My drummer has this story he tells sometimes, about this one time when he was drumming in some other band, and some dude who came backstage, having witnessed the entirety of the band's performance, asked him, personally, off-handed:
"Have you ever had a hot one in you?"
My drummer was understandably confused. He was not familiar with the jargon. You see, jargon of this nature only makes sense if you have first-hand experience with the thing being reduced to jargon. My drummer was understandably confused, and answered "I don't think so". This was enough to disappoint the other party, who then shook his head and slunk off. I wasn't there, nor have I seen a videotape of the proceedings, though I imagine the shake of the man's head as indicating he believed that any person who didn't think they'd ever had a Hot One in them most definitely never had had a Hot One in them.
A "Hot One" is slang for a bullet, as in a bullet fresh from the muzzle of a gun. The man was asking my drummer if he had ever been shot. This was maybe a compliment. Maybe he beheld my drummer's percussion-pounding skills and believed they could only exist within one who has walked the line between life and death as represented by a bullet wound.
People have asked me, before, if I have ever been shot. However, those people have historically been Japanese girls. Their cute fascination with guns and/or my Americanism is actually racism, disguised so cleverly that they can't even see it themselves. No, I reckon my drummer, Zak, is winning, because the man who asked him if he'd ever had a hot one in him clearly had been through the experience himself.
What have I done, in my life? Tyler Durden said, in Fight Club, that you don't really know anything about yourself if you've never been in a fight. I guess I've been in a fight before. On many occasions. Usually with people who were unimaginably bigger jerks than even I am. I've been stabbed once, in the thigh, though the knife only went in maybe a quarter of an inch. That's about it. I've never faced the barrel of a gun, nor have my efforts to actually have a rock and roll band in the real world ever led someone to believe that I have been shot. The one story I like to tell people more than any others is actually one my brother tells a lot. He tells it better than me, probably because it happened to him. Basically, he was in a gas station after working a night shift stocking the supermarket. The gas station was across the street from a mental hospital. A man in a hospital gown was standing next to my brother. My brother was pouring just a ton of sugar into his coffee. He couldn't drink it any other way. This bearded, hospital-gowned, filthy man eyes my brother, licking his lips, cackling at whisper-volume for maybe a minute and a half. My brother is really in a daze. He hadn't slept in a while. He needed the caffeine just so he could survive the drive home and go to bed. So eventually this crazy guy says to my brother, "You like it sweet, don't you?"
I bet you're wondering where I'm going with this. Here's a neat little tidbit: So am I! Come, then, and let's talk about anything, everything, and maybe something, in an effort to settle on a topic worth making a conclusion about. You may have noticed that my previous columns here on Kotaku have not actually been "about" what they were "about". This one will be like that, only more. For now, let's say it's "about" "violence in videogames". It's time to get down to business! Get something long, tall, and hard to drink. We call this one
("what we talk about when we talk about never having had a hot one in you")
((or, "the zombie crisis"))
Cliff Bleszinski, a dude I personally have huge respect for, once fielded an interview question on the subject of the nature of his games as juvenile power fantasies. You may or may not know that his games tend to be stories centered on meat-headed, damn-near-neckless man-mountains aiming tree-sized machine guns at man-shaped creatures generally the same size as our heroes, only impossibly more ugly. In a nutshell, the games fulfill the adolescent desire to press a shotgun up against a crouched man's trapezius muscle, pull the trigger, and watch the body-meat neatly unzip at the speed of sound. Some say games are exercises in escapism. I guess most people don't get the chance to do this in real life, then, do they? Bleszinski says that, maybe, game designers can do much more exciting things with this miraculous medium called interactive entertainment software, though for now, the only template practiced and polished enough to be commercially viable happens to involve guns and the ability to aim and shoot them. "Reach out and touch someone — with your gun". That was the way Bleszinski put it.
Meanwhile, on the other shore of some emotional ocean, we have the Grand Theft Auto games. If I had a five-yen coin for every person who ever let me "in on" the "little secret" that any given Grand Theft Auto game is a "lot more fun" if you "just ignore the missions" and "cause chaos", well, I'll probably be well on my way to being able to trade them all in for a bill with a picture of Hideyo Noguchi on it. Most of the people who expressed this opinion about any GTA game leading up to San Andreas seemed to not like Grand Theft Auto IV so much. I wonder if it's because, with Grand Theft Auto IV, the developers reined in the way things work and move in the world so as to make it more convenient to craft actual missions that were as much fun, if not more fun, than causing random chaos. I personally enjoyed the missions in Grand Theft Auto IV so much that I didn't once see the need to steal cars and/or slash prostitutes with chainsaws in order to feel like I was getting my money's worth.
Grand Theft Auto is a weird button to press, however, because it's a game that promises a scale model of freedom in a world big enough to almost feel reality-sized. The game does not contain a single mission where a disembodied voice says "get drunk and drive a car because it's fun", nor does said non-existent disembodied voice ever tell you to find a chainsaw and slash a prostitute. However, some of the video-gaming community's most prominent thirteen-year-olds often see fit to mistake "things you can do" in games with "features" of said game. In Grand Theft Auto, you can kill innocent pedestrians, though the game never explicitly asks you to do so. Something tells me Rockstar loves the miraculous publicity that occurred when a games website threw together a video review that illustrated a player fornicating with a prostitute and then killing her afterward in order to steal her money. Pundits were quick to blame the game for being sick and depraved, when really it was the actions of the player, going through unnecessary lengths to be as big a jerk as possible (that's one way of saying "murderer") in the context of simulated human beings. Once the Holodeck from "Star Trek: The Next Generation" goes on sale, these are the kinds of people who will intentionally contract food poisoning so they can vomit more effectively during all the most dramatic scenes of Square-Enix's "Anna Karenina." On the other hand, however, we have The Real World, where it is overwhelmingly possible to pack a steak knife in your duffel bag and nonchalantly stab a man in the top of the head while waiting in line to buy your groceries. How often does that happen? Not very often. Well, often enough to make the world a scary place, though clearly not every day, for every person. If I were the type of person to actually stab actual people in the actual world, what use would I have for a simulation? I'd just go outside. Here we are, on the precipice of proving that the simulated psychopathic rampages in Grand Theft Auto are only ever escapism. I won't bother getting into whether or not the violence is therapeutic. Because, who cares?
I'm barely interested in bringing up moral debates here. Oh, no. If that happens, then so be it. However, let me state that my chief interest is in talking about money, as in the money in the pockets of human beings, and how game companies can get more of it. Money is the only thing everyone likes more than violence, anyway.
Let's talk about therapy again, though, for just a minute. Exhibit D: The Dynasty Warriors games. They sell hundreds of thousands of copies in Japan. Who buys them? Who wants them? These games are objectively terrible from any self-respecting game designer's viewpoint. You're a guy with a spear. You dash around a battlefield. You see and slash other guys who also have spears. Your main character must be a genius, because he is apparently the only human being on the battlefield who knows how to press the square button. The heroes of the Dynasty Warriors games are warriors whose names have survived through nearly two thousand years of history for an amalgam of reasons. One of those reasons is probably that these men likely killed so many people on the battlefields that they could not be ignored. Many of their opponents were no doubt farmers who picked up weapons only because they were afraid of dying. Most of them found out the hard (or, easy) way that they weren't fit for not dying. It takes certain psychological disconnection to succeed head and shoulders above a pack of human beings in any field, be it battle or business. The disconnection required to actually use a spear to stab a man, and then stab 50 more, is about equal to the disconnection required of a person who wants to walk into a corporate office on his first day in flip-flops and Ray-Bans, point a finger at the boss, say "You codgers need to change your game!" and have a man twice his age flying him around the city in a helicopter by Friday.
Dynasty Warriors games present players with a world where the invincibility code is turned on, where they are the Big Man on the battlefield. What they don't do, however, is lend any weight or catharsis to any of the action. As the games get older and spawn sequels, the greater idea of violence in the context of warfare spirals further and further away from the developers: The people are getting too good at the games, clearing them too quickly, selling them back to the used shops! Quick! We need to think of a "New Gameplay System" to steepen the learning curve! So they come up with this thing where your guy is, like, the General, and you have Captains on the battlefield, and sometimes they require "backup." So when they're in danger, you get a little flashing blip on your radar, and a message beneath the radar informing you that so-and-so is in trouble. You now have to run across the battlefield, or risk losing your captain. Right by the radar, you watch your captain's life bar tick down. Then you find the captain, and there are like four guys standing around him, just pointing with their spears, nervousing him to death. You kill them in a half a second, the computer program thanks you politely for doing what it gave you no choice about doing, and then it's business as usual again. Apparently, the life of a hero is 90% busywork — busywork with no contextual foundation, even. So Koei was founded, in the 1970s, as an endeavor to teach people and/or kids about Chinese and/or Japanese history through fun-like computer simulations, and here we are, in the 21st century, and they're insinuating that the most famous Chinese warriors also happened to have psychic powers on par with modern GPS?
Here's what I'm saying: There's no catharsis in Serious Videogames, anymore. Did you see that game Tecmo is making, Undead Knights? It's basically Dynasty Warriors, only the enemies are all zombies. So they've gone and contextualized the enemies' stupidity. Great. The posters also proudly proclaim that the game is "the world's first Z-grade videogame." I guess Dynasty Warriors was only Y-grade. Who are they marketing this to? My guess: People who play Dynasty Warriors and know that the exercise of doing so requires about the same mental investment of kneading Silly Putty. I'm being half-serious when I suggest that these people should just start jerking off in the dark with Zen-clear minds, aiming for the fastest time.
So now we're going to talk about zombies.
Lots of games these days have zombies in them. Why is that? You might immediately say "because people like zombies, duh". You might even say, "Well, I like zombies, so fuck you." Hold your horses, there? Are you sure you like zombies? Or might it just be that you enjoy the game mechanics that game designers so often use to build proverbial cathedrals around zombies? Or maybe the marketing tactics used to promote games featuring zombies are so warm and friendly that you feel like, by proclaiming your own love of zombies, you are part of some special warm and fuzzy, zombie-loving, in-on-the-joke club for people who have a like-minded sense of humor. Not so fast, kid! Let's break this down, just for the hell of it. Zombies are:
1. Reanimated human corpses
5. One-track-minded: they want only to approach live, fresh humans and gnaw on their warm flesh
Let's look only at items one through three for a minute. (Actually, let's toss off number four in a parenthetical: Zombies being dirty is convenient because grit gives the character artists a nice outlet for showing off their attention to detail.)
Imagine you're a game designer. No, you're not imagining enough stubble. Now you're not imagining enough coffee! Dude, you suck at imagining. Let me imagine for you.
You're designing a game. You've got a Big Publisher rubbing their thumbs against the four fingertips on each hand like a bunch of greedy thieves. Their head producer comes into your office, and you say that you're going to make them The Third-Person Shooter That Changes The World. The producer downs a forty-ounce plastic bottle of espresso and high-fives you. Once he's cleared the premises and before that fateful day when the cops ask you to bail him out of jail, you set about actually designing your game.
The genre of your game is "Third-Person Shooter," not "Third-Person Action-Adventure Game In Which Enemies Die After Being Shot." Jokey as this previous sentence seems, it is a very important distinction to make: The publisher has likely agreed to your genre distinction, and you have absorbed every nuance and implication of said genre distinction into your soul. Your game will be third-person, and the character will shoot.
So if someone were to ask you whether shooting or being shot were more important (Pro-tip: No one actually ever asks this), you would likely freeze for a second, like an old computer, and when you un-froze, the words "Shooting — duh" would magically type themselves out on your proverbial monitor. When prototyping one of these games, the shooting is usually the most important thing. Are the guns fun to shoot? Are they a delicious marvel to behold even when not engaged in their primary method of use? They better be, because your dude is holding and pointing a gun for the duration of the interactive entertainment experience.
So you start by making enemies who are basically dummies. The dummies approach the player at a medium-slow walking speed. Maybe some of your guns have knockback. Maybe some of your guns cause enemies to explode, shrapnel-damaging other enemies. Wow, I'm going to have to watch myself and refrain from finishing this paragraph too creatively, because that would be like doing my job for free. (Attention, game developers: If you'd like to see the rest of this paragraph (It'd be maybe 100 pages long), offer me $80K a year. I will gladly fly to your city and purchase a fire-red Lancer Evo X in the amount of time it takes a taxi to drive from the airport to the nearest Mitsubishi dealership.)
You spend a very long time working out how the guns are going to work, implementing rudimentary outlines of things like knockback and explosions and shrapnel. Eventually, it comes time to think about who your enemies are, why they are trying to kill your player, et cetera. Your only desire in making this game was to make a game where the guns felt great to shoot, and hey, that's not a bad idea! Guns sell. Shooting is fun. So the producer calls in some marketing guys and the marketing guys outsource the marketing to some guys who specialize in Hollywood movie marketing, and they come back with the opinion that if your game were about zombies, it would sell just as well as it would if it were about actual, interesting monsters — time-traveling Roman Centurion Werewolves, for example. Just as long as the game has enough graphics and you whip up a neato enough logo to slap on coffee mugs to give to reviewers, you've got a grade-A production.
What I'm saying is that "zombie" is pop-culture code-language for an enemy that Doesn't Do Anything. Sure, the zombies in Left 4 Dead run really fast. That wasn't exactly a new idea — they did that in "28 Days Later", too.
From another angle, we can say that zombies are shooting-videogame enemies that don't shoot back. This is maybe a more important distinction to make: We have a projectile attack, and the enemies don't. The enemies have to touch us to kill us. There's a more-than-interesting enough game mechanic at work there, with avoiding and/or trying to repel enemies. Millions of people spent tens of millions of quarters playing Pac-Man, and you never obtain a gun in that game. The fundamental question is why must our enemies be suppressed into oblivion? Why do we have to make them die?
Another way of looking at zombies is as three-dimensional human-shaped targets. How presumptuous game designers are, to assume that, deep down, all that any of us aspires to do in the real world is shoot another human being, or at least something shaped exactly like one.
Some, if presented this "debate," would likely bring up the point that, in a shooting game, you literally have to have "something to shoot," or it's not a "shooting game" anymore. You have to be able to use the gun the game puts in your virtual hands. This is why the "most fun" you can have in a Grand Theft Auto game is had while causing wanton chaos — the programmers spend more hours making the world and the people in it entertainingly destructible than they spend making the world in the first place. All of the virtual physics and chemistry grow leaning in the direction of violence. Some devils' advocates might say that zombie games are conscientious — rather than "let" the player kill virtual innocents, the game "forces" the player to kill helplessly psychotic virtual freak-bastards.
Game developers seeking to craft a virtual experience that aspires to some level of realism will often set their game during a war. No one in their right mind likes Nazis, so World War II is a popular setting. What better benchmark for the progress of virtual-world-building technology than presenting historical events that have previously been filmed, photographed, and eyewitnessed by many living heroes? I have to admit to being a little shocked whenever I see a post on Kotaku about such-and-such a war game, and someone in the comments e-groans about how sick and tired they're getting of war games. Would you rather have zombie games?
Here's where we stop talking about zombies, though only in spirit.
Violence in games isn't punctual enough. It's not a hard-enough hit. Way back on the PlayStation, after a couple of Madden games had come out, one of the producers said, in an interview, something along the lines of "now that we've got the graphics and sound under control, it's time to focus on making the hits harder." What in the hell did this mean, we wondered? We were naive. I will be the first person to admit that the Madden games are a shining example of a game development process that works. I remember seeing something on "60 Minutes" back in 1999, I guess. The CEO of Acclaim was showing a reporter that baseball game for the Nintendo 64. The reporter remarked on how real it looked. The Acclaim CEO quipped: When the game looks so real someone walking into the room mistakes it for a real ballgame on television, our job is done.
Really? Is that it?
Please be noting that Acclaim went bankrupt maybe sixteen times after this interview took place.
A tangentially similar situation is occurring with modern action games. War and zombie extermination, however, unfortunately do not have as rigidly-defined, time-honored rules as baseball and football. When you make a game about zombies or modern warfare, you're dealing with a much broader scope.
Only who walks into a room, sees a video game being played on a high-definition television, and asks, "Hey, what [war/zombie movie] is that you're watching?" No one. I'm not about to insinuate that this is any modern game developer's goal — to make a game that is mistook for a movie — though what I will gladly insinuate is that such mistaking just plain doesn't happen.
A new paragraph, a new idea: With the Nintendo Wii, Nintendo announced that they were aiming to draw back humans ("users", as they are called in Japanese) who had strayed from the role of game-consumer to the role of not-a-game-consumer. Nintendo's impressive theory was that, some time after the release of Super Mario Bros., many of the millions of people who saw it being played at a friend's house and became, for a moment that might have lasted several months, a gamer, eventually failed to find any of Nintendo or Nintendo's trusted third parties' games very interesting at all, and went back to hobbies like knitting or pineapple speed-cutting.
In the age of Barely Any Games At All, what it took to impress people was a game that was smart, well-crafted, simple, and deceptively deep. In an age of Thousands of Games, what it takes to impress people is . . . simple collections of mini-games?
I have friends who have friends who hadn't played a videogame for ten years before Halo 3. Maybe my friends are lying to me. Maybe not. Though for the moment I am going to presume that not a whole lot of Absolute Ungamers behold Gears of War 2 and exclaim, "Maybe this is the right hobby for me!" Not that they wouldn't have a good time if they did.
We're coming around to the "are games losing their creativity?" argument again. This is where I pull a rabbit out of my hat: . . . . . . . okay, there is no rabbit. Games aren't becoming uncreative. It's just that they barely ever were in the first place. Here's the best scenario I can think of off the top of my head:
In the first Tomb Raider game, the designers decided to make the main character a woman with pyramidal breasts larger than her torso because, if not, the target audience of thirteen-year-old boys would most likely not possess the concentration required to solve the ferocious collection of devious puzzles at hand. Flash forward to 2008: The thirteen-year-old boys are now college graduates, and Tomb Raider has grown a set of reasonably realistic graphics. Way back when, we were too chubby over the way Lara Croft "oomph"'d when we ran her boobs into a wall. Now, we've touched real breasts, on many occasions, and we're looking for a more spiritually-inspiring entertainment experience. Well, right there in the first level, we've got Lara Croft climbing a mountain, right? She's got two machine guns on her back, which probably weigh about 7.72 pounds each. She's hanging from a ledge with her dainty little girl-hands. The only way to continue climbing up this mountain is to reach a hand-hold that is roughly six feet above Lara's current position. How do we do this? The tutorial informs us to press up on the analog stick and then press the jump button. Lara then does a close-grip pronated pull-up to raise her chin above the level of the outcropping. A pull-up is a strenuous lift — you are basically pulling your entire body weight (plus 15.54 pounds, in Lara's case) down over your head. The closer your hands are together, the harder it is to do the lift. Lara is dealing with a narrow hand-hold, here. Her hands are less than six inches apart. This increases the strain of the lift. It's maybe six times harder than lifting with a wide grip, maybe twenty times more strenuous than lifting with a wide supinated (palms facing you) grip. Not only is Lara capable of performing this difficult exercise, she is able to perform is so explosively that she can launch her body six feet into the air at the end of the lift. Wow! I've tried pretty hard (for five minutes (my mom was right)), and I can't find any Youtube videos in which buffy 56-year-old dudes teach me how to do this.
You chuckle, and say, "She's just a videogame character, you petty jerk-off!" This may be so. However, you and me, professional escapists though we are, have grown up expecting our characters to do things like this. The escalation has happened so subtly that we can hardly detect how incredulous (in a wrong way) some of this stuff is. Lara goes on to perform two dozen of these Superman Pull-ups (that's what we shall call them) in a row on her way up the sheer cliff face. If you watched the YouTube video I linked above, you will now possess the knowledge-bite that less than 10% of Marine boot camp graduates can perform twenty wide-grip pull-ups in a row without rest.
If you play this latest Tomb Raider game in front of a real down-to-earth jock (hopefully he doesn't have a problem with you turning off ESPN), he might have a pretty epic lol at Lara Croft's pull-up performance. If you play the same game in front of an Absolute Ungamer, they might think nothing of Lara's superhuman strength, though they might suddenly let out a lolbomb upon witnessing what happens when you pick up ammunition lying on the ground: Lara performs a light-speed squat, grabs the item with both hands, and then is standing in an instant, swinging the item over and behind her head. The item icon disappears immediately as it begins to overlap her backpack. What the hell just happened? the average game-unacquainted person would ask.
It's the old "Where is he keeping all this stuff?" argument. How many of you out there — seriously — played Metal Gear Solid 4 and literally groaned at the implication that Snake is sneaking around a battlefield while invisibly carrying what amounts to well over three hundred pounds of weaponry? How many of you felt that the option to press the Start Button and open a menu and magically buy ammunition for your gun while crouched beneath a truck killed the mood of a particular boss fight? How many of you wonder how or why Link survives after falling into a lava pit? How many of you wonder why falling into a pit of inescapable molten lava only drains one heart? (One-off game idea: Every time the lead character dies, cut quickly to a close-up of his/her eyes, zoom out slowly, revealing him inches from the place he just died, like it was a dream sequence.) How many game developers can do twenty pull-ups in a row? How many game developers have ever been shot? How many game developers have ever been in a fist-fight?
(Aside: Apparently, employees of Harmonix are encouraged to actually participate in a real-life rock band. That's great. How entertaining, however, is it to watch a group of people play Rock Band, when they didn't buy enough beer, and they're keeping the television volume down low so as to not upset the neighbors?)
I was recently playing Uncharted: Drake's Fortune in front of a barely-gamer friend. He brought up some very interesting points of protest. Uncharted is neither a war game nor a zombie game; in fact, that might have been its developers' mission in making it — to show the mainstream game audience that an alternative does exist to zombies or Nazis. (We will, ahem, ignore any plot details that might step on that supposition. If you have the opportunity, play the game. It's fun.) The hero of Uncharted is Nathan Drake — an "ordinary man", according to the back of the box. How ordinary is he? Well, in the tutorial stage, he insinuates to Elena, the documentary filmmaker who is funding his expedition, that he has served time in a Panamanian jail. Elena freaks out when pirates start shooting at their little boat. The fear of death floats on her computer animated face like a lily pad on a real-life pond. Drake asks if she knows how to shoot a gun. She says, "It's just like a camera — you point and shoot, right?" Minutes later, she has ended her first half-dozen human lives, and has done so without collapsing on the ground in sob-quakes.
Over the course of Uncharted, Nathan Drake will kill literally hundreds of human beings. Indiana Jones didn't ever kill a hundred guys, and Indiana Jones is as tough as they get!
The game has its own reasons for making the main character kill so many guys:
1. Shooting at dudes is a chief game mechanic
2. Taking cover from enemy fire is a chief game mechanic
3. #1 and #2 are popular game mechanics exhibited by and expected in many other popular games
4. Chief game mechanics have been polished for many hundreds of hours and thus should feature prominently into the actual game experience
The shooting of people is very fun, actually. As far as shooting experiences in games go, it's one of the more satisfying ever presented. It's just, why is there so much of it? Roger Ebert recently said, in his review of "Terminator: Salvation", that action movies these days are starting to feel like watching someone play a really fun videogame. Gamers rebelled to these statements, as predicted, citing facts and figures about how games are making so-and-so many billions of dollars more per year than movies are, et cetera. They were right, though that doesn't mean Ebert also wasn't.
Let's say a non-gamer or a barely-gamer is sitting next to you on the sofa, trying to take in the game (in this case, Uncharted) the way you might take in a movie. He will raise many interesting points, I reckon.
1. "Why do all of these guys look the same?"
2. "Where the hell did the bad guy find all these henchmen?"
3. "Seriously, Doctor Evil doesn't even have this many henchmen."
4. "How much is the bad guy paying these guys?"
5. "Seriously, are these guys communists? Are they just splitting the treasure right down the middle?"
6. "How can the bad guy afford to pay this many henchmen with that kind of business policy?"
7. "Okay, seriously, you just shot that guy in the chest and he's not even wearing a shirt. He should not be standing up. He should at least be limping."
Addressing #1: In a James Bond film, for example, each of the henchmen have just-barely-perceptible differences and quirks. They scamper and scrabble out of the about-to-explode Mountain Lair with mannerisms, gaits, and body-types unique in the most subtly infinite of ways. In Uncharted, you've literally got three different guys copied over and over again. They quip the same catch-phrases — such as "We've got you surrounded!" (Note to Naughty Dog: Maybe you should program a way to exclude that from the banter rotation script when the enemy is alone and, in fact, does not have the player surrounded) — with the exact same voices. A more "inventive" game would try to explain that these men are all clones, or something. For the most part, I personally am glad that Uncharted is laid-back enough about this particular concern. (Naughty Dog! I love you, really! Let's be friends!)
Addressing #7: This is (maybe) the point of this entire article. I personally don't care how hard your life has been — my impression is that, when you get shot, it hurts, and it has some immediately visible effect on your disposition. Gears of War presents us with mutated monolithic meatheads who look like they could survive forty gunshot wounds. The guys in Uncharted, naked of the shield named fantasy, look just like ordinary dudes without shirts.
There's a great moment of very-intentional emotion expressed often in Uncharted: When Nathan Drake is injured and almost dying, and the screen is faded to a deep and dramatic two-tone (which perhaps unintentionally makes it much harder to aim at enemies), if you are standing with your back to a wall, you can see a very clearly frightened expression on Nathan Drake's face. Here we have a video game character afraid of death. He is never, however, afraid of killing. When you shoot twenty men in the head and earn the Twenty Headshots trophy, he quips, "I'm getting pretty good at this." Nor are his enemies afraid of being killed any more than their AI allows them to be.
How do we make non-violent games, when games are about, at their core, doing things? What is more active and action-like than taking a human life? Let's not answer that, now. Let's talk about something else — how do you make violence in games interesting? Because, let's face it, if it's not interesting enough to entertain a casual observer even when presented with more-gorgeous-than-real stylized graphics, it's not interesting enough to truly merge games into the coveted position of Highest Form of Entertainment on Earth.
Aesthetic principles exist that would persuade critics like Roger Ebert to believe wholesale that the only (and best) way to truly affect another human being with an artistic expression is for the artist to have complete control over the experience. I'm not going to say whether I agree with that or not. I do, however, truly think that games need to be more scripted, directed, and inspired — at the parts that count, anyway.
When I first heard about Bioshock's Big Daddy, and how, if you killed him, you then faced the decision of what to do about his little girl companion, I imagined that the game would feature only one Big Daddy. Maybe the Big Daddy is on a journey through the game world — from an undisclosed Point A to an undisclosed Point B, and he has access to passageways that the player could not otherwise access. The little girl has on her person a great store of energy that she uses to fuel the Big Daddy. As they progress through their journey, her supply of the source of energy depletes. Should you kill the Big Daddy early in the game, you could score the great power, though you would miss out on the special passageways that you could access if you managed to sneak behind the Big Daddy skillfully enough. There are dozens of neat little directions you could go with this. Again, I'm not going to dish out the really juicy ideas unless someone pays me a whole lot more than Kotaku does.
It's struck me in the past couple years that The Best Games focus on parts that would be cut out of action movies. If you were making a movie out of Shadow of the Colossus, you'd probably want to have 25% colossus-fighting, 60% dialogue, exposition, and journeying, and 15% slow pans across awesome landscapes. You'd probably also want to make the colossi aggressive, maybe shooting laser beams out of their mouths. While the game Shadow of the Colossus does contain its share of awesome, slow beauty ... while most of the game's biggest catharsis comes in the cut-scenes as you're watching a colossus die ... and while the fights do contain some ferocious moments of action, the majority of the time you feel like you are "playing" the game occurs when you're struggling to hold on to the back of a colossus as it tries to shake you free.
Likewise, while most shooters have evolved to be hyper-minute exercises in training you to aim a crosshair as quickly as possible at increasingly smaller targets, Gears of War has caused a small revolution by building up entire-game-sized amounts of tension in the times when a player is crouched behind a low wall, waiting for the enemy on the other side of the battlefield to start reloading.
These moments, hanging on for dear life fifty feet above the ground on the back of a giant beast, or crouching behind a wall, are so impactful because the game makes us stop mashing buttons and start thinking about what buttons we're going to mash in the near future. We ponder our upcoming performance the way an actor might. It's in moments like these that the medium of games is more often than not coming into its own. Games so often lavish attention on the things that the player does in the course of doing what he does — juggling enemies into the air in Devil May Cry and then slamming them back to earth — that they seldom stop to think critically about who the characters are between the marquee moments. (Normally, they're content, as in Devil May Cry, to just make the character wear a fashionable outfit and be done with it.)
You may disagree with my opinon that games should be more "directed," though at least consider my point that games could stand to be as much about "things happening to you" as they are about "you doing things." Truly, movies are strictly about "things happening." The "you doing things" element of games is what sets them apart from other media. Imagine if more things happened in games. This is why Call of Duty 4 is so exciting, despite it being a very, very simple game at its core.
In a way, it's like reality TV. I had the pleasure to attend a lecture by the then-editor-in-chief of TV Guide in 1999, during which he made many hilariously prophetic statements about reality television as the future of TV. He was of the opinion that "scripted" TV would enter a terrible dark age lasting many years, because the television-watching public was suddenly awakened to the idea that "real" people are more interesting than "fake" people. (This lecture occurred not six episodes into the first season of "The Sopranos," by the way.) Ten years later, scripted television serials are doing just fine — better than fine. We've got some great TV out there. I personally used to hate television, and now I find myself buying DVD box sets of stuff like "LOST". (Side note: It's about 300% cheaper to buy the American DVDs of "LOST" than it would be to rent them at a Japanese video store.) What happened to TV? Well, simply put, it adapted. Modern television dramas are sincerely informed by reality TV. You see, from the Hollywood era until the dawn of reality TV, the portrayal of the modern human being in film media had gradually warped into something so highly stylized as to be best described as inbred. Reality TV showed people, well, themselves (subtly warped by decades of entertainment centered on characters somewhat like themselves). Eventually, people on reality TV programs began to fancy themselves big-time stars, and the atmosphere of reality TV grew into something completely unique (Note: This is by no means a compliment). However, by this point, the writers of scripted TV had already gotten the news: They could make their own stories far more popular if they would only focus on characters that behaved more or less like real people a significant percentage of the time.
So we have moments like hanging from a colossus or crouching behind a wall as an enemy fires a machinegun. These little air-holes in games are just as interesting to play as they are to watch. As audiences in the early 21st century found reality television stars sniveling with one another about who ate the last slice of mango more entertaining than any carefully-written Hollywood romantic comedy, moments where the player is left nearly-alone to "feel" the "world" — moments that are neither quick-time-event nor cut-scene nor game-play — might be more convincing of the power of games than the back-of-box bullet-pointed marquee moments themselves.
How do we make an entertaining game where you only ever shoot one person? That's a not-bad question. It would most likely involve an extended sequence of the tense, world-feeling moments mentioned in the above paragraph. Some people will say that such a game would never work, because any mechanic built from the ground up to be important (in our case, "shooting someone" would be important, among other reasons, because you only do it once) should be so fun the player wants to do it again and again, ad nauseum, even, and if you truly accept this and still continue to make a game where you only do this important thing once, you are both a bad game designer and a terrible human being. So it's a tough nut to crack.
How about a game where we reverse the traditional, old-school game template of "one guy killing hundreds of dudes"? Let's say the game is about a Giant Monster attacking a city. You control a man with a rocket launcher on his shoulder. In a cut-scene-voice-over, he remarks that he only has one rocket left. He looks up: there's a fire escape leading up a building. Now you're in control. You run toward the fire escape. The ground starts to crack beneath your feet. You jump. You dodge flaming debris. You get to the fire escape and start hurrying up. It starts shaking wildly. You're viewing this in first-person. You have to move side-to-side to stay on the ladder. You get to a rooftop. There's the monster way out in the distance. You aim and fire the rocket. The camera follows the single rocket, spins around in mid-air to show the building your man had been standing on collapse, then spins back around to show the rocket collide with our Giant Monster. Then we see the rocket impact from another camera angle. The camera pulls back to show that we are now another person, watching the rocket impact. The beast is stunned; it buys our new player character just enough time to move forward. Maybe he can go either left or right. Maybe, if you missed with the rocket in the previous segment, or fell into the earthquaking ground, the beast would be alert, and breathe flames that would block off the alleyway to the left for player character #2. Maybe, if you go left, you find an extra rocket for guy #2's rocket launcher. Then you climb up a ladder. When you get to the roof, the ladder falls down. You are able to pull off two shots before the building collapses and the game switches to the next player character.
Metal Gear Solid 2, 3, and 4 let you put guys to "sleep" with a tranquilizer gun, though the action is still essentially the same as shooting them dead, complete with instant-down headshots. That's kind of boring for a "nonviolent alternative" — you're still pointing a gun at their head and pulling the trigger. You tell me, are you less disturbed when you three-your-old son presses a toy gun barrel to the roof of his mouth and pulls the trigger because it's just a toy?
How about a game where, like in an old John Wayne western, you can shoot the guns out of guys' hands? Or how about a game where, like Uncharted, the enemies are normal dudes, maybe not even wearing shirts, who, when shot, begin spurting blood and screaming "I've been shot!" In Bioshock, you face this ridiculous "moral choice" — to either mercilessly murder a little girl or just as easily redeem her and return her to a relatively normal lifestyle. For God's sake — how is that a "moral choice"? If the girl can be saved with literally no effort, you save her. Peter Molyneux was talking a while back about how "most gamers" chose the virtuous path in Fable, so they decided to make it "harder" to be virtuous in Fable II. How? (Para-referencing:) By presenting me with a beggar who asks for money, promising to kick his alcohol habit and lead a life devoted to some cause, and then telling me six hours later that the man was actually a Satanist and, surprise, your name is inscribed on the wall of his church, you evil son of a bitch. Let's cut this shit out, people! It's weird! So yeah, let's say we have a game where you shoot a guy, and he just starts splurting blood and screaming his head off. "I've been shot! You shot me! Burns like Hellfire!" The man is paralyzed on the ground, maybe clutching his gut. Other guys swarm around in a loose circle. You can press your gun to the guy's head and do him in, if you're sick, at the expense of maybe getting gunned down by his fellow henchmen, or you can keep fighting, trying to incapacitate the other guys. A good question would be, what happens after any given fight is over? Are the guys still lying there, sobbing, on the ground? What about the sick people who walk by and shoot those guys in the head? Well. That would be a "choice" on par with Bioshock. And it would give us an excellent scenario a la the Grand Theft Auto IV thing — the developers could easily say that it's not their fault that the player chooses to kill the people when he gets absolutely no reward for doing so.
Okay, maybe that's a little too arty. Though seriously, how can violence and death be the only thing that gamers enjoy? Try this: In driving games, players feel most satisfied when we are able to spend long, perpetuity-aspiring stretches of play avoiding the most violent event that can occur in the world of the game (crashing). Maybe that's a key to something. Remember the school playground back in 1990? Remember the arguments about whether Mario was better than Sonic? Kids would say, "Mario can throw fireballs." And then a kid would say "Sonic is fast", and that would be more than enough to convince most of the other kids to buy a Genesis. This argument, reborn in the Dreamcast era when 3D Sonic games still seemed like a good idea, was actually how Nintendo started to slip away from the public eye. How many games are there these days where it's really fun to shoot, and absolutely not-thrilling to just move your guy around in the world. Like, Left 4 Dead — awesome shooting, satisfying-to-kill enemies, excellent level design. Moving your guy feels like dragging a mouse cursor (or, worse, like playing CounterStrike (that's a joke (lol))).
Remember playing Super Mario Bros. the first time? Remember how Mario accelerated, and then how he kind of skidded to a stop? Why don't any game characters do that, anymore? Why isn't it ever fun to walk in a game anymore? Why isn't it ever fun anymore to press a button and go "wow, that guy in the TV is moving?" Some might say that's like asking why it isn't fun to simply use the remote control to turn the TV on anymore, that the answer is "because we're too old" to be wowed by that stuff anymore. Well, I beg to differ. Since age four, I have harbored this secret wish to hide the television remote beneath a throw pillow and switch the television off just as the countdown to New Year's got to "1". Just last year, hosting a small New Year's party in my own home, I remembered this wish, and I pulled it off to the cartoon-like horror of a room full of guests (who were all cool enough to lol about it once they realized it had not been a technical difficulty). It wasn't as satisfying as I'd imagined it would be — it was far better.
Remember Street Fighter II? Yeah, that was a great game. It felt good to hit your opponent, it felt great to pull off a special move, it felt awesome to connect with a Shoryuken.
Eventually, the visual call-and-response stimuli in fighting games had escalated to a point where your girlfriend would feel sick to look at the screen. Her sickness owed about as much to tacky thematic inconsistency as it did to violence. Like, in Mortal Kombat, you had guys exhaling liters of blood when punched in the lower chest. How can they possibly have that much blood? Then, in Soul Calibur, you've got guys just rabidly laying into one another with samurai swords. How can they not be bleeding?
On the other side of a different coin, when Capcom made Street Fighter IV, they set about making the game star fetishistic 3D reproductions of every single character from Street Fighter II. They included no characters from Street Fighter III because, simply, many fans stopped playing the series — and fighting games in general — around the time that Street Fighter III came out. Street Fighter III's character were far more interesting than the characters in Street Fighter II in many mathematically provable ways, and so was the game. However, many gamers swore that the series became inaccessible to them around this time. So Capcom faced an interesting decision. If they included Street Fighter III characters in the game, they risked reminding many people of a game that they thought they didn't like. If they included Street Fighter II characters, they would instantly score on the nostalgia factor. What was the goal of Street Fighter IV? Was it to make a good game that lots of people liked, or to make a game that capitalized on people's nostalgia for Street Fighter II? Or was it to make both? In order to not piss off die-hard fans of Street Fighter III, they went so far as to set the game "between" Street Fighter II and III, so there would be no confusion as to why there aren't any Street Fighter III characters around. Maybe this kept the Street Fighter III fans from tipping over ambulances in rage, though think about how this sounds when you try to explain it to a newcomer. "So what's Street Fighter III about?" "Well, actually, you don't need to worry about Street Fighter III, because this game is set after Street Fighter II and before Street Fighter III." "Then why's it called Street Fighter IV?" "Because it's the fourth major game in the series." Here we are, acknolwedging that mechanical advancements are more important than any kind of narrative, or characters. Why, then, does the story exist? Why do the characters even have names? Why can't we just cut out all the middlemen and make our own characters? Anyway, back to the sort-of point: Given the choice between making new characters who were as accessible as the so-very-accessible characters from Street Fighter II and releasing the game unto a world where videogames are a more widely accepted nearly-mainstream form of entertainment, they decided to simply go for the sure-fire popular move of reproducing characters they knew people already had liked in the past. It's like, in Japan, whenever a game in a historically popular franchise (Final Fantasy, Metal Gear) is released, it automatically warrants a price tag of around $100.
Then there are RPGs. RPG stands for "Role Playing Game." In an RPG, we are playing the role of a character. RPGs' chief interest is in drawing us into the world of the game, and making us feel like a part of the story. One of the more convincing storytelling techniques is called "graphics." "Graphics" is sometimes mistaken for "presentation", and vice-versa.
I played Final Fantasy XIII last month. It really does have fantastic graphics. The presentation, not so much. So, in this game, you're playing the role of a hardcore mercenary, who also happens to be a hot girl. Her name is Lightning. There's a tough male character named Snow, which would be funny if I had a written guarantee that it was intentional irony. A two-minute cut-scene gives us the down-low on the mission: We are infiltrating an enemy base. The enemies are crawling all over the place. We have to avoid detection, and penetrate the core of the situation. It is absolutely imperative that we avoid detection! These guys hate us and want and need to make us die by a process which is known as killing.
So we're given control. As with all games I'm playing for the first time, my immediate concern is making the game look stupid as quickly as possible. (My proudest accomplishment would be when I jumped on top of a car roof four seconds into Saints Row, and the car proceeded to drive me around the entire city for literally a half an hour before I decided to play the game.) I started running around. Guards snapped to action when I ran nearby. They started to chase me a bit. I ran in circles around a couple of the trucks parked in the driveway of the enemy base. After following me for three whole slow circuits around one truck, a guard gave up, relaxed into normal stance, and walked back off to the origin of his patrol circuit. I had a small lol at this point. This is nothing we haven't seen in easier difficulties of Metal Gear Solid — guard tasked with Kill The Intruder just gives up because you run in enough circles. The booth companion tapped me on the shoulder (I was wearing the big headphones provided at the demo kiosk) to presume to give me instructions. I gave her a "Talk To the Back of the Hand". I felt like I had made the game look sufficiently dumb enough, so I decided to engage a soldier in combat. I tried to sneak up on a soldier, thinking it would score me a back-attack, or something. At the last moment, the soldier detected me and turned around. Though his highly detailed computer-animated gun was pointed in my direction, he didn't fire. He didn't speak: "Halt! Intruder!" He said nothing. He just stood there. My character crossed into his comfort zone. Control left my hands. My character stopped suddenly in place. The soldier engaged in a "flustered" animation. Our chests bumped together. He and I both took one step back. He straightened his gun. My character flipped her hair back. A bright effect washed over the screen. The battle loaded.
Wow! You know, the better you make the graphics in these games, the more unforgivable this stuff is. People were really bellyaching about "random battles" back in the glory days of RPGs; Final Fantasy XII gave us a game that seamlessly combined dungeon-trekking and battling into one coherent experience, and because the people didn't like the story, Square-Enix saw fit to leap miles back into the past. "Random battles", per se, are a bullet-pointed "thing to avoid" for the maker of RPGs. So they mask the awkwardness of flipping your brain from "experiencing a beautifully crafted atmosphere" mode to "engaging in a rigidly structured and abstract facsimile of combat" mode by having rudimentary representations of the enemies walking around on the battlefield. It reminds me of the way the Dynasty Warriors series one-upped themselves after the addition of the "your captain is in trouble" mechanic — they let you just slap a shoulder button to assume control of your captain, so you can help him out of the trouble yourself. Man, that's like swallowing a spider to catch the fly you swallowed. And then, it turns out that the spider and the fly have a lot in common, and miraculously produce babies, who are born very unhappy. They can fly; they are poisonous. Seriously, if you don't think there's anything wrong with that kind of game design, a large portion of your house might have been on fire for several years now.
This Final Fantasy XIII thing, though, is what I'm really talking about. If you don't see the battle transitions and go, "Why didn't the guy just shoot me?" then you've obviously been playing these games too long to see the Uncanny Valley Of Everything staring you right in the face. Games have maintained the same comfortable distance from reality for so many years even as they approach newfound levels of visual and aural fidelity that the slightest lapse in artistic conscience is enough to disgust or revolt the unacquainted observer: You might not even catch the jaw-dropping insinuation of the difficulty selection screen of Rainbow Six Vegas: Your choices are "Normal" or "Realistic." The insinuation is that Reality Is Not Normal (at least as far as games are concerned). You might say I'm overreacting, that they're "just games." What you might not realize is that the number of people who neither play nor buy games vastly outnumbers those who do, and that Stuff Like This is, subconsciously, maybe The Biggest Reason they think games are a weird, ugly fad. This is more than a "casual" versus "hardcore" issue. This is a "gamers' money" versus "the entire human race's money" issue. My hypothesis is that if games were made with genuine artistic conscience, more people would play them, they would make more money, and — and! — even gamers would agree that they were better. If you think I'm nuts, there is simply a very good chance that the games have sucked you in. And, like the game designers of Final Fantasy XIII, you've probably never been in a fight.
That is the end of this piece! Are you unsatisfied with its shorter-than-usual length? Don't be! It'll be longer next month, and hopefully more abstract!
I welcome your submissions of ideas for further columns. I got a few last month that really helped with some ideas I had for this one. If you'd like, email me questions that you would like me to address in the form of a column at some point. My email address is 108 (at) actionbutton (dot net).
Also, last month I asked if any programmers / 2D artists were willing to help me with an independent game project. I got a lot of emails. It was great. I didn't get back to most people, though I plan to actually get around to it this week. If you haven't mailed yet and think you could help, please go ahead and mail now. I am promising a response to everyone. Really, I am.
Also, if you are a video game developer / publisher / PR person and would like to contribute to my ongoing quest to play every video game ever made (caution: slight hyperbole in the surrounding sentence), please email me to arrange a sending of free copies of your games! I promise that just because you give me your games for free doesn't mean I will like them! In fact, the chances are quite high that I will despise them in quite a joyous fashion, and I will be sure to do so very outspokenly!
I am especially interested in playing Brutal Legend — I will probably like it very much. As you may know, it won't be available here in Japan, which is a crying shame. Didn't I come to this country so I could buy Awesome Videogames before anyone else? Whatever happened to that? I would love Uncharted 2, as well.
The only way for me to get Brutal Legend, at this point, would be to buy it on Play-Asia, and you know what? Play-Asia seriously needs to stop lying to me with their emails. There is no way my order has actually shipped one and a half seconds after I click "confirm order." I can actually understand all the pathology behind the "it's not a lie if you make it true quickly enough for there not to be a difference" corollary of Internet business, and I wouldn't complain if, you know, my copy of UFC: Undisputed had arrived within "five to ten days" of the "shipping notice" I received two months ago. Thanks a lot, Play-Asia! Did I ever do something bad to you? (Actually, come to think of it, I might have.)