Gordon and I finished our co-op play-through of Gears of War 2 this afternoon, at long last freeing our souls from the grasp of completion-fever. Frankly, the end of the game was pretty disasppointing: a series of set-pieces and far-too-easy combat sequences that ended up with a big ol’ “yaaaay, we won!” and then the obligatory “or did they?!”
The play-through has been rather devoid of interest for me from the perspective of saying something about video games, but today, while being shot repeatedly in the face, I did come up with something. One of the more amazing experiences in the game (and this is true for other action games too, but perhaps most of all for games like Gears of War) is being shot repeatedly and not dying. In one instance a guy with a machine gun opened fire on my head. As I went to shoot back, it turned out my gun needed reloading. More machine-gunning to the face as I start reloading. The gun jams. A hail of bullets exploding in my face. Finally it reloads. Blood spews forth from my face. I blow the guy away.
This isn’t a common experience, because I’m not so incompetent as to stand in the line of fire all that often, but it’s remarkable when you come across it. You can really take a lot of damage without it making much of a difference. Even when you hit the “near death experience” all you do is crawl around a bit like you’ve lost a contact lens until your buddy helps you up. In Gears of War you get shot to shit, but keep on ticking.
It puts me in mind of the related genre of Hollywood movies, particularly films like Rambo and Commando. The difference is, though, that in the film versions all the enemies are constantly missing the hero. He walks out of the bush or whatever and everyone starts shooting and missing him until he takes them down one by one. Miss miss miss. In Gears of War it’s “hit hit hit” but to no avail. Like trying to harpoon a whale with a toothpick.
So we have two kinds of heros who are serving very similar roles. In both cases the heros impassively take down hordes of enemies. In the film version, the enemies are incompetent fools who seem to be begging to die. In Gears of War, the enemies get their shots in, but to no avail. It’s “hero as bullet sponge”. The man who can take the most bullets to the face wins, and that man is your avatar, beefily indestructible.
It’d actually be kind of great for one of these games to channel a movie like The Wrestler… allow the player to take huge and unreasonable amounts of damage, but somehow portray the agony associated. Extract some sort of emotional pound of flesh from it.
Even an ounce would do…
Played the first bit of the co-op version of Gears of War 2 with Gordon this evening. This was particularly interesting to me because I hardly ever play games with anyone else. That’s just the way I are. So this was a chance to think a little about how co-op influences my play.
Gears of War 2 itself is, well, more of the same. But it’s interesting to compare my experience with the first game, in which I played alone, and this section of the second in co-op. In the first game I was focused on moving through the areas, shooting the appropriate dudes, and feigning interest in the narrative (which was “good enough” I suppose). I was most taken by the system itself, the tightness of the implementation of the set pieces and so on the game presented.
In playing co-op, there was a stepping back from both the narrative and the game system in favour of conversation and, basically, ridiculing the game’s narrative and game system. Now, both of these things are worthy of some amount of ridicule (especially the grossly overwrought macho narrative), but it’s not something that would particularly occur to me to think if I were playing alone – I’d be in the thrall of the mechanics of the game.
The game thus became a kind of grudging interfacing with the game’s mechanics as something we were doing (not playing), while joking about the narrative setting and any of the game mechanics we felt distaste for. Being all arch and academic, I suppose that the game became a kind of performance space for humour.
It’s like doing stand-up, but you shoot alien dudes in the face while you tell the jokes.
Ah, the characterless characters of video games, eh? I’m encountering that old chestnut for the umpteenth time with Fable 2. The avatar in that game exhibits that ultimate blandness of not speaking. Ever. Now, this is a trade-off presumably. On the one hand, if your character doesn’t speak, then you’re more likely to be able to “inhabit” him. On the other hand, if he doesn’t speak, he loses a vast amount of expressiveness. Which is, of course, crucial to any idea of making a bridge between yourself and the character
So, in other games, like Gears of War, you get defined characters who have personalities and make wise-cracks and so on, and whom you control. But they also make it hard to make that bridge because they’re already someone else, and specifically not you.
A catch 22, then. If the character is too expressive there’s no room for you, if they’re not expressive enough, they seem too much like a stick-figure, a nobody.
I think that Skate goes an interesting direction which at least hints at some kind of solution space. In particular, it’s a non-speaking avatar who you can model on yourself (aesthetically, at least). But, at the same time, self-expression is built in in terms of selecting photographs of your skateboarder performing impressive tricks (and, for that matter, the performance of those tricks itself). By dodging speech as the primary mode of self-expression, Skate manages better than most games I can think of to convey a sense of ownership over the character.
In my media experiences of late I’ve been feeling a very strong distinction between things that roll along just like you’d expect them to (Battlestar Galactica, Gears of War), and things that don’t (Deadwood). It’s the difference between seeing events unfold and saying “ah, yes” and seeing them and saying “what the f**k?!”
What I find most interesting about this, is that the “ah, yes” version is perfectly palatable in Gears of War, but very difficult to swallow in Battlestar Galactica. In the former, I admire the mechanic precision of it all as it fits neatly together around me, while in the latter I often feel I’m being treated with a lack of respect.
One important reason for this, I think, is the interactivity of Gears. I’m actively part of the impressive machine: playing my role, shooting my gun, taking my cover. The “ah, yes” is one of a pleasurable collaboration or collusion.
Something I’ve been thinking about for a while now is that I rarely (if ever) feel like I’m immersed in a game in the sense of its narrative, and especially in the sense of playing the role of the avatar/protagonist. I can just never quite bring myself to think “that’s me, there on the screen, fighting the giant aliens!” And so I feel like I’m missing out on something.
Lately, I’ve tried to find ways to immerse myself more, but it all seem to boil down to the idea of just willing myself to be more immersed, which doesn’t appear to work. That said, I think games are somewhat at fault too. For me at least, the cheesiness of the plots (I’m looking at you, Gears of War) makes it pretty hard to believe you could be in that world.
But ultimately, I still wonder if I just have a problem “letting go” and being part of the game world. This also applies to nagging doubts I have about Battlestar Galactica, another media-thing I find it hard to become immersed in (though not having an avatar in that case, of course), because I can’t get past the downright silliness of its narrative and characters.