Electron Dance
30Jul/13Off

Broken Glass

Three years ago, I spotted Red Faction: Guerrilla (Volition, 2009) in a Steam sale and, recalling some positive blather about it on Rock Paper Shotgun, decided to buy the bullet. As with most sales, the game ended up in my backlog and it slept there for some time.

red-guerilla-riding-shotguns

A few months ago, wanting to engage in some easy-going mainstream tosh, I finally installed it. Installs for big and chunky mainstream releases are always amusing. I need a few libraries, they whine. Oh, this Games for Windows Live thing is also super-important, couldn’t Windows Live without it. Chug, chug, chug, goes the hard drive.

As with every 3D shooter, I had to fiddle with the graphics options and mouse sensitivity. This inevitably mars those early honeymoon hours as finding a game's groove can be a slog. Until the game and I click, I constantly question whether I'm missing a handful of vital performance tweaks to improve the embodiment of the player or whether I just need time to accept the game on its own terms.

Sometimes the process fails. Instead of assimilating me into its unique, digital country that cost millions of dollars to establish, a game deports me back to reality.

This is what happened with Guerrilla.   

In Guerrilla you play Alex Mason, who is all normal and pacifist until his brother gets wiped out of the plot during a tutorial, then goes on a revolutionary rampage for the rest of the game. I found the game's story forgettable. I can understand that Mason, who is there to represent the player, being kept a fairly blank slate but I'd hoped for some NPCs with more depth than a Michael Bay film. The plot couldn’t have been any more black and white: heroic guerrilla forces take on evil fascist authority. All those EDF soldiers you’re mowing down deserved it, every rat bastard. In other words, the story doesn’t really matter although Kieron Gillen wrote: "...from its Blackwater-esque PMCs to its insurgency escalating in proportion and in response to corporate-statism, it’s Iraq the game." Ha ha, nice try, matey.

Guerrilla is an open-world game, a Martian GTA. But writing those words – the cheap shortcut of splicing Mars with GTA – is a mistake. The cities of GTA are entities in their own right, fun to explore without necessarily needing shiny trinkets to encourage you to nose around... even though GTA does have its fair share of shinies. Guerrilla, at least during the first couple of sectors, offers a drab Martian landscape perforated with nondescript buildings; the art direction confers little of character or atmosphere. GTA evokes the atmosphere of a fictional American city while Guerrilla goes for the kind of alien worlds you saw in 1980s BBC science-fiction: a quarry. After completing the first sector, I was surprised to find the second sector similarly uninspiring.

red-faction-demolition

But it's a game where practically everything is destructible. While the game tries to inculcate a demolition addiction via collectable salvage, knocking down structures is plain fun sans extrinsic rewards. Still, the more buildings I smashed up, the more I felt I was tearing down thin façades on a Hollywood back lot, places that were obvious pretence. At least I wasn't going to bust out into a another film set, a la Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. I don’t want to sound like a big grump, because this isn’t a universal experience as many players and reviewers loved the demolition aspect.

Some of the missions held my interest but I didn’t find combat engaging. Guerrilla actions – essentially random missions you can choose to participate in – were chaotic and I often ended up the sole survivor of the operation.

The game wasn't clicking so after playing on and off for a few weeks, I stopped playing Guerrilla for good. Had I lost my 3D shooter mojo? Maybe I just needed to knocked the difficulty down a smidgen?

red-faction-inside

It's true that I’m not the same person any more. In The Second Game, I complained a lack of time had encouraged me to wolf down every game meal without enjoying the special moments. I have a family now. Trying to engage in an enormous masterwork is a challenge in itself… unless you’re willing to perceive your family as a threat to your all-important gaming time. There’s another burden on my back too: a game needs to deliver a unique experience, an inspiration or a goddamn something if I’m going to write about it. Three years on, the tragic tone of The Second Game has developed into an aggressive indifference. So there’s something I do now that I never did before.

I walk away. I say no more to the developer.

I’ve become one of those who stop playing games before completion because I need some hardcore convincing that a game is worth playing through to the bitter end. Even Dishonored (Arkane Studios, 2012) had a few hairy moments where I could have stopped playing the game, never to return. This is not a bad thing. The days of players dragging themselves over broken glass just to get to final cutscene are over. If the final ten minutes of a game are glorious, then maybe the game needed to be ten minutes in length. I’m not going to throw away hours of my life on a game padded out with recycled sequences I’ve seen in dozens of games.

If I’d had this attitude a few years ago I imagine I’d have abandoned GTA: San Andreas (Rockstar North, 2004), Far Cry 2 (Ubisoft Montreal, 2008) and possibly even Dead Space (EA Redwood Shores, 2008). I loved Smudged Cat Games’ The Adventures of Shuggy but I could not get into their acclaimed, technically brilliant title Gateways at all. Another abandonment.

Smudged Cat Games' Gateways

But my point is not that games need to be more punchy, deliver highs more consistently and just stop wasting our time. Designers have been preaching about this for years, even though many engage in the game equivalent of plumping chickens with saltwater.

My point is that it is a fine line.

I hated many Japanese prime-time dramas because they fell into this trap of trying to deliver moving, melodramatic scenes in rapid succession. Without sufficient contrast, all those moments are worthless. Length in itself is not a virtue but some games need to be long. Some games need to delay gratification so that key moments have greater impact.

Note that the idea that games “should” be completed is recent. Most of the original arcade games had no end, kill screen aside, and designers built them to thwart players, to force them to keep feeding the machines with coins. When games arrived in the home, this need no longer existed, and games gradually became more tolerant of failure. The concept of “running out of lives” was still prevalent deep into the 90s whereas today most games support the ability to backup our progress. Sonic the Hedgehog (Sonic Team, 1991) forced the player to start anew once all lives and continues were exhausted but three years later Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (Sonic Team, 1994) supported checkpoints.

sonic-3-checkpointing

An overzealous attitude that every moment has to be important is just as destructive as mandating a minimum length for a game. Dark Souls (From Software, 2011) and Starseed Pilgrim (Droqen, 2012) are perfect examples of contemporary games that demand both time and patience from the player yet some will undoubtedly consider these games a waste of their time.

We often judge games on early impressions and this leads games like The Last of Us (Naughty Dog, 2013) to bribe players through the door with an astonishing opening sequence that Adrian Chmielarz has argued diminishes what follows.

Maybe Red Faction: Guerrilla had nothing to offer me. Or maybe I was just impatient.

I will never know.

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Comments (23) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Wil revise later but did not mean to imply Dark Souls wastes time, rather that it can appear to do so.

  2. “At least I wasn’t going to bust out into a another film set, a la Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles.”

    I do not understand the use of “at least” here. Would not busting into “The French Mistake” have been THE GREATEST MOMENT EVER IN GAMING, except that some jackass would have spoiled it?

  3. Two thoughts:

    “I hated many Japanese prime-time dramas because they fell into this trap of trying to deliver moving, melodramatic scenes in rapid succession. Without sufficient contrast, all those moments are worthless. ”

    Thank you for finally giving me words to express why I really have never warmed to Fringe.

    “An overzealous attitude that every moment has to be important is just as destructive as mandating a minimum length for a game. Dark Souls (From Software, 2011) is the perfect mainstream example of wasting players’ time in pursuit of a deeper experience.”

    Joel, just play Dark Souls already.

  4. @matt: probably it would have been glorious but we wool never know

    @eric: you’re welcome. Are you saying I shouldn’t watch Fringe? On dark souls… yeah yeah yeah

  5. Right, fixed the Dark Souls bit.

  6. I adopted the policy of quitting if I’m not having fun about a year and a half ago. I quit Dark Cloud 2 pretty early due to its sprawling, repetitive dungeons and stodgy combat, I quit Evergrace when I had a fourth of the game left, and most notably, I quit Black at the final gunfight because I couldn’t bring myself to care. I put up with the awful final third of Nano Breaker out of sheer bullishness, and I’m not glad I did.

    It’s the kind of thing that sounds difficult until you get into the habit of it. It may be possible to quit something too soon, but I haven’t really felt that way yet. There are hundreds of games I’ll like out there- the cultural canon can kiss my ass, even though I’m only into that a little.

  7. @HM Yes, I am saying you shouldn’t watch Fringe. However, mine is a minority opinion.

    @BeamSplashX How dare you mention the world “fun” in connection with games? They are an artform that deals with raw, searing emotions in the pursuit of ultimate truths about the human condition. Also, in most of them, you get to stab people.

  8. @Eric:
    Well, I did beat Drakengard despite any concept of fun going out the window after the very first mission. And I won’t sell it even though I’ll NEVER play it again. It did involve stabbing people, but the effort they could’ve put into making that enjoyable went towards increasingly huge middle fingers to its players and sanity in general.

  9. Interesting that you mentioned Starseed Pilgrim in the update because (this isn’t a spoiler, right? F it, this isn’t a spoiler) at least so far I’ve found it to be something you can play in bites. What with one thing and another (maybe mostly that I want to be spending my available time working and/or listen to music) I’ve barely played any games for the last couple of weeks; the two most recent things I played were a level and a bit of Bit.Trip Beat (which I knew would be fifteen minutes a session) and one shot at Starseed Pilgrim, which I think took five minutes. And in which I made exactly 0 progress.

  10. BTW that quartertothree link is (as I think you intended) one of the most uncomfortable things I’ve tried to read. There’s a Life in Hell strip that includes the line: “Did You Know… Jokes about marriage are more pathetic than funny?”

  11. matt: Yes, Starseed Pilgrim is something you can play in short bites. And then more short bites. And then you start hitting flow and the short bites get longer. And then it burns itself into your brain and you’re playing it even when you’re not playing.

  12. I should probably internalise this attitude.

    To be fair I have already shrugged off a good 80% of my “backlog” (part of letting go of the idea of ‘beating’ every game I play is letting go of the idea of a backlog, but baby steps) and the games I am currently playing with the intention of finishing are games that I… well, I’m in for the long haul, or at least intend to be.

    I like short games, to be sure. But equally I’m quite happy to put… what was it, 25 hours into State of Decay? Not the longest quantity of time I’ve ever sunk in a game, but that’s a dozen films or half a dozen novels or two dozen short-form indie games, isn’t it?

  13. Aha, that’s my trick, phlebas: I ain’t hitting no flow.

  14. @matt: It’s not really “needing to spend swathes of time” on a game but whether you actually want to spend more time with it. I think many have bounced off Starseed Pilgrim as they feel bewildered and think it’s just some cute art game… believing that spending any more time on it would be a waste. And, yeah, I think that quartertothree link was either from Shaun or Gregg a few years back and I never liked its tone. It didn’t feel true to life.

    @shaun: That’s the problem, the opportunity cost, because games are steep in their demands.

    THE ELECTRON DANCE SABBATICAL BEGINS

  15. Ha ha, I get the last word!

    It’s not so much the swathes of time thing, but that you specifically mentioned it with Dark Souls (which I understand to be a game where if someone can’t wait an hour or so for you to finish the thing you are doing you are screwed) as something that requires time and patience. In the original wording, that can be seen as a waste of time for a particular purpose. But though on a macro level

    VAGUELY HIGH-LEVEL SPOILERS, I GUESS, EXCEPT I DON’T EVEN REALLY KNOW ENOUGH TO GIVE SPOILERS

    you can definitely recreate the “One fatfinger wipes out a ton of progress” vibe that I understand Dark Souls to give, on a micro level the gameplay loop is short and engaging enough that I find I can treat it as a little game that I play over and over again, trying to improve at it. Sorta like Probability 0, in fact. (And I might be missing out on tons of Probability 0 secrets because I’m so bad at it — in fact, given the mysterious nature of some of the menu options, this is almost certainly true.)

    Which means that it would definitely be possible to lose out on a lot of what it offers by giving up too soon, but it isn’t the kind of of endurance test your post makes me think of.

  16. Let’s make that “One fatfinger or attempt to play the game when Flash is running slowly.” *sob*

  17. Well, it may be the last word but it’s got a point. The metaphor I picked out for the title was “broken glass” suggesting long, painful grind. That’s definitely Dark Souls, but is it Starseed Pilgrim? Hmm. Maybe this was not the pivotal image I needed at the heart of this. (On the other hand, dropping Starseed Pilgrim from the paragraph saves the day, right?)

  18. Sorry, I am a few days late on this, I blame Casual Connect, but just to say:
    Really? “Alex Mason”? Isn’t that a guy from Call of Duty? Google tells me it in fact is, and I remember thinking, at the time, “That’s the most generic name for a video game protagonist I ever, ever heard.” So nice they apparently used it twice!

  19. When I was searching for information on Guerrilla prior to posting I was surprised that I kept getting CoD references.

  20. The next game should star Mason Stonemason.

  21. Ahem. It’s actually “Alec” Mason.

    As someone who used to live with an Alex and an Alec I know this problem well. :)

    I am really rather fond of a bit of Space Asshole, although it has no shortage of issues and I can see them cumulatively being off-putting.

  22. Red Faction: Guerilla was one of my favourite games of the year it was released.

    I played it to completion in under 3 days and then started on a harder difficulty that actually made the game better.

    Certainly it seems a bit soulless but that is because it is Mars, and Mars doesn’t have a lot of stuff on it.

    Also, it is ‘bite the bullet’ but I am not sure that idiom is the most appropriate usage given that dropping a few pounds in a sale is hardly putting gunpowder in an open wound and then lighting it.

  23. Shaun, BC, I actually think if I’d played it at the time of release I probably would have been really happy with it. I just felt like I was “forcing myself” to play which is not a good sign. In other words, waiting a few years means I really did miss out on the party.

    I was deliberately mixing up the “bite the bullet” with the verb “buy” as it made me chuckle. Not out loud, of course, that would be stupid. Eh, but you never know how much time you’re going to put into a game, and that’s the source of the tension I have over buying a game these days.

    OH GOD THAT CLIP


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