of morality and ethics, that while not my own, could at least be made sense of. In fact, those Grand Theft Auto games told compelling stories about people sinking deep into criminal behavior due to a combination of poor judgment and poor circumstances. These games had take-aways; I’ve written an academic essay defending GTA III: San Andreas to a ethnic studies professor.

But in Far Cry 2, I was playing a brute chosen from a lineup of nasties, and I appeared to have no moral fiber whatsoever. My character wasn’t acting out of personal indigence or a sense of vengeance, I wasn’t defending my cousin or sister or family or gang, I didn’t even need to do these things to eat — in Far Cry 2, I was playing a soulless butcher whose only motivation appeared to be his next blood diamond. Rockstar makes their leads human and sympathetic, even in the most controversial games; but Far Cry 2 seemingly didn’t even try.

I play games for escapism, for entertainment. Being made to feel like such a monster doesn’t fall under this category; it isn’t my idea of a good time; this moral tone for the game is so thoroughly alienating that I actually stopped playing. And I missed how much Far Cry 2 did right, because I was slammed to the floor under the extent to which it did this one thing so incredibly wrong.

Eventually, I did come back. I came back to the game because I read about all the things Far Cry 2 did right. I wanted to experience these things, to analyze them, to enjoy them, to embrace the fun in the game. I managed all these things, but unfortunately, the problems didn’t stop there.

So. Moving on in the game, I came to a point where the only mission left was a task from the APR to assassinate the leader of the UFLL in this part of the country. I normally wouldn’t touch this mission with a ten-foot pole, especially as I didn’t like the APR boss nearly as much as I liked the UFLL boss, but my thick-skulled avatar thought it was a good idea, so who am I to override such a plot-advancing decision? I figured I wouldn’t kill him quickly; I’d walk in and wait for him to give me a counter-offer. I did this exactly. The UFLL boss figured out I was there to kill him, had his hands in the air, cursed the APR boss, and did nothing to try to save his life except stand there and then, some five or ten awkward seconds later, decide to pull a submachine gun on me and shoot me. Which got him killed. And at that, I was betrayed by the APR and left for dead while doing a mission I wouldn’t have accepted in the first place. At least the game let me try to defend a church of innocents instead of trying to save those psychos at Mike’s Bar; as I imagined my silent protagonist telling the Catholic priest, I’m not a good person, I’m just a very bad person who fears for his soul.

Life continued in this vein. I was promptly forced to take a mission trying to aggravate and prolong the conflict by starting a battle in the middle of the capital city; not that I actually wanted to do such a horrible thing. The one doctor left in the entire country praised me as a good person for warning him about what I had just did, even though my warning came about two seconds before he was about to find out for himself. I was certain he was missing a few brain cogs when he made that judgment, especially since he knew full well this was my fault in the first place. Not that I was complaining; I needed to be in his good graces to get my malaria medicine, which remained one of the only motivations about my character that I actually understood.

Eventually, I had the opportunity to make peace between the factions, and my best buddy among the psychopaths that I called my friends here in this country advised me to betray the mission, steal a mess of diamonds from the factions, and use them to bribe a pilot and escape the country with the others. I was a bit confused here; if all we needed was a mess of diamonds to get out, then what about that hundred diamonds I had kicking about not so long ago? Why couldn’t we get out then? I am one hundred percent certain that was enough rough diamonds to get us all out on that plane. But whatever; the diamonds were a macguffin, and I had to concede that. Though characters in the game lectured me that the peace would only bring more rape and pillage of the civilian population, I decided that they were doing plenty enough rape and pillage already, and shutting down the bloodbath aspect of the situation could only be an improvement.

I didn’t even have the opportunity to walk into this betrayal willingly though; the choice was taken away from me by a cut scene when I picked up the diamonds, and I ended up in prison, where my buddy lectured my silent protagonist about not keeping to what he promised to do. Silent being the key word here. Well, since my character apparently promised his buddy to get the diamonds to them, and my journal says quite surely that I intended to go with his plan, I concede that this was what my character wanted. But, because my character is silent, he was summarily unable to profess innocence and explain that he was ambushed in a cut scene, even after demonstrating good faith by busting this guy out of prison.

And when, in time, the opportunity finally came up to put a bullet in the head of The Jackal, the one that I took my entire motivation in the game to be to kill, the game inexplicably took away my weapons, similar to when I’ve been searched at the door of a faction office. My only option was to have a chat with the guy and make a deal, betraying my allies and killing them as they tried to escape the country when I would just as soon have shot the guy I was dealing with and taken off with them. I mean, what was my character even thinking, trying to work with this madman on some grand exodus? Has he gone as far off the deep end as the guy he’s trying to assassinate? Maybe the guy’s had a change of heart, but screw that, and besides, my malaria was so bad at this point that I was afraid I could die if I didn’t leave this hell-hole and get some real medical treatment! What a grand absurdity that the very end of the game is the moment when my character decides to start acting with moral conviction, only for that to be the one moment when I finally want him to just solve his problems with a bullet and leave, because I want him to do what he came to do.

What kills me most about this ending to the game is that they could have easily implemented my chosen ending without compromising gameplay. This is literally the bleeding end of the game. Shooting The Jackal and using the diamonds to leave with the other mercenaries wouldn’t cheat the player out of any but maybe ten or twenty minutes of gameplay. So why couldn’t I do that?

While the term “role-playing game” normally refers to a specific genre, almost all modern games with any kind of preset narrative have some form of role-playing implicit in the play of the game. The fact that this happens is important to consider when making games, especially when making games with an imposed narrative, because what the player character does in the story can either reinforce the player’s sense of identity with their avatar, or jar them out of the game. If the player doesn’t like their own character, they will have trouble liking the game. Rockstar gets it: they may make a game like Bully or GTA, but they are careful to make the protagonist sympathetic and likable, with clear and understandable motivations. You can’t just be someone inexplicably messed up and murderous, not if you want a broad audience anyway. Games with black and white morality scales regularly see the majority of players going for the heroic side. And even movies require likable protagonists. Ignore this at your peril.

Of Far Cry 2, in the end, I liked it. There was a lot to like in that game, once I managed to tolerate my dislike of my own character. But I have to wonder; did the developers think about this kind of thing when they came up with the story? Was it something they even considered? Am I simply not the target audience for the game? Or were they going for a deeper, more cinematic and moving effect, that merely misfired or went over my head?

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This blog post is going to be a review of Prototype. Well, sort of. It’s not designed to help anyone decide whether or not to buy it; rather, it’s intended to reflect on my experience, to explore aspects I didn’t like, and to invite comment. Considering that this is the first serious post on this blog and nobody is reading it yet as of this writing, please do share any thoughts you have about this post and this blog.

I enjoyed the game very much, and in a comprehensive review I would discuss the frantic combat and interesting (and effective) “Web of Intrigue” system of optional story snippets, but there were a couple of things I didn’t like about the game, and I want to specifically focus on two aspects of the game that I felt put off by.

Spoilery in-game cutscenes

One of the firsts things that struck me when I started a new game was that Prototype mostly takes place in extended flashbacks as your avatar explains his exploits of the past couple weeks to a currently unknown person. The first couple of minutes of gameplay are also set in this period of time several weeks after the beginning of the story, in a “here’s how cool this game will be once you unlock all your powers” scene that reminded me of a similar opening in The Force Unleashed.

I’d have preferred to do without the demo-like beginning and intermittent cutscenes that flash forwards to the present. I can only speculate that the purpose was to retain players unsure if they want to spend a lot of time on the game, but for me it detracted from the immersion by not only revealing plot spoilers that ruined any sense of suspense, but drawing attention to the structural aspects of the narrative design. Will the infection completely overrun the city? You know in the first five minutes that the answer is yes, even though it won’t happen for half the game, and in the beginning it’s not even clear there’s an outbreak to be concerned about!

Not everything was spoiled by this, but the story became extremely predictable, and many of the powers (any of them used in the start of the game fight scenes) weren’t as new and fresh as they could have been when I finally unlocked them myself, and I didn’t like that. Eventually I actually started skipping the flash forward scenes because it was bugging me so much to have my character tell me what was going to happen in the next hour of the game before it happened. But since some aspects of the plot are only clearly spelled out in these scenes, there is no clean way to get around this problem.

Forced immorality

Despite casting you as a third party to a conflict between two warring factions (infected and military), the game has no sort of faction relationship or alignment system. If you charge into a war zone and start attacking only one side, the other side will try just as hard to kill you off. For the infected this makes sense if they’re rampaging mindless killers, but it’s unclear if this is the case. For the military this makes sense too, since you’re necessarily playing a sociopathic scourge on humanity, but I acutely felt the absence of any responsiveness to my playing style. As I played, I seriously wished the game validated or at least acknowledged my choices in some fashion. I find most alignment systems in games to be cringe-worthy, but even a simple acknowledgment of relative faction affinity would have been nice here.

This came to my attention because I approached Prototype from the start with the conscious decision to avoid wanton violence and killing, a code of behavior I adhered to more or less throughout the game. In scenes with massive military fighting, I would use surgical and guerrilla focus on my mission targets. In the presence of civilians, I would move to the rooftops and work to keep collateral damage to a minimum.

From the start I made the conscious decision to avoid wanton violence and killing, a code of behavior I adhered to more or less throughout the game. In scenes with massive military fighting, I would use surgical and guerrilla focus on my mission targets. In the presence of civilians, I would move to the rooftops and work to keep collateral damage to a minimum.

Toward the infected I was more indiscriminate; but I felt unsure if this was right or not. Unfortunately, the game didn’t provide enough information about this infection that was ravaging New York to let me decide. What was happening to these people? Was it curable, or was it permanently transforming them? Were they just the mindless zombies their AI made them out to be, or intelligent beings like my own twisted avatar? These questions were never adequately explored to my satisfaction, and I was left treating them as generic bad guys, even as I tried to impose a moral framework on my play that the game didn’t explicitly support.

I was a bit conflicted with the very premise of the game, and its compatibility with my approach. Specifically, my own continued existence as a living character in this world was hard to justify. The military was hell-bent on hunting me down and killing me, and avoiding this fate seemed to require mass murder on an epic scale — not directly, it’s just that all the combat and dead soldiers you leave in your wake was obscene. Given the choice, I would sooner side with them than play as the apparent villain in the story. This wouldn’t make sense in the context of the game, however, and indeed, if my character didn’t have such a wanton disregard for the lives of others, things wouldn’t have even reached the head they did at even the very start of the game, and there would be no game to play.

My forgiveness

Both of these things wrenched me out of my immersion in the game and frustrated me slightly. I felt that the game imposed a cruelty on my character I didn’t care for, and ruined its own story for me. This wasn’t enough to stop me from liking it though; the game was about frantic action and being a total badass, and it succeeded in these things.

Furthermore, despite my misgivings, I have to respect that the immorality from the main character is mitigated by the fact that the game embraces it so straightforwardly. It never postures to offer you a chance to pretend to be heroic. Eventually your actions tend toward saving lives, but only because there are eventually more deadly things than you to deal with, not because you’ve suddenly turned good. I’ve had similar trouble with Grand Theft Auto in the past and come to peace with it. I just don’t like that the simulation boundary on an otherwise fun game precludes trying to be anything but a sociopath.

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