24 August 2013

So, as a many of you already know, I’m a gamer. I play lots of games, of all kinds and shapes and genres, on all kinds of platforms. I play to get either some mindless fun, a competitive edge or some food for though. In short, playing video games is my preferred way of consuming art. I also happen to work in the games industry, and I try to stay on top of what’s going on in that wacky world, where pretentious hipsterism sits next to business-class bullshit.

And what I especially like is that some games really try to make us think, and try to provoke emotional reactions that are more varied than just your dopamine-fueled excitement. I truly believe that games are an incredible form of artistic expression, and it’s great to see developers try to push the medium forward.

Plenty of games are what I call deep, which in this context refers to them having multiple layers of interpretation. As such, they cause you to stop and think about them long after you’ve stopped playing them. Many of them raise some interesting questions or approach tough issues. Far Cry 3 shows how easy it is for anyone to become a monster, Majora’s Mask is about how loneliness can turn mischief into evil, EarthBound is essentially a metaphor for a child growing up and losing his innocence, Bastion describes how pointless it is to constantly live in the past, Hotline Miami is an incredibly brutal assault to the senses, BioShock deconstructs objectivism while also asking about the meaning of free will… I could go on for days, but I think you get the point.

I think we need more. Way more. Why are so many games so shallow? I’m using “depth” here to refer to something that can be understood in different ways depending on how much time you spent thinking about it. In games, the surface level is usually just the gameplay mechanics, along with a linear structure of various story events. Many games just stay there: recent Call of Duty titles are basically “America is in danger”, and never go past that. There is nothing to analyze because there is nothing below the surface. Far Cry 3, mentionned above, looks at first like your standard issue “mighty whitey” story, but it’s when you start thinking about what the events that unfold and your role in them that you realize how deep the rabbit hole goes. That, and how insane Vaas really is.

Now, it may seem like it’s only a story thing, which might seem weird because, as we all know, games shine the most when they fully utilize their interactivity, or their potential for agency. So it’s not just the plot: game stories are interactive, and as such allows for a much wider range of possible interpretations than other mediums, such as film. Since it’s essentially you in there, how you play and how you react to events influences how the story progresses, whether it’s only in your understanding of the situation or an actual impact on the game’s events, depending on how “linear” or “open” the game is. You’re not a spectator, you are the actor.

Let’s flip things around

Now, I’m not saying that all games should be philosophical wankfests like BioShock Infinite or Braid, but that we simply should try to encourage those kinds of games. Games that try to bring new things to the table, not just on the gameplay front but also on the depth front. Games that want to make us think about them when we’re not playing them. Games that challenge what we believe, games that drill into our skulls, games that are art. And the best way to do that is by buying them. I’m not saying that you should really buy a game just because it’s “deep”, but that you should consider that trait when considering if you should buy a game or not. Just try to introduce a little bit of variety in between your purchases of mindlessly fun games. And to that end, I’m going to do my part: if I encounter such a game, I’m going to talk about it on this blog, and then you can all go and buy it.

My first recommendation is, Spec Ops: The Line. It’s, for me, one of the best games of 2012, and yet it sold less than a million units since its release a year ago. In the AAA world, that’s next to nothing. And I think it deserves to be played, so I’m advertising it. Keep in mind that the game is short, so I recommend only picking it up if you can get it for cheap, but please don’t illegaly download it, these guys really deserve your money. Just add it to your wishlist on Steam and you’ll get an email when it gets on sale. Now, I’m sure you don’t trust me enough to just go and blindly buy the game, so let’s talk about it for a bit.

“This is all your fault”

Spec Ops: The Line is about a team of Delta Force operators on a search and rescue mission in Dubai after it’s been hit by a series of powerful sandstorms. While the beginning looks like a generic modern military shooter in which you shoot Arab-looking people holding AK-47s, as the game progresses, however, it becomes clear that this is not your father’s Call of Duty ripoff, as you start fighting rogue American soldiers and everything goes right to hell. Along the way, you get to make some terrible decisions that the game forces you to do, and then chastises you for doing. And of course there’s PTSD-induced hallucinations thrown in there for good measure. And at the end, right after you’ve spent five hours in a row feeling like a complete asshole, someone says to your character: “None of this would have happened if you’d just stopped.” Except he’s not really saying it to the protagonist. He’s saying it to you, the player. I’m fairly sure they did so to counter the “I was only following orders” defense: if you did not like it, why did you keep playing to the end? Morbid fascination?

In a nutshell, SOTL is not a very good game. The gameplay mechanics feel like they’re from 2006, it’s very short, and it’s not very fun. It can even be quite painful at times, and I could only play it in short sessions, which in the end made it feel a lot longer than the six hours it really is. And yet, it’s a very engaging experience. Why is that? Because it’s subtle, and it leaves a hell of a lot to interpretation. Sure, on a surface level, it can seem incredibly heavy handed and one dimensional, but if you take the time to really think about it, you’ll come to realize all kinds of funky things. Like that it’s very hard to see what’s real and what’s an hallucination. Or that the obvious moral choices you have to make at various points are not the only ones that are available to you. Or all the little details that show your character’s increasingly damaged mind, like your finishing moves becoming even more violent and brutal as the game progresses. Also, the above quote? That’s an actual loading screen tip from the game. Suck on that.

As George Weidman of Super Bunnyhop put it, it’s a “scathing self-aware caricature of its own genre”. As such, you can’t go in with the same mindset as you would with Call of Duty or Battlefield. Everything in it is there to make you think about military shooters. It tries to hang a lantern on the various tropes and themes explored by those games. In SOTL, you’re not a hero, you’re a monster, and no amount of justification or “but the game forced me to do it!” is going to change that. I came out of there with an entirely different view on the genre, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to enjoy military shooters the same way in the future. Their single player aspect, at least.

If you’re still unconvinced, Extra Credits has an excellent two-parter about the game: part one is relatively spoiler free, and part two is a spoiler fest. I agree with most of what they’re saying, so it’s a pretty good way to just get lazy and let them do my work for me. Yahtzee recommended the game, as well as naming its his best game of 2012. Those who know him know how difficult he can be, so it’s pretty interesting to see that.

So that’s it for now. I’m gonna write about other interesting games I find in other articles. In the meantime, you can check out my Steam recommendations. Keep in mind that it’s not just deep games in there, but also just genuinely fun games that I enjoyed a lot.

While you’re at it, buy Bastion. And Transistor when it comes out (and since it won’t be on the Xbox One, I already know which console I’m not getting).