Spec Ops: The Line – Random Thoughts

Just finished Spec Ops: The Line.

Wow.

I’ll try to avoid spoiler-ing anything here, because the game is indeed worth playing through for the atmosphere, the moral dilemmas set up in individual scenes, and some thoughtful thematic questions raised about war and what can possibly happen to soldiers and civilians in a situation where there are no clear-cut “good” choices.

Some of my screenshots are from later parts of the game, but I have tried to put them out of any kind of context whatsoever.

Just be warned that its overall theme is pretty much… War is hell.

Laying on the symbolism a bit thickly, are we?

Laying on the symbolism a bit thickly, are we?

And war, war never changes… (To quote another neat game.)

How to describe it then?

Narrative-wise, there’s a touch of Planescape: Torment with, unfortunately, a lot more plot holes and significantly more linear railroading. There’s some Heavy Rain flavor in one or two scenes, (no QTEs, don’t panic,) but I wish there was more.

It's not Heavy Rain. I swear. There's a certain eerie similarity of beard and likeness, perhaps.

It’s not Heavy Rain. I swear. There’s a certain eerie similarity of beard and likeness, perhaps.

One of my nitpicks is that in certain scenes, you are forced by the game into taking certain actions, or else the game simply doesn’t progress. I’m not so fond of that kind of narrative, it’s a bit of a lazy cop out. As gamers, we tend to do whatever the game requests us in order to see the end. Playing with moral and ethical questions regarding something the game railroaded us into doing… well, it’s a bit of a cheap trick in order to reap emotional impact – sorta like how horror game tropes are always play with lighting, play with pacing, play with scary sounds and flash something HORRIBLE onto the screen for a split second. Yeah, it gets a reaction out of us, but it’s been done.

It was interesting to observe my reactions as I played through the game. Knowing it was a game about morality, at first, I tried to be very careful about my actions. I never fired first. I waited for people to shoot at me before firing back in self-defence.

One of the nicer vignettes near the beginning with moral implications. They're not actively opposing you. Do you kill them in cold blood? Order your squad to do it for you, so your hands aren't personally dirty? Or do you give them a chance to fight back by alerting them then shoot them while they're holding a firearm pointed at you?

One of the nicer minor vignettes near the beginning with some moral implications. They’re not actively opposing you. Do you kill them in cold blood? Order your squad to do it for you, so your hands aren’t personally dirty? Or do you give them a chance to fight back by alerting them then shoot them while they’re holding a firearm pointed at you? Don’t think sneaking past peacefully is an option in this game though.

I even managed to avoid killing a civilian, who in one of those cheap-ish designer tricks does a sudden jack-in-the-box act in front of you, and you’re carrying a loaded gun in the midst of a firefight. (It was a near thing the first time though, I fired bullets into the floor near their feet from a combined sheer reaction of EEP and WAIT, NOT-TARGET, which was kind of fascinating to have happen.)

I like what they've done with this option game-wise. Sometimes when you shoot enemies, they don't die immediately, but are still alive and may shoot back. Or simply lie there groaning.You can choose to kill them. And opposite to Bioshock, you get an in-game reward of ammo for the guns you're currently carrying - as well as a violent execution animation sequence. There was also a neat touch where the executions got very brutal after certain plot points, as contrasted with the start of the game.

I like what they’ve done with this option game-wise. Sometimes when you shoot enemies, they don’t die immediately, but are still alive and may shoot back. Or simply lie there groaning.
You can choose to kill them. And opposite to Bioshock, where the goody-goody path is the obvious optimal choice in the long term, here, you get an in-game reward of ammo for the guns you’re currently carrying – as well as a violent execution animation sequence.
There was also a neat touch where the executions appeared to get more brutal after certain plot points, as contrasted with the start of the game, reflecting the state of mind the main character is in.

Unfortunately, after a couple railroading tricks where the main character acts in a way beyond my control, I started to sense that there was a narrative ride we were being sent on, like it or nay, and it began turning into a problem-solving exercise of getting to the next plot checkpoint, since I didn’t have any real options until I got to certain scripted scenes where I could choose stealth/shoot or one of two or three possible paths through a moral dilemma.

I would have much rather been faced with situations where there are no good choices, and you simply have to take one based on the available information you have, and deal with the consequences of your possibly failed intentions. (There were a few places in Spec Ops where they did appear to be trying for this, which was nice.)

The other nitpick is the story unravels a little at the end to become extremely ambiguous and open to multiple possible interpretations. Minor spoiler warning: It’s basically the ol’ unreliable narrator gimmick. Anything and everything might have been a dream after all. Oh, don’t get me wrong. The multiple endings end rather artistically. It’s not at all as bad as Indigo Prophecy where you end up going “da fuck?” after a certain point, but there’s a teensy degree of it where you’re still left trying to glue several story threads together attempting to have it make unified coherent sense. (I haven’t quite accomplished it, to be honest.)

That said, it’s a shooter that attempts to tell a very -different- kind of story about war.

If only for that, playing through the experience is worth it.

But I bought the game though. So I may as well play it to the bitter end, rather than choose not to play, eh?Still, in a sea full of shooters who don't even bother to reflect on deeper themes of war, a slightly incoherent, forced perspective commentary is better than none.

But I bought the game though. So I may as well play it to the bitter end, rather than choose not to play, eh?
Still, in a sea full of shooters who don’t even bother to reflect on deeper themes of war, a slightly incoherent, forced perspective commentary is better than none at all.

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The Real Problem with the New Tomb Raider’s Trailer

There’s all manner of indignation ricocheting from about the internet about the new Tomb Raider reboot.

Depending on who you ask, this turns the strong and self-sufficient millionaire adventurer Lara Croft into a victimized young girl whom male gamers are supposed to feel ‘protective’ over, layered with audio and visual overtones of hypersexualized torture porn (tied up, impaled, almost raped…)

…while other folks are decrying the unoriginal trope of rape being the automatic heinous thing you do in female characters’ backstories to *ahem* ‘make them stronger’ for having survived it. (I’d have snuck in a TV Tropes link, but apparently they have collided with the rape content police recently.)

One person quotes another. A paraphrase here and there. Something else taken out of context. And lo and behold, the feminists are up in arms… again.

It’s kinda ironic considering that

a) The new Lara Croft is considerably less sexualized visually in her character design. She looks to have human proportions. For once. She’s not just “oh, boobies!”

b) The intent is to give Lara Croft an origin story. Show her progress from someone ordinary to the extraordinary larger-than-life game superhero we’re familiar with.

c) The real point of the attempted rape scene is to depict a decision point, a crisis moment in Lara’s life, where she actually takes a human being’s life for the first time.

To depict what might conceivably force an ordinary human being to kill another, while still yielding some measure of sympathy for the killer, because she’s the protagonist after all.

Considering how murder is frowned upon in general society, self-defence vs assaulting rapist seems an easily understandable way out. Admittedly, it’s a bit lazy storytelling, but could you do any better?

Give me an “original” scenario where one character is forced to take another person’s life – not in a soldier/sanctioned by war sense, thanks.

(The best one I can come up with so far is that she has to kill someone in order to protect another person. It’s not that big a crisis point considering gamers are used to being the hero and killing rampantly, ostensibly for the sake of protecting another.

David Cage managed it in Heavy Rain where Ethan Mars had to strongly consider the possibility of murder in order to get a clue to save his son (and there were self-defence and various kinds of excuses there too. I’m sure some -still- criticize it for being contrived.))

It all sort of reminds me of the time I spent on a school project ripping apart an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess for being sexist and demeaning to women in its costuming and tasteless ‘damsels-in-distress’ plotting. Our team was on a roll, showing how the camera angles always fall to the level of the female’s busts (ahem, chest) but rise to the male’s heads, making fun of Xena’s characteristic ‘ki-yi-yi-yi’ screaming, deriding the stereotypical fantasy tropes, etc. and our teacher smiled and nodded…

…Some time after which, I discovered that an entire Xena online subculture had actually appropriated the broad tropes and practically idolize the Xena and Gabrielle pair for being depicted as strong women independent of any man, analyze episodes for clever double entrendre ‘lesbian’ subtext, and create reams of the strongest not-completely-teenage-angsty-fantasy fanfiction to grace the interwebs.

Foot, meet mouth. Suddenly, my arguments seemed hopelessly childish and surface-oriented only. I couldn’t see past the bare midriffs to the strong character personalities portrayed beneath.

How can the same thing be two completely opposite things all at once?

From our frames of reference. Perspective. Good to change it now and then to see if there’s any truth to the other guy’s POV. There usually are a few grains.

If you’ve spent any time on this blog at all, you’ve no doubt had a taste of my philosophy, which runs towards a sort of secular Zen/Taoist ‘balance’ spectrum of greys and I’m fond of espousing the Babylon 5 Kosh saying, “Understanding is a three-edged sword.”

There’s -always- multiple sides to every issue. And I find it fun to dig them up and lay them on the table, rather than see people go back and forth at each other hugging their precious one side to their chests and not listening to each other.

In Tomb Raider’s case, I think I’ve figured it out. The real problem, if you check the E3 gameplay trailer for yourself, is in the voice acting.

Not the plot, not the trigger word of rape, not the unoriginality (so many video games are derivative anyway, didn’t we just play fantasy Vikings with Dragons just a while ago?), not whatever horrible attack on feminism is supposed to have occurred.

If all the audio is off, the action generally looks quite good. Some of the face animation is a little stiff, but well, not everyone has mo-cap faces as a budget priority. Insert your own grunts and sound effects where appropriate according to your imagination.

Turn the audio on, and oh my god, it’s like Lord of the Rings Online female bandits all over again. You know, the ones you keep fighting in Archet and Combe while trying to keep the audio as low as possible in order to avoid awkward questions from any other person in the house about why you’re watching hardcore porn. *gasp* *heeve* *grunt* *uhhhhhh* *aaaaahhh*

Try it when your main character is also female. Oh dear. Anyone like orgies?

(I hear they’ve reworked those voices now. Phew.)

/Someone/ decided to give Lara Croft a voice that is a hair too feminine for the face and body, if you ask my opinion.

And then made it much much worse by making her act like a stereotypical girl, screaming and squealing at every turn of events. I’m not saying she has to be a stoic silent male stereotype either, but does she have to be that most annoying example of femaledom – the one that screeches at everything?

This is supposed to make me, the player, feel ‘protective’ of her?

Apparently I’m not the target audience the designer is envisioning. I’d probably just want to drown her somewhere to shut her up. (That was a figure-of-speech, please don’t kill me, any feminists in the audience!)

Do you hear Skyrim’s Lydia squealing like a girl every time some rocks fall? (Especially since she normally sets off the traps in the first place…)

Zoey is just an ordinary young woman in Left 4 Dead, and sure, she’s going to scream sometimes when confronted by zombies, but it’s not every damn time nor does it sound so… exploitative.

Clumsy characterization is the issue in the trailer. I dunno if it’ll be any better in the longer format game, but her voice is off, and doesn’t gel with the animations. If you want her screaming because she’s wounded, then her avatar has to look like she’s wounded and stagger properly, and the voice has to come with appropriate timing – not just play on as a softcore porn soundtrack with random exhalations just because.

It’s an audio uncanny valley. It doesn’t convey the intent of the storytelling and just makes it comical at best, and disrespectful to the character if you view Lara Croft as serious business.

A little bit of silence would go a long way.

Heavy Rain: Scenes of Emotional Resonance

I’m currently in the middle of my second playthrough of Heavy Rain.

This game was the driving force behind my decision to get a PS3, ever since the day they announced it was going to be a PS3 exclusive only.

(Annoyingly, Sony tends to stick to its guns about exclusivity. The console comes in handy for playing other PS3 exclusive games, though I’m primarily a PC game player.)

Spoilers follow, so look away if you don’t want to be spoiled at all.

Why the insane fanaticism? Mainly because the game’s developer David Cage is aiming his company Quantic Dream at a path very few other game companies bother to walk. His games aim to explore more mature adult themes (no, not THAT kind of adult) and evoke some sort of emotional reaction.

I have to plug his latest tech video Kara here, because of its sheer awesome. The Casting is the older tech demo for Heavy Rain, but still worth a watch if you haven’t seen it – more than a little uncanny valley on the model these days, but the emotion is still there.

Granted, he aims for ‘mature’ and he tends to miss, especially in terms of how sensible the plot of his games turn out, but nitpicking aside, at least he’s trying.

The precursor game to Heavy Rain was Indigo Prophecy or Fahrenheit, depending on which part of the world you come from. Steam had it on sale a while back, but for some reason, it’s mysteriously disappeared from the store and never returned. Thankfully, it’s still in my games list when I bought it at the time it’s available, or me and Steam Support would be having -words-.

Indigo Prophecy was generally roundly thrashed for the later half of its plotline, which devolves into wildly fantastical wishful thinking and Matrix-ripping off. It was panned in some quarters for not having much “gameplay” since it mostly consisted of button-pushing Quick Time Events (QTEs).

Despite the criticism, I would still recommend anyone to give it a try because its opening sequence and beginning scenes are some of the best emotionally riveting, atmospheric experiences to be found in any game. The soundtrack, the cinematic cuts, the split-screen dual perspectives that ratchet up the tension as the protagonist, ie. you, try to hide any evidence away and get out as quickly as you can, while subsequently playing another protagonist, also you, who revisits the same setting and tries to find any place where you screwed up previously in order to obtain clues.

Heavy Rain continues along in this vein, with slightly better plotting. Not completely good plotting, because I just paused the game in disgust to try and figure out how Madison Paige (the token girl protagonist) knew where Ethan Mars (the main protagonist) had run off for his third trial challenge. A wiki reference says it’s never explained. Gah. But enough nitpicking about the plot holes, plenty of other people have bitched about them already.

I’m bringing up Heavy Rain to point out its strengths. The individual scenes. (Don’t try too hard to figure out how all the scenes stick together, it’s like David Cage came up with a big list of scenarios and conflict situations he wanted to put into this game to make a point, and then tried to conjure up a story to fit it all in.) But the scenes themselves, wow.

Holly Lisle said it best. Scenes, individual story units, are about change. Something moves. Something happens. Something goes from point A to point B.

Heavy Rain’s better scenes are full of this emotional movement. The very first scene in the game is a prolonged mundane day-in-the-life-of-a-family-man that takes an ominous turn when the kid’s bird dies. (Little nitpick: Don’t ask why the bird just upped and died then though. It would have been stronger if the kid or Ethan had inadvertently killed the bird in some fashion.)

The next is the one that transitions Ethan from bright ordinary life to grey depression when a tragic accident shatters his idyll.

Other memorable scenes? Scott Shelby’s confrontation with a store robber. Norman Jayden’s encounter with Nathaniel – to shoot or not to shoot. Ethan Mar’s third trial – can he sacrifice a part of himself to save his son? (fairly high squick factor the first time I encountered it). Ethan Mar’s fourth trial – can he kill another human being to save his son?

The really good scenes like above have no “right” answers. It’s hard emotional choices made within short spans of time. They define the character’s personality as you play through them, and also subtly reflect back what you value (if you aren’t roleplaying and react instead from gut instinct.)

(Of course, some of the effect is lost when one realizes that the eventual final storyline may still be the same regardless of what you did, but the game does have enough ‘critical’ points of no return, where you’re never really sure if this QTE is the one that’ll send the story somewhere you didn’t really intend.)

So what does Heavy Rain have to do with MMOs?

On the surface of it, not much. Cutscene-like QTEs are always better off as single player games. I don’t want to watch someone else talk for me in a cutscene, I want the story to centre around me and my choices, thank you, other people would just get in the way and knock me right out of the suspension of disbelief.

On the other hand, we have a City of Heroes forum thread right here that discusses plot vs storytelling.

Heavy Rain, like some of City of Heroes’ Signature Story Arcs, occasionally suffer from a surfeit of too much ham-fisted plotting. Someone has a PLAN that requires such-and-such characters to be here and there at these places at these times. Now think up some ways to get them there, I don’t care how awkward you have to twist their personalities or their arms, kthxbai. The characters become little cardboard props to be moved around as required for the grand plan to function. They’re interchangeable.

Then there’s times where you get stories (though I’m not sure that’s the right word) – meaningful scenes that have a firm foundation because a Character anchors them. Capitalization intended.

O Wretched Man – one of the generally acclaimed story arcs in City of Heroes – is firmly anchored by Ghost Widow, Wretch, Pia Marino and their backstories. The arc would not exist without the characters, and their motivations, for doing what they do because they’re them. There is emotional resonance every time the arc shifts.

All of Ethan Mars’ scenes in Heavy Rain are rooted by his feelings for his son(s). Emotional resonance again.

These stories stick with me, even when I’m done playing the game. But I can barely remember the plots of most MMO quests. Mostly I just remember how irritating the grind was.

In contrast, I can remember Guild Wars: Nightfall’s storyline, thanks to the heroes and certain NPCs who give it some character (pun intended.) I can absolutely remember Vekk and his relationship with Gadd through GW:EN, and of course, there is no way to forget the¬†eponymous Gwen.

So after all that meandering, what’s the common thread in making game stories memorable? For me, it appears to be character.

It’s probably asking too much to expect every quest to hit it out of the park like Wretched Man did, but it would help to have, not plots that are a lame excuse for me to kill ten wilderness critters, but stories, anchored by unique characters, motivated by some kind of need for changes to happen.

(There’s one more topic with which I can link Heavy Rain and MMOs together, and that’s choices and consequences. We’ll save that for another post. Maybe when I get over my plot hole allergic reaction and finish my second playthrough.)