Jun 7, 2012

Everyone's a Badass! or How I Wish Mirror's Edge Had Handled Conflict.

So, as I sit down to write this, E3 2012 is in full swing. Anyone who knows how shows like these work also know that all the big announcements were done at the start of the week and very few surprises await us between now and the end of the show. Few surprises indeed. After watching the big shows from the colossi of the industry, I'm left with a clear message about the world of video games: Everyone is a badass. Trailer after trailer of badasses of all shapes and sizes totally murdering the crap out of, well, everyone, has left me wondering... Why?

Ok, ok. I'm not really asking "Why do so many video games, especially in the triple-A market, star characters that act like total butt kicking, face shooting badasses?"... That would be stupid and, frankly, a little hypocritical of me. I mean, I get it, getting to play the badass is totally rad! I love me a good round of mopping the floor with tons of two-bit henchmen or misguided alien invaders in totally over the top ways. I mean that, I really do, but it seems like all games star a badass, regardless of how bad the character's ass really should be, in my opinion anyway.

My prime example is a bit of a dated one, Mirror's Edge. Look at this trailer...

Let me set things up. You play as Faith, a "runner" in some sort of dystopian future where governments are totally oppressive and keep a close eye on all communications. Faith's role in all this, as a runner, is that of courier to the underground. She delivers packages the one way that can't be controlled, by hoofing it. You know what? Set up wise, it works fine for me, just an excuse for dramatizing free-running and making the opposition more menacing than mall cops trying to kick you out of the food court for jumping on the tables. So, here's my beef: This game could have been as bold and cohesive with how you resolve conflict as it was with its graphical treatment and unique brand of first person platforming, but it wasn't. It all boils down to this: Why the hell does Faith have to be a friggin' kung-fu virtuosa, and why does she ever even pick up a gun? DICE, the game's developer, had such a great opportunity to create a hero that deals with adversity in a cool, new and appropriate way but instead seemed to default to ->insert combat here<-. I often argue that Faith looks like she's 50 kilos taking on 90 kilo armed, trained law enforcement brutes in body armour in hand to hand combat and why that just shouldn't fly, but really, video games and movies and stuff, they don't need to be realistic and it can be totally cool to see some martial arts super runt layin' down huge mugs, that's not really the rub. At the end of the day, my heartbreak stems from the missed opportunity. I still dream of the Mirror's Edge game where I can't fight the guards because they are too tough, and me too small, where my weapons are my speed, agility and ingenuity, where dealing with guards is about figuring out how to get around them and the Mirror's Edge in which my last ditch tactic is to sprint as fast as I can to barrel into one of these tough guys to knock him down long enough for me to escape. I still dream of the Mirror's Edge game that dares to take its core concept of embodying a free-running courier and let it guide every aspect of the game.

I guess what it comes down to is that I'm getting tired of playing badass characters who aren't badasses. I love Gears of War and Halo, for instance. You totally play as badasses in those games, badass characters doing badass things. Rad! But a number of games, supposedly, star "regular joe" characters, or otherwise unconventional heroes. So why do so many of them end up just acting like badasses?

So, why am I writing about this now? Some of what's been shown at E3 this year just feels like more of the same in this respect. There are the games staring badasses who act like badasses, sure, but there are also a few games that star non-badass characters acting like badasses, and that just seems so much less interesting to me. One of these is Beyond: Two Souls from Quantic Dreams, makers of critically acclaimed stand out title Heavy Rain. Have a look at the launch trailer:

Yup, that's Juno's Ellen Page being all mysterious and stuff. You know what else she's being? You got it, a badass. Now, I can't really fault the attitude. I mean, I would probably strut my ass around like a king shit if I had some ghost thing following me around that totally wrecked stuff on my command. That's just it, this character has plenty of reason to be a badass... So why does she karate fight cops atop a moving train? Come on! ELLEN PAGE FRIGGIN' KARATE FIGHTS COPS ON TOP OF A MOVING TRAIN! This character has no need to be able to fisticuff with and overpower grown men, I just don't buy it, and more importantly it's just too plain and generic. Another game trying so hard to be different and break the mold of traditional tripple-A titles only to fall back on a kung-fu fighting protagonist.

The other game that was shown that got me thinking along these lines is the upcoming Tomb Raider origin story. In this case, the developers are even billing it as the story of Lara Croft before she became the cool and collected badass of previous Tomb Raider games.

I've got to hand it to them. I love all the falling and screaming and how banged up she's getting, but why does she have to be a serial murderer? She friggin' lights dudes on fire! That shit is COLD! Why not play up her youth and vulnerability by having the player avoid conflict? Imagine if the game never had you kill but for one turning point moment near the story's conclusion. How much more impactful would that kill be?

Well, that's a lot of negativity, no? You've got to understand, though, I judge because I care! Thankfully, it's not all doom and gloom in the world of modern games, some games are totally going in the right direction and not insisting on having you embody the most badass of badasses. Portal and its sequel, for instance, successfully make you, the player, feel like a badass without putting you in the shoes of a super powered, gun toting, karate chopping, ubersoldier. I guarantee that many developers would not have put all their eggs in the portal device basket, choosing instead to "put a bunch of game" on top of it by adding all sorts of different enemies and weapons with which to fight them. The true strength of the Portal games is that all you can really do is use the portal device. All badass things you pull off, you pull off using the portal device. Clean, confident design, un-muddied by unnecessary combat. Journey, Fez and Limbo, though smaller, non triple-A productions, are also great recent examples of games that aren't kiddish but also don't fall back on having you stomp around with your chest puffed out swinging mighty fists at all that moves. These are games in which atmosphere, emotional content and enticing worlds draw the player in, not with the promise of litres of bloodshed but with the wonder of exploration, discovery and puzzle solving.

Maybe I'm being too difficult. Maybe it's too much to ask to have games with the production values of triple-A big sellers and the concepts of experimental indie games. Or maybe I'm just growing a little weary of blowing off faces. I think, in the end, I'm just getting older and looking for my main form of entertainment to grow up a little too. I still want my action games, I still want to feel that rush, but I want to feel it through a greater variety of characters whose solutions to sticky situations don't automatically involve kicking the crap out of everything else on screen.

I get the feeling I'm not alone in this.

Comic by Pol Desmarais. He also lends his pen to Human/Nature, a weekly web comic co-written by Adam Volk.

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