I said as much on Twitter, but it bears repeating: Gaim strikes me as what happens when a man watches the movie version of West Side Story, and takes it WAY too seriously -- and upon realizing that the streets of New York aren’t filled with gang battles won via elaborate dance moves, proceeded to have a nervous breakdown.
The show starts in one place, and becomes something completely different barely a quarter of the way in. Without giving away any spoilers, let’s just say that head writer Gen Urobuchi has evidently been playing a lot of Devil Survivor…and unfortunately, happened to watch huge swaths of the abysmal anime adaption.
That -- much like the majority of this post -- is pretty depressing. So you might want to have your favorite comedic video or song uploaded.
(Should your search fail, Gaim will provide.)
Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot to like about Gaim. A whole lot. It breaks the formula and conventions that have gripped the franchise for the better part of a decade, there are some exciting ideas at play, the lead is solid, his foil is godlike, the soundtrack is infectious, and the fights have that expected toku goodness -- to the point where I'd say Gaim makes a better shooter than every shooter I've talked about in the past six or so weeks. But at this point, I have to admit I’m a little disappointed.
The rival is one-dimensional, all but one of the villains is an idiot (and also one-dimensional), some interesting plot threads are dropped without fanfare, and I suspect the show’s run out of cards to play now that the “Madoka-level reveal” has come and gone, itself a bit flaccid. Still, I can’t help but like Gaim. Is it flawed? Oh yes. But I’ll gladly take it, and enjoy it.
You may be wondering why I’d go off on a Rider-related tangent, given the title. Well, that’s simple. It’s because right now, it’s easy to get excited about Kamen Rider. In contrast, it’s hard to feel excited about -- or even proud of -- video games.
Now, let me back up a bit. I take pride in trying to see the bright side of things -- as the self-proclaimed “Eternal Optimist” -- and that’s not going to change anytime soon. So if you think the rest of this post is going to be about me playing the doomsayer and shaking my fist at everything that doesn’t suit me, don’t. I love video games, even now. And I know that there are good video games out there, even now. And I know that even if things look bleak, there’s always going to be hope, and change, and, you know, good games. The way it should be.
I just thought I’d offer up that preface -- because DAMN is there a lot to be wary about these days.
I have no idea what to make of this whole #GamerGate situation. I’ve read up on it, but the amount of information and opinions that need to be processed are staggering -- so I figure it’s best to just stay out of it and wait for things and people alike to cool down. I can only hope by this point that it has. Smarter people than me can say (and have said) what’s important and meaningful, and hopefully it’ll help lead to a better place.
Hopefully #GamerGate won’t fizzle out with nothing gained and no one learning anything from it; even if there’s been some blood spilled over this, it may be necessary so we can all figure out what needs to be done, what lines need to be drawn, and most of all, who we really are as high-end hobbyists.
So let’s talk about something else instead. Something that I think is just as important.
There’s an argument to be made that there are a lot of people take video games too seriously -- but I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. If we’re being honest here, I take video games too seriously; that’s a key reason why I consider stuff like Watch Dogs and DmC affronts to my very being. It’s why I can’t bring myself to give a pass to any title that irks me. You don’t know how much it hurts me to not be able to enjoy critically-acclaimed releases like everyone else, but I only take issue because I love the medium. And I expect that, if I someday stumbled into a seat of creative power, others would feel free to point out my failings.
In those cases (and many more), I refuse to overlook their faults because I have a hard time accepting that tens of millions of dollars went into products that fall apart in the first five minutes. I know that games can do better, because I’ve seen “better” for myself -- be it from the past or present. As long as it’s within reason -- and done with reason -- it’s a gamer’s duty to raise a stink. The alternative is letting “par for the course” comb the roof of the average mole-man.
I’ve always believed that, even if there are a lot of different factors that make us the people we are, it’s the art and stories we take in that hardwire us. Think about it. Sure, parents and teachers and family members and the like can inform us and give us a push, but those lessons are pushed our way. Conversely, when you read a book or watch a TV show or -- yes, obviously -- play a video game, you’re doing it of your own will.
You’re engaging with it on a personal level. You’re taking in its particulars and learning from it instead of someone else. So while a parent may tell you what’s right, art can show you what’s right. And before you know it -- long before you even know what lessons you’ve learned -- you’re affected. That’s what art is designed to do.
Yes, even this.
Everything I’ve said has pretty much been said better by Linkara in his History of Power Rangers series. It’s true that Power Rangers is corny and silly and campy, but time and time again the franchise -- and its Super Sentai counterpart, and its Kamen Rider contemporary -- has proven that there’s not only a genuine effort to tell a story, but to impart good feelings and morals to its viewers between the kung fu fighting and merchandise shilling.
There’s something to be gained from that, I think. As I’ve argued before, just because a story is superficially “kiddie” doesn’t mean that it’s without merit -- because more often than not, they’re the ones that are either much higher in quality than you’d expect, or so thematically dense you’d need a chainsaw to slice off a piece.
I’m not saying that everything out there needs to be of strong moral fiber and “teach a lesson” to an audience, because that would imply that all gamers are mush-minded five-year-olds. But here’s the thing: we know what’s out there. We know what’s good. We know what can and will touch our hearts. And we can ask for that -- expect it from those who want our support.
Games can provide merit in a way that other mediums can’t; even if it’s just an illusion, they can put us right in the middle of the conflict du jour. And when the credits are rolling and the pad’s set down, we can walk away with something gained. We can have some new and special experience to call our own -- to open our minds, and make us stronger as a result.
Now more than ever, I’m afraid we’re in danger of losing that -- if we haven’t already.
I know what you’re thinking, and I’m going to stop you right there. Yes, I know that gaming has gotten bigger than ever, and (almost paradoxically) it’s given rise to a federation of smaller teams. Indie developers are pretty much doing the Lord’s work at this stage, offering up plenty of quality titles on a regular basis. Shovel Knight, Transistor, Fez -- all good.
Those aren’t the ones I’m talking about, and for obvious reasons. Those aren’t the games that are pushing out millions of copies on day one. Nor are they confined to minutes-long glimpses -- at best -- in compartmentalized trade shows. They’re the games that carry the most weight -- the games that suggest to any given outsider “what video games are”.
But I’m not here just to slam triple-A games. That’s been done enough -- and despite the blessing of indie games, they’re not entirely faultless either. I’m here because I can’t help but take issue with a hefty percentage of games as they are now. Just think about what I’ve said so far, and think about what’s been said of games in the past half-decade or so.
Think about the discussions, the articles, the commentary, and the products themselves. Think carefully about what game, after game, after game, after game has been trying to say -- what developers and companies alike want to sell to you, on the grounds that you’ll love them and thus support them.
Think about what games used to offer.
Think about what they offer now.
I hope that helps explain why I hate DmC.
But since I brought it up, there’s a specific reason why I used those two clips. See, I had every intention of using the Cerberus weapon demo -- or any number of other cutscenes -- for DMC3. But then I remembered that Dante himself shoots a woman in the gut, and I figured that overlooking that would be hypocritical. So let’s try and unpack these two scenes, and see if we can spot the differences. And once we do, I suspect you’ll start to see what I mean.
The clip from Devil May Cry 3 shows the end result of a battle with Nevan, a sultry vampire out to turn Dante into a tasty -- and likely electrified -- snack. Naturally the half-demon (and the player guiding him) pulls through, and gives her one last shot in the gut to finish her off and stop her sneak attack cold. Shortly thereafter, Nevan concedes her loss and offers up her power to Dante -- rather amicably, just like the bosses before her -- so he can make his way through the tower of evil, stop his twin brother Vergil, and save the day. Easy, yes?
Now let’s switch gears.
The clip from DmC shows the end result of a different boss battle, albeit one that’s presumably a few hours later (at least). Donte and Vorgil’s fellow comrade Kat gets abducted after an enemy raid of their base, so in order to gain leverage -- and draw big baddie Mundus away from the Hell Gate that makes him unbeatable -- Donte storms the club of Mundus’ wife Lilith and beats her and the demon-baby she’s pregnant with into submission. As in, you knock her around despite her scurrying away and begging for mercy. (DMC3 may have also included violence against women, but on both accounts those women were portrayed as threats, and as Dante’s equals -- not his victims.)
With Lilith in tow, the nephilim brothers enact the trade -- but Vorgil shoots out Lilith’s stomach and head, presumably as a way to establish the fact that he’s not a good guy. I would say it was “part of the plan”, but it’s not; given that the entire point of the kidnapping was to draw Mundus away from his Hell Gate, the most killing Lilith did was piss him off so that he’d unleash all his power and slaughter countless innocents. So basically, the “good guys” got nothing accomplished and end up rushing Mundus’ office anyway, which was virtually the opposite of the plan.
DmC was not equipped to deal with a scene like The Trade. And this goes beyond just discussing the ethics of killing a pregnant woman, even if she did (debatably) throw the first punch. It makes no sense in the context of the game’s story. It’s a bizarre departure from the franchise the game is trying to slot into. It’s never discussed again, except maybe in a couple of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it lines.
It takes the game to a place it was never meant to go, which it could have recovered from if it had anything meaningful to say. But it didn’t. At best, it was a way to show that Vorgil was the bad guy (as a way to cram in his “character” with the run time dwindling down); at worst, it’s just in there for a twist. Shock value. Proof of edginess, and some perceived sense of merit. Nothing more, nothing less.
And we’re just supposed to accept it and move on.
I’m thankful we’re fans of a medium where scenes like The Trade are the exception, not the standard -- because if they were, that would be a strong argument right there to give up gaming, period. But even if they tend to avoid that extreme, I still can’t help but feel like we’re in a bad place in terms of the content. No, I’m not saying that we need to be all smiles and watercolors, or that grit is absolutely out of the question. Hell, “grittiness” barely even factors in here. What I’m concerned about is the message that a lot of games are imparting on us. What are we learning from them on a subconscious level? What are they doing to us? Are they hurting us in ways we can’t even begin to perceive?
Yeah. Yeah, I think they are.
I’m going to have to get a little presumptuous here, so feel free to disagree with me here. But in all honesty, I get the feeling that the state of gamers is a reflection of the state of gaming -- that all the vices and failings of what should be the best and brightest are weighing down on us. Chalk it up to any number of factors. Pick your favorite of the bunch.
The over-reliance on lovingly-rendered, approaching-photorealistic violence. The staunch, regular refusal to be more than just exercises in killing -- and the pushes to make that the main draw over anything else. The absence of strong, identifiable leads in any number of games, putting the spotlight on the anonymous at best. The narrowing of worlds and scope that turn sprawling adventures into funnels toward the next murder. And of course, the stunning lack of diversity on all fronts -- ages, races, and gender most of all.
Art exists to circulate ideas. They may be products designed to win bread for creators and companies, but almost by definition they’re allowed to be -- and are supposed to be more. By circulating ideas, minds are opened; possibilities are perceived; even if they don’t necessarily bring about some world-sweeping reform, art can at least make someone stop and say “Huh. I never would have thought of it like that.”
And that’s what games can do. I know it, because they’ve done that for me, plenty of times. Whether it’s with story elements, visuals, sound, or by virtue of the gameplay -- ESPECIALLY by the gameplay, in a lot of cases -- games can do more. They can make us better without us even knowing it.
They can be more than just “fun”. Especially now. Because between you and me, I’m having a hard time seeing what’s so “fun” about plenty of games these days.
Or am I just being too demanding here? Am I just ranting about nothing? Maybe I should. Maybe I should just sit back and watch while my squad mates in Battlefield 4 open fire on one man I don’t even know for sure is my enemy. Maybe I should just embrace being a seven-foot tall super soldier that can’t be arsed to contribute to a conversation while his blue AI girlfriend proceeds to have more humanity than a cabal of saints.
Maybe I should just sneak my way through the streets of India and ignore every inlaid desire to explore its folds for myself, on the grounds that there’s no one to shoot. Maybe I should just point and laugh as meatheads, peons, and Batman wannabes show that the full range of human emotion is rage, angst, snark, or nothing.
Yeah. I’m obviously being too demanding. I’d better lay off a little.
I have my issues, and yes, those all come from some unshakeable biases. But here’s the thing: I’m not so worried about how I feel about games, because I can get over them. My problem is that I’m worried that this increasingly-popular, increasingly-accepted medium is going to start altering the perception of players and people as a whole -- if it hasn’t already.
Let me put it this way: I consider Watch Dogs to be one of the worst games I’ve ever played, so unbearable that I could hardly bring myself to play past the introduction of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. And I’m okay with that (to an extent). Some people feel as strongly about it as I do. Others let it slide. But whatever the case, the game -- despite falling short of the hype -- went on to sell, at a bare minimum, four million copies. A lot of people are going to experience the misadventures of “The Vigilante” firsthand. And I weep for those who buy into it a hundred percent.
The game brimmed with potential from the outset -- and once upon a time, the prospect of cyber-subterfuge excited me -- but Watch Dogs went entirely untapped. What could have been a poignant tale and potential scenario of our future ended up boiled down to a single message: Ah, don’t worry about all that complicated stuff! Just be a cool guy, and take down anyone who wrongs you! It’ll be fun! (If you’re feeling extra-cynical, you could say “be an ignorant cool guy” instead.) It’s indulgent design that narrows the game’s worldview down to everything within Aiden Pearce’s distorted range -- one that barely makes it past his nose.
But the player is just supposed to buy into it because otherwise, the game can’t continue. The player is asked not to think about the context, the consequences, or the contradictions created by Aiden’s actions and basic decency -- and often, common sense. And that’s all setting aside the horrific devaluation of women in the game, almost from minute one. Or am I just supposed to forget that despite being a 2014 game, the plot is still pushed forward by a double-whammy of a dead niece and a kidnapped sister -- both of which are largely Aiden’s fault?
But the player is asked to look past that. And for what? The chance to shoot people? To blow up stuff? To hack? To steal? To destroy? Or in an abstract sense, to express the player’s power? To make the player feel smarter and nobler, knowing that they’re “outwitting” foes who are only the villains because the plot says so? For me, I can’t bring myself to do it. There’s no merit -- certainly not intellectually, and not even viscerally.
And believe it or not, I suspect that I could if I had the proper context and if the mechanics were sharp enough. I’m not against violence in games if it serves a purpose or is executed well; that’s the reason why Metal Gear Rising was my favorite game of 2013. But while Rising asks you to think about what you’re doing -- in the story and out of it -- Watch Dogs asks you to stop thinking. Accept it, learn from it, and think that what it’s doing is okay.
And your reward is more mindless murder.
And for some people, that reward is more than enough. It’s welcome.
Let’s be real here. I’m not saying that just because you play or like a game like Watch Dogs, you’re automatically the scum of the earth. If you’re reading this, then you’re probably fine. But the problem is twofold; even if you can see the issues, and I can obsess over the issues, there are still people who don’t. And beyond that, there are those who just don’t feel like there’s a problem -- that the games without anything substantive to them besides power and violence and the like are ultimately harmless because it’s happening in a game. Fantasy. Just a chance for fun, and nothing more.
That’s not fair to games. And that mindset isn’t doing anyone any favors. Not developers. Not gamers. Certainly not the outsiders looking in. But that’s the message we’re in danger of sending as a collective of hobbyists -- that “this is our standard” and “this is what we want”. We’ve already sent that message, in a sense, given the stuff that makes the most noise (and the sequels greenlit in the same week as a game’s release, based solely on sales instead of, you know, quality). It all feeds into this nasty feedback loop that we might not be able to escape from.
In a lot of cases, the difference between a good story and a bad one is how willing a story is to explore the possibilities -- to play with its tools, dive into its concepts, and offer up something based on its terms and particulars. It’s true that you can’t always count on or expect games to even have stories, but the same rule applies via its mechanics, if not its narrative. The possibilities -- the end result -- are there, no matter the framework. And that’s what gamers are looking for, more than just the chance for the next thrill.
We are affected by the art we consume. It helps us consider possibilities -- new perspectives, and new facets of life. So in theory, the possibilities are endless, simply because a creative medium allows for so many potential products. But when a creative medium -- when this creative medium keeps slotting into roles and “standards”, and when everyone on every rung of the industry ladder accepts “this is how it should be”, then we really are hurting ourselves -- and our cause.
You’re free to disagree with me, of course. It’s almost certain that I’m reaching here (and if not that, then at least trying to play the moral guardian). But you know what? Maybe I’m not so far off-base here. Remember my summation of Watch Dogs: ah, don’t worry about all that complicated stuff! Just be a cool guy, and take down anyone who wrongs you! It’ll be fun! There’s something horrifically small-minded about the proceedings of that game. It’s not the first, and it won’t be the last, but the mentality behind the lesser-fare strikes me as a little too familiar. And as much as I hate to admit it, it feels all too real. I wish it wasn’t, but this is what we have to accept.
Maybe Jack Thompson, Fox News, and an armada of cross-armed parents were right all along.
So that’s about where I stand. I’ll be the first to admit that this wasn’t my favorite post -- because it sounds a little like a hare-brained rant -- but I feel like it’s something I had to say. So if you disagree with me, go ahead and do so. Offer up some perspective. Prove me wrong. Give your own examples. You read my post, and I thank you for it. Giving you the chance to strike back is the least I can do. Well, that, and at least try to end on a positive note.
Cripes, Gaim has got one of the dopest super modes I ever did see. And that opening theme…delicious!
DON’T SAY NO! JUST LIVE MORE! Man, that should be the gamer’s rallying cry.