An exciting and wordy discussion has been wandering across several of Tap’s forum threads, notably here, and also in various comments on articles. Fully grokking a conversation being held by the Tap community requires a certain ability to master the art of tangential crossover.
ANYWAY, to quickly sum up: some of our debaters did not like Half Life 2, some did, but for variant reasons; everyone likes STALKER but some wanted different things from it; System Shock 2 is very scary but may not have aged well; and something to do with Neocron, plus some other stuff.
Then our xtal asked the yonder question:
Do any of you enjoy a shooter for, say, the action?
This was in the wake of lots of recent discussion (not all in that one forum) about the complexities of modern shooters and what should be there and what shouldn’t and how much standing around without shooting there should be and how much shooting and of what and whether the shooting needs to have a point and whether your character should have feet in a shooter and whether or not you should be expected to eat and something about Neocron and whether Deus Ex: Invisible War was a crime against humanity or just misunderstood and so on.
The forum erupted with NOs and even more discussion and meanness toward Half Life 2 which is unwarranted, blasphemous, and will not be tolerated at this site ever ever again.
But YES! Sort of.
Two games immediately come to mind in which I can say absolutely, unadulteratedly yes, I played for the action: Painkiller and Bulletstorm. I can’t recall the exact line, but Tom Chick once said about Painkiller that sometimes you want and need “nothing more than the simple joy of shooting hideous things.” While the art direction and nihilism were brilliant, I really kept coming back for pure action.
Meanwhile Bulletstorm is so much fun it’s actually scary. I’m near the end now, which makes me sad, but kicking people into cacti never gets old. The amusing dialogue and flamboyant childishness of the game are a huge part of what makes it so great, but from a pure action perspective they absolutely nailed it. It is a raucous, brightly colored lunacy, from the immense set-piece boss battles to the individual combat events. Even meting it out to myself in small nightly doses, which inevitably get longer than intended because I’m having so much fucking fun, Bulletstorm is wild and over the top and just… pure action joy.
And Gears of War. I love Gears, again, for the action. People Can Fly and Epic seem to have their formula down right, and even if they don’t deviate from it, I think they’ll always do okay.
And Crackdown. But that wasn’t really a shooter. And Prototype, probably, but that wasn’t either. There’s not much to either of those games except action.
In shooters particularly, “the action” is a part of any game. Arguably “action” in its traditional definition is the core of shooter gameplay, in a way that it’s not in a turn-based strategy. Meanwhile “gameplay” is always a core part of any game, or at least any great one. The experience of playing the game, at the basest level, is what we look for in our games. Right? We go to the movies for the experience of seeing a movie, and if someone made a movie that was a book it probably wouldn’t be well-received because it isn’t a movie. We look for other things in media too – storyline, art direction, cinematography, directing, challenge. But in a dumbed-down, Captain Obvious way people play games because they want to play games.
Half Life 2 I played for the action and outstanding level design, but I really keep coming back (and laboriously reconstructing the nonsensical plotline) because I care about the characters and find the game world interesting. Moreover, I recognize that the series is a commentary on the Iraq war, which I appreciate as an example of games acting as allegories for other things, an essential component of literature. In my opinion it has literary merit, great production values, and quality immersion as well as good action.
But didn’t Cliff Bleszinski himself, genius designer of Gears and and an important part of Bulletstorm, once say that the future of shooters is RPGs? It is, you know. There is less and less room for “pure” shooters, where all you do is shoot stuff, in the market. Back in the 90s during the DOOM craze that’s all there was, except for System Shock, which failed in part because it wasn’t a pure shooter. Nowadays the so-called “corridor shooter” is a bit of a rarity, and of those that do exist, even ones that are considered truly great – like Platinum’s Vanquish – often fail miserably at retail. Heck, Bulletstorm wouldn’t be doing half as well as it is if it weren’t for the whole “it makes you rape people” chaos, and it’s close to being a perfect pure action shooter.
I am not a terribly picky person about many things in my life. I really don’t care whether I’m drinking Budweiser or some expensive craft brew. And I like a good corridor shooter as much as a good RPG-shooter hybrid – witness my parallel love of Bulletstorm and Fallout: New Vegas. And while both are genuinely great examples of game design, is there that much about either that’s revolutionary? Not really. Frankly, though, I’m not a big fan of the idea that every game needs to be wildly innovative; in fact I think that could lead to a whole lot of Lynchian art house games that I would find very dull. While I’m the first to admit we need studios like Ice-Pick Lodge, I’m also first to insist that if every studio became Ice-Pick Lodge I’d be a very unhappy bunny. You can’t eat foie gras and truffles every day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner without losing appreciation for the fact that they’re rare delicacies. Sometimes you want a bowl of goddamn Cheerios.
From personal experience working as a consultant I can say that many things which sound good on paper don’t execute well. There’s a reason, for example, that they pulled a bunch of mechanics from STALKER: they made the game unbelievably boring. And STALKER is not a game I would say most people “play for the action,” by which I mean there are a lot of slow parts as it is. But good slow. Slowing things down further, especially in the context of a game world, where our perceived affordance is different from that in the real world, could have been dangerous.
I play games because I want to play games, and indeed I often enjoy them more than is entirely reasonable given their overall quality (sometimes for 91 hours, 17 minutes, and 38 seconds). Typically I say I play games for the story and the experience, but more simply I play games to play games. Play just for the action? Very rarely does anyone do anything for only one reason. But it’s definitely a part of it.
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