This is a barely legible meditation using BioShock Infinite as an example of how chasing Hollywood audience and Hollywood dollar (but without having the advantage of Hollywood accounting) is absolutely killing AAA games. At this rate, there won’t be any left mid-next generation. Remember, you read it here first.
So, a few days ago we were treated to trailers of games such as Thief (reboot), that isn’t supposed to come out for another year at least, and Metal Gear Solid V, probably coming out even later than that. But as they say over here, you don’t start feeding the piglet on the Christmas morning (in case this was not common knowledge, that is what people here eat for Christmas, turkeys are considered sacred animals due to us spending 500 years as part of the Ottoman empire… or was it that turkeys were for pussies? I keep confusing myself) so it is understandable that we will be treated to early trailers showing us “in game footage” that actually has very little to do with what the game will be like in the end. This is just business as usual and is not even supposed to deceive “proper” gamers who know a thing or two about thing or two; this is mostly to get the mythical casual gamers on board early and generate buzz around the old web so that the piglet is semi-stuffed by the time preorders start launching, while the actual game designers still debate the systems back in their studio.
Anyway, both these trailers got people talking but mostly about the fact that in both cases it turned out that the usual, trusty, dare I say iconic voice actors for main characters in both of these games were replaced with new blood. And even though gaming is such an innovative medium, trust me when I say that new blood almost always draws bad blood. We hate change. We fear it and loathe it and we keep signalling this message to the market, whether it’s the change of the main character’s hair colour in a long running series or introduction of same sex relationships in a slightly newer series. So, learning that after Michael Ironside has been replaced in the next Splinter Cell game the other two big stealth action franchises lost their iconic voices too was a bit of a downer. Even though it is commonly accepted that we are shallow whores who value pretty graphics above everything else when it comes to games’ character, it turns out that memorable voice acting matters too.
You wouldn’t necessarily know it from the fact that Nolan North voices most of the current gen’s male cast in AAA games, of course, but there is a lot to be said about how much Michael Ironside, David Hayter and Stephen Russell contributed to character, feel, the very soul of their respective games series.
And now they’re gone, all three of them. In Hayter’s case, there was no explanation given, save from Hayter’s twitter report that he was told by someone in Konami that his services are no longer needed. That is not how you ditch a person who’s been a staple of the series through nine games over fifteen years but this could still be just Hideo Kojima being freaky and one never knows, this could end well.
But for Ironside and Russell the reasons for change were pretty bluntly reported: the dudes are too old and too out of shape. There was a time when that wouldn’t matter at all for a game. But modern AAA games are not like old AAA games, with animators drawing characters using their penises after sticking them into cans of paint and voice actors doing their shit in a booth some place across the country reading from a printed e-mail attachment. No, lots of modern games do those things together.
The penises and the attachments. They record motion capture and voice acting at the same time, using sound stages, coloured balls (but NOT penises) and some sophisticated cameras.
Now if the actor has to fall down because his (or her) character was stabbed in the neck, well, he better remember to yell convincingly or get ready to redo the take a dozen times more. This is progress at work.
They Call it “Performance Capture,” (or Sometimes “You’re Too Old And Fat Capture”)
Now, this worked in Uncharted, the first game series widely reported to be using this expensive but very effective way of ensuring convincing animation and voices of its characters in a multitude of situations. And suddenly every AAA game must follow suit. Except BioShock Infinite, apparently, the game with one of the highest metascores in recent history, reportedly had no problem doing voices and mo-cap separately, even *GASP* using different actors for body and voice.
But for Splinter Cell and Thief it means tough luck for anyone who thinks that Ironside’s and Russell’s voice acting defined large parts of the respective protagonists’ characters. Someone somewhere in the Ministry of AAA Videogame Design decided that having your game character jump and grunt convincingly at the same time trumps everything else. I mean, the last Splinter Cell game came out three years ago, surely no one remembers the voice of the main character of all things? As for Thief, the last game was back in 2004. Everyone who played it is dead, simple as. And if they are not dead, goddamnit, they better pay attention to all these graphics we’re putting in the reboot. This shit is next gen. It’s also in first person most of the time but, you know – Hollywood…
Alright, this pisses me off. Not even the fact that I do consider Russell, Ironside and Hayter key ingredients of their respective series, but the simple fact that we’re being led down this path even further. The path of escalating costs of game productions that contribute nothing to games being better as games. The path of Hollywoodisation of games through standardised ways of telling stories and depicting people, situations, ideas and, eh, women. I like my games to be immersive as much as the next guy or gal, but I just don’t know if turning them into increasingly quasi-photorealistic, increasingly non-interactive storytelling devices (that usually tell poor stories to boot) is the way to the holy grail of immersion. And getting those mythical casuals on board is a noble cause, sure, but the price we are paying is just becoming too steep.
Now I know that one of these days Steerpike or some other tapper will post a review of BioShock Infinite and it will be a reading orgasm and I don’t want to spoil anyone’s sexual pleasure here. But BioShock Infinite, for all the great things it does, is guilty as much as the next AAA game. And I am angry at it for being guilty.
Did I enjoy BioShock Infinite? I sure did. I gave myself a three day sabbatical, lying to the people who pay my bills that I have incredibly dramatic health problems, and I bulldozed through it, soaking in every piece of the intriguing personal-yet-slightly-political plot, every square inch of its incredible art and architecture, every word of dialogue designed to seduce and confuse in equal measure. It’s a very nice game, probably one of the richest single player experiences you’ll have this spring. But it’s considerably poorer as a game than either BioShock that came before it, including, of course, System Shock 2. For most of my 22 hour playthrough on hard I was thinking something along the lines of “Man, this is a great game because it has ambition and then it manages to follow it through admirably. But, man, I would be so much happier if this ambition had more to do with improving the game part of the game, not the fucking graphics.”
That’s a simplified view at it but it does boil down to this: BioShock Infinite is at its most impressive when you have nothing else to do but watch. That’s fucking depressing for an interactive piece of art or entertainment or whatever you call it in this post-Ebert world.
Do Not Touch The Exhibits
Ironically, the long lost originator of Irrational’s take on the franchise, System Shock 2, a game a younger team of many of the same people made back in 1999, became available as a digital download on GoG several weeks ago and playing both games side by side is a sobering experience. In 14 years the graphics indeed became better (or there is, to again borrow a RPS meme, more of them) and, yes, the voice acting became better regardless of whether you do the mo-cap and voice recording separately (and, shit, SHODAN didn’t even have a body and those fucking monkeys were scary and guilt-inducing enough without having someone whack REAL monkeys with a bat in front of a camera) and the worlds videogames put us in are increasingly more impressive. But what do we do in those worlds?
BioShock Infinite mesmerised me in the first two hours because almost all I did was walk around and take screenshots. The architecture, the gardens, the clothes, the stands at the fair, the floating buildings rocking gently up and down, the do-wop band singing Beach Boys, the sepia coloured street, the kids playing around a hydrant. The airboats, my god, the airboats. Irrational made a place that is delightfully amazing to watch and listen to.
But it is really all you are supposed to do there. In this utopia of a videogame, a game that becomes art through smashing several other arts together, you, the player, are sadly the odd man out.
Or, to put it bluntly, in the first two hours or so, the game has very little need of the player. It needs you to watch, listen and marvel but it does not need you to act. It does not need you to push the story forwards. It does not even give you many opportunities to interact.
To me, this is a huge problem. A problem signifying the mentality in the current AAA design that is pretty sure to continue in the next generation of games. Make shit beautiful. Use every trick in the book to make horizons seem farther, to make surfaces look more natural, to make light reflect in increasingly lush ways. But to make sure the bastard behind the controller sees it, by all means restrict their movement.
And walking through BioShock Infinite’s beautiful world I felt straitjacketed. The world, yes, they am beautiful. But it does not react to me. It does not even acknowledge my presence outside of the game’s rigid script. You can watch and listen to BioShock Infinite’s incredible flying city but you cannot get its attention. You cannot start conversations with people in the street. You cannot open random doors. You cannot commandeer vehicles, ride mechanical horses, smack the naughty kids across the eyes, you cannot even kill anyone until the game crosses a certain narrative threshold.
Hear Me Out
Now I know that comparing this game to GTA is unfair – one is a satirical urban simulator, the other is a pretty arena shooter, but the comparison still invites itself to the party. Both games are about an armed man coming into the city and bringing the motherfucking ruckus. It’s as simple as that at the core: we are being sold on a dream: here is a living, breathing city, here’s your gun, bring da ruckus, see what happens. Both games sell us the same dream of power and responsibility. But only one of them has procedural systems that empower the player – even whilst killing her (or even him), and the other is
a corridor an arena shooter that makes sure to put you in your place first and then tells you: “Now. Kill.”
And, hey, didn’t the whole first BioShock game revolve about how games put you in places and make you kill, unaware that you were conditioned to do this unquestioningly?
But ideology aside – after all, it is common knowledge that the topic of doing what the game expects of you even when explicitly told that you are but a puppet and that you’ll still do what is expected, free will be damned, was explored better and six years prior in Metal Gear Solid 2 – the real question is: what makes you more immersed in the game? The beauty of the surroundings that are not so much dead as they treat YOU as if you were dead? Or the comparatively uglier world that reacts to your presence, that you can have a dialogue with, that you can exercise your free will in? Because to me, this is what separates games from non-interactive content. To me, this is what GTA does right: you come to the city, you get guns, you kill – at your own pace, at your own responsibility. BioShock Infinite takes most of the responsibility from you as it pats you on the arse and gently pushes you to the next set piece.
Now contrast this with System Shock 2. The tutorial mission notwithstanding, it didn’t really mess around with you. Once the game started for real – that is about five minutes in – you were put in the middle of a devastated space ship and suddenly everything there was trying to kill you. Yes, those poor monkeys too. System Shock 2 had incredible atmosphere. Scratch that, it HAS incredible atmosphere, I am playing the sucker right now and it’s still a game with a terrifying sense of place and a sense of dread the place brings with it. You are alone. In space. On a ship filled with walking dead and fucking psionic monkeys. Everything wants you dead – dead people, cyber maids, space maggots – and your only ally is a psychotic AI with delusions of grandeur out on a mission to erase your whole race from existence. Shit gets pretty real pretty quickly in System Shock 2 and never goes unreal. You feel that you are there. You fear for your life. You feel vulnerable, exposed as you sneak through the corridors, looking for loot that may help you live five minutes longer. When you kill, it’s a horrible, traumatising experience, as walking nightmares cry at you to run while you whack them to (proper?) death with a wrench.
But crucially, System Shock 2 lets you play. There is a general objective you work towards in any moment in the game, but how you achieve it is entirely your decision. Unlike BioShock Infinite, System Shock 2 does not decide when you will be fighting (save for a handful of scripted moments that are its versions of boss fights). You pick your fights. You are free to run away, sneak around, to plan and execute so you can actually outsmart not just outgun your enemies. You are encouraged to think strategically and develop your skills and perks until you are the dominant species in the current part of the ship. Remember, the ‘Shock games are at their core about controlled evolution. And when you win through evolving in a smart way, the victories feel empowering. Meanwhile, in BioShock Infinite you are pushed from one scripted arena shootout to another and if you survive, looting the bodies of the dead feels strangely chore-like.
Because, really, it is. For a game that puts so much emphasis on collecting stuff (not just from corpses, but from vending machines, desks, garbage bins… until you are the richest hobo in Columbia) it’s depressing how it makes every conceivable effort to disallow you to actually manage all that stuff. Large part of System Shock 2’s appeal was in difficult decisions and general management related to your inventory. The simplest of its dilemmas was whether you took more ammo for one weapon or more weapons with less ammo. You were required to make difficult choices and abandon enormous potential branches for further evolution of your character. The shit felt tense.
In BioShock Infinite, meanwhile, you get two weapon slots, an ammo pouch that you have no control over and no inventory whatsoever. It makes you collect copious amounts of stuff because ‘Shock games were always about procuring necessary resources on site, but it completely ignores that half the fun in scavenging is in arranging your loot later, deciding how to use it, feeling like you are actually making choices important for your future, not merely clicking on corpses and selecting “Take All,” never even bothering to see what All is you’re Taking.
So, the exploration and collecting are not really up there with the best, but the game does this consciously because its emphasis is on the narrative, right? Right. And while I’d really love to say I admire BioShock Infinite’s narrative, the truth is it just reminded me that AAA games still get it wrong. Every time.
Facegrab (not to be confused with “face hugger”)
Again, this is pretty easy for me: give me power and responsibility. Make it feel like I am indeed important in the narrative. Not necessarily by fulfilling my power fantasies, mind you. Telltale’s The Walking Dead games were a master class in giving the player a bare minimum of agency but EXACTLY where it mattered the most.
Now, BioShock Infinite is really a game about someone else, not the player character, so ironically it actually emphasises the fact that you’re here along for the ride, certainly not in the driver’s seat.
And again, it feels stiffening. Especially because the game attempts to conceal the fact that you’re not in charge by not having any classic cutscenes.
Ah, the cutscene, that old, reliable crutch videogame narratives in the last decade were always happy to use. And we kept saying “Oh, mister/ ms. videogame designer, don’t take me out of the action, please, I want to play, not watch a badly directed CGI movie, I want to be in the game, not watch the game.” And somehow, in the world of AAA design, the world of increasing budgets (those fucking soundstages and athletic actors won’t pay for themselves) and decreasing willingness to risk or you know, be creative, this was interpreted as “Shut up the little fucks by leaving everything in the first person but make sure they have no choice but to see everything.”
In the world of Tap-Repeatedly this is colloquially known as facegrab. You are playing a first person game, feeling all immersed ‘n’ shit, revelling in all the choices you have – go left or right, shoot that dude or that dude over there, use one of the TWO firearms you are carrying – when suddenly you cross a narrative trigger and whoops, the game grabs you by the very face you use to play with and pulls your vision cone towards the next-thing-you-must-see.
Look, I’m sorry, but this is bullshit. This is not me playing the game, this is me watching the game again, but this time not even having the luxury of putting the controller down for a while and stretching my back, as it could drop me back in any moment, without warning (especially if it’s one of those evil games that end these scenes with a quick time event). This is me being depowered, forced to stop playing so I can see more of the story, only somehow this feels worse than a proper cutscene as the game nudges me and winks all the time saying “See, we are not taking you out of the character, you watch through their eyes ALL THE TIME. Motherfucker, EXACTLY like Half-Life!”
Only it isn’t. Half-Life almost never took control from you. The seminal fifteen years old corridor shooter, the most heavily scripted game out there, trusted you to be interested enough in the game events that you’d actually look in the right direction when the time came. And if you didn’t, it wasn’t too bothered; you’ll get it on the next playthrough. The game knew that it is more important to let you play than to speak its story down at you while holding your face in its hands.
And BioShock Infinite, alas, does it all the time. It’s degrading, humiliating even. Unlike Half-Life, that took control from you because your character in-game was helpless at the very same moment, you are repeatedly made helpless yourself as your character politely listens to people talk to him/you and watches the stuff shown to him/you, unable to move because the game has no other idea of how to convey important information.
Now, sure, I am being harsh here, mostly because BioShock Infinite does many things right. But the obvious trend towards lessening player’s freedom, after you’ve already lessened player’s impact on the world, makes me sad.
But all that aside… that plot. That narrative. No. Just no. This is not how I want my games. Yes, it is a smart, intriguing plot, but goddamnit, if you’ve read any X-Men in the last three decades or seen Fringe you’ve seen so many elements of it that it inevitably comes across as yet another gimmicky sub-Shyamalan story.
Or at least it did for me. Remember, the original BioShock had a mid-game plot twist that put all your actions in game in the new context? System Shock 2 at least made you aware you were working towards your own eradication. But BioShock Infinite does its I’m-your-father-Luke twist and it changes nothing about the game or the way you have been playing it. It’s a purely intellectual thing, shown to the player in the last 30 minutes, asking barely any input or agency from her (or his!) part. It’s an interesting metaphysical dilemma and a multiverse theory and all that but it’s barely part of the game. It changes nothing about how you played it up to that point and will change nothing about how you play in the next playthrough.
Am I demanding too much here? Because, another game from the last century – the original Deus Ex – while not having a HUGE plot twist in the middle, also came with a narrative that made you gradually aware that all that you thought was true is not and that the values you have taken for granted are fake. So when you switched sides it immediately made you extremely self-aware about the way you have been playing up to that point. I know that my second playthrough of Deus Ex was non-lethal due to the new context the knowledge I’d gained created.
BioShock Infinite, obviously, is not based on a system flexible enough to allow for non-lethal playthroughs and therefore its plot and any unexpected information in it make no difference in gameplay terms. Not in this playthrough, not in the next one. You will be playing exactly the same game, only this time around without the questions you had the first time that made it look bigger than it was.
Fewer People than I’d Like Are Going to Get That Reference
Because games, especially AAA games, must look more like Hollywood movies. Because this is the audience publishers think they must capture. Yahtzee and Richard Cobbett both had intelligent and funny things to say about the topic recently and if we’re to listen to them, the future of AAA gaming is bleak.
And really, all I want is for games to become better games. It’s not that I am against graphics or streamlining. I mean, the other day I felt like playing original Rainbow Six, so I went to GoG, installed it and the first thing I said when it booted was “WTF dude, my eyes!!!!!!!! Where are the graphics?” But then it turned out it’s not about the graphics. It’s about the absolutely silly number of keys you must memorise because the game does not let you redefine keys mid-mission. It’s about how the “tutorial” section of the game dumps you into maps and doesn’t even tell you what you should do, let alone tutor you on how to do it. It’s about the pre-mission tactical briefings being simultaneously too wordy and severely uninformative, about tactical maps being impenetrable and illogical. All of this severely affects the enjoyment of the game as you must negotiate a number of badly designed, unintuitive systems to actually start enjoying one of the smartest, most tactical first person shooters out there.
Streamlining is welcome, more graphics are welcome too. Just don’t take the games out of my games, dude. Empower me by liberating me. Give me choice and consequence, power and responsibility. Then you can smash my face in. I promise I will be back for more.
Commence with the flaming – firstname.lastname@example.org!