Monthly Archives: March 2012

Crysis 2: A Supposedly Fun Game You’ll Never Play Again

Videogames, despite the wishes of many who make and play them, are plodding out of their Dark Ages. Fast becoming the dominant entertainment medium of the century, with strange specimens at their antipodes hinting they could one day become a powerful — whisper it — artistic medium, they can no longer afford to wallow in quagmires of accumulated pigswill and faeces. So to speak.

The role of the games critic (and, okay, amateur blogger) today feels akin to that of the Victorian physician, moving away from guesswork and superstition, struggling assiduously towards a scientific understanding of the form. No more the medieval critic-priests trudging behind their gods, espousing arcane edicts about “gameplay” and “graphics”, burning unbelievers who dare to question dogmatic axioms such as “games must be fun”. These days, we can truly employ critical thinking, build new lexicons, favour empirical evidence, as we dissect our subjects, delicately prod the flaps and tubes…. All in pursuit of an answer to the question of what this creature called the “videogame” actually is.

And just as Sir Frederick Treves had his Elephant Man, we too may look towards the abominations and the monstrosities within the field to help put our study into perspective. But, unlike Treves, our monsters are sleek and charming to behold. It is beneath, at their cores, where the gnarled tumours lie….

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Poor old Crysis 2. It didn’t deserve an introduction like that. It tried sshhow hard to be ghoodsh. Hell, my praise was close to effusive when I wrote about it last. But … Man, something about it has been irking me more and more of late. I’ve been returning to it, on and off, in the year since finishing its Hollywood-blockbuster campaign, playing a level here, a fire-fight there, scribbling frenzied notes late into the night … unsure why a dumb shooting game was fascinating me so, but prepared to follow my nose to the malodorous truths my subconscious was sniffing out. So to speak.

Here’s why Crysis 2 is a fun game that nonetheless harms the industry, an emblem that speaks so strongly of why gaming is fucked right now: You see, Crysis 2 confuses the skin with the soul.

But first, history.

Crytek is a German-Turkish developer based in Frankfurt, a relatively young studio. They first came to prominence with Far Cry in 2004, a technically-dazzling shooter playing out on a lavish tropical-island setting. It is perhaps telling, though, that before the game’s release Crytek had already garnered attention for demonstrations of the engine Far Cry would run on.

The game really was stunning to look at. Its lush vegetation, lapping waters and long draw-distance set a new standard for real-time visuals. But it was also a mechanistically-rich game, with large levels and plenty of wriggle-room for completing objectives. Flora wasn’t just for admiring, it also concealed you from enemies, who would call for reinforcements if they spotted you, and work together to take you down. The muscular power of the CryEngine chugging away beneath its hood was utilised to create a more resonant experience for players.

Crytek’s next game, and spiritual successor to Far Cry, was Crysis, released in 2007. Selling the rights to Far Cry to Ubisoft, who went on to make the intriguing but flawed Far Cry 2 (hope you’re not getting confused), allowed Crytek to focus on a new IP, one that took the strengths of their first game and turned everything up to eleven.

Crysis was a beast. A PC-only title that barely ran on machines players owned at the time, it was the last great weapon in the graphical arms-race of those years. These days the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 are old and creaking, and most developers will release cross-platform titles whose PC ports can be played with decidedly modest rigs — but five years ago Crysis was a badge of honour for hardcore PC gamers. You’d invite friends round to prove the PC was the true format to rule them all, and your friends would sit slack-jawed as trees splintered and fell from hails of bullets, buildings were reduced to rubble with grenade blasts, and ferns yielded and swayed from your passing figure.

Again, though, this graphical cock-brandishing worked to engender a deep and enthralling experience. Crysis‘s story of nanosuited warriors battling alien invaders may have been dumb, the characters stereotypes, but the sub-surface systems these narrative non-starters were draped over were complex, and rewarding to explore.

And here we arrive at the point. Gaming isn’t a storytelling medium, though it encompasses aspects of storytelling. It isn’t a spectator medium, like listening to music or admiring art, though it may contain beautiful music and artwork. The videogame is rather a model, a simulated world to play with, and play within.

Sometimes we play to be relaxed, sometimes to be entertained; other times we want intellectual stimulation, or emotional enlightenment — but play is always the key. You would think that as the games industry matures it would be looking for more effective ways to evoke these sensations, richer models to provide more nuance to the play.

Crytek would disagree. Their goal when designing the sequel to Crysis was accessibility; a product not just for the PC elite, but one that would run on the Xbox, with its meagre 512 MB of memory. Sacrifices in vision were necessary. This is understandable, even laudable, but the aspects of their vision Crytek deemed inconsequential enough to drop speak volumes of their changing priorities.

Crysis 2 is bombastic. There’s a bit in the first Crysis when, right in the middle of a pitched tank battle across a serene valley, the screen begins to shake, and the mountain in the distance crumbles apart, revealing an alien structure buried beneath it. Narratively, it’s standard sci-fi pulp, but experiencing it is quite the thing.

Crysis 2 makes a game out of that moment. Aliens have invaded New York, and  … no, that’s it. Crysis 2 is Michael Bay if Michael Bay was a videogame and not quite so much of a cock. Shit hits the fan, the fan blows up, the shit blows up, reality itself blows up, and you’re wading through the middle, haemorrhaging bullets and making solipsistic statements about the self. So to speak.

And it still looks incredible. The latest version of the CryEngine has gorgeous lighting and particle effects, all that neat stuff that gets tech-heads hot under the collar. Comparing static screenshots, this console-optimised sequel more than holds its own against its predecessor. The sacrifices, then, have been made elsewhere.

The most obvious casualty is scope. Where Far Cry and Crysis offered wide sandboxes to frolic within, Crysis 2 presents linear levels that sweep you between set-pieces that are dazzling yet unrewarding. When multiple options for progression are presented, they are signposted loud and clear. YOU CAN SNIPE ON THIS ROOFTOP, OR TRY SNEAKING THROUGH THE SEWERS HERE. Level design forces you ever-onwards, impatient for the next opportunity to blow its cinematic-load (so to speak), worried of losing your attention if it lets you stop to think.

The intelligence of the enemies is woeful as well. They flank you less, harry you less, and often become bugged and simply pivot on the spot, safe for you to pick off at your leisure. And the environments are less interactive, with the destructible buildings and trees and pots and fences of the first game replaced with an inert world that, after the initial sensory-thrills have abated, feels decidedly restrictive.

What Crysis 2 attempts — namely a deafening, smothering firework-display — it achieves. It is an assault on the senses. But Crytek can do more than this — have done more than this — and it is a shame to see the nuance of their earlier games abandoned in pursuit of loud theatrics.

And it isn’t just Crytek. Although the fringes of the industry are awash right now with developers experimenting with the form, producing rich and complex models, mainstream gaming is in a state of atrophy. The market is saturated with the same dumb corridor shooters, only with better wallpaper on the walls, more lumpy gravel under foot. Top tier studios who repeatedly confuse the skin with the soul.

And yet ultimate blame shouldn’t rest with the studios. Lobotomised publishers who have no sense of the worth of a thing beyond its financial value will always exist. But it is us, as gamers and critics, who feed them.

We demand parallax occlusion mapping, and realistic shadows with variable penumbra, and full DirectX 11 support. (This was, interestingly, many gamers’ issue with Crysis 2. At release, the PC version didn’t support the latest DirectX library, which in layman’s terms means some of the brick-walls didn’t look as weather-eroded as they could have done. Everything wrong with the game was because of an over-focus on visual splendour, and gamers complained because it wasn’t visually-splendid enough. Figures.)

We send the message that, above all else, we want our games to sparkle — and we are rewarded in kind. But that apparent need for sparkle, it doesn’t define us. The voice within that is desirous of more polygons, more filters, more power (the voice that persuaded me to download the DX11 patch when it later arrived) is the same loud voice that wants the ice cream factory at the pizza restaurant, the spending spree, the drugs, the excitement. The childish voice that wants, wants, wants — wants for the sake of wanting, wants, I don’t know, death, maybe … an end to the dread and despair that sits at the base of our spines.

Artists shouldn’t kowtow to this voice. That’s the job of pimps and pornographers and marketing executives. Because the childish voice cannot be satiated, its primary essence is in fact insatiability. The role of the artist should be to lead us back from this brink.

There is another voice, you see. One quieter, less pressing, but purer, more pellucid. It is not older than the childish voice, but younger, reaching back to before birth. It is inquisitive but not desperate. It doesn’t shout “Give me that”, but asks “What is this?”, and it waits for an answer. It is the voice that questions what we’re doing here, where we’ve been, where we’re going — the voice that sees us not as separate but together, a people who would be better helping rather than hurting one another.

This is the voice that art addresses.

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Crytek are not a highbrow developer; their aims were never those of high art. But within the field of the atavistic predator-prey simulator (and, hell, the enduring popularity of these games, and literature like Call of the Wild, proves our bourgeois society has not shaken off its animalistic roots) they were always innovative. It is sad to see them reigning in this ambition in an attempt to emulate the lurid and insipid beasts choking the lifeblood from the form. I’d like to see Crytek shout less, to forget the plastic surgery and focus on working out where their soul lies. That’s the future of the industry.

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A Gaming Education: Mass Effect

“Erm,” I text to my friend, eruditely. “I think I have the hots for that blue alien who got pooed out of the sentient plant in Mass Effect.”

How embarrassing. And not just because I got mixed up with characters, and actually meant the blue alien I found down the mine, not the one excreted by the killer triffid. It’s embarrassing because falling in love with an imaginary alien creature from a roleplaying videogame set in a sci-fi universe … Well, does that sentence even need completing? It’s self-evident: falling in love with imaginary aliens is axiomatically Not Cool.

But I’m totally cool! I’ve got a cool hat, I’ve got yellow boxer-shorts with red robots on. I’ve got Dolly Parton on my Spotify playlist. Hats and robot undies and Dolly Parton are axiomatically more cool than loving blue aliens is not cool.

And besides, Liara isn’t just some blue alien. She’s different. Come, let me take you on a journey through love, loss and upgradeable ammo types…

Mass Effect is a series of sci-fi action roleplaying games featuring squad-based combat, developed by BioWare. Sheesh, genre definitions, eh? Us gamers can be boring at times. Basically the series aims to combine games where you chat to people and fiddle with your inventory with games where you shoot dudes in the face. The first game was a bit dull but occasionally thrilling. The second was tighter, but dropped some of the roleplaying complexity for more streamlined shooting-of-dudes-faces. The third is out ANY TIME NOW OH GOD HYPE HYPE.

No, this is not an article of hype, but of measured criticism. For Mass Effect has some deep flaws, the most fascinating of which for me concern the way it presents its narrative. I find these flaws emblematic not just of storytelling issues in BioWare games, but within Western RPGs in general. My experience with Liara is interesting because it is, conversely, one of the few examples I can cite of the genre truly arousing my emotions.

Here’s the issue, as I see it. The designers of Western RPGs confuse narrative density with narrative depth. All the writing time is spent amassing lore — piling up mountains of data on myriad invented species, on byzantine wars and political shifts and treaties, on companies, alliances, councils and organisations. Then the act of turning the data into emotion — of telling the story — seems almost an afterthought. The data gets vomited right into your face, through codex entries and utterly flat dialogue, and you’re expected to wipe it off, pick through the chunks, then assemble it into something meaningful yourself.

RPG fans, inevitably, will disagree with me. But they’re the sorts of people who read videogame tie-in novels and write Babylon 5 fan fiction on the internet. As the ever-insightful Tom Bissell notes:

“Asking an expository-lore-loving gamer whether there should be expository lore in a game … is like asking an alcoholic if he’d like a drink. (He would.)”

To be clear, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the sorts of people who write Babylon 5 fan fiction. I am a man sitting in robot-festooned underwear about to explain how he fell in love with an imaginary blue alien. I judge no one.

What I am saying is that satiating a very niche market’s desire for reams of invented data is not the same thing as telling a story. That background lore is important, of course. But only to the designers. It’s the leg-work the designers should be doing to ensure they know their world inside out. And then their job is to go away and decide what to tell the player, what to hint at, what to leave mysterious.

Because the truth is that a game — or a novel or a film — is not the story. It is the source document. The story comes alive in the audience’s mind. The source document is the magical spell that can conjure up the story. As such it needs to be crafted with care.

Or to use another metaphor, it is like composing a song. A musician isn’t judged on their ability to cram as many varied notes as possible into a piece, they’re judged on how they discriminate — on choosing the right notes at the right times, in order to evoke an emotional response from the listener.

The lore of an RPG is like the scale a musician plays within. It is the sum total of the raw material to work with, but it is not the song itself.

So it was that in Mass Effect I didn’t much care that Liara was an asari, or that she was Matriarch Benezia’s daughter — who was sort of a baddie but was being mind-controlled by the other baddie so it wasn’t really her fault. The fact I found Liara in the Artemis Tau cluster, researching a long-extinct species on a mining site on Therum, was neither here nor there. I didn’t even remember that, I used the Mass Effect wiki to read up on it just now. My brain has this weird thing where it instantly forgets information that isn’t beautiful or meaningful.

What I cared about with Liara was that she was socially awkward.

After she joined my crew I found her in the medical bay of my ship when I was exploring between missions. I started talking to her. She told me how her previous job had been solitary, how she liked that because sometimes she just needed to get away from other people.

You and me both, I thought.

Then she accidentally let slip that she found me (I’m Commander Shepard by the way, humanity’s last hope for … rescuing the Smurfs from Skeletor or some shit) fascinating. She got all flustered trying to explain what she’d meant. She made it worse. Her eyes went big, she stammered, looked away.

And she had me. What can I say? I find embarrassment sexy. Probably because it means we’ll have plenty of common ground.

Over the remainder of the game Liara and I grew closer, became intimate. I’d trudge through repetitive missions, force myself to engage with a fiction that didn’t interest me, learn which type of ammo to slot into my combat rifle, solely so that when I got back to my ship there would be new dialogue options available with my blue alien in the medical bay.

I’d grow frustrated when she had nothing new to say, get worried something might happen to her when she was part of my squad for missions, find myself excited by words from her that sounded loaded with double-meaning.

One time she told me about the mating rituals of her species. Love-making for the asari was a deep and spiritual event, forming a “connection that transcends the physical universe.” I wondered what our wedding song would be. Into the Mystic, probably. I wanted to rock her gypsy soul.

Then, the night before the game’s climactic battle, Liara came to visit me in my quarters. I chose dialogue options in the affirmative, and she and Shepard had sex. It was a tasteful cut-scene. The kind of thing you wouldn’t mind your kids watching in a PG film.

So why do I feel awkward writing this? Why would I have squirmed if someone had walked in at any of the times I was pursuing Liara?

We’re drawn to romance in fiction. Scriptwriters may learn to ensure love scenes reveal more about the characters, are integral to the plot (something BioWare should work on), but that’s not the reason Hollywood producers will rarely green-light a script without a romantic sub-plot.

Human beings are lonely animals looking for a way home. We spend our days as solitary ships tossed on a violent sea. But forming a connection with another — or watching a film about it happening to someone else, or playing a game simulating it — momentarily reminds us that we’re not little ships at all, that at the root of our consciousness we are the waves themselves, and the shared ocean stretching ceaselessly below.

Maybe it’s the interaction involved in a videogame that unnerves us. Isn’t wooing a pretend woman who responds to my input a little like … well … owning a robotic sex-doll or something?

Except the romance in Mass Effect has nothing to do with sexual gratification. I wasn’t flirting with Liara so I could see her polygonal breasts. I was thrilled by the feeling of a connection. Liara may have been pretend, but the people who created her are real. The voice-actor, the designers, writers, animators … The magical spell they used may have been in the shape of a blue alien, but the emotion they conjured was entirely real.

I’m playing Mass Effect 2 at the moment. The early events of its narrative force Shepard apart from his old crew. I have a new ship now, a new mission. Mass Effect 2 found save files from the first Mass Effect on my hard drive, so it remembers the decisions I made in that game. When I enter my quarters now, nestled among the model spaceships, data terminals and mission-critical dossiers, sits a framed photograph of Liara. Looking at it I feel a sense of loss, as, I believe, does Shepard.

We’re cool with games that simulate the orgiastic joy of combat, the satisfaction of silent take-downs, the horror of mutilated corpses. Why do we still feel so uncomfortable enacting a simulation of two people connecting with one another?

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