Most of 2009’s best games were exercises in restraint. Uncharted 2 was streamlined to perfection as was Modern Warfare 2, Street Fighter IV was a return to strong roots, Flower and Canabalt took great strides in minimalism, and Batman’s ultra-simplistic combat engine is more fun than the entirety of other games. Bayonetta, on the other hand, is like Peter Jackson’s King Kong.
The game proper starts in a cemetery as a fat gangster posits over life and death while a hot nun quietly murmurs incoherent nonsense for at least five minutes. Enzo chomps hungrily on scenery like his cigar, until angels descend from heaven, I tighten my grip on the controller and, uh, watch as Bayonetta takes everyone on while the Joe Pesci wannabe “comically” falls about the scene and complains about damage to his car. We’re now going on ten to fifteen minutes and I’ve yet to press a button past start.
This is action?
Let me mention that I also say “the game proper,” purposefully excluding the opening tutorial-battle-thing. You fight millions of angels, possibly at the height of your power before the coffin banishment (though your every move doesn’t create massive fists and heels like by the end of the game…so were you ever at full power to begin with?) Jeanne by your side, as a mysterious voice tells us about witch history. It’s a complete sensory mess, and could have been stricken from the record.
Within the first minute of God of War, Kratos kills himself before you beat the life out of an undead army, impale hydra heads, rip wings off harpies, and walk down a monster’s throat to snatch a key from a helpless man that you let fall to his death. This is within fifteen minutes, at least. As absurd as it may sound now, God of War showed excellent restraint. It was a streamlined experience with barely any fat and a direct, simplistic plot. Most cutscenes were deliciously short. They lasted long enough to deliver an emotional sucker punch then gave control back to the player. Its now famous QTEs were varied enough in presentation and input to make them seem less scripted, more visceral. QTEs were taken to sterling heights in GoW2, where slamming Theseus’ head repeatedly in a door was one of the great pleasures I’ll take to the grave, and I’d even say perfected in Chains of Olympus, where a thematically effective QTE had you push a frightened child away.
Bayonetta shoots itself in the foot (ha-ha) with cutscenes. Most fights with Jeanne begins as two lady witches trade blows with missiles and motorcycles at unimaginable speeds while they strike “cool” poses, sometimes, I guess. You passively watch all this, of course, and when the action’s finally back in your hands…it’s the same three to six button combos you’ve been doing since the game started. Oh well, at least this time they’re fighting on the wing of a plane, eh?
The plot has been called nonsensical, but I’d go one further and call it unedited, unrestrained, and completely in love with itself, much like Peter Jackson’s King Kong. You see, the original Kong is Jackson’s favorite movie. After the unimaginable success of Lord of the Rings, Jackson was given a blank check and total carte blanch. He decided to do his dream project, and delighted in recreating the original for modern audiences, but mostly for himself. Unfortunately, he couldn’t separate over-indulgent love from smart filmmaking decisions. The result is a film with loads of visual style, but a bloated plot as thin as puddle water that lasts one hour longer than it needs to. How many slow motion shared moments between Naomi Watts and CGApe did we need? Jackson couldn’t get past his love of the original Kong to make a good movie, and I argue Kamiya couldn’t get past his love of Bayonetta, the character, to make a good game.
There’s no doubt that Kamiya is infatuated with Bayonetta. If the “artistic” slow motion pole-dance during the end credits didn’t convince you of that fact, then the “fun” go-go dance after the credits had to have driven it home. There she is, dancing, for no reason other than to let us watch her dance…yet…again. Kamiya must have loved every second of it. I counted the seconds until I could skip past that last dance, because I certainly wasn’t allowed to skip the credits. By then I was so entirely sick of the game that I haven’t touched it since.
The plot is abysmal to an nth degree, n valued as how long it takes for your brain to melt down to lukewarm goo during the opening cutscene. Nothing in Bayonetta makes for a compelling story, but please don’t mistake “compelling” for “coherent.” A story doesn’t have to make sense to be good; it has to be good to be good. For further reference, sit down and play Dead Rising or Katamari Damacy, or watch Big Trouble in Little China or Demolition Man. They’re all great times that don’t make one lick of sense, because why should they? You may think I’m treating the plot of a game about witches with guns on their feet a bit harshly, but that’s because I believe Bayonetta, the naughty masochist, wants to be treated this way. It goes through absurd lengths to justify its plot, giving us flashbacks, flash forwards, sideways flashes and books upon books of backstory, not one of which I could bring myself to read. By the time I reached David Bowie, cutscenes became bathroom and coffee breaks. When it comes to action games like this, when will developers take to heart the immortal words of John McClane, “Bad guys are about to do bad things.”
What more do you need?
God of War’s story is effective because it’s simple. In a delightfully noir opening, Kratos commits suicide before we’ve even had the chance to play him. Now why’d he do that? We don’t know, we’re curious, and one title card later we’re doing what we bought the game to do: fighting. After a truly bombastic opener that I still use as a benchmark for games gone right, Kratos is given a single task by Athena: kill Ares, the God of War. Kratos swears it’s the last job he’ll do as their divine errand boy. He’s had enough, and wants to be released from his torment. What torment? Ah, another simple question. Over the course of the game, layers are carefully added to the backstory, adding weight to your actions, but the task remains the same: kill Ares, a god so wholly committed to the idea of combat and warfare that he desired to create the perfect warrior. In the end, Kratos tells him he succeeded, then rams a sword down his throat. Damn. Now that’s pathos.
Of course, plot means little at the end of the day. We came for action, and Bayonetta offers this up in spectacular spades, right? Not quite. While it is incredibly pretty to look at, and the slightest touch of a button causes neutron stars to implode, I can’t help but feel that Bayonetta offers nothing new for the genre. It lacks the unforgiving preciseness of Ninja Gaiden, the exhilarating QTEs of God of War, the rock-paper-scissors approach of Arkham Asylum, or the intelligent use of SFX powers in Viewtiful Joe. This was the latest game from the man who proved 3D action was possible with Devil May Cry, but plays almost exactly like that seminal title from years ago. The difference is now you have four guns instead of two. It’s the Wii Mario Bros. of the action genre.
Was it wrong for me to hope for something more than gigantic, recurring bosses and missile fights? Contra 4, an homage to the type of games made twenty years ago, had an entire level built out of missiles; Bayonetta’s motorcycle level feels like Final Fantasy VII’s, only less strategic and much more tedious; the shoot-em-up stage is an absolute chore to slog through; and the battles with Jeanne feel much too like Dante and Virgil for my tastes. In fact, the game is filled with references to Kamiya’s other works. Bayonetta shouts, “Flock off, feather face,” cries “Dancing a go-go” while leaping away from molten lava, and sprouts black roses in her panther form wake. The sheer amount of self-referral suggests that Kamiya considers this a culmination of years of game design experience and, quite possibly, a masterwork. I’m not against self-addressed love letters. Numerous artists sample their older material to strengthen a new work, but if Kamiya considers this a masterwork, I feel bad for him.
A game should leave you spent, exhilarated, and thirsty for more. As soon as Viewtiful Joe ended, I was both delighted at the hint of possible sequels (which turned out uninspired and repetitive) and eager to start the game over on a harder difficulty. Once I crawled through Viewtiful mode, I started over again to get perfect rainbow rankings. I was hooked on a three to four hour game for weeks.
But Bayonetta left me exhausted, thoroughly bored, and wanting nothing more to do with it. Whether Bayonetta drives our medium forward in terms of female presentation (which I highly doubt) is a moot point compared to the crushing realization that a master of the action genre completely dropped the ball. Has anyone else noticed? Judging by how many critics call Bayonetta the best action game of its generation, I doubt it. For the record, I don’t share that line of thinking. It’s not the best of this generation. It’s not even the best of last generation.
It’s Hideki Kamiya’s King Kong.
I’ve finally caught up with the rest of 2007 and played Mass Effect. I’ve long resisted its charms, the mating ritual drawn out and protracted, each individual step of our dance expressed over months and years, until I gave in and whispered, “yes.” Shepard and crew have now raised the veil, kissed me on the cheek, paid the priest, and I find myself their blushing bride. It was a good honeymoon, and I expect our home life to be comfortable and settled.
How come I didn’t play this sooner, you ask? Simple.
Bioware’s games, widely considered the benchmarks of Western RPGs, feature deep storylines, fascinating characters, and game-wide affecting morality choices, all presented through scores and scores of dialog delivered by wooden puppets with glass eyed stares. Wrap this around impressive looking, though hardly innovative, combat (Jade Empire excluded); lush, empty worlds; and endings so rushed, so generic, they feel like cold slaps to baby buttocks. What’s not to love? Bioware, time and again, serves up the same microwaved Salisbury steak for supper, and we gobble it down like Christmas Goose. They’ve fallen into such a rut you could almost mistake them for Nintendo, though no one would dare utter such blasphemy against the makers of Baldur’s Gate 2. I mean, did you play KOTOR?! Don’t you remember the twist?!
Twists don’t make stories, and they certainly don’t make games.
For Mass Effect, it seems Bioware looked back on all their previous work and thought, “How can we make the dialog not a slog? Is there a way to have scripted events and character interactions during gameplay? Do we really need dice-roll combat?” They took a deep breath, raised a foot in the air, and leaped straight through the goddamn cinematic roof. Mass Effect makes dialog feel so interactive it’s shocking. Gone are the days of spelled out, prescribed options after someone speaks while they look at you expectantly and wait for an answer. Instead, you select vague choices off the incredibly clever dialog wheel. In just one conversation, Shepard can walk forward, take something from another character, look at it, glance up at the other character while speaking, shake their hand, then take out a gun and grind the barrel against their temple. All this occurs at a lightning quick pace where you’re never quite sure what Shepard’s going to say next. Compare this to KOTOR or even Final Fantasy XII, where direct character interaction took place only after the screen fades to black, your party members magically appeared out of thin air, and Vaan squealed about how he’s a baron from Dalmasca or something. Mass Effect’s characters still look like clay models, ones where the bug up their ass made friends with the stick, but they no longer just wave a hand through the air from time to time. That’s called progress. It’s a shame Dragon Age: Origins took none of these innovations to heart.
In fact, Dragon Age is indicative of a much larger problem with Western RPGs: the faceless main character. How so much emphasis was placed on the origin of your character that it was even put into the title of the game, yet your background is almost superfluous once you become a Gray Warden, is beyond me. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting if, instead of six characters, you could choose, say, only three, each with their own unique voice and overall story? Though it would be at the sacrifice of customization (boo-hoo), a limited number of choices would instantly focus what stories remain by conveying them through more specific eyes. While I can appreciate the larger political story Bioware wanted to tell in Dragon Age, its three races, two genders, and complex caste systems didn’t accomplish the same thematic goals that Mass Effect did with a much tighter, more focused plot with only one human.
Mass Effect’s intricate plot engages largely because your character has a voice. The lightning quick conversations would be totally ineffective if Shepard didn’t participate actively. While you’re given control over the general idea of what Shepard’s going to say, you never know when a finger’s going to get pointed in someone’s face or, better yet, a gun. Little surprises instill conversations with an element of tension and suspense in ways that a silent protagonist would be unable to accomplish. Better yet, Shepard has a name. All too often in RPGs, you choose the character’s name which was a harmless practice in the days of text. But with modern day voice acting, it can be downright obnoxious once you realize that nobody, at any point, ever, refers to Tidus by name. Then his name, one could argue, isn’t Tidus, since the story certainly doesn’t support it. Even in FFX-2, a game almost completely centered on a non-playable Tidus, no one refers to him by name. It can drive men mad. A voice and name, Bioware proves, can work wonders on a character, though they called it a day’s work at this point and almost regrettably left everything else up to the player.
You start a new game by choosing to either select a pre-made character or creating one for yourself. Should you choose the latter, the game’s ID access system rather cleverly finds that Shepard’s data is “corrupted,” and you must manually recreate the information. It’s slick, subtle, and fits right in with the rest of the sci-fi setting. The Shepard I created was a no-nonsense red headed woman, because (to paraphrase Lara Croft’s creators) if I’m going to tour around the galaxy and have sex with blue aliens, I might as well enjoy the ass I’m staring at and make damn sure it’s lesbian sex. I tinkered around with the sliding scale options until Shepard had pretty blue eyes, a strong jaw line, a scar just tough enough to look cute. My roommate flipped open the manual and held up a picture of a brunette with a pony tail. “Their girl looks hot, what’s your problem?” He was right. My Shepard wasn’t hot. She wasn’t even girl next door cute. She looked like Joan Rivers after her maiden nip: okay, but just a little off. Try as I might, I couldn’t seem to put her duck lips in proportion with Michael Jackson’s nose. I fiddled around until I decided twenty minutes was enough time wasted and resigned to her as my character.
The opening cut-scene was everything I wanted: beautiful art direction with motivated action and a clear mission established. The Human Alliance was under threat, and only Jane Shepard could stop them! I marched up to General Anderson and…was horrified as soon as I opened my overbite mouth. The Shepard I created looked completely alien, like a manga character drawn by some newly pubescent ten year old. The visuals impressed, the voice acting was great, but I could only see the flaws in what I had created. Jane Shepard was a mess, and I couldn’t live with it.
Thank god for the pre-generated character.
In reality, the Jane Shepard Bioware provides didn’t look too different from my own. Both were red heads, shared many of the same facial features, and even the same cute scar. There was one huge difference, though: I didn’t make theirs. Any characteristic flaws or niggling features was their fault, not mine. If their Jane had duck lips (and she does, just a little), it’s because they made her, not me. I could accept those decisions, and move on. Now Jane was her own character, not mine.
The buzz concept of Western RPGs right now is character creation, though I can’t imagine why. This poses no problem for the silent protagonist, who’s essentially a blank slate to begin with; no matter what fond memories people have of Chrono, his was at his most expressive when his shoulders shook while laughing. Perhaps game designers have danced around the silent protagonist long enough that they thought, “Hell, why not just let the player dream up whoever they want if we’re not going to define the character?” The Elder Scrolls and Fallout can get away with the silent types because our character never talks in a world so sprawling it takes precedent over story. But for RPGs that wish to convey a sharper plot and more character development, is customization really necessary? You’re still allowed control over the Witcher’s actions and choices, but he remains an incredibly defined, and therefore more interesting, character with his own morality in an amoral world. Would we feel more attached to Geralt if we could change his face, hair, and skin tone? Like Chrono, Shepard’s not exactly an expressive person. She frowned and raised eyebrows like nobody’s business, but she once attempted to smile in a conversation with Ashley and I thought her mouth was about to fall off her face. When you think about how many mouths and sizes Bioware had to account for, it’s amazing Shepard could move her lips at all.
Bioware almost dropped the ball with Shepard. It’s only through the strength of the voice acting and vague dialog choices that a defined character emerges at all. Given the bulk of their previous work, and how generic Shepard ended up in spite of everywhere, Bioware must have had an internal war over whether to give Shepard a name and voice. The yes-men, number crunchers, and bean counters hemmed and hawed from the corners of their tables, pointing to arcane charts and diagrams that read, “Things We’ve Done Before That Made Much Moolah.” One stalwart stood apart from the rest. He jerked back his Viking helmet, folded powerful arms over a (no doubt) broad chest, and bellowed from massive lungs, “We must be different!” All doubters met the space between the flat blade of his axe and a single concrete wall, soon pasted over with the blood and brains of weaker men. Delegates arrived after several hours of battle, and a treaty was forced between the lone warrior and the frightened masses- frightened of change and the loss of gross profit. They would keep the radical new combat system, and a well defined main character, but the programmers must include character customization and slow moving elevators, lest people fall too much in love with new horizons. Our man should be awarded with medals. Statues should be erected in his name. On his birthday, children should stay home from school, ignorant of his contribution to society but glad for it anyway, a Casmir Pulaski of videogames. His legacy should live.
Instead, Mass Effect’s follow up gave us three races, two genders, a complex caste system, dice-roll combat, and complete main character customization. With no voice.
It began with my character, Ramirez, in an underground bunker that’d seen better days. Soldiers monitored the airwaves while faulty electrical wiring sparked and popped from exposed breakers, and wounded soldiers peppered the place. They jammed gauze on bullet wounds and fists into bloody eye sockets. Scores of body bags lined up outside a makeshift medic ward where men laid on cots and would not make the night. I wound my way through morbid halls, the dull bulbs dimmed and flickered as mortar fire hammered down from above, until I passed a Ranger sat on his ass and staring at the floor. He looked dejected and in need of a lot of winks. Instead, Sergeant Foley tossed a rifle his way and gave the orders. Our mission was to secure an extraction point for helicopters en route. I followed Foley up the stairs and out of the bunker, while a sight familiar to all Americans, the Washington Monument, broke over the concrete horizon. The straight, splendid opulence of memory gave way to a hollowed out, broken, tangled mass of steel girders, amid a landscape that looks like a page straight out of Dante. It was Hell made of barbed wire and bomb shelters. Trench lines were sawn into the Mall, trees burned in a night sky choked with rockets and choppers, and everywhere there was gun fire. The Russians had landed, a homeland invasion most Americans swore could never happen. They fired from the streets, from the windows, from APCs and Jeeps, SAM sites, choppers, and tanks.
They fired from our memorials. Our monuments.
Sgt. Foley barked to stay close, but I lagged behind as I looked in horror at the destruction of the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial lit up with muzzle flash, and far in the distance, the dome of the Capital Building caved in and smoking. Our symbols of democracy, our legacy of great men and ideals, reduced to soot stained, crumbling stone and serving no purpose higher than to provide cover from incoming. It was too much. I paused the game and took a moment to collect myself, as tears threatened and welled in my eyes.
Never have I been moved so completely by a videogame.
Modern Warfare 2 begins with General Shepherd spouting one line after another so heavy-handed with war mongering that Arnie or Sly Stallone would buckle under the weight. At first, I was disgusted by the game’s blatant “patriotism.” I thought it served to justify the past eight years of war with Iraq, an impending war with Afghanistan, and all future preventive wars. I didn’t play to get an education in combat philosophy, though; I came to bust heads like hi-def melons, and quickly brushed off the plot as no more than filler between fire fights.
Yet, when you die, as the game loads up your last check point (assuming you don’t meet your end by grenades, exploding barrels, cars, or those damn dogs), you’re treated to quotes by famous figures throughout history, which I didn’t know what to make of. Quotes like, “If you set out on a journey of revenge, you must first dig two graves,” and “Patriotism is loyalty to your country all the time, and to your government only when it deserves it” certainly didn’t fit in with Shepherd’s We-Will-Win-This-War speech. The tone MW2 kicks off with was much more in line with Dick Cheney’s, “It’s easy to take liberty for granted, when you’ve never had it taken from you.” That the quotes are both for and against vengeance only made things more confusing, until I realized that majority of pro-vengeance stances are so zealous they’re almost comical; the most recently famous one (due to Fahrenheit 9/11) belonged to Donald Rumsfeld about exact knowledge of Al Qaida’s whereabouts: “…to the north, east, west, and south somewhat.” Some quotes were so recent, they stung.
I had recently visited Washington, DC, a trip that left me with mixed feelings. As my friends guided me through the district, pointing out foreign embassies, the vice-president’s house, and places where famous Americans had lived over a hundred years ago, I was filled with wondrous pride for our heritage, and marveled at the rustic yet timeless beauty of it all; nothing but fresh grass, green trees, and a smorgasbord of gorgeous, gorgeous women. It felt very appropriate for the capital of the “free world.” But over the course of my visit, an altogether different feeling set in and took hold. Things started to feel a bit “off” in DC. Police lined the streets. An hour wouldn’t pass by without sirens, somewhere, blaring in the distance. Helicopters swung low and drew attention as they chopped through the air. Escorts tore through the streets at high speeds. Tourists snapped happy photos in front of the White House, just steps away from people on a hunger strike for the sake of abused prisoners in Tehran, and under the watchful gaze of snipers perched on the roof. The Reflecting Pool was a bog; filthy, green, and a place even the ducks seemed to steer clear of. The Iraq section of the American History Museum was labeled “America’s New Role,” referring to our Super Power status as we policed the rest of the world in the name of “freedom” and “democracy.” The exhibit included the surprisingly small uniforms of Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf, and a twisted beam from the fallen Twin Towers. What motivates a curator’s selection, I wondered, when the museum is free?
I stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, when it struck me how flat DC is. An entire district leveled in deference to the Washington Monument. The place felt designed to make the average person feel subordinate and small, straight down to the Natural History Museum with its larger than life shark jaws and a war memorial what seemed every ten steps. Oppression hung in the air like fog soup, and I knew exactly where I’d want to be if the chips were down: anywhere but DC. I had lost faith in an America I thought I knew, had once loved, and long ago grew jaded with. After eight years of war that’s claimed the lives of thousands of American soldiers and over half a million Iraqis for nothing but a foothold overseas; after a regime that, time and again, proved to care little for the people it supposedly served, and replaced by a new one that represented “hope,” but now clamors for more war, more spending; the monuments, memorials, museums, and relics- the symbols of America- had come, in this exhausted citizen’s eyes, to represent little more than ruthless oppression and imperial tyranny. From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, among the mindless tourists and their constant photo-ops, I gazed at those symbols stretched out before me. Something stirred within. I was moved to give them all my own personal salute: a middle finger, raised defiant and high and angry. I turned to the Capital Building, where so much of our country and its people have been sold over the years to the highest bidder, and for a brief, radical moment, wondered what it would look like if that building were bombed.
Modern Warfare 2 showed me exactly what that would look like, and the sight will stick for a long time. As the game progresses and the actions of the parties involved escalate until it’s all out war in suburban Virginia, it dawned on me that MW2 actually has something to say, and “Of Their Own Accord…,” while definitely an example of social commentary, may well represent one of the stronger examples of a Game as Art. I believe, in that level, through your actions, the greater theme of MW2 emerges. It’s not until later in the level, after you secure the extraction point, climb your way into a waiting chopper and man the turret that this occurs. What follows is an intense fly-by on Russian soldiers and, much more importantly, American monuments. You’re told to target the RPG soldiers camped on top of the World War II memorial. When you open fire, the sheer power of your weapon blisteringly carves through anything in its path. The memorial, built in memory of the 50 states and an alliance that brought an end to Hitler’s wrath, is eviscerated in seconds. I could point out where my friend, just months ago, washed her feet in the water, next to a sign that ordered, out of respect, “Don’t.” When the chopper passes a colonial-era building loaded with Russians, the force of your bullets shatter the windows, tear chunks from the walls, and crack columns. As you fire on the enemy, you can’t help but wreck American symbols that represent valor, honor, democracy, peace.
Is this a mirror to the opening level, when a mini-gun caused the same mayhem on Afghani streets? What symbols of theirs were ruined? Did you catch, in that same level, before heading into the city, the soldiers wonder aloud which of the two identical buildings was gonna get bombed, then cheer as that Afghani building collapsed?
Were you reminded of anything?
I couldn’t shake the feeling, as the chopper-mounted turret reamed swaths of destruction, I wasn’t firing on Russians. I was firing on what brought America to this point: namely, the profit of few at the cost of many. In this light, are Shepherd or Makarov, and their mad quests for vengeance, so different from Bush? Is our world that different from theirs, or am I reading into this way too much?
The game may stumble in its execution. It’s saddled down with a James Bond popcorn plot and outlandish politics, but it’s no less viscerally effective when it stabs straight at the heart of what makes us American: love for our country. I had forgotten what that love felt like. But symbols have power and meanings can change. When I saw the Washington Monument ruined, its girders bent out of shape and exposed, our nation’s capital reduced to a war zone, and the carnage cause by a single turret, my heart broke for an America I wanted back, the idealized America I was brought up, since birth, to believe in. Where was the benevolent leader of the free world, the shining beacon of democracy? Instead, I was left with a district in ruins, minutes away from a nuclear strike, and no clear victory in sight.
I believe Modern Warfare 2, beyond the bullets and bravado, has a message. The game’s reached six million homes- those of hardcore gamers, frat boys, a Kotaku Girl’s Night Out, and even (regrettably) young children. I hope the message reaches more than I expect it will. Because, as those in power spill more money into a war we were tricked into and no longer want, instead of healthcare, education, or jobs; as long standing nuclear treaties are weakened and broke in support of short sighted self-interests; as tensions across the globe are continually heightened by our own actions that, in the past, we deemed “terrorism,” try not to ignore the message from a company that dared to show an America on the brink of ruin:
Don’t Let This Happen.
I check my heavy rifle one last time, slide the chamber back to make sure the motion’s smooth, as I know it will be. The guy in front of me works out the kink in his neck while the other two move their weight from foot to foot and watch the numbers light up on the elevator. Makarov looks back to me and reminds us all, “No Russian,” as the elevator chimes pleasantly, its doors glide open, and the five of us- matching suits, flak jackets, and serious firearms- calmly stroll into a packed Moscow airport terminal. The people mill about; eager to get where they’re going and bored with just another day in their lives, when slowly, one by one, they notice us behind them. Makarov waits just long enough for them to realize, let them know what’s going on, then opens fire on the lot. Instantly, his cronies do the same. The citizens are mowed down by a vicious spray of lead, and I don’t know what the hell I’m supposed to do.
Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 begins with the same junk you’d hear from any number of Michael Bay or Jerry Bruckheimer flicks; the tired, bloated, empty and (sometimes) fun popcorn pap flicks that stuff summer theaters. While General Shepherd puked one “patriotic” phrase after another out of his mouth and dribbled it into my ears, I quickly switched my brain to “off” and let the game go “Oscar Mike.” It’s good that I did, for there’s hardly a moment to think as you take the reins of an ATV mounted mini-gun through an Afghani town loaded with insurgents, rip buildings to shreds with 6,000 rounds per minute, and toss grenades through grade school class room windows. Modern Warfare 2, much like God of War before it, doesn’t exactly show you new things; it just looks and plays better than most everything else on the market. It’s a ’67 Chevy with a tricked out engine, slick coat of paint, and a debt to Rare’s Goldeneye much larger than Infinity Ward would probably care to admit. It’s a beautiful paint-by-numbers with a few interesting flourishes dabbed in here or there. That is, until “No Russian” comes along and shits all over the brush. “No Russian” is a straight sucker punch to the gut that lasted with me for days.
The set-up is bare bones at best. General Shepherd stressed the importance of my mission, hinted at the sacrifices that were made to get me in position, and generally bored me with shadowy details while no-doubt hideously expensive computer graphics zoomed around the world and displayed newspaper clippings of terrorist actions. But as soon as Makarov and his thugs opened fire on the helpless crowd, I was struck dumb with horror. Bodies dropped like sandbags, blood splattered over clean tile floors, people moaned and dragged themselves away only to be picked off, and metal detectors bleated as we walked through into the larger area of the terminal. The gun shots warned the rest, but their shock and panic caused them to flee in herds, slow each other down, get shot in the back. I followed slightly behind my cohorts, the terrorists, gun at the ready, unsure what to do. How could I slaughter innocent people, as they fled and screamed and cried and tried to save one another, like they were witless cattle? My mission was to infiltrate, get next to Makarov, fit in. I couldn’t possibly fit in if I didn’t open fire, but my conscience worked against my trigger finger. I was conflicted, but in the end, I had my orders. And so, reluctantly, I did my duty. I cut down the women, I fired back at the security guards, I picked off the stragglers; and as the scene escalated, as a grenade blasted an elevator full of guards off its bearings and all flights were delayed on the boards and the police sirens roared close and loud, I felt worse with every passing moment.
A game made me hate what I was doing.
“No Russian” is meticulously detailed massacre, an achievement of set piece, scripted events, and- this is what sells it- sound design. You don’t just see the carnage, you hear it. The spit and bark of the heavy rifles are right next to you, distant yet immediate when the group spreads out. The screams of panic and pain echo and ring long after the bloody work is done. The real triumph of videogames are when you experience an event you never can in real life. In the case of “No Russian,” it’s an experience I hope to never have.
Critical reception’s been across the board for the level, with the bulk of it summed up succinctly with Rock Paper Shotgun’s, “It’s bullshit, innit?” Infinity Ward’s been raked over the coals for attempting something daring, and, in their minds, failing to hit the mark, given that just minutes ago your character was zooming around the Russian landscape in a snowmobile like James Bond on a bender. I’d argue that it’s precisely the erratic “plot” and gameplay that makes “No Russian” work beautifully. I found it incredibly hard to follow what was going on in the story-based cut-scenes. Many times I carried out entire missions without a clue why I was doing so. I mean, why did that Washington VIP shoot himself in the face? And what made him a VIP in the first place? Did Shepherd really allow a nuclear strike on home soil just to foster his own revenge? Confusion like this works in “No Russian’s” favor, because you never see it coming. Like the Bays and the Bruckheimers I compared MW2 to, if you’re looking for character development beyond field-dressing a wound and a thematic arc to rival United 93, you never turn to the guys who make Independence Day. But imagine if Independence Day had been made today, and the alien’s first targets had been the World Trade Center. That would arouse emotions to make you want those space-crustaceans burn. “No Russian” does just that. You want to play our game? You want to shoot hundreds of AI like cattle to get to the big baddie?
Do you really want to?
Crispy Gamer’s first reaction to “No Russian” was that, given the size of the crowd, Infinity Ward must have really been pushing the poly count. Another commenter instantly saw how many body models repeated with swapped color palettes, and that took him out of the moment. I think these people missed the forest for the trees. Several pieces have commented that in “No Russian,” your actions have almost no meaning. You can kill Makarov, but you’ll get a game over screen. I ask, why would you shoot the terrorist you’re trying to get closer to? You can execute all the civilians yourself, but they’d have ended up dead anyway. Why would you, as a human being, gleefully cut down digitized, though no less innocent, lives? You can shoot no-one, and your fellow terrorists won’t bat an eye. But, why would you not shoot the civilians, when you’re supposed to fit in? What would be more jarring: the game granting amnesty because you chose not to kill, or a game over screen because you didn’t shoot enough people? When you decide to ignore the way the game asks you to play, does the fault lie with the game? If you ask me, “No Russian” and the larger game community’s reaction to it falls right in line with what Ebert was saying about authorial control, and might serve as a grungy beacon against Games as Art, though I would consider it as a shining example.
People seemed to have been jaded from the get-go, hung up on lofty promises and missed marks, but I tell you this: the revulsion I felt when I first pulled the trigger on a helpless man, trailing blood over the floor as he crawled away, is probably exactly what an undercover CIA agent would feel if forced to do the same.
For that, I applaud Infinity Ward on a magnificent job well done.
Apparently, some time ago, Michael Thomsen told ABC News and those Americans who were watching that the videogame medium’s Citizen Kane was the Metroid Prime trilogy. The rest of the game playing world sucked a sharp breath through their teeth and hissed out a turgid, “Huh?” A few articles have been written about how and why that’s an entirely ridiculous statement, which I’m not really going to go into. Those that’ve played the Prime trilogy, which is a great goddamn trilogy, already understand why calling those games “Citizen Kane” is, well, stupid. For that matter, any claim to a “Citizen Game,” is pointless, but if this is the terminology the land what birthed American Idol and The Kardashians is going to use, then I’ll stuff my gob full of chaw and play along, y’all.
I read the Destructoid article by Anthony Burch, who rips apart Thomsen’s claim bit by bit, while furious anger drips from bared fangs. He asks the question, “Why not talk about the mechanical metaphors at work in Braid, or the murder mechanics of Shadow of the Colossus, or a thousand other games that actually attempt to explore the aesthetic power of interactivity?”
I believe that while Braid and Shadow of the Colossus are both incredibly powerful works that drew out my raw emotions, they’re still cribbing from other fields. I think Braid, in no way, shape, or form, pushes forward storytelling through interactivity. The end sequence is incredible, and deftly uses the rewind mechanic (yet again!) to make you play a game differently, but the story and themes of Braid read out like a novel. Literally. You spend a good portion of that game reading text, and deciphering greater meanings through them. The game may be about the Atomic Bomb, but I wouldn’t have figured that out without immediately looking it up on GameFAQs after I beat the game. Braid pushes interactivity forward as far as gameplay goes, and it’s certainly beautiful to look at, but it does almost nothing for storytelling through interactivity. The ending of Braid may have haunted me for a good couple days, but I’m a videogame enthusiast who shed a tear at the ending of Mario 64, for crying out loud. I’m looking for legitimacy. Those that look for the leap forward find it, but when my roommate finished Braid, he went, “how ’bout that,” put down the remote, and turned on Scrubs. It did nothing for him.
Shadow of the Colossus takes many of its cues from movies. Sure, you and Agro get to joyride through the wasteland and it’s you in control as you climb hand over hand to reach the weak points of the Colossi, but as soon as the killing blow lands, a cut scene takes over while the sad music plays. The much vaunted-about sadness of killing the Colossi, and this is in no way taking away from a game which I love so completely, is spoon fed to you by the cut scenes. I think Shadow has one of the more emotionally powerful endings in a game, but again, it’s almost entirely a cut scene. Yes, you do get to experience what it’s like to be Dormin, essentially realize how helpless those Colossi were all along, and it’s incredibly heartbreaking when Wander is pulled into the vortex while you’re in control. I held on to the rim of that pool for a long, long time, while waves of sadness and pity washed over me. But I’d argue that the context of those brief interactive moments are all set up by non-interactive cut scenes, which is not unique to games. It’s like if you watched Goodfellas, and suddenly get to direct Joe Pesci right before he gets whacked in the house. Spoiler alert. The moments before and after, you’re a passive watcher. I feel that brief snippets of interactivity, while unique to videogames, are not enough.
To pick on Anthony Burch’s article one last time (sorry!), I can’t for the life of me think of the thousand of other games that attempt to explore the aesthetic power of interactivity. I’m a life-long gamer, and I’m even attempting to make my own games now, but I have to admit…games are by and large the exact same things, time and time again. Especially now, when what feels like the most control we have is when you choose the camera angle in a cut scene, a’la Snake Eater. Games are increasingly in love with their stories, but they can’t seem to figure out how to present them in a way that’s unique to the medium. Perhaps, lately, the biggest step forward was Bioshock, with the in-game sequences and positively dripping-with-malice atmosphere, but the Little Sisters and the non-interactive ending take you out of the moment and pretty much work against the larger theme of the game.
Going back to Thomsen and his statement that Metroid Prime is our Citizen Kane, I say this: he chose the wrong Metroid. Prime puts you in Samus’ shoes, and has one of the few in-game worlds that I felt was truly complete (GTAIV, in my opinion, is the only game that’s come close to presenting such a complete vision for a world since), but water down the visor happens in real life and there’s cut-scene after cut-scene after cut-scene. In short: nothing that a walk in the rain or a movie hasn’t done for us already.
I say, then, let’s look back to Super Metroid, a game where from almost the first moment to the last, you are in complete control of your character. Every second, you are Samus. Super Metroid got many things right, but above all it had atmosphere and tone. You felt like a lone woman on a hostile planet, and eventually you no longer saw Samus for herself- but as yourself. If I recall- aside from the opening story set-up, the bridge between the space station and Zebes, and the mission complete at the end- there are few moments were control is taken from you, and even then you’ve lost control the situation, not of the character. These moments are terrifying.
There’s two moments in the game that have been mentioned so many times before, that I’m sure you know them before you read it. When the Giant Metroid latches on to your body, sucking the life straight out of you, I lost my shit. In pure panic mode, I tried everything I could to get it off of me. I ran back and forth, although slowed down from the weight of the monster, searching for some environmental object that would help, like maybe a burst pipe or exposed electricity. I tried to morph into a ball to bomb it off, a tactic that worked so many times before, but was now worthless. I felt utterly helpless, though I was still in control the entire time. When the Metroid detached itself, I was as confused and relieved as Samus would have been. In that moment, I was Samus.
The other moment, of course, is when Mother Brain pounds you with her laser eye. When you’re hit by it, slammed to the wall, and decimated by its power, you feel like you’ve done something wrong, like somehow you mistimed a jump. But the beam stops and you’re not dead, so the next time it comes, you’ll be ready for it, right? Not quite. Samus falls to her knees, exhausted, while Mother Brain charges up another shot. I don’t think I’ve ever hammered buttons harder in my life. It’s a desperate moment, fueled by panic and a glimmer of hope, because as you pound the buttons faster, Samus almost gets back up. I felt like if I could just do it fast enough, I could survive, but that damn Brain’s charging up too fast, and she’s almost ready, and I’m gonna die, and- the Giant Metroid saves your life. It then powers you back up, hyper-beam in tow, your terror turns to a goddamn great and joyous anger. Again, you know what it’s like to be Samus, strictly because you were never once separated from control.
Everybody, every last person who’s played Super Metroid to completion, remembers damn well what it was like to experience those two moments. Even my roommate, who practically tossed Braid to the side as soon as it was over, grows animated and curses at how much a bitch Mother Brain was. It sticks in the craw, because we were in control for its entirety, and can recall how desperate we felt. How helpless. Super Metroid was a masterstroke of interactivity, an experience that is truly unique only to videogames.
I think our approach to what is the “Citizen Game” is horribly flawed. We try to base it on artistic merits, and feel like aesthetics are what will win the day. Games like Braid, Shadow of the Colossus, Ico, and Okami are the modern oases we go back to time and again; maybe because they can be shown to a regular, non game playing joe, and the graphics will wow them. And while each of those games are fantastic for different reasons, they won’t validate our medium to the masses. No game will, not on looks alone. All the eerie chanting and great graphics won’t change the fact Halo is much, much less than the sum of its parts. We have to look to interactivity, when we were the most into our game and identified with the player-character, when we knew we were not passively experiencing, but playing greatness. That would be our “Citizen Game,” to throw the term back at those who wield it, and I think we’ve already played it.
There’s a reason Super Metroid is almost always number one on the Best of All Time lists.
As an update to this article, which I wrote months ago, I’m glad to see the rest of you, as Slate’s Year End Gaming Club (doot-doo-doo!) indicates, are finally catching on to “interactivity” uber alles.
…I kid. I love you, Leigh!
The purpose of this “blog,” if I must call it so bilious a word, is to examine videogames on those grounds that now are demanded of the medium. Somewhere between the advent of Pong and the robust whiz-bangers the likes of Gears of War, videogame hobbyists- gamers, if you will- decided that a series of bleeps and bloops, properly rearranged, cease to be pixels and source lighting and must now be regarded as art. As a Master Gammelier, I will meet these games half-way, in the streets as it were, muddy my hands with their presumptions, add my own pretensions, and finally grade them on the only scale worthy of all high art: fine wines.
The Master Gammelier must not bow down before a title merely because it has tried the new, the fresh, or whatever buzz word is of the moment. Much like one does not criticize wine on taste only, we must examine a game as an experience, the culmination of all various factors that make up the final experience. What are those first wafts, the opening hints of what’s to come like? Is the body light, medium or full? Was the product meant to go down smooth, forgotten as quickly as ingested, or is it loaded with Tannins and thus clings to the palette? Also important, of what period was the game created? All this and more will be scrutinized like the aging of a Petit Verdot.
Before we begin, a few short words on…Citizen Kane. It has been posited, from time to time, that videogames have yet to birth their Citizen Kane. I think few grasp what this statement means.
Citizen Kane, of course, went on to flourish in the eyes of the movie connesiuer, but that was only after mass snubbery. The film debuted as a box office flop. Barely making its budget back in its initial run and forgotten shortly after, it took Citizen Kane more than ten years to become popular within the United States, which was a direct result of its television debut. What Citizen Kane truly represents is the point when one man, Orson Welles, got it right. Through the marriage of cinematography, set design, sound, make up, and editing, film finally transcended its stage roots to become its own art form.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare has already accomplished this. When the nuclear warhead explodes, leaving your player character to cook through the radiation, dragging himself along with your input, what other media form can provide that experience?
The words, “Citizen Kane,” should never have meant to suggest the emotional investment of the viewer, or a penultimate experience that is not to be topped. It’s a creative work that realizes a medium for what it should be, and separates one art form from another. Was Super Mario Bros. art? No. On that same whim, neither is Crank 2: High Voltage. Neither speak for their medium. But if we are to call Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare the Citizen Kane of videogames (which in fact we are not), that is in no way to say that games have reached the status of art, or even high art. It may even be true that games have yet to reach the level of a child’s chalk scrawlings on the sidewalk.
The only way for videogames to be taken more seriously is to treat them more serious. The medium has soared through potty training; earned its cuts, scrapes and bruises from learning to ride the bike; but now finds itself on the verge of graduation, the healthy heathenism of its college nights behind it, before it: real life. Let’s help videogames land their first day job.