Dear Homefront, Can You Let Me Feel Important?
I’ve been playing Homefront for the past few days, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not very good. While it’s certainly playable and isn’t the worst game on the market, it’s generally archaic, with a poor sense of narrative pacing and generic shooting action that looks like it was lifted directly from a mediocre PlayStation 2 title. However, these issues are not among Homefront’s greatest crimes. Kaos Studio’s “alternative history” game about a Korean invasion of North America typifies one of the worst crimes a game can do — make the player feel like an intruder.
There are certain games that look and feel as if they’re perfectly happy playing by themselves and would rather you just go away. Homefront is an exemplary offender, reducing the player to the status of a herded sheep rather than a focal point of the gameplay. As non-player characters converse amongst themselves and become emotionally invested in a war for survival, the silent mook following them is made to feel like a rank outsider, largely ignored and generally unnecessary.
For sure, the game makes a half-hearted attempt to pretend that you’re important, and even gives you some tasks to complete on your own, but it’s akin to giving a child some paper and sticking it in the corner to do a drawing. It’s just busywork intended to make somebody feel special so that the adults can get on with their lives. Homefront consistently conveys this message, and it’s almost offensive.
Most of the game is spent following a resistance leader called Connor, who is the actual main character as opposed to the player. This is his war, and Connor’s overwrought, dramatic speeches and manufactured outrage will make that abundantly clear. Despite being an obnoxious and thoroughly unlikable character (with a voice that sounds distractingly like Trey Parker), he’s the star of the show, without a doubt. He and his band of merry men, of which you are merely a faceless member, lead the charge against the evil Korean bastards, and your main role in the game is to follow everybody else. I’d say that roughly 70% of the game’s stated objectives are “Follow Connor.” The objective marker is above the ugly man’s head for most of the experience and it makes one wonder why we’re not playing as this guy, a chap who is clearly more interested, more involved, and more of a player than the one holding the controller.
The game gives you so little direction, focusing instead on what the rest of the cast is doing. Your job mainly consists of popping off Korean police officers in the background. You can rarely advance in the game without the rest of the resistance clearing you a path, and even then, you can only go so far before the game forces you to wait for somebody else to make a decision.
The complete lack of player agency is typified by the fact that you cannot even open doors for yourself. It’s become a joke among the gamer community that you have to constantly wait for NPCs to open doors for you, but I think it adds to a larger, more serious point about how Homefront treats the player as an unwanted passenger. It’s no exaggeration that the game constantly forces you to watch other people open doors, or flip over refrigerators that are blocking the path. While it looks like unintentional self parody, it sends a very definitive message to the player — this is our game, and you’ll get to play when we say you do.
I’m all for linearity in games — a linear experience is often necessary for titles that want to communicate a clear and concise story, and when done right, such an experience can be just as satisfying, if not more so, than a totally free, open-world game. Homefront, however, takes the idea of linearity to mean that the player is an audience member as opposed to an instigator. Compare it to Half-Life, which guides one just as much as Homefront does, but makes the player the focus at all times. NPCs talk to you directly, and your actions are often what compels the game forward, not the other way around. More recently, Crysis 2 places players right in the middle of a large scale war, but you have the freedom to take out the enemies any way you see fit. You are the central, dominant star, and the NPCs are there to remind you how awesome you are, rather than how awesome they are. There are FPS games no less scripted than Homefront, but with just a little more focus on the player’s actions and his role in the world, one feels much more invested and, more importantly, wanted.
Homefront isn’t the only game to screw this up, of course. First-Person-Shooters can easily fall into this trap, with several earlier Call of Duty titles and the recent Medal of Honor reboot committing similar crimes, where the player is carted around the map and made to watch other people do all the cool stuff. Even outside of the genre, certain titles shaft the player in their own unique ways. Final Fantasy XIII threw players into a world where the story was already half told before they got there. Characters would talk about things like Pulse, Coccoon, the Fal’sie and all this other convoluted garbage without explaining any of it beforehand. It was up to the player to trawl through an ever-expanding in-game encyclopedia to understand what the Hell anybody was talking about. Added to that, the game’s battles largely played themselves, with the player merely inputting vague directions. Final Fantasy XIII was a game in which one was thrust into a world full of characters talking amongst themselves and fighting their own battles. There was barely any point you being there.
Another example one might not expect is the PlayStation Network’s Noby Noby Boy. For those unfamiliar with this weird game, the aim is to stretch the titular Boy by pulling swallowing and pooping things to gain elasticity, then pulling the Dualshock’s analog sticks in opposite directions. That’s really it. The main draw of the game isn’t the stretching, however, but the weird and wonderful world that Noby Noby Boy inhabits. Each randomly generated environment is full of bizarre sights — people ride around on the backs of toucans, skeletons and devils dance around the world, angels drive cute little cars and donuts fall from the sky. The weirdness can be awe-inspiring, but this awe soon gives way to annoyance when you work out the insulting truth — everybody in the game is having more fun than you are.
Why can’t I be a cavorting devil? Where’s my cute little car? Why can’t I ride on the back of the toucan? I love toucans, they’re my favorite bird, and everybody gets to ride them but me!
When a game feels like it’d be having more fun without you, I feel it’s crossed a line, and this is a line Homefront never steps back from. It’s a game in which you’re not allowed to walk through a passage or climb a ladder until all the NPCs have done so first, when you can’t move forward without getting permission. Hell, there’s even a cool tank called Goliath that blows stuff up … but it’s autonomous. Your job is to point it to a target and then watch it destroy all the important things with cool explosions. You can’t really take pride in destroying a tank when your role in the fight was merely to ask something else to do it. By the time you get your own rocket launcher, you feel almost grateful, then you realize you only get to explode one tank with it before you’re forced into the back of a jeep and put through an on-rails section — which just feels like salt in the wound after being led around on a leash for the past hour.
In any war, there are more faceless pawns than grand heroes, that’s a given. A battlefield is a big place, and if you’re in it, you’re one of the many. I don’t play videogames to be one of the many, however. Surely, we play games to be in the high places with the heroes, not in the ditch, trailing behind their shadows. I don’t want NPCs that are more a part of the game than I am. More importantly, I don’t want to feel like a cameraman in a machinima movie.
Either let me in, or just release your “game” as Youtube videos.