Electron Dance
29Aug/14Off

Hypnosis in the Sand: Why Spec Ops Fails

spec-ops-hangings

When I read some fiction about a character, say he’s called Dave, who did something terrible, I don't feel guilty about it. It's not my story, right? It’s Dave’s. And Dave is a piece of shit.

But what if the book forced you to act out what Dave did, go through the motions like some puppet? Would you feel guilty then? Would you feel like it was all your fault? Perhaps I should ask an actor.

And this here is THE LINE you should not cross if you want to avoid spoilers for third-person shooter Spec Ops: The Line (Yager Development, 2012) and the epic Immortal Defense (RPG Creations, 2007). Okay, maybe Penumbra: Black Plague (Frictional Games, 2008) too.   

The initial impressions were not favourable. Spec Ops: The Line oozed the military shooter aesthetic and I was not sold. I'm really clumsy with shooters these days. Somehow my fingers crumple on impact with the keyboard and I end up vaulting protagonists over walls instead of hiding behi-- YOU DIED. Jeez, I don't know which is worse, burdening the player with multiple controls or overloading a control with multiple functions. Space to heal. Space for cover. Space to run. Space to breathe. I get it, I should stick to Canabalt (Adam Saltsman, 2009).

For the first few hours, Spec Ops left me with the feeling I was doing a lousy job in a lousy third-person shooter. The temptation to go AWOL was there, but I stuck at it. Spec Ops was “supposed” to be “interesting” and I “wanted” to know “why”. I had no doubts the game was heading into the Shadow of the Valley of Cheap Tricks... and after those few hours, I wasn't far off the mark.

Spec Ops is a game that reflects on the shooter concept. It’s supposed to lure players into pontificating about all that murder they get up to in virtual worlds. I want to discuss some of the tools the developers used to do this.

spec-ops-descent

First up is the forced failure, where players traverse an unavoidable story branch which takes them to a bad place. The most notorious example of this in Spec Ops is the white phosphorous scene.

The protagonist, Captain Walker, approves the use of white phosphorous against your apparent enemy, the 33rd Mobile Infantry who have gone rogue. That’s bad enough but it’s not the gut punch. There is no avoiding this choice, although you can waste around twenty minutes trying to use gunfire to take down an infinite spawning enemy if you were initially fooled you had some agency here. (I was fooled.) What follows is a challenge-lite section where you click on targets the game tells you to click on. Once the targets are eliminated, the game reveals that in addition to a bunch of American soldiers, you just incinerated around fifty innocent refugees including children.

Forced failure is troublesome because the developer is abusing their relationship with the player. Jim Sterling made a joke about how art games did this in an old video from 2010.

touch-the-peach

Throughout the story there were many points at which Captain Walker made a choice that I knew was not the right one. At the start, when his Delta Force team comes under attack from a group of locals, they do not merely repel the attack but pursue the attackers and wipe them out. I kept hesitating waiting for “orderly retreat” or “attempt communication” options which never turned up. “Would you kindly kill everybody?” asked Spec Ops.

Forced failures are not new. At the end of the Half-Life (Valve, 1998) chapter titled “Apprehension”, the protagonist Gordon Freeman is knocked unconscious and the player loses all weapons and ammunition. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (Infinity Ward, 2007) was renowned for industrialising the forced failure. Penumbra: Black Plague also had a doozy.

In Black Plague, you spend most of the game trying to reach a certain Dr. Swanson who periodically assists you from a lab she’s barricaded herself into. When you finally reach her, it appears she has fallen victim to titular plague after all and you have to kill her with physics. After you do this, it transpires that the plague in your head messed with your perception, duping you into killing the one person who could have helped make a cure. It’s a decent shock which can make you feel bad for a moment; but are we still falling for forced failure?

spec-ops-children-pictures

Plenty of people won’t go near Cart Life (Richard Hofmeier, 2011) because even though the player has bags of agency, the first few games are likely to conclude in ghastly failure. Yet the forced failures of Modern Warfare were celebrated. The nature of the failure is the problem because consumers are more comfortable than they let on with games dialling down the agency. Like any tool in the game design box, careless use will diminish their efficacy. Spec Ops lays out some interesting forced failures, not all of which were obvious to me in advance, but the real issue is that the developer wants the player to take responsibility for these scripted outcomes. I’m going to put this aside for a moment. We’ll come back, I promise.

Spec Ops also embraces the hidden choice, where players can choose the obvious shooter-ready violent solution or an alternative, whose existence is not signalled to the player. The strongest example of this is when Captain Walker and one of his men, Adams, are surrounded by an angry mob; instead of mowing them down, just firing a shot into the air or ground is enough to encourage them to disperse.

I tend to feel that hidden choices are like the unmarked interactive hotspots that were common in environments of games past. Something became interactive on developer whim. I'm thinking of something like Mafia (Illusion Softworks, 2002) where most of the game is free of interactive elements until you hit the harbour segment of the chapter “You Lucky Bastard”. Now, the player must notice interactive track switches and wooden blocks preventing a train car from moving. I lost two nights trying to figure that one out.

Mafia interactive hotspot

How is a player supposed to guess that choice exists in a game where you’re normally hemmed in? The player will actually perceive a hidden choice scenario as a forced failure. Spec Ops is rife with knee-height barricades you can’t step over and Would You Kindly design that propels the player into murder. I could just about sell this juxtaposition as deliberate: here’s what shooters make you do and here’s what shooters never allow you to do – see what you’re missing?

The point is that a large proportion of players will discover the additional choices only after completing the game and, the developer hopes, make them feel bad for jumping to trigger-happy conclusions. This is classic Stop Crying About Choice territory: it's about the impact of story in its aggregate hypertext form, not about agency to make your own tale.

If Spec Ops was as riddled with hidden choices as GTA III (DMA Design, 2001) was with side missions, it would thrive as a secret box rather than an exercise in player manipulation. Spec Ops is full of forced failures – and the developer has arbitrarily thrown in an alternative option here and there to make the player feel bad down the line. LOOK HOW QUICKLY YOU FIRED YOU GUN WHEN YOU COULD HAVE SAVED THE BABY ORPHANS!

(I made up the baby orphans.)

(At least I think I did.)

At this point, you probably think I hated Spec Ops... but I didn’t.

spec-ops-chairs

See, Spec Ops takes a dive into the weird. As the player stomps through the sand-shocked ruins of Dubai with some big-ass boots, the developers rattle the fourth wall. The loading screen stops offering tips and lobs a rock at you like “How many Americans did you kill today?” And, just like that, Spec Ops slips into the subversive.

The divide between the virtual reality within the game and player reality without gets smudged real good. Late in the game, Captain Walker inherits the player’s memories, becoming confused that a 'copter chase sequence has happened already, simply because the player already experienced it during the flash-forward opening sequence. Sometimes the game will taunt you after death and compel you to stop; and once Walker is back in business, you can see him try to shake the feeling from his head that something is very wrong.

Spec Ops is not going to crown you the hero but the-only-way-to-win-is-not-to-play has been fast approaching cliché space for a while now. There are still clever ways to spin it out such as in The Stanley Parable (Galactic Cafe, 2013), which, at one point, makes the cynical suggestion that the only way to resolve the battle over authorship between developer and player is to quit playing. But the narrative that Spec Ops blasts through is most reminiscent of Immortal Defense, a science-fiction tower defence game that spans thousands of years.

Now, I’m about to spoil the greatest tower defence story of all time, but I reckon if you haven’t played it already, you probably aren’t going to. If you’re not sure whether to read on or play the game, maybe you want to stop by the spoilerless Electron Dance review from four years ago to help you make that call.

immortal-defense-visual-chaos

In Immortal Defense, you play a man who takes a one-way trip into “pathspace” to defend his homeworld Dukis from the dreaded Bavakh. Pathspace lies above hyperspace and “path defenders” have almost divine abilities to wage asymmetric war against spacecraft traversing hyperspace (i.e. tower defence). You are joined by another path defender called Pul Wat Aa and it's all hugs up in pathspace as you take on the Bavakh together. It appears to be a good-versus-evil pot boiler until the end of the game's second chapter in which Aa betrays you and, surprise, the Bavakh wipe out your homeworld.

I don’t want to overstate this but... I was stunned. With everyone dead, where could the story go from here? (The demo version stops at this point and money left my wallet immediately.) Not to worry! It turns out a small group of survivors including your granddaughter escaped the planet to settle in a secret location. Later, they also figure out immortality and have a plan to resurrect Dukis. Yay, that's okay then.

You then take the fight to Aa and his people, the Oss, who have since enslaved the Bavakh. First you kick Aa into touch and then, with the help of the enslaved Bavakh, dismantle the Oss Theocracy. The icing on the cake? With the gentle encouragement of your granddaughter... you kill all of them. You read that right. You commit genocide.

immortal-defense-genocide

The game continues as you struggle to keep the Dukis survivors a secret, killing anything that comes close to revealing their existence. But at some horrible facepalming moment, the player will realise that the godlike protagonist has gone utterly insane with grief. His granddaughter is a terrifying, paranoid figment of his imagination. This madness eventually corrupts both hyperspace and pathspace and it is no longer clear – millennia after the game's beginning – how much the player sees is real. The game ends in an orgy of destruction, with the protagonist obliterating everything to desperately preserve the lie that holds his world together: that there really are Dukis survivors. As ships burn in their thousands, the last thing the imaginary granddaughter tells you is, “I love you, grandpa.”

Powerful stuff. But what does it do to a player?

During the late game, before the player has figured out the insanity angle, the player might feel a smidgen of guilt about working against supposed allies at the behest of his granddaughter. But the protagonist eventually parts company with the player, as it becomes clear that the player is just here to fight through tower defence puzzles while a god goes mad. Here's L. B. Jeffries on Immortal Defense:

A first-person narrative would involve the character you’re playing talking and having their own separate identity. Given that this is a game about becoming a divine being and questioning the very reasons you exist any more, the choice of second-person is a problematic one. My connection with the game starts fine: whee, being a God is fun. But as the sophisticated story and events start to take me in strange directions, that connection begins to break down, and I separate my identity from the protagonist. It’s me having the break-down within the game, in other words.

What developers are trying to achieve in games which feature a strong protagonist personality is player-protagonist communion. This communion could be viewed as a hypnotic trance with the game acting as hypnotist. The game-hypnotist makes suggestions to the player that the player goes along with - and the communion persists. However, the idea that hypnotists can make their subjects do things "against their will" is argued to be a myth, which has some scientific support from Ernest Hilgard's theory of a "hidden observer". If the hypnotist attempts to suggest an act that the subject would find objectionable, the trance will be broken. In a game, once the game-hypnotist tries to make the player do something that the protagonist wants to do but is alien or wrong from the player's perspective, the player-protagonist communion breaks. If I question the game too much, immersion is extinguished.

Immortal Defense and Spec Ops share a core theme: protagonist goes mad and unwittingly commits some heinous shit. Just like in Immortal Defense, the Spec Ops player is likely to detach from the protagonist communion and lose any sense of complicity. It’s a nice story with pixels as a side dish. This is the reason why bad guys are always painted bad and villains keep getting more violent with every year – zombies that kill, psychopaths that have no redeeming characteristics, gun-toting bandits who surely have no loved ones of their own. It’s why developers have to think up increasingly depraved crimes for villains to carry out to give meaning and justification to our bullet hunger.

spec-ops-walker-down

We can always talk about this on some meta level, like the madness of the game reflects the madness of the player trying to integrate themselves into the damaged systems of the game, but that’s unsatisfying. Probably the only solution to this player/avatar divorce is to offer genuine choices instead of forced failures, but prod players towards the failure, so that they make terrible mistakes willingly. (Not only is this expensive but quicksaves/checkpoints can undermine the impact of these choices.)

But let me return to Stop Crying About Choice. Getting players to buy into a scenario – that what happens to these digital actors is actually their responsibility – is extremely hard so it's okay just to provide a gripping story with an additional “interactive” dimension to give the story more bite. I don’t have to feel the pain of the protagonist, but it's reprehensible if I’m also yawning through the second act.

That's why, at first, I resented Spec Ops because all I could see were the tricks being played on me. When I was able to rise above that, ignore all the marionette wires, I found a surreal, shocking military thriller that takes a left turn into Fight Club. I’d guess it’s the presence of those wires that hold some back from embracing the story, but it’s a complicated game; reviewers have complained that the actual shooting parts are sub-standard and the writing lacks nuance.

I'm not the only person to write this, but I am staggered that Spec Ops came from an AAA stable. Just take a look at it. The story has no redemptive element. How much of the narrative is actually “real” is open to interpretation – the 33rd seems to be a battalion with with an infinite supply of combat choppers and grunts. The developers deliberately thwart understanding by breaking the fourth wall. Pretty much everyone you kill didn't deserve it and the list of your victims includes incinerated children.

We would be wise to avoid labelling Spec Ops as revolutionary because it isn’t. But, for all its flaws, it defies AAA conventions and is something quite out of the ordinary.

notes in the margin

  • I can’t help nodding at most of the points made in Badger Commander’s restrained review of Spec Ops.
  • When reality begins to flicker out and the statues move around in the middle of a firefight? Loved that.
  • Here’s a ramble and a half without a punchline. Critics - and I don't exclude myself here - have been complaining for years about how shooting games are just murder simulators with an ethical void where a little self-reflection should be. Body counts in shooters are way higher than their equivalent blockbuster movie (unless you’re using The Raid (Gareth Huw Evans, 2011) as reference material) because shooting is all the player does. Games high-five players into killing the enemy-soup-of-the-day and players only think as far as the game encourages them to. Being less charitable about this perspective, it implies the average player is dumb and happy to gorge on a diet of virtual violence with no questions asked, thus it is the responsibility of the smart critic to address it. Because, frankly, no one actually seems to give a shit about “ludonarrative dissonance” and videogame consumers continue to support big budget shooters. But if players are smart enough to see through forced failure, then maybe they’re smart enough to see through the mindless shooting? Are we just replacing one dumb mechanic, bullet euphoria, with another: you must touch the peach?
  • I cannot be the only person who wished to explore Spec Ops’ virtual Dubai at will. But the whole game is full of invisible walls and gating.
  • One of the standout character moments: after Walker's team incinerates civilians with white phosphorous, he bellows that he's going to make Konrad pay. He's going to make Konrad pay for his own mistake. The game doesn’t bat an eyelid as Walker shirks responsibility for his actions, the only way he can move forward. It’s possible to argue that, at this point, Walker becomes the truest player avatar of all shooter protagonists: he ignores the dark implications of every bullet fired, because he wouldn’t be able to continue and finish the mission if he did.
  • Did anyone at Yager wish for the headline “The Citizen Kane of gaming turns out to be the Apocalypse Now of gaming”?
  • The gradual transformation of Walker’s team into damaged, broken people is something to behold. Walker himself begins to look pretty nightmarish about halfway through and his combat barks degenerate from the formal “enemy target is down”, to yelling incoherently “enemy is fucking dead” and “fucking stay down”. His animation sequence when executing a dying combatant also becomes more chilling.
  • I never felt Spec Ops was telling me something about the military. It doesn’t really question American military authority or how we might expect too much of soldiers in urban conflict. There are some obvious pokes at CIA interference in foreign affairs but the game just isn’t offering that kind of story. It’s not about war at all.
  • I haven’t read Brendan Keogh’s book-length critique Killing is Harmless but I found the critiques of the critique by Darius Kazemi and Shaun Green interesting. Similar to Kazemi, I groaned when I discovered the alleged antagonist of the game was called “Colonel Konrad”.
  • On a similar note, Kris Ligman's two interviews with an Iraq veteran was also revealing in terms of military accuracy. The first interview is about impressions while the second reconsiders the game after letting it all sink in.
  • I sensed more Inland Empire (David Lynch, 2006) in Spec Ops than Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979).

spec-ops-giraffes

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Comments (18) Trackbacks (0)
  1. I like this. And I still quite like Spec Ops.

    You’ve played it much more recently than me, but my memory of the choices is that they are quite explicitly flagged up /as choices/. Indeed, there is a specific kind of pacing and placing AAA games have developed to tell you “choose!” without being so gauche as to display ‘press A to x…’ First, you are usually under time pressure, but not /immediate/ combat pressure – there is the feeling that the world has temporarily paused to allow you to make this choice. Secondly, you are often set slightly back from the situation, geographically recessed (for instance, the 33rd soldier you can kill/not kill is shouted at from behind cover, while the gould/civilians choice is decided from a balcony). Thirdly, the dialogue usually goes out of its way to imply that you have agency, often with two characters begging you to do opposite things. So I’m not sure I buy the idea that the choices of Spec Ops are stealth choices – though the large number of people who “didn’t even realise” you could do x or y might count against me there.

    At risk of being tedious, I wrote an article last March which you might find interesting, about the choices of Spec Ops, and also how it’s one of the only AAA games where you commit war crimes /which the game acknowledges are war crimes/. http://brindlebrothers.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/relax-dont-do-it-pulling-trigger-in.html As I say in that article, I think its political critique is actually slightly more interesting than it’s given credit for. Without wishing to ‘get controversial’, I specifically used the example of Israeli air strikes being blamed on the immorality of the enemy. This example is only more piquant now, with the frequent citation over the last couple months of Golda Meir’s famous quote:

    “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.”

    Sound familiar?

  2. Good stuff, you had me irritated at first thinking you had kind of missed the point of the game but by the end you had won me over with the early criticsim and the later introspection.

    There is an utterly mental possible explanation for Walker proposed by the Yager team that involves Purgatory.

    You mentioned a couple of ‘secret’ choices – the one that got me is a civilian that runs out at you from nowhere.

    Also – in contrast to my write up of The Last of Us (contains spoilers):

    http://www.arcadianrhythms.com/2013/09/what-i-was-looking-for-in-the-ending-of-the-last-of-us/

    What got me about Spec Ops is the deeply satisfying way that all 4 of the endings for Spec Ops are in no way gratifying. In fact I would argue that the more the player pushes the more depressing the ending gets.

  3. I too was slightly miffed about the false choices given to the player, especially in the white phosphorous scene, but then a friend of mine linked me to an article with an interesting interview with the developers.
    The interesting part is this:

    ” “During the ‘White Phosphorus’ scene, Walker buries his guilt and casts blame on Konrad and the 33rd, all in an attempt to keep going. Our hope was that the player would do the same—cast the blame on us, the designers,” Williams said. ”

    Full article here, if I wrote the tags correctly.

    They knew that the players would have felt the hands of the designers in that scene, and wanted the players to blame that choice on them. The problem is that it’s not immediately clear that they wanted the player to feel that, to blame them, just as Walker blames Konrad. It’s not obvious, because the players don’t want to be Walker at that moment, they want to put the maximum distace between them and him.

    So the players (me included) miss this connection.
    Just as Walker puts the blame on Konrad to feel justified and to continue his mission, we put the blame on the developers for not giving us the choice, to justify what we did, to feel detached, to keep on playing. So, mission accomplished?

  4. @John

    Hello again, Mr. Brindle! It’s fair to say I may be over-emphasizing the role of hidden choices. However:

    The crowd choice is not flagged at all; you’re surrounded and there is no escape… it’s quite disorienting. It seems like you are given moments just to steel yourself, before you pull the trigger. Although it turns out it is a choice after all.

    There is Konrad’s challenge to shoot the soldier or the civilian – and you can take option C, which is to ignore them and go straight for the snipers. Not that this really makes much difference, but you don’t have to play Konrad’s game at all.

    But there are plenty of times the game makes you think you have a choice but when you have none at all, like the white phosphorous scene, or the early game where I’m hoping we can communicate with the insurgents. It’s deliberate, of course, to make you think about what is about to happen; if it was overt about its linearity, players wouldn’t get that moment to weigh up the morality of the situation. So I get the intelligence of these moments, it’s just that, well, we’re not usually fooled by it.

    I do like that piece of yours; just read it today. I avoided reading most writing on Spec Ops when I was working on this – it would have paralysed me otherwise, trying to avoid what other people had come up with.

    Maybe it will not surprise you that I *almost* included a line relating to Gaza, about the civilian casualties being entirely seen as the work of Hamas, not the one dropping the bombs. Great minds!

    My response to Spec Ops was just like NaissanceE. Ugh, what is this — well, huh — oh man, it’s over.

    @badgercommander

    Yeah I am definitely trolling a bit. I’ve been on Twitter broadcasting this as a negative piece when, in fact, I really like Spec Ops.

    On the civilian coming out of nowhere – I do wish there were just a few more moments like that in Spec Ops. I remember catching my breath and thinking JESUS I ALMOST FIRED. Also, it is very difficult to tell Adams and Lugo apart from the 33rd which makes things really interesting. The level in which you are split up across the mall, I shot my guys MANY times.

    Yeah, none of the endings are positive. My original ending was going home with the rescue team. I really liked that sublime moment of choice at the end where you have to choose to shoot Konrad or not – it reeks of importance, as if this here is your judgement on the game. And I don’t know. I don’t know what will happen. What choice is this?

    I just realised all the decisions in that game are decided through bullets, whether you fire or where you fire. That’s fascinating in itself.

    (Oh and can’t *every* weird story be explained by Purgatory?)

    @StranaMente

    Hmm, I think MOST players will miss that connection. I mean, it’s a nice way to put it, but I think the scene fails if it isn’t making the player reflect at all. That’s why I’m unhappy about Spec Ops’ “failure”, it doesn’t make you pause and reflect as much as it think it does. I don’t find that a satisfying explanation of the scene at all.

  5. I too feel that the game fails in making that connection clear. One shouldn’t need the author’s explanation, since the creation should speak for itself, and if it doesn’t the author has probably failed.

    What you pointed out is how they failed while accomplishing their mission.
    The player blames the devs, but at the same time this doesn’t help him/her to establish a connection to Walker.

  6. Yes, if you want to be really want to push the cynical angle, you could argue that Spec Ops is a Frankenstein mix of ideas without any thematic cohesion – let’s blame the devs is a deliberate strategy, let’s make you feel bad about killing good guys, let’s make it about madness – wait, it’s actually about players.

    I liked it more than I disliked it though so, even though I can’t find an thematic lens that brings the entire picture into focus, I still like it.

  7. I’m not sure what I really have to add to this, save a tip of a hat at a well-written piece. I think I’m in agreement with the last line of your comment just above, too, at least in terms of it being a game. I’d say that the ugliness of ‘humanitarian intervention’ is quite ably explored by Spec Ops.

    I don’t think anyone has mentioned the unsignalled choice fairly early in the game when you meet (IIRC) one of the CIA’s guys. Yeah, I just flicked through Keogh’s book to refresh my memory and it’s the 33rd GI who’s being interrogated by Kastavin. The GI gets hold of K’s pistol and shoots him; at this point the player can shoot him or not. If you let him go, you end up having to kill more soldiers from the 33rd than you would otherwise have had to.

    Thanks for the link to my review of Killing is Harmless, btw.

    Oh, and did you notice the bits where 33rd soldiers you fight / kill have Lugo and Adams’ faces? I didn’t struggle to identify them whilst playing, but your comment along those lines reminded me of this.

  8. Shaun, I felt like the critiques got me out of reading KiH =) Sounded like it was a complete breakdown of the game’s contents, virtually a player’s guide to what can be found in the game. Also, I started writing this piece just a couple of days after I finished Spec Ops and it shockingly took all week (3,000 words was not what I set out to write). I was avoiding others’ criticism but also I didn’t have the time to spend reading up about the game…

    A lot of the bits I really liked about Spec Ops don’t make it into the essay, because I was focused more on how trying to make the player feel bad just pushes us out of the virtual box and force us to disengage. It’s not 100% clear cut as I accept, but Spec Ops does a good job of telling the player to fuck off.

    But, yeah, I love those little freak-out moments. I, of course, was killed by the Adams’ doppelgänger in slow motion because I was completely confused about what to do. Also, I was killed by the Lugo Heavy simply because I didn’t react quickly enough: and when you die, of course, you get one of those weird cutscenes telling you to stop and the Lugo Heavy does not reappear.

    I didn’t care about NOT understanding it. I liked the beautiful ambiguous chaos of it: I didn’t want to make sense because it was delightfully confusing (hence my Inland Empire reference). I also loved that bit where Walker loses it and uses the chopper to basically kill everything and blow everything up: strangely disturbing that the game needed you to do all this before you could move on. I’m reminded of Covetous where the game is all about you attacking and eating something defenceless, which makes the player feel a bit weird.

    (A webmaster-to-webmaster aside: Normally a big, sprawling piece like this does pretty well but I have to admit it hasn’t done brilliantly – just average. Part of that is launching the piece on a Friday but Twitter interest has been weak. Maybe Spec Ops is too old and too well-covered. It gives me a little… pause on whether I really should pursue Mass Effect.)

  9. Great article with some thought-provoking points. As you note, HM, Spec Ops definitely deserves credit for breaking the mold in some ways, but we can all agree it’d be reaching to say that the game is revolutionary in its approach to shooter morality.

    Removing player agency is common – everything from tutorials to nonbranching scenes – and for a long time it was just a factor of technology. Old text-parser games forced convoluted puzzle solutions: to get the garden shed door open you needed to release the echidna through the window, then scatter dried ants at the base of the door. The echidna, scampering over to collect its treat, would jostle a rake and knock a key onto the ground. Replace a dried ant with the fridge magnet, which would eventually be speared by the sticky, questing echidna tongue reaching under the door. The magnet would be pulled in and found inedible, but would snatch the key before being pushed back out to you. That also was lack of choice, because if you typed USE HATCHET ON DOOR it would say “I can’t use that here.”

    Then came emergence and it was fashionable to allow players to break every game.

    Neither addresses the challenge of applying morality and weight of choice to the player, which is new in interactive fiction. In other media we judge characters based on their actions but don’t take responsibility for them, and mechanisms for allowing this are obviously still rather immature.

    Pathologic does it rather famously; most people who had serious gos at the game found themselves thinking as and taking actions from the perspective of their chosen character well before the shocker ending. Shadow of the Colossus handles “the only way to win is not to play” very well by making you WANT to play (because it’s fun) while hating yourself for playing (because it’s mean).

    The use of insanity and altered states has become pretty subtle and cool. Everything from the in-yo-face of the Alice games to the subtlety of Immortal Defence; the monumentally unreliable narrator of Deadly Premonition, even the well-intentioned but not-quite-there Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. I’d like to see more of this. The Sixth Sensian reveal of “Hey! Your character’s been imagining this whole thing!” when done well, is a great reveal.

    HM, we should do Mass Effect as a big crossover event. I have thunk many thoughts on it!

  10. Re. Mass Effect, whilst I’d love to see you and Steerpike tackling the game, I sincerely expect that unless you are coming out with truly radical responses the audience response is likely to be muted. I think the ship has largely sailed on Having Stuff to Say about Mass Effect.

    Re. writing about Spec Ops, my review of Killing Is Harmless did quite pathetically numbers-wise. Evidently, criticism of criticism isn’t something the video games crowd is that interested in. I know that in the past you’ve said stuff along the lines of writing about writing about games being navel-gazing, but I’m of the opinion that discussions around specific examples of criticism (that is more than blanket condemnation or a backslap) is a mark of a mature critical community.

    That said… I would love to be proven wrong. I could always point Walker (the one who writes for AR, but the SO protagonist) this way, as he has very strong opinions on the ME series.

  11. Er… 2nd and 3rd paragraphs should be the other way around. Sorry. I’ve been drinking.

  12. I have drunken things too tonight, Shaun. There is an interest in criticism of criticism, but it’s a much smaller audience. There was the Critical Proximity conference offshoot of Critical Distance which was all critics talking about criticism. And I was totally not interested in it.

    I really want to play Mass Effect, I just worry that all the time I spend in it will drag me away from things I could write about.

  13. Don’t bother – it is rubbish

  14. I think I write that every time you talk about playing Mass Effect. It remain true.

    Why not play Divinity: Original Sin, or whatever it is called – that actually sounds really interesting, as opposed to Sexual Harrassment Sim – Space edition.

  15. Also, just finished Battlestar Galactica, the music in it was deeply annoying. If this is what people hold Bear McCreary in high esteem for then I worry.

  16. I was wondering if you’d put in a Mass Effect appearance, BC! Funny you mention the “sexual harassment sim” angle as I was intending to be celibate.

    Oh one last troll with the Bear music reference, eh? You’ll never convince me to put my Bear CDs in the trash. Never.

  17. That is the problem with Mass Effect though – you either are like ‘I don’t care about whether you are scarred from your father’s death – deal with it’ or it is ‘Maybe you’d like to talk about it in my room over a glass of wine and a bit of touchmygenitals’

  18. @BC: I mean if you go down the touchy-feely route, can’t you pull out at the last minute? Wait, that didn’t sound right.


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