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The Raiden Debate Continued

In honor of finally getting around to my Metal Gear marathon, I'll be posting analyses and reviews of the franchise for the next few weeks. I posted my Twin Snakes review a few days ago and now I bring you my first essay on Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty:

Concurrent to the Metal Gear franchise's 25th anniversary, I've been reading numerous articles across the gaming sites I frequent celebrating the franchise, and it's been a real treat to have my experience of actually playing through the games be supplemented by so many great commentaries. Of particular note are 1UP's huge series of blogs and GameSpot editor Shaun McInnis's "Facing My Metal Gear Solid Demons" piece. The latter article, like most Metal Gear Solid 2 coverage, focuses a lot on the character of Raiden. McInnis's article goes beyond the usual critique or defense of the character and instead focuses on what I appreciate most about Solid Snake's successor: the dichotomy between his representation in Sons of Liberty and Guns of the Patriots. Raiden's drastic change in Metal Gear Solid 4 is dictated not just by his story arc in Metal Gear Solid 2, but gamer's reactions to his inclusion in the mythos. The striking difference between the way this character is portrayed in Metal Gear Solid 2 and Metal Gear Solid 4 has always fascinated me, as it demonstrates a truly remarkable coincidence; Regardless of whether Kojima's reimagining of the character was the natural result of the way his story progressed in Metal Gear Solid 2, or because of pressure from his critics, Raiden still would've ended up in the same place.

Before delving into what Raiden's Metal Gear Solid 4 metamorphosis signifies for the character, it's important to examine the series trope that his character ultimately fulfills - the cyborg ninja. He and his two predecessors, Frank Jaeger and Gray Fox all share the same transformative arc and personality traits once they take on the role of the cybernetic warrior. First, they each suffer from some sort of deep-seated moral dilemma. Jaeger killed Naomi Hunter's parents but decided to spare her and treat her as family, Olga tried (and failed) to reunite with her daughter and Raiden admits to a tortured past as a child soldier. Next, they endure some kind of extreme hardship as a soldier. Jaeger is critically wounded by Solid Snake and subsequently subjected to brutal experiments, Olga's father is killed at the end of Metal Gear Solid 2's opening act and she becomes another pawn for the Patriots, and Raiden is manipulated and betrayed by his supposed superiors during his mission on the Big Shell plant. Lastly, none of the characters are empowered by the battle prowess granted them through their cybernetic enhancements. Jaeger, Olga and Raiden all fight as if they have nothing to lose (admittedly, Olga fights for her child's survival, but she is unconcerned with whether or not she ultimately lives or dies in the process) and they generally seem to view their powers as burdensome. Each of these characters haunted and distant yet capable of dazzling displays of balletic combat. In many ways, the ninjas are the perfect manifestation of the Metal Gear Solid series' simultaneous glorification and condemnation of war.

Raiden

Unlike the plights of his predecessors, learning of Raiden's transformation from a naive, awkward rookie to a cold-hearted badass hits hard. Metal Gear Solid 2's final hours found Raiden facing one surprising revelation after another; his commanding officers turn out to be AI constructs, his entire mission was manipulated and designed by the Patriots, his dark past as a child soldier is revealed and he has to deal with one imminent threat after another. Although less significant, the fact that he's pissed on, groped and forced to run around naked in the game's final hours further hit home the fact that Raiden's endurance of one degrading event after another is central to the character. After learning of his past and seeing him get put through the wringer time and time again,it becomes easy to understand Raiden's transformation into the cyborg ninja, but the trials he faces solely within the confines of Metal Gear Solid 2's narrative are only one part of his big change in Metal Gear Solid 4.

The most defining element of Raiden's character doesn't have anything to do with the Metal Gear mythos itself, but rather the unfairly negative public reaction to the new protagonist. People's main issue with Raiden was simply the fact that he existed and stole the spotlight away from Snake. Yet if one revisits the characterization of Solid Snake in the Metal Gear games that came before Sons of Liberty (as I will in an upcoming blog), it's not as if he's a vastly more interesting character. The way I see it, people were just so surprised and taken aback by Metal Gear Solid 2's infamous switcheroo that it became easy to focus the backlash on poor old Raiden. Thus, in many ways, Raiden's portrayal in Guns of the Patriots seems to be demonstrative of a creator caught off guard. I highly doubt Kojima intended for Raiden to be one of gaming's most hated main characters, and the drastic revision of the character in Metal Gear Solid 4 seems to indicate that he doesn't want Raiden to be remembered for how he originally was. No longer clumsy and gullible, ninja Raiden is robotically cool and willing to sacrifice himself numerous times for the fan-favorite, Snake.

Raiden's change occurs on two levels. The first is purely dictated by narrative; Raiden has a tough time Metal Gear Solid 2 to say the least, so it only makes sense that he would reemerge a changed man the next time we saw him. The second is dictated by fan outcry; after Raiden was so poorly received by gamers, his character simply had to change in order to redeem him from his infamy. The debate as to whether or not Raiden is a truly great protagonists in the grand scheme of video gaming could be waged forever, but there's no denying that his his tragic arc coupled with his troubled creation make him a truly fascinating one.

'I'm You... I'm Your Shadow' - The Twin Snakes Review

As the first of my Metal Gear-related blog series, here's my review of Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes. Beginning next week (hopefully) I'll start posting a few analyses of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty.

"There are six members of FOXHOUND involved in this terrorist activity. Psycho Mantis, with his powerful psychic abilities. Sniper Wolf, the beautiful and deadly sharpshooter. Decoy Octopus, master of disguise. Vulcan Raven, giant and shaman. And Revolver Ocelot, specialist in interrogation and a formidable gun fighter. And finally, in charge of them... FOXHOUND's squad leader... Liquid Snake."

Back when I first played the original Metal Gear Solid right before the release of its sequel, the introduction of Solid Snake's upcoming nemeses felt menacing. Seldom few games build up to momentous conflicts well enough that they're willing to give players a foreboding preview of their imminent challenges straightaway. In 2012, however, Colonel Campbell's rundown of the FOXHOUND freakshow sounds downright goofy. Between their ridiculous names and the too-serious descriptions of their equally absurd powers, a moment that once felt so compelling and cinematic now feels almost laughable. This small snippet of dialog is a surprising indicator of how the experience of revisiting Metal Gear Solid (in the form of the GameCube remake, The Twin Snakes) feels as a whole. Upon revisiting any of the original game's successors, that feeling of poor aging isn't at all prevalent. That's a huge testament to how remarkably forward-thinking and uncompromising Kojima's masterpiece series became, even between the first and second titles. There's still plenty of strange stuff to see as the series moves forward, but all the whacky villains and cheesy lines grow to be executed with a sense of self-assuredness that simply isn't present in its beginnings. Despite its improvements over the original version, Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes is still representative of a mythos in its infancy; certain narrative tropes later games in the series pull off so wonderfully never quite feel right (as mentioned before, for example, the handling of the incredible rogue's gallery) and the gameplay experience as a whole is slightly clumsy. Ultimately, revisiting this game reveals enough oddities to forgo the conclusion that it's the title the Metal Gear Solid series will be remembered for, but it's still a striking experience in many ways and one that must be experienced by any serious gamer.

The Twin Snakes' chief objective is to marry the look and mechanics of Metal Gear Solid 2 to the story and layout of the original classic, and for the most part that goal is met rather successfully. While it doesn't look nearly as good as Sons of Liberty or Snake Eater, the graphical overhaul is definitely welcome and it's also great to see a few reappearances of the many visual intricacies Kojima pioneered with the second Metal Gear Solid. Several elements of the sound design have also changed with the most noticeable difference being the redone voice-over work. Several bits of dialog have been changed and certain characters are voiced by new actors; the biggest change is the fact that Mei Ling and Naomi Hunter both drop their original accents and are voiced by two of the usual stable of US dub actors whose performances would later be canonized by their inclusion in Metal Gear Solid 4. The original Metal Gear Solid was noted for its excellent audio presentation, and it's even better here. All the changes brought by The Twin Snakes, from the fun, overblown voice-acting, to the great music and stellar sound effects all add up to make one of the best sounding games the GameCube has to offer.

Twin Snakes

Easily the biggest change, however, is the addition of the first-person mode introduced in Metal Gear Solid 2. Holding the top bumper will snap away from the games usual isometric perspective and allow you to see through Snake's eyes. However, in keeping with the game's non-traditional control scheme, you can't move around in this mode, so it's likely you'll only ever use it for observation or to fine-tune your aiming. While it might not sound like much, it changes the game drastically; it gives new depth to the standard sneaking gameplay, reveals fun new goodies within the game's environment, and most importantly, makes the game's stupendous boss encounters feel fresh again. Unfortunately, with this new power comes an increased challenge as guards are now able to spot you from much further away than they used to. This is a true shame since The Twin Snakes' environments are often too large to allow for complete situational awareness, even with the new perspective. For all but the most experienced Metal Gear Solid fans, a feeling of cheapness will likely be pervasive from beginning to end, but the experience as a whole is still so engrossing that it isn't enough to lessen the game's overall entertainment value.

Delving into the story of The Twin Snakes is rather difficult. The brief overview is that Solid Snake must breach into a weapons manufacturing facility in Alaska, absurdly named Shadow Moses, to eliminate the aforementioned group of terrorists that have taken the place over (though 14 years after the fact, it's not much of a spoiler to say it involves a Metal Gear). Going into too much more detail, however, would run the risk of revealing one of the game's many plot twists or fun narrative quirks. Truth be told, The Twin Snakes features a rather poor storyline, but the way it's told is just so peculiar that it may very well resonate with you whether you want it to or not. The game tries to touch on a few complex subjects pertaining to nature-versus-nurture and technology's place in warfare but it doesn't quite have the grace that its sequels do, and the resulting cutscenes and Codec chats are truly bizarre; characters have a tendency to spout inane dialog, the rather frequent dips into melodrama are exceedingly awkward and long-winded bouts of exposition are fairly frequent. Taking this even further are remade versions of the original Metal Gear Solid's cutscenes, courtesy of Silicon Knights and director Ryuhei Kitamura. The new cinemas revel in bullet-time death ballets and sudden, over-exagerrated movements; Gray Fox's gruesome introduction is even more of a gory spectacle than it originally was, and Snake pulls off an average of 1.5 impossibly agile stunts per cutscene. All these elements add up to create something of a train wreck. Luckily, like a movie that's so bad it's good, The Twin Snakes is an endearing disaster that's easy remember fondly despite your better judgment.

The way The Twin Snakes audaciously starts you off alone in an environment filled to the brim with enemies with only a few pieces of equipment reveals the game's focus on non-lethal stealth rather quickly. This game absolutely cannot be approached in the way most action-adventure games can, but the resulting experience is uniquely satisfying. At the crux of The Twin Snakes' minute-to-minute gameplay is sneaking past enemy guards while keeping a low profile. While this may not sound terribly exciting on paper, the way it plays out is immensely entertaining. Being that your enemies are almost always on patrol, there's a cyclicality to their movements that you have to recognize in order to sneak by undetected. Beyond the game's opening stages, enemy movements can become exceedingly difficult to navigate through, but sliding through a small crack in their defenses is always rewarding.

The Twin Snakes

The other beauty of The Twin Snakes' core gameplay is how open it is to experimentation. The arsenal players receive in a more typical action game usually serves to give them a fairly straightforward and self-explanatory solution to the challenges that lie before them (usually involving murdering everyone in sight) - such is not the case here. Between Solid Snake's vast moveset and a dizzying number of guns, gadgets and explosives, there are seemingly innumerable options at your disposal. While the game certainly allows you to fall into a sneaking pattern that's as predictable as the rounds the patrolmen make, it would be a shame to go through the whole game without playing around with its many tools and mechanics. Why simply run past a group of guards when you might knock one out, plant a C4 by his body, grab the attention of another nearby soldier, detonate the bomb as he goes to wake up his buddy and then sneak out during the ensuing panic? The possibilities are grim and glorious.

Despite its depth, The Twin Snakes' core gameplay isn't actually a big part of the experience. Though I haven't clocked it myself, it's very possible that you spend the majority of your time outside the games cutscenes engaged in one of its many superb boss battles. Between frantic fistfights and slow-burn sniper battles, the game's boss fights pack a ton of gameplay variety and whiteknuckled intensity. The fact that there are at least ten of these excellent encounters with the game's 6-8 hour running time makes it that much better. About midway through your adventure, the game's core mechanics almost drop out of the picture entirely in favor of snappily driving you from one boss fight to the next. In an age where the boss is an increasingly tired and poorly-handled gaming trope, it's refreshing to revisit a game that makes these moments feel like real highlights rather than adjunct and archaic additions.

Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes is one of those rare gaming experiences that qualifies as an absolute must-play despite the fact that it's not a truly exceptional title. Certain parts of the game haven't aged well (the whacky story chief among them) and others, like the game's often frustrating environmental design, never quite worked right in the first place. Even to this day, however, the game feels totally unique and fresh, and it's concepts are so grand that it's hard not to admire, or even be awed by them. Some games can stand the test of time, and in some respects, The Twin Snakes is not that kind of game; there are more than a few punches to roll with in order to bring yourself to appreciate the experience. But ultimately, the game remains a resounding success in the ways that matter most, and it's thrilling gameplay, ambitious story and intense boss battles will likely never fail to entertain.

Stay Tuned

For a long time, my plans for a Metal Gear Solid marathon had become something of a myth. Ever since I first played through Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots in 2008, I'd been wanting to go back and replay each big Metal Gear Solid title one after the other in the order the order they were released. With its complex story, non-traditional stealth gameplay and the thrilling sense of finality brought by Guns of the Patriots, I'd always assumed that the franchise would greatly benefit from back-to-back playthroughs. Now that I've stopped putting off my revisitation of the series and have finally hunkered down to play them all to completion during the usual summer drought, all I can say is that my assumptions were right. Playing all the main titles (those being the original, 2, 3, Peace Walker and 4) has been an immensely rewarding experience that reveals a new depth to the franchise, even for a longtime fan like myself.

Twin Snakes

The fact that these replays coincide with the Metal Gear series' 25th anniversary is a sheer coincidence, but a fun one nonetheless. It's been great to have the experience of actually playing the games be supplemented by all the excellent essays and editorials that have been popping up across the gaming sites I frequent. Inspired by this, I've decided to write a collection of analyses and reviews of my own. I'm not going to commit to a specific number or posting schedule, but having briefly outlined all the MGS-related subjects I'd be interested in writing about, there are quite a few topics that I really want to explore more thoroughly. The first Metal Gear anniversary post will be a review of Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes, and I'll probably post that up a bit later in the week.

Redo - Mass Effect 3 Extended Cut Impressions

***WARNING MASS EFFECT 3 ENDING AND EXTENDED CUT SPOILERS AHEAD***

ME3

Even though Mass Effect 3's ending was pretty terrible, one has to appreciate it for the artistic conundrum it has become. The outrage over the game's ending and BioWare's ensuing commitment to patching things up has caused nearly everyone who cared about the matter to examine their perceptions of what defines artistic integrity. Mass Effect 3's detractors largely argued that there wasn't anything artful in the game's ending and thus the rule didn't apply, while those who were concerned with BioWare's decision to change the ending clung to the agreed-upon definition of the term. Frankly, I think both stances are too extreme. I take issue with the fact that Mass Effect 3's final moments were of such a poor quality that they didn't hold any artistry; they certainly felt forced and inconsistent with the tone set by the rest of the game, but I found the moral dilemma presented by the game's final choice to be quite fascinating. I also appreciated the fact that BioWare had originally refrained from presenting any sort of ending montage; one of the most poignant and satisfying qualities of Mass Effect 3 is the fact that each major character and plot element got their just due within the bulk of the campaign. However, I'm also hugely opposed to the idea that once a developer makes an artistic choice they aren't allowed to go back and revise it. Such is the rigid, self-imposed rule of the de facto definition of artistic integrity, and I feel as though it has no place in entertainment; the creation of art shouldn't be bound by a set of arbitrary rules, particularly when those rules haven't been reexamined in a long time or adapted to a creative process such as video game development. I won't go too much further into this opinion, but I did write a blog a few weeks back explaining how I feel about artistic integrity in more detailed terms. Anyway, point is: I didn't go into Mass Effect 3's Extended Cut DLC dreading either the content of the ending itself or the potential precedent it sets. I simply wanted to see where and how BioWare changed the game's disappointing finale.

Though experiencing the ending content requires you to first fight you way through the Cerberus base, I didn't notice any real changes there. The final battle in London also seemed to remain the same, though I don't totally remember how it went down in the first place. For the most part, the new content comes in right as you start charging toward the teleportation beam. While that's all well and good considering that's when the game's ending officially became absolutely insane, I still feel as though the London level as a whole is a giant missed opportunity. BioWare went out of their way to gameify the collection of War Assets with the strong implication that they would somehow affect the final battle, but there was, and still is, absolutely nothing in terms of payoff. Why the choice was made to hype up the gathering of Military Strength and Galactic Readiness in the first place remains a frustrating mystery.

ME3

The first big change I noticed was the explanation of what happened to Shepard's squad. While it did serve to patch a rather noticeable plot hole somewhat well, it ultimately pointed out just how irreparably flawed that piece of the narrative initially was. Originally, the team that was with Shepard was seemingly blown to bits along with almost everyone else charging toward the teleportation beam, only for them to potentially reappear during the Normandy crash-landing scene. The Extended Cut's clarification of this sequence is that Shepard calls down the Normandy to evacuate his squad when one of them gets injured. While this provides a functional explanation for why they're able to show up in the end, it presents several new issues. First off, Garrus, the character who was injured in the charge in my playthrough, just had a fairly long conversation with Shepard about how committed they were to seeing the fight through to the end no matter what the cost. For Shepard to get him out of the fray as soon as he receives minor injuries is extremely inconsistent with the heavily-emphasized theme of sacrifice. Furthermore, why would Shepard be totally fine with leading Garrus to his doom on the suicide mission and not be willing to put his life on the line during the decisive battle when the fate of all existence is at stake? Even if we do buy into Shepard's sudden change of heart, shouldn't s/he be trying to evacuate more people along with his team? Again, this new patch up does create surface-level coherence, but it demonstrates just how poorly conceived the ending was in the first place. Garrus summed it up best himself as he was being carried onto the Normandy: "You've gotta be kidding me."

From there, I didn't notice any big changes until Shepard confronts the Catalyst. The sequence in which Shepard and Anderson face off with the Illusive Man is still as strange as ever. The way in which the three characters shout mostly inane, epic-sounding non sequiturs at each other almost reminds me of a poorly dubbed anime. Perhaps there's supposed to be a hallucinatory quality to it all since the Illusive Man seems to be demonstrating his newfound powers of indoctrination, but it's an oddly endearing scene nonetheless.

Talking with the Star Child reveals some of the biggest changes the Extended Cut has to offer. For one, there are a few more revealing dialog options. Personally, my qualms with the game's ending didn't have much to do with the final choice, so I didn't think much about the expanded conversation one way or the other. At certain points, the further exposition of the Crucible were really interesting, while other times the explanations of your imminent choice felt a little forced. The new Refuse option feels like a great way for BioWare to get back at those who rejected the notion of their last-minute addition of "space magic"; though you can refuse the choices the Star Child lays before you, you'll have to experience the grim reality of facing the Reapers without any extraneous help. I found the decision between Control, Destroy and Synthesis to be rather fascinating in the first place, and the new option to outright refuse any of those options is icing on the cake. Sure you may approach this scene endlessly questioning whether or not it truly feels like what the Mass Effect saga should have led up to, but you'd be better of engaging it simply as a wonderfully complex and unexpected way of giving you the biggest decision you've yet faced.

Mass Effect 3

There's also a set of ending montages complete voice-over narrations that practically explain the theme of the game in bright, blinking neon lights for those who hadn't figured it out after 100+ hours. Again, I don't hold a strong opinion about these moments either. Final speeches and sweeping montages have been so engrained into the DNA of epic sci-fi/fantasy stories that I find it hard to be enthusiastic or critical of their inclusion in Mass Effect 3. However, as I said before, Mass Effect 3's campaign so wonderfully casts the spotlight on all its major characters that the thought of revisiting them at the end simply feels unnecessary. Still, there's not a whole lot in the new cutscenes to dislike, and I did enjoy the moment in which the crew puts Shepard's name up on the Normandy's memorial wall.

The Extended Cut DLC more or less does exactly what it sets out to do by clarifying and expanding upon the half-baked concepts originally presented in Mass Effect 3's final moments. The new flaws it presents and the problems that remain are unfortunate, but the ending as a whole is now a much more satisfying and fitting conclusion to one of gaming's most ambitious franchises. Most importantly, I'm glad BioWare chose to revise the ending in the first place. Not only did they address the problematic ending (for free) rather than shrugging off their critics under the guise of "artistic integrity", they succeeded in challenging the definition of the term itself; the rigidity applied to the revision of preexisting works is simply unnecessary, and BioWare has demonstrated that revisiting narrative elements that simply didn't work the first time around holds a kind of artistry of its own. The changes they made to Mass Effect 3's ending don't devalue the work in any way; they make the game a much more resonant and memorable experience.

Ultimately, however, it's important to remember that the endings to most games are godawful. The likes of John Marston's last stand and Naked Snake's return home are few and far in between. Terrible cliffhangers and coy hints at sequels are far more common. Frankly, that's something that any gamer has to accept. If games needed to have good endings for them to be enjoyable, a grand total of about 8 games would be any fun. In the end, however, it's the experience that the game as a whole delivers that makes it worthwhile, and the experience provided by the dozens of hours that preceded Mass Effect 3's terrible ending is at the pinnacle of gaming excellence.

The New Perception of Video Game Violence

You'd think violence in video games would no longer be an issue at this point, but a visit to just about any gaming website would swiftly tell you otherwise. Visionaries like Shigeru Miyamoto and Warren Spector are on record denouncing upcoming action games and editorials championing some sort of absurd moral high-ground when it comes to game violence are popping up left and right. To me, the saddest part about all this is that these criticisms are coming from within the industry itself. Remember the days when gamers, journalists and developers would band together to defend their preferred entertainment medium from politicians and attorneys who exaggerated the affect interactive violence had on people? Well, since it now seems that shock-and-awe violence is perfectly acceptable within the medium, criticizing developers for violent content and claiming that games as a whole seem to glorify violence is now the hip thing to do. It's perfectly understandable that being the contrarian and dropping a few quote-worthy sensationalist statements is the easy route to more publicity and page views, but it ultimately comes as a huge detriment to this industry.

All these articles and interviews started emerging after this year's E3, which saw a slew of hyper-violent video games; the trailer for the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot showed a scene of attempted sexual assault, Dead Space 3 had a 2:1 guts-to-profanity ratio (which is quite impressive considering most of the audio coming from that video was a censor beep), God of War: Ascension showed off what an elephant-man brain looks like and Sony capped off their entire press conference with one merciless shotgun shell to the head. Yet for all the hubbub over violent games this year, the four aforementioned games seem to be the only titles used to represent the industry's supposed unhealthy glorification of violence. This is quite strange since, on the whole, there were many more games that exhibited an "acceptable" or nonexistent level of violent content. Yet not one developer or writer seems to want to bring the same level of attention to games like LEGO City, Rayman Legends, Ni No Kuni or Unfinished Swan. Again, this is because targeting specific trends and attacking them will likely always net more attention than mass praise of everything else.

GoWA

One part of this new trend of bashing violent games that I find quite troubling is how suddenly the industry has changed positions on the matter. It wasn't until the mid to late-2000s that something nearing a consensus on the artistic value of video games was reached. Controversies over games like Manhunt, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Mass Effect had come and gone mostly thanks to not only the games industry's continued success, but the wave of responses refuting the arguments of those who criticized them medium. If gamers, journalists and developers want to champion video games as a truly free art form, they don't have the right to go halfway; deciding what amount of explicit content is acceptable and what goes too far as just as limiting and self-censoring as saying video games shouldn't display that sort of content at all. Up until E3 2012, I hadn't seen the issue of video game violence brought up so widely in years, and I don't recall the criticisms having ever been so widespread within the industry itself. So the question is why now? Why do we care so much about Kratos lobotomizing an elephant-man in 2012 when we gleefully poked out Poseidon's eyes in 2010? Why was God of War III met with critical acclaim and nothing resembling a controversy while God of War: Ascension is met with revulsion? Why was Dead Space 2's extreme graphic violence a nonissue while Dead Space 3's comparatively toned down action is attacked to no end? More likely than not, it's simply because a collection of hyper-violent games were all shown off within close proximity to one another. In reality, however, I don't think the number of violent games hitting store shelves in the next year or so is all that different than it has been in previous years.

The other reason why this sudden and incessant critiquing of violent games is problematic is because journalists and developers are seemingly trying to devalue games that display such graphic content. Warren Spector claimed that violent games (without actually having specified a particular game, mind you) were "in bad taste" and a number of journalists have expressed either disgust or a feeling of boredom when it comes to the bloodier games on display. But should it be at all acceptable for people who should ideally approach the art form with an open mind to make such broad and sweeping generalizations? Hearing a bunch of industry-insiders flat-out saying that all violent video games are boring or distasteful is like hearing a music critic saying all rock-and-roll is lame and uninspired - it displays a remarkable amount of ignorance from someone who should be rather open and accepting.

The Last of Us

Furthermore, detractors seem to belittle these newer games simply because they are violent, a criticism that seems nonsensical due to the fact that it has been proven time and time again that engaging in violent fiction doesn't inspire real-life violence and since the place violence holds within escapism is irrefutable. Saying that these upcoming games are creatively or morally bankrupt is simply a shoddy argument, especially since it displays a lack of understanding when it comes to the experience that these games seem to want to provide; The Last of Us and Tomb Raider in particular seem to be built around the ebb-and-flow of disempowerment and empowerment. One moment the protagonist may appear to be in dire straits only to find it in themselves to triumph over the opposition at the last second. Seeing Lara Croft kill a man who assaults her or Joel and Ellie combat a group of looters who are intent on killing them isn't what I would call mind-numbing, senseless violence. In fact, both examples are harrowing and visceral scenarios that draw on the player's attachment to the the protagonists in ways that haven't really been seen before. Frankly, the denunciation these games receive shows a far greater lack of ingenuity than the games themselves do; we've been seeing journalists and developers go for the same easy cheap-shots that detractors from outside the industry usually go for. And that's quite sad.

It might be hard for those who have developed a holier-than-thou attitude on the issue to admit, but staged or digital violence is artful and/or entertaining. It always has been, as evidenced by the canonization of stories like The Illiad and Titus Andronicus as classics. It always will be, proven by the fact that the Call of Duty franchise grosses a billion dollars per year and chopping up the undead seems to be the latest craze across nearly all entertainment media. I know it's tempting to want to portray oneself as above the innate human reaction to feigned violence, but it ultimately accomplishes little and is probably a lie. The reason why violence is so appealing in art and entertainment is because it provides a feeling of empowerment that simply cannot be replicated in real life. Life can be difficult and the world is filled with social, political and moral dilemmas. Thus, the idea of entering a world where you can be a good guy who is always justified in fighting any number of baddies, or perhaps even step in the shoes a master criminal who can always get off the hook is an immensely enticing proposition. Escapism can provide a sort of moral simplicity that doesn't exist real world (which is a good thing), and art and entertainment should always have a place for that kind of indulgence.

E3 Blog 1: Various Commentary


Now that this year's E3 is over, I've decided to write a series of blogs detailing my overall reactions. This first entry is simply a re-posting of comments that I wrote below various articles.

I wrote this comment in response to GameSpot editor Brendan Sinclair's article "Nothing's Shocking", in which he criticized the focus on hyper-violent games at this year's E3. Here's a URL to the original article:http://www.gamespot.com/features/nothings-shocking-6380739/

Tomb Raider

The thing about the hyper-violence found in a number of these upcoming games is that the bloodshed seems much more visceral and meaningful. While games like Dead Space 3 and God of War: Ascension seem to revel in gory action as much as their respective franchises always have, Tomb Raider and The Last of Us didn't present violence in quite the way most games do. Sure, both demos were centered around a lot of killing, but the action had a certain weight to it that isn't often seen in video games. Tomb Raider highlights the fact that its protagonist doesn't merely shrug off the pain she endures; Lara seems to be taking a constant beating in one way or another and she reacts accordingly (though not necessarily realistically). Though I haven't played the game, of course, the intent seems to be to foster a greater connection between the player and the protagonist; since the violence threatening the player-character seems to actually affect them, you'll want to see them overcome the odds instead of die a horrible death.

The Last of Us displays something similar. The violence was especially brutal in the demo shown at the Sony conference, but it was for the sake of maintaining a consistent tone. The brutal action in the game creates a sense of urgency and desperation that seems to fit the circumstances of its central characters very well. I don't think Naughty Dog is focusing on brutal kills for no reason either. A developer of their caliber doesn't need to use excessive violence as some sort of marketing technique as you suggest - after all, the Uncharted series' bloodless, cartoonish violence didn't get in the way of its massive success. Much like Tomb Raider, violence is an essential part of establishing a tone and connecting players to the characters they control.

While I definitely agree with the argument that gruesome violence for the sake of gruesome violence is unnecessary (and rather boring), it's simply not fair to label all violent games in such a way. Like the two examples mentioned above, some titles use their over-the-top action to achieve a very specific goal that ultimately furthers their vision for their respective worlds and characters in important ways.


This next set of comments was from the video of GameSpot editor Tom McShea's debate with Danger Close executive producer Greg Goodrich about Medal Of Honor: Warfighter's true level of authenticity. You should definitely check the video out, it's one of the best pieces of E3 coverage from this year from any website. Here's a URL: http://e3.gamespot.com/video/6381457/a-matter-of-authenticity

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I wrote:

I find it ridiculous that so many people are agreeing with the arguments of the Medal of Honor team. Tom is pointing out something that so few developers and gamers don't seem to understand: games don't have to be fun. In fact, for gaming to truly move forward as a viable artistic medium, there need to be more games that eschew "fun" in favor of making a more impactful statement. Warfighter is in a perfect position make that sort of move, but since it's easier and more marketable to make a typical modern first-person shooter, EA and Danger Close are going for the Call of Duty audience all while making baseless claims of authenticity. Sure, that's a more profitable strategy in the end, but it does nothing to advance the medium, and it even insults it by claiming to provide a level of realism that it clearly doesn't.

It's sad to see so many people side with the guy who's trying to defend a flimsy marketing campaign hinged around "authenticity" over Tom McShea, who succeeds in pointing out just how hypocritical and uninspired games like Warfighter are.


That post resulted in several responses, most of which aren't worth copy/pasting. However, one user, joey_anony, wrote a few particularly well-worded and thoughtful responses expressing a dissenting opinion.

joey_anony wrote:

"Yes, they do have to be fun. As I said further down:

Also, I think it needs to be pointed out here that games DO need to be fun. Fear, suspense, exhilaration, sadness, all these things that games can make us feel, they make us feel because in the context and safety of a game, ***they are fun to feel and experience***. When you played Red Orchestra 2 and were terrified for your virtual life, you cannot say you weren't having fun with that experience. Fun is the goal of games, and to claim otherwise is nauseatingly pretentious.

Why can't you make a statement, and still be entertaining? Thats what MoH is trying to do. The argument that games have to "grow up" and "stop being fun" is just beyond comprehension to me."

as well as:"And there was no mention by McShea about how "uninspired" Warfighter is. He said it was disrespectful to soldiers. I am not offended, nor are the other serving members on here. So there is no issue."

MohW

To which I replied:

You can certainly make a statement and be entertaining at the same time, but you don't have to. Medal of Honor is shoehorning in mechanics that gamers view as fun. While that's fine, games need to think beyond pre-established design and mechanics to deliver experiences that a truly original and forward-thinking. Surely not every book you've read or every movie you've watched has been an enjoyable experience in the traditional sense, but still one that has moved you. Why can't some games try and do the same? Games right now are too focused on delivering an experience akin to a summer blockbuster movie; why isn't there room in video games for something like a tragedy? It may not make for a fun product, but it enriches the art form.

I respect and appreciate your service, and I'm not trying to be so presumptuous as to say that you should feel offended by Warfighter. The point I'm trying to make is simply that MoH doesn't push any boundaries for video games, and I find it disappointing that so many gamers are so quick to defend it when its lack of innovation is challenged. There's so much room for video games to grow as an artistic medium, but it's simply being ignored by developers and gamers alike in favor of a more established, traditional experience, and I ultimately find that to be somewhat frustrating.

joey_anony responded in turn, writing:

"No I totally understand where you're coming from as far as the game not pushing boundaries and it makes total sense. I'm just not sure I'm in agreement about videogames needing to go that route. I have had some incredible experiences from videogames, and the one most closely resembling what you're talking about, I think, was Silent Hill 2. As macabre as it may sound, I'd still say I had fun with that game. So maybe it's just semantics."

I thought that was a fine place to leave off our little discussion. We both understood each other's opinions, but simply have to agree to disagree. Not a problem.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed these various musing, I'll be putting up a new blog in the next couple days with more E3 impressions.

A Response to "The Customer Is Not Always Right"

Since beating Mass Effect 3, I've been thinking a lot about how artistic integrity applies to video games, and whether the term, with its mostly-agreed-upon definition, should extend to the medium in the first place. The other day, GameSpot editor Brendan Sinclair wrote and article on the subject (here's the URL, read it before continuin to the rest of the blog: http://www.gamespot.com/features/the-customer-is-not-always-right-6379489/?tag=Topslot%3bQuotedForTruth%3bTheCustomerIsNotAlway ). I wrote the following response in the comments below the article and figured I'd post it here as well.

Though I think the editorial is a good read, I have to say that I disagree. Why does artistic integrity have to have a single definition that applies to all artistic media? The video game industry does well to avoid the "customer isn't always right" mentality to the extent that it does. This definition of artistic integrity allows for the sort of ignorant auteurism that is so widely accepted by most other pop entertainment media. I'm sure anyone can think of numerous filmmakers, authors, and recording artists who earn an abundance of money and clout from a single success, and then promptly proceed to put out one flop after another. Making matters worse, these kinds of creatives often refuse to acknowledge their missteps by ignoring their critics and surrounding themselves with yes-men. This kind of mentality is not only bad for consumers, as the product that an artist puts out isn't up to their reasonable expectations of quality, but it's also not conducive to the continuing success of artists themselves. Taking criticism to heart doesn't show an inherent lack of integrity. If a poor decision is made in the process of developing a game, defending said decision with the utmost tenacity does not necessarily make for stronger artistry. I would argue that the artist who constantly seeks to improve their craft is often greater than one who has a laser-focus on delivering their vision without the slightest care in the world for their fans' response.

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I also take issue with the assertion that fans wouldn't allow artists to challenge them. To mention a few classic works mentioned in the article, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Watchmen, and Maus were all highly regarded when they first came out. Consumers do enjoy artistic daring, and are willing to give it massive support if the work is truly great. To give a video game example, the recent Journey takes risks aplenty in order to provide players with a unique gameplay experience, and because the concepts are so well realized, it has been greeted with an overwhelmingly positive reaction. Even though Journey lacks the kinds of gameplay features that typify most console games nowadays (such as traditional multiplayer, combat, and character progression), people really do appreciate the one-of-a-kind experience it provides (the game has an 8.6 user rating on metacritic and supposedly broke PSN sales records). The notion that fans don't support challenging or experimental art is simply incorrect; most consumers seem to be all for it, but only when the risk-taking leads to a genuinely affecting and memorable experience. The backlash from Mass Effect 3's ending didn't come from the fact that BioWare merely tried to shake things up in the game's final moments, but from the fact that they tried to do so and largely failed. Same goes for Doom 3's flashlight; it's easy to see why Id chose to make you switch between your flashlight and gun, but the mechanic simply didn't feel right to many gamers. Even the rapid growth of development funding via Kickstarters has shown how willing people are to support projects that deviate from modern video game norms; gamers have given millions of dollars to projects like Republique and Carmageddon: Reincarnation (certainly not titles that match current gaming trends) with only the hopes of being repaid with a great game. Taking risks isn't something that the gaming community looks down upon, it's something that we're willing to support even blindly, but only when developers can live up to the promise of their efforts (at least to a certain extent, anyway).

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Between social media, official forums, and a huge number of gaming websites (most complete with message boards of their own), why should there still be such a separation between developers and consumers? In fact, these direct ways of communicating with developers seem to call out for a change in what we consider "artistic integrity" as it applies to video games. Of course the vision of the creatives should always take precedence over the response from their customers, but what is there to gain from ignoring fan feedback? The development of games has always been a collaborative process between dozens, if not hundreds of artists. That split in authorship alone keeps the artistic vision driving a game from being wholly definitive; I couldn't say for sure, of course, but I highly doubt that a team of dozens of talented artists could ever come to a complete consensus on everything in their game (especially once overbearing publishers are added to the mix). Occasionally giving fan response a say in a collaboration that's already quite large and subject to a number of different influences really doesn't seem so outlandish or detrimental to the intent of the project. Risk-taking has to be balanced with good execution in order to make a truly lasting work of art, and though it isn't necessary by any means, hearing out criticisms (or some of them, anyway) can actually help to make the work (or subsequent projects) even better. And despite the fact that this sort of creative process challenges a rigid, dated definition of artistic integrity, the mere fact that it can lead to better art and more worthwhile products is all that should matter.

A Better Man - Max Payne 3 Review

Though video games as a medium seem to grow exponentially in terms of artistic and narrative complexity from year to year, one simple facet of interactive storytelling still hasn't been entirely figured out: the role of the player character. While a lot of novels and films seem to live and die by their protagonists, video game heroes are usually afterthoughts, and sometimes even wholly unsympathetic and unavoidably contradictory (the Uncharted series' happy-go-lucky Nathan Drake who can flirt with a love interest one second and then proceed to murder two dozen people the next is a shining example). Allowing players to interact with an environment and giving them a set of tasks tailor-made to provide a sense of mechanical fun and fulfillment is almost never conducive to creating a memorable, three-dimensional character. Yet, one only needs to leave it to Rockstar to figure out how to capture the best of both worlds. Max Payne 3 confronts the issue of inconsistent characterization for the sake of gameplay head-on, and is tremendously successful in overcoming the problem. The game's world-weary titular protagonist is well aware of the inner demons and cycle of violence that he (and by extension, the player) perpetuates. He guns down hordes of nameless foes, and pops painkiller after painkiller everywhere he goes, but he owns up to his violent nature. Ultimately, the fact that Max is always aware of what he's doing (though not always of why he's doing it) makes him a much more sympathetic and human character than the vast majority of protagonists to be found in video gaming. And that is the game's single greatest achievement. Of course the action is glorious, the multiplayer is robust, and the production values are nearly flawless - that's to be expected of any Rockstar game that comes out nowadays; but it's the unflinching and hard-hitting struggle against all odds experienced by both Payne and the player along the course of its stupendous campaign that makes Max Payne 3 a striking, masterful game.

The game begins with Max peering down at the gritty streets of Sao Paulo from the balcony of a glitzy hotel, quickly capturing one of the narrative's essential themes: the disparity between the rich and poor. The conflicts here aren't started by some rogue badass with a cause, they're the result of a deep-seated animosity between Sao Paolo's wealthy, who get to party it up on rooftops, and the poor, who have to slum it out in the favelas. Max Payne is hired onto the security detail for the Branco family, one of Brazil's richest and most powerful, who very quickly find themselves a gang target. From there, it's up to Max to navigate through all the grisly conflicts between rich and poor, law and criminal that define Rockstar's vision of Sao Paulo. The end result is a winding, brutal, and unforgettable story that packs a real punch. Certain scenes cut to the bone, and Max Payne is forced to grow as a character to survive when things start slipping out of his control.

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As mentioned earlier, Max Payne guns down dozens of enemies in each level, and though that fact could easily be justified as a way of crafting fun firefights for players to blast their way through (which it is), Max is quite self-aware. Not in the sense that the game breaks the fourth wall, or ever confronts the player directly, but merely that the protagonist knows that killing massive numbers of people and getting in way over his head seems to be his lot in life. This one simple plot detail helps elevate the character and overall story experience even further. Every bit of Payne's characterization feels believable despite the fact that a man who can dive around in slow-motion and pop pills in the middle of a gunfight should, by all logic, be entirely unbelievable. Fans of the original games need not worry, writer (and Rockstar co-owner) Dan Houser's vision of the character and his universe is even more memorable than Remedy's.

While the story is a triumph in and of itself, it's the way in which it's integrated into singleplayer gameplay that is most striking. The game moves from cut-scene to gameplay seamlessly, without a trace of loading times to be found - you may even be caught off guard by some of the places in which the game chooses hand the reins back over to you. The result is a breakneck sense of pace, the likes of which has only been achieved in a few other games, and once Max Payne 3 grabs your attention, you might find it exceedingly difficult to put the controller back down.

This cinematic presentation is greatly augmented by the game's production values. Though Rockstar's Rage engine is starting to show its age in some respects, the game's graphics are mostly great. The game has a superb art style that manages to believably capture everything from a muddy, decrepit boat graveyard to snowed-out Hoboken back alleys, and character designs are equally inspired. The game's blurry faux-lens technique (ripped straight from Tony Scott's film "Man on Fire") is also an integral part of its visual design. Audio-wise the game retains its consistent quality. Rockstar has always had some of the best soundtracks in the business, and Max Payne 3 is no different. There's a few of brooding, orchestral compositions, a lot haunting noise rock courtesy of the band Health, and some selections of Brazilian music in select sequences. The impactful battle sound effects and impeccable voice work seal the deal. While Max Payne 3 does struggle with some of its engine's limitations, the overall presentation is still almost flawless.

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Of course, none of that narrative and cinematic goodness would be worthwhile if the gameplay driving it wasn't fun. Luckily, Max Payne 3's slick shooting mechanics, and deft mix of tactical and run-and-gun action makes it one of the best third-person shooters on the market. For the uninitiated, Max Payne's signature move is the Shoot Dodge, an impressive, Jon Woo-esque maneuver that allows Max to dive through the air and wreak glorious havoc in slow-motion until he hits the ground. This maneuver has always been the series' show-stopping mechanic, and even though plenty of games have lifted the idea since, it's still as entertaining as ever. Dipping into slow-motion Bullet Time without performing the Shoot Dodge even more crucial; Max moves slightly faster than his foes when time slows down, so the tables can be turned on seemingly impossible firefights rather quickly.

Max Payne 3 also introduces the franchise to a cover system much like any other that has dominated third-person shooters for the past several years now. The catch here is that the use of cover isn't as heavily emphasized as it is in most games. Hunkering down to pull off a few quick kills or pop some painkillers (there's still no regenerating health) before reentering the fray is about all you'll use it for throughout most of the game. However, as the difficulty ramps up about two-thirds of the way through the campaign, players are forced to use cover much more often. Though this is sometimes due to frustrating and artificial spikes in difficulty (which pretty much make up the only issue I can find with this game), it's largely a nice change of pace; actively figuring out when to take a slower approach, and when to charge into battle with reckless abandon is intense, and, when you make the right choice, immensely rewarding.

Even when separated from all its flourishes, the game's core shooting mechanics are slick and satisfying. On a presentational level, the firefights are often just as superb and cinematic as the cutscenes that precede them; environments get torn to shreds, enemies move intelligently and react realistically to their injuries, a number of interesting set-pieces change things up a bit, and brutal, slow-motion kill cams punctuate each battle. Furthermore, the animations are uncompromisingly real despite the fact that the action is way over-the-top. If you've ever wondered how, exactly, two guns are reloaded when dual-wielded, or how someone can carry a two handed weapon without a shoulder-strap while clutching a pistol in the other hand, Max Payne 3 has all the answers.

Max Payne 3's gameplay is an incredible mix of new and old-school sensibilities. The steady integration of narrative and gameplay in its singleplayer campaign creates a great sense of pace, and the gunplay balances run-and-gun arcade gameplay with tactical stop-and-pop in a way that's never been seen before. It's been a long time since Rockstar has made a flagship game that's this focused. The game is no sprawling epic, but the concentration of resources is made abundantly clear; Max Payne 3 upgrades the series' rock-solid foundation in innumerable ways, and the result is one of the most singular shooters on the market.

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There's also a robust multiplayer mode to dive into, and it's easily Rockstar's best online offering to date. The game features all the customizable loadouts, challenges, and leveling up that most players have no doubt grown accustom to over the last few years. The game really starts to deviate from the norm with its unique spin on the now-standard killstreak system. You can only have one killstreak (dubbed Burst) per loadout, so as you rack up adrenaline (from dodging gunfire, getting kills, and looting corpses), you have to choose to either cash in on your Burst immediately, or wait to accumulate more adrenaline, resulting in more powerful effects. Knowing when to dispense your Burst immediately, and when to go for the glory and try to save it up is a fun challenge in and of itself; a minimum-adrenaline Burst may help you take down an enemy player or two, but if you choose to wait, a fully-charged Burst can absolutely devastate the other team.

The game modes feature a few different spins on standard Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch game types, but the real stars of the show are Gang Wars and Payne Killer. The latter is a mode that sees two players taking control of either Max Payne, or his partner-in-crime, Raul Passos while six other players try to kill them. If you kill Payne or Passos, you become them, and thus acquire a number of overpowered abilities that even the odds. But, the standard grunts can still overwhelm you, and so the cycle continues.

Gang Wars is an awesome mode that features a dynamic list of objectives that cycles regularly. Each match consists of five rounds with unique objectives, and rounds cycle every four or five minutes. Each new objective you encounter is directly affected by the outcome of the preceding round. The constant variety Gang Wars provides it impressive in its own right, and the sense of dynamic progression that influences it all adds some serious replayability.

Not only is Max Payne 3's multiplayer suite easily the best that Rockstar has ever put together, it also fits in perfectly with the themes that drive it singleplayer campaign. Gang Wars and Payne Killer are especially fitting summations of the cyclical, inevitable violence that the singleplayer game portrays. By providing small bits of narrative context and putting you in the shoes of a common thug, Gang Wars matches further flesh out the hellish, futile power struggle that takes place endlessly in Rockstar's Sao Paolo from a new perspective. After completing the game's singleplayer campaign, the narrative that backs up some matches can be especially impactful; by getting to see what the city was like before and after Max arrived, you get an even better sense of the effects his actions in the campaign had. Payne Killer achieves a similar goal; not only do you face the seemingly impossible challenge of trying to take down Payne and Passos from the eyes of a nameless gunman, but you'll quickly start taking more risks in hopes of replacing them. These thematic tie-ins may not dominate your thoughts as you play each match, but they're ultimately hugely successful in hitting home the brutal conflicts that take place within the game's gritty environments.

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"The way I see it, there's two types of people: those who spend their lives trying to build a future, and those who spend their lives trying to rebuild the past," Payne astutely observes partway through the campaign before describing himself as being "stuck in between." A pretty fitting description of Max Payne 3 as a whole, I'd say. On one hand, Rockstar sticks to what made the first Max Payne games so tremendous; the slow-mo gunplay, heavy story, and brooding atmosphere that defined the first two titles are still a huge part of Max Payne 3. On the other, Rockstar updates the series in great ways; the storytelling is snappier and more powerful, modern shooting mechanics underscore the game's old-school action, and a AAA multiplayer experience will keep you hooked. Even more significant than its combination of new and old-school trappings is Max Payne 3's strong authorial voice. Though definitive characterization usually conflicts with gameplay in most other titles, Max Payne 3 successfully subverts this problem, and the resulting narrative is utterly captivating.

Though it comes from a studio known for making massive interactive worlds, Max Payne 3's relative lack of scope shouldn't be construed as laziness. The game instead has an unshakeable focus on delivering white-knuckled action and an affecting story that defines its singleplayer campaign and multiplayer matches alike. Backed up by awesome production values, mechanics and high replayability, Max Payne 3 is yet another modern classic courtesy of Rockstar Games.

Better Off Alone

Last week, Zenimax officially unveiled The Elder Scrolls Online. Compared to most MMO reveals, the game seemed to be rather complete on both a graphical and conceptual level. Game Informer's preview shows a number of fantastic looking screenshots, and details some surprisingly thorough ideas and mechanics. Considering coverage for most MMOs starts with a developer accidentally dropping a hint that they're not supposed to, or at best, some sort of leaked domain name or logo, it's rather impressive to see such an ambitious game unveiled in such great shape. And on the surface, this game has it all: full voice-acting, player choice, and mechanics inspired not only by MMOs new and old, but the proper Elder Scrolls titles. Yet the very nature of the game seems detrimental to the Elder Scrolls experience that I've grown to cherish.

One of the things that defines an Elder Scrolls experience for me is the sense of solitude that comes from exploring the vast landscapes on my own. There's something really incredible about being able to totally immerse yourself in a fully-realized game world without any distraction. Seldom few singleplayer RPGs give you the kind of behemoth overworld that the Elder Scrolls titles do, and practically none provide the same level of mechanical and narrative immersion. The engrossing nature of games like Morrowind and Skyrim is driven by a uniquely singleplayer quality: the ability to simply wander and engage in the world the way you want, unrestricted by time limits (in-game, anyway), objectives, or pressing need for character advancement.

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Yet those elements that may seem restrictive in a singleplayer capacity are the exact features that drive multiplayer games, particularly those of the massively multiplayer variety. Last year's Skyrim (and probably this year's, and maybe even next year's, for the most dedicated players) was an incredible experience because it was one to luxuriate in. Sure, tackling quests was a lot of fun, but being able to simply wander around and do whatever I pleased on a whim was easily the game's greatest attribute. MMOs, however, discourage this sort of gameplay by their very design. Objectives must constantly be tackled, and steady character progression must be made for people to feel as if their $15 monthly subscription fee is justified. What's more, the developers must rapidly release and encourage new content to keep player playing and paying. All of this goes against the idea of adventuring at your own pace. And if one does want to adhere to the classic Elder Scrolls gameplay within the confines of an MMO, the result may not be as satisfactory; the sense of discovery would be greatly diminished since you'd always be surrounded by other players, and the often crude, spam-filled chat windows wouldn't help much either.

For many players, games in The Elder Scrolls series can be some of the most unhurried experiences that gaming has to offer; Todd Howard mentioned at this year's DICE keynote that the average playtime for the PC version of Skyrim was 75 hours, and going from my own experience and from what I've gathered from talking with friends and gamers on this site, that figure can easily be reached without even beating the game's singleplayer story. MMOs, while even more capable of racking up ungodly playtimes, are much faster-paced experiences. Spending 75 hours doing whatever the hell you want instead of completing quests, leveling and gearing up is certainly possible, but unlike Skyrim, not at all encouraged. In the end, if The Elder Scrolls Online wants to be a great MMO, it has to be a bad Elder Scrolls game, as the two design and gameplay philosophies clash with each other in a major way. For a hardcore RPG like Skyrim to (reportedly) achieve about 12 million units sold is truly remarkable, so it's easy to see why Zenimax is now choosing to cash in on the IP with an MMO. Even though it seems like The Elder Scrolls Online could succeed as a standard massively multiplayer title, it's a shame that the developers couldn't come up with a better way to combine the tried-and-true Elder Scrolls experience with online gameplay.

The Cost of Infinity

Multiplayer is a fairly apt term to describe playing a game with multiple players. Infinity, on the other hand, is not. Nevertheless, that's the word that 343 Industries has chosen as a means of labeling Halo 4's new multiplayer suite. While that may seem an odd or unnecessary choice on the surface, the intent is to make the campaign/multiplayer split a little more seamless. As the latest issue of Game Informer details, the UNSC Infinity is a vessel used to train new Spartans. This training thus serves as a way to canonize and narratively justify the seemingly endless war between Red and Blue Spartans that has kept millions of gamers happily blasting away their friends for over a decade. While it's an interesting concept that certainly demonstrates a level of thought rarely given to a game's multiplayer component, it's simply unnecessary, and even worse, detrimental to the classic multiplayer experience.

When reading through Game Informer's preview, I couldn't help but think back to David Jaffe's talk at this year's DICE conference. He titled the speech "Chocolate and tuna fish" as a way to describe how well he felt games and traditional stories meshed; that is to say, not well at all. He essentially argues that games simply can't offer a fully interactive experience and follow an established plot structure at the same time. But while I do take issue with the idea that a singleplayer game can't deliver a satisfying "traditional" narrative and a fun gameplay experience at the same time, I'm inclined to agree with Jaffe when it comes to the multiplayer side of gaming. Not once have I wondered why two groups of Spartans would be duking it out for no apparent reason, and now that I do think about it, I don't see why an explanation would matter. I've had tons of fun simply going head-to-head my friends over the years, enjoying the Halo games on a purely social and mechanical level. And if one does desire a narrative that drives their multiplayer experience, all they need do is imply one. The excellent player-created Zombies mode would likely not exist if its creators were concerned with the Halo canon, nor would the Red vs. Blue web series. Frankly, multiplayer experiences are almost always driven by make-believe; a kind of digital cops-and-robbers scenario that's justified solely by the presence of cops and robbers. An explanation of how the robbers took the cash and how the cops caught on to them is completely removed from the inherent fun of the scenario (as far as games go, anyway).

I'm Infinite

The other danger here is that contextualizing multiplayer modes could very well be a slippery slope. While it might be easy to justify something like team deathmatch or capture the flag as simple training exercises, the Halo franchise is well known for having some truly oddball modes (pun intended). How could the likes of Headhunter, a mode based around hoarding skulls, possibly be justified as a worthwhile training exercise for the new Spartans? Or if one were to delve into Halo's zaniest playlist, Action Sack, how could game types such as Dodgeball, Team Sumo or Zombies possibly be passed off as ways to train an army of deadly super-soldiers? It's here that the main issue lies. Either 343i will have to pick and choose which game types (or even maps) would best fit their multiplayer premise, or simply separate certain modes from this story context. If the former is true, then that would be a true shame, as much of the Halo series' staying power lies within crazy, player-created modes. If the latter ends up being the case, then it begs asking why the multiplayer is tied down by story in the first place.

Though the ambition is admirable, 343i's canonized multiplayer has inherent limitations no matter how they approach presenting it. If they unyieldingly stick to their basic premise, then the multiplayer experience will have to bend to fit the rules of what would make sense within the Halo mythos. That means absurd Forge maps and ridiculous modes of play would have no place in Infinity. However, if they do provide the multiplayer experience that we're used to from the franchise, the contextualized veneer will just be smoke and mirrors. Choosing between slimming down multiplayer content simply to serve an unnecessary story, or presenting a story simply to have it stomped all over in the name of multiplayer madness is a lose-lose situation. It's a novel idea to be sure, but I see now that David Jaffe's arguments may not be so outlandish after all.