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October 18, 2013

"War has changed."

It’s not about nations, or ideologies.  It’s not even about profit, resources, or…et cetera, et cetera.

You know, it really says a lot about the mindsets behind certain development teams -- and to some extent, entire cultures -- when you’ve got Metal Gear Solid 4 claiming that “war has changed” and Fallout 3 claiming that “war never changes”.  And it’s almost funny how the first lines of two really good games start with words in complete opposition from one another.  It’s enough to discuss at length in a well-planned and in-depth blog post…at least, it would be if MGS4 wasn’t about five years old and it’s already been talked about to the point of excess.  Ah, if only I’d started blogging a half-decade earlier…and I had the power to pre-empt every discussion ever to appear on the internet.

Well, whatever.  As you can probably guess, I finally got around to trying Metal Gear Solid 4.  I didn’t have a PS3 when it first came out, and while my brother borrowed a copy of the game from a friend once we did have one, I didn’t even get around to touching it.  I was content with watching, laughing along with him, and falling asleep during a cutscene that had to be about an hour long.  (I seem to be really good at falling asleep on floors.)  But as I’ve said in the past, I’ve always had a fondness for the Metal Gear franchise, even if every experience I’ve had with the games has led to sequences straight out of a Hanna-Barbera cartoon.  MGS4 is no different.  I’ve just scratched the surface of it, but I find it incredibly intriguing.  Stealth-bungler or not, I’d definitely like to play it at least a little more.

Because whether or not you think “war has changed”, there’s even more to think about.  Maybe something everyone should think about.

It’s been a while since I’ve had any thoughts about the MGS canon (outside of Snake Eater, and Revengeance is its own separate beast), but I’ll see if I can come up with a basic summary of MGS4’s context.  Years after the events of MGS2, more-or-less super soldier Snake -- having aged rapidly thanks to a contingency plan to keep his kind in check -- is called back to the battlefield to complete a mission.  Said mission in this case, at least at the outset, involves our hero tracking down Liquid Ocelot and putting an end to his plans before he/the Patriots/the La-Li-Lu-Le-Lo, maybe?/the Legion of Doom can have their way.  And on top of that, said mission involves an old man being forced onto a battlefield that’s changed dramatically -- a warzone full of nanomacines, ID tags, mechs by the dozen, and much more.  On the plus side, I’m happy to report that Snake’s ass is still as ripe and supple as a fresh Georgia peach.

It’s WAY too early to say anything about the story -- and given my penchant for bungling my way through Metal Gear games, I wonder if I’ll ever be able to -- but if nothing else, I like the game so far from both a story perspective and a gameplay perspective.  There are some niggling concerns that I have, like cutscenes going off on long and nearly-pointless tangents (and if my guess is right, there are a LOT of cutscenes).  The controls feel better than Snake Eater, though there’s still a certain level of clumsiness to it…and why they’d add in an ability to wake up downed guards is a mystery.  I’m partially convinced that enemies are placed in the exact positions they need to be to detect you, even after you’ve snuck past another pair of enemies and feel pretty good about yourself.  It seems like if you get into trouble, you can run to a doorway and funnel guards toward you; after that, you just knock them out with CQC or tranquilizer shots until you’ve got a pile of baddies in an impromptu sleepover.  And S-tier crawling mechanics make it possible for Snake to join in. 

But as it stands, I really like the game.  It’s left a strong first impression on me -- that Game Over theme is SERIOUSLY unsettling -- and it’s exciting in a way that a lot of other games have tried to be, but failed miserably.  Again, it’s too early to say exactly why that is with 100% accuracy, but I want to at least make a few guesses.  Feel free to agree or disagree with me, especially if you’ve already finished the game…as you likely should have by now.

The first thing that stuck out to me was the fact that MGS4 starts out in the war-torn Middle East…and in a 2013 context, it reminded me much too quickly of Call of Duty.  You know the drill.  Screaming, faceless soldiers going at it behind sandbags.  Explosions blasting near and far.  An decaying, semi-urban area with a generally dusty palette (it’s not 100% brown and gray, but it’s notably yellow).  It was enough to make me wonder if I’d slipped in a distinctly-bloppier game instead.  To the game’s credit, though, the first stage isn’t the only one in the game; with areas like London, Shadow Moses, and…some jungle/forest, I think, I probably won’t be left wanting for a bit of visual variety.

But don’t let looks deceive you.  There’s a difference between what’s on display in MGS4 and what’s on display in the “average” modern military shooter.  And it starts with the obvious difference.

Snake is old.

It’s nowhere near an intangible.  Snake may still have the build of an Olympic athlete (at least if that flattering OctoCamo is any indication), but some of his animations have him doing things like tending to a sore back.  This is not a man that belongs in a battlefield dominated by new technology and new imindsets, but here he is with his old ways…literally his old ways, thanks to a bit of work from Hideo Kojima and crew.  It’s the sort of thing designed from the get-go to make you say, “Hey, wait a second!  He doesn’t belong out here!”  It’s the direct approach -- almost ham-handedly so, given that Snake/Kojima are consistently dragged out to play in spite of them wanting to leave behind the battlefield -- but it still works.

There’s a level of vulnerability on display almost from the moment you’re allowed to move Snake about.  The very first area puts you in a tight expanse crawling with bipedal mechs, and if you’re anything like me you won’t make it through without eating a robotic roundhouse or six, then scurrying away to whatever hidey-hole you can find.  

Otacon explains that Snake has no reason to start a fight, and he means it; he has no allies on the battlefield, meaning that everyone around you is effectively an enemy.  Thanks to ID-tagged guns, every weapon you pick up at the outset is unusable; stealth is virtually the only option you have, even when you gain access to a few working guns.  (Although why Otacon would wait to give Snake guns before he entered a combat zone is a question best left to wherever Kojima’s tucked his lost marbles.)  You’re alone and outnumbered, with verifiable killers waiting around every turn.  If and when you trip a guard’s alert, you may very well start cowering behind a box, praying that he doesn’t notice you as he trots past.

It’s possible -- probable, even -- that the stuff that I liked in the first part of the game fades out as Snake’s arsenal increases (or I get better at the game).  But for now, I’m more than satisfied, because the stuff that I liked is the stuff I WANT from video games like this: tension.  I find it baffling that MGS4 did pretty much everything The Last of Us did, but better.  The enemies are a bigger threat.  The stealth isn’t just railroading me toward murder.  If I screw up, there are palpable consequences.  The game makes me feel tense, whereas TLoU wants me to be tense.  It’s a key distinction that makes me want to go back to one game, while I haven’t even touched the other since I finished it.  Sorry, Joel Grumpybuns, but Snake’s got you beat.  And he’s even older than you.  Well, physically at least. 

So yes, I’m 100% convinced that a top contender for 2013’s Game of the Year has long since been beaten, and no amount of hanging out with Not-Ellen Page is going to fix that.  And while we’re on the subject, any given modern military shooter has long since been beaten.  Whereas bloppier affairs will make all the explosion and gunfire little more than window dressing, MGS4’s warzone doesn’t just feel like something you’re in.  It feels like something you want to get away from…as you should, because it’s a damn warzone.  It’s pretty likely that there are a number of other elements that make MGS4 more successful than other games; sound design is one of them, arguably, and even if the controls aren’t always convenient I’d say it’s a functional flaw to de-emphasize and make you wary of combat.  But for now, I want to switch to a different topic.

MGS4 came out in 2008, and in some ways it was a killer app for the then-struggling PS3.  It’s a game that been around as long as some console generations, but it still looks good today, still plays fairly well, still manages to engross, still stands as an important part of the MGS canon, and -- as far as I can tell -- still feels contemporary, if not just-slightly-ahead of the times.  The game, and its franchise, are famous for a reason.  So why is it that in 2013, other games -- games with resources and research and reputation, or just the virtue of being newer -- feel like they’re behind?  It’s the sort of thing that makes me want to ask a legitimate question, and look for a legitimate answer.

Have games learned anything from one another?  Or rather, are we at a point where games are ready to stop learning from each other?

That sounds like a dumb question, but hear me out.  We’re at a point in the industry’s history where almost any game can be made.  Any game.  In most cases, technology is not a limiting factor anymore; with the right resources, a team can make anything they want.  But we’ve seen what happens too many times when developers lose sight of that potential, or lose sight of reason.  Conversely, we’ve seen what happens when developers wisely use their resources, along with a heaping helping of ingenuity and vision.  Frankly, part of the reason I’ve put off making a “Top Ten Favorite Games” list is because I get the feeling that all but a few of them would be from this generation.  And frankly, I think that’s awesome.  I know what games can be like when companies use their heads…and I know what games can be like when companies just swing their wallets around like battle axes.

But at this stage in the industry -- when we’re at a crossroads between one console generation and the next, and I still feel like the current hardware isn’t being tapped, even if others disagree -- I feel like I have to take a step back.  Maybe we all do.  All things considered, this is an industry that almost by definition thrives on moving forward.  Evolution.  Getting bigger, and better, and showing you that with every button you press.  But with a session of MGS4 behind me, I’m starting to wonder if by moving forward, lessons from the past -- or even the present -- are getting forgotten or outright ignored.

Games (and the devs behind them) have made mistakes before, for one reason or another.  But whether it’s by the same team or from a rival group, each new game offers a chance to improve and fix the issues its forebear might have had…in theory, at least.  Every CoD game has the chance to make its campaign actually worth playing, but Blops2 was content with making the traitor a traitor just because he wasn’t white.  And then when EA decided to get in on the modern military shooter action and go all in with Battlefield 3, its campaign was (as far as I know) universally panned.  At least that game had the multiplayer and general gameplay mechanics to back things up, but then Medal of Honor: Warfighter came out and botched that, too.  Spec Ops: The Line seemed to get it more than others, but bear in mind that it’s a game that came out before something like Warfighter.  As it stands, Spec Ops seems like nothing but a happy little mutation, like waking up to discover you have the power to make sandwiches with your mind.

Modern military shooters aren’t the only ones with problems.  For years conventions and press conferences have had speakers strutting on stage and talking about “innovation”, but when all’s said and done that innovation just ends up being “do what someone else already did.”  Or if not that, then “do what someone else already did, but worse.”  Rock Band shook up the music game scene by adding in drums, a mic, and an extra guitar, and Guitar Hero responded by…adding in drums, a mic, and an extra guitar.  The poor Tony Hawk franchise ended up drying out because those that took the reins forgot or ignored the lessons of earlier games; instead, they just threw in a plastic skateboard that barely worked with the game. 

I still like PlayStation All-Stars even if no one else does, but anyone who says that it’s not a Smash Bros. clone -- and one with its own set of issues, at that -- is just fooling themselves.  There’s a reason why I refuse to call DmC by its full name.  And if at any moment the guys behind Final Fantasy 13-2 took a look at Chrono Trigger instead of shoehorning in fetch quests, pointless dialogue trees, QTEs, and knee-jerk reactions to plyer complaints, they would have made a better game realized they should have chucked the whole project into the trash.    

…Oh wait, I thought of one more.  “Do what someone else already did, but for no reason.”

This shouldn’t be that hard.  And I’ll prove it with Indigo Prophecy, of all things.

One of the more notable mechanics of the game is a stress meter that shows up occasionally in the bottom right corner of the screen.  Do something right or relaxing, like get a lead on the case or hang out with your lady friend, and the stress meter will rise, all the way to the maximum level of…neutral.  Okay.  Anyway, if you screw up or let the story get out of your control, the stress meter will go down.  The man in the meter’s display will go from standing to the orz position -- and if for any reason the meter should bottom out, you lose the game.  I guess the character du jour just gives up or commits suicide; I wouldn’t know, since the Two Best Friends LP never reached those depths.  (They just faced and endured the game’s unique blend of “sadness”.)  Much like the past three Quantic Dream games, it’s a mechanic that shows promise, but ends up missing the mark. 

But they weren’t wrong for trying to include a “stress meter”, or tension meter, or whatever you want to call it.  Frankly, I’ve been thinking of ways to implement it into a game just for kicks.  See, there was an article over on EventHubs -- and my own personal failings at fighting games -- that reminded me of the importance of keeping one’s cool during a conflict…or anything, really.  The possibilities are there; imagine a game, for example -- a fighting game, just for argument’s sake -- where you have a standard health bar, a super meter, and a third gauge that measures your character’s psyche. 

Land a few hits or a nice combo, or maybe fend off an opponent’s attacks with a strong defense, and the psyche gauge -- represented in this case by an electrocardiogram -- will start going from the neutral yellow color to a cool blue, and have an even pace.  But if you’re taking a beating, lose the life lead, can’t get a hit in, or (for true sadness) don’t land that super, and the psyche gauge will turn red, and start bouncing like crazy.  At a base level it’d be something that affects a character’s performance -- maybe affecting their meter gain or stat parameters -- as well as a visual cue for how a player’s doing.  It’s a way to make the covert more overt, and make that tension more tangible as a result. 

And it could go even further than that; if you’re taking a real beating and go into the red, you can use that built-up tension to have your fighter temporarily enter a sort of berserker state -- kind of like Marvel 3’s X-Factor, but, say, adding to attack and speed while subtracting from defense and meter gain, or maybe just disabling certain moves.  Conversely, if you’re in the blue you can enter a different super mode -- one that doesn’t give quite as large stat boosts (if at all), but lasts a bit longer enhances the properties of your character’s attacks for even better combos.  Think of it as something like BlazBlue’s new Overdrive mechanic.  Here are some videos for comparison.

Admittedly, it’s an idea that could use a bit more work (fine-tuning the system so both modes have risks and rewards might be vital).  And to be fair, outside of the super mode mechanic I’d assume my psyche gauge idea has been done before.  Xenoblade Chronicles had a system in place where characters would get fired up or discouraged depending on their battle prowess, and if you didn’t offer encouragement they’d start to really falter in a fight.  I’ve never played Eternal Darkness, but if what I’ve heard is right it has a tension meter as well, albeit one that noted a character’s sanity.  Hell, even MGS4 has one that goes up and down depending on Snake’s mood -- and it carries over into cutscenes.  (Give him a working gun and he’s happy.  Loudly make note of how old he’s become, and watch the gauge bottom out.) 

Indigo Prophecy’s probably not the first game to add in a tension meter, and it probably won’t be the last.  But no matter how well it worked in that game -- or not -- what’s important is that there are plenty of opportunities to improve on it.  Basic concepts can be taken and expanded upon to the point where they’ve become something entirely original.  The Legend of Zelda begat OkamiDoom begat BioShockStreet Fighter II begat damn near every 2D fighter made since.  They all have that basic DNA inside them, but the games that are worthy of being revered and remembered are those that take lessons from the past and evolve from them as a result.  “This is a good mechanic,” a wise dev might say.  “But what can I do to make it even better?”  Or if not that, then “I like this, but it has a few problems.  Maybe if I add in a few tweaks, it’ll make for a better experience.”

The gaming climate has changed for everyone, from the lowly gamer to the executive sitting atop his gold-encrusted throne.  I would expect that by now, the games we play would continue to take massive steps toward becoming something truly remarkable…and yet I can’t load up Destructoid without being confronted with news like “Developer X is aiming for a broader audience” or “Game Q is now has this feature, because every other game has it and thus Game Q will become better.”  

There’s a severe lack of vision, and I can’t shake the feeling that it’s because devs are looking to their sides -- to each other, at the most superficial level -- without looking backward to the past the industry is built on, or (more troublingly) looking fiercely at the works of others, and understanding what did/didn’t work without just copying what did/didn’t work.  I can almost guaran-damn-tee that we’re going to see more “grizzled older fellow partners up with cute female sidekick” games in the future, and I sincerely hope that A) the right lessons are taken from them without just copying them to match their success, and B) the lessons are actually a fit for what they were going for in the first place.  Or, you know, don’t even copy someone else and come up with your own idea.  But if playing “follow the leader” is a must, at least do it right.

Gamers today expect more from their games.  I certainly do.  And I’ve seen others that do, as well.  But it’s not THAT hard to satisfy us…well, it’s not that hard to satisfy most, but my standards seem to be high to the point of notoriety.  That said, a game as “old” as MGS4 is primed and ready to give me everything I want and more out of a game…so why aren’t others?  Why am I more afraid of the next console generation than excited?  Will things get better, or worse?  And when?  I wouldn’t mind knowing, because I want to see what devs can do with my own eyes.  With enlightenment well-engraved into their hearts and minds.

Gaming has changed.  When the mentality is under total upheaval, gaming becomes awesome.

…Please accept this picture of Sackboy Old Snake as an apology for butchering that line..

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