Friday, June 15, 2012

Why the Future of Gaming Scares Me

So. Getting pegged with a brick to the face probably hurts a lot. I mean like, a lot. And watching somebody get a brick thrown at their face would probably make me cringe. And getting a shotgun to the face, I would probably beg for mercy. And if I was confronted with the man who was just trying somewhat successfully to murder me, begging for mercy under the barrel of my shotgun, I would probably pull the trigger. But it wouldn't be much fun. And that's why I question what The Last of Us is trying to achieve.

Not that every single game has to be "fun" in a traditional sense. Amnesia: The Dark Descent wasn't "fun," but it was still a good game. Horror games have gotten away with being painful and uncomfortable for a long, long time. ...but those are horror games. They're supposed to be cringe-worthy and hard to watch. They're supposed to be unnerving and squeamish. But The Last of Us isn't a "horror" game. It's being bought to us by the folks who made Uncharted, so presumably it's aiming to be a "blockbuster" game. A mainstream, popcorn-action sort of game; like Uncharted, like Halo, like Call of Duty. And when those mainstream appeal titles have reached the point where they are making me wince...'s all, of course, because of the industry's dedication to "realism" in games; the industry wanting to provide "mature" experiences. We've grown accustomed to our AAA titles pushing the envelope of what can be achieved with the medium. To these ends, The Last of Us is one of the most impressive games I've seen in a long, long time. Go ahead and watch this preview video. It looks stunning, it's well-acted, the immersion of it in motion looks absolutely spell-binding, and the animations are flawless. Totally awesome from a technological standpoint. And, you know, I could take it if it was the only game coming out that is this... painful to watch (and no doubt play). It all makes sense, the story that Naughty Dog wants to tell, the atmosphere they want to convey. My problem is that The Last of Us is, arguably, one of many.

I've been playing Max Payne 3 recently, for example. It's utterly awesome. Like every Rockstar game ever made, the technology on display is some of the most dope shit I've ever witnessed, and it both wants to be and is a Hollywood film you can play. The action is amazing, and it looks incredible. However, for some reason, Rockstar have spent a lot of time in making sure slow-motion kills are as painful and real as possible. Which is sort of "cool," I guess... in a fucked up kind of way. But there reaches a point where you watch every bullet tear apart a terrorist's face, rendered in lavish detail in the kind of way you'd expect from a Manhunt game, and you put down the controller and think... what the hell am I doing? I am playing a videogame for entertainment, and I'm confronted with the sort of sick, depraved violence that wouldn't even make the cut on an uncensored news bulletin, let alone a videogame.

Shooting stuff is fun, right? Agreed. There's something primal and cathartic about holding, in your hands, a powerful, life-ending, piece of polished metal that sends human beings - the closest creatures alive on this planet to gods - to a premature grave. But killing isn't fun. And being killed isn't fun. It's hard, even for professionals who get paid to kill people. Soldiers don't like war, and laymen especially don't. But this is why videogames existed, I thought. So we could experience the power and brutality of shooting guns at people, without the pain. Without the death. Virtual targets, like the kind at a shooting gallery; and a character that's justified in shooting them by way of comic book logic. That's why we have shooting games. Because real shooting isn't enjoyable at all, unless you're a psychopath.

There's a point in Max Payne 3 where Max - our player character, I should point out - shoots and kills some gangster kid cos he slapped a woman once. There's no justification there, and if there was, I still find it hard to take Max's side. Taking control of him post-cutscene, I felt myself loathing the man. Then it all came to a head in a scene in which the kid's father yells at Max, who is gunning down his friends and employees, that he "killed his only son". I... I have to admit, I nearly cried. And THEN MAX KILLS THEM ALL ANYWAY.

THIS ISN'T FUN. Okay, it was sort of fun, because it was in slow-motion and it was like a Hollywood film (and saying "Hollywood" over and over again like it's inherently a good thing that games ape Hollywood is making my brain attempt to squeeze its way out of my ears so as to disassociate itself from me, just so you know). But it was just realistic enough that I felt bad. Videogame logic and real-world scenarios don't meld! It creates protagonists that are monsters. Max Payne is a monster, and while this is perhaps justified, it still isn't fun. It's not enjoyable. And, with games like The Last of Us, Tomb Raider, Grand Theft Auto V, it seems to be a trend. Games glorify violence, that's happened for a long time, but only recently has the technology evolved that it can do so as realistically as possible. And that's scary. But here's the thing. On the flipside, I've also been playing the slightly crap Bodycount. In it, you shoot and kill faceless goons; heavily armoured, characterless targets who are actually literally named "The Target". And I enjoyed shooting them. It was fun; the guns made loud noises and tore through their faceless bodies and it was cathartic and enjoyable. Then I switched over to Max Payne 3, and I was murdering families out of spite and it was okay because Max is drunk and that's what he does...? It hurts.

And The Last of Us also hurts. I know calling this a "trend" and this point is jumping the gun (heh), but I can't see franchises like Battlefield and Call of Duty doing anything other than follow these examples as we get further into the next generation of consoles. It's already been happening, arguably - the Euphoria engine games have all been saddening in the way enemies are real people and not drones, making shooting them in, say, the leg, a brutal and unwaveringly painful experience, and Call of Duty has had realistic torture scenes in it since Modern Warfare, the kind that can often physically hurt to play through. But as the technology gets this good, the violence gets toned up, and... it stops being entertaining. I don't enjoy realistically murdering people! I don't care how impressive it is, and I don't care if it matches the oppressive atmosphere you're aiming for - I am not having fun!

I know it's hypocritical of me to say these things, when I hold up first-person shooters as perhaps my favourite genre of videogame, but it's true. And I hate to come off as some kind of moral guardian or paranoid hater, because these games still impress me and I absolutely understand what they're doing. But I don't get how anyone whose not completely sick could derive "traditional" enjoyment out of these games. You could enjoy them the same way you do, say, the reboot of Rambo. Or the same way you enjoy horror games; I understand that wincing in terror is a much sought after response from many gamers, myself (sometimes) included. But it is still a shame that instead of using game technology for good, we're using it for evil.

When you boot up a game, you're doing it to be entertained. If you're doing it to be impressed, no doubt watching an enemy get a brick to his face, as it knocks out all his teeth and he falls to the floor screeching in pain, is something you'll be able to gawk at and say "cor, don't that look real!" ...if you are doing it to have fun, you come out at a loss. Arguably that's fine. And I could definitely fill an article in favour of realistic violence as we march forward to the Next Gen. But it still scares me. This kind of stuff becoming mainstream... it'll take the fun out of shooting games. We'll still get games like Serious Sam, where shooting is less like war and more like a party... but it'll be buried underneath the realism that gamers seem to, unfortunately, crave.

It might be fine. It might be able to teach us valuable life lessons. It might be able to prove a point. But as long as developers go in with a "fun videogame! Hooray for videogames!" mentality, also including brutal and realistic depictions of human-on-human violence seems counter-intuitive, and something to be avoided, not praised. With games like The Last of Us, Max Payne 3 and whatnot, we've reached the peak of brutal and tortuous human death. I just hope, and pray, that gaming will make its way back down off the mountain, instead of being stranded up there for the remainder of its lifetime. Because that would make me very sad, and I'm important so everyone should cater to me. ...satire.

Breaking: As I type this, proper videogame news sources are reporting that Warren Spector is sad because games are fetishizing violence. I'll say, as much as I respect Spector, his approach is perhaps too extreme. I like violence. Glood, gore, guts, guns, explosions, death... it's great. Just great. Violence = fun. It's videogame violence melding with real-world, erm, realism, that gets to me. Violent shooters want to have their cake and eat it too, and that's where we run into slight... problems. We're coming out the other side of the Uncanny Valley, but we're applying pre-Valley logic and standards to it. Bad. Don't do that. Guns shooting at bad guys? Keep doing that, that's fine. Really. Woo guns.