Posted on January 10, 2013, Phil Hornshaw Spec Ops, Far Cry 3 and Hating the Player, Not the Game
In 2012, a number of games tried to make intelligent comments through their storytelling, writing, and game mechanics. This is a good thing. It also illustrates how far games still have to go to make those comments well.
Delivering a message in a smart and powerful way, using the strengths of the medium to portray that view or idea in a way only that medium can, is what makes films touching, novels powerful and storytelling worthwhile. Video games are starting to grow up in some ways, and smart people are trying to use games to do more than just have lots of things blow up and lots of people get shot in the face. Or at least, they’re using all those face-shootings to say something more meaningful about the greater human experience.
But what confuses me about games such as Spec Ops: The Line and Far Cry 3 is where their messages are aimed, and what they’re trying to convey with them. The purpose of Spec Ops, for example, is not to shed light on some concept of reality like violence, murder, or even the endless march of military shooters that infect the video game market today — Spec Ops takes aim at you, player of games, and asks you why you’re such a blood-thirsty disgrace of a human.
Looking at it objectively, that’s kind of strange. You don’t have pulp novels whose incredibly unsubtle textual and subtextual messages are that readers of pulp novels are fools. Yet, in 2012, some of the most lauded video games on the market were those that actively treated gamers as somehow lesser people for playing them. And they didn’t even do a very good job of it.
Spec Ops itself is a foregone conclusion of a game, cramming a heavy handed message down the player’s throat while using its own structure to reinforce that message. The premise of the game is that players of military shooters play them because they like to feel heroic and powerful, and the game sets out to question why you derive joy from spilling buckets of blood and gunning down endless droves of enemies. But here’s the key fact: Spec Ops never presents you with another option. It isn’t calling you out for choosing the bloody route over the peaceful one, asking the pointed and possibly even appropriate question of “Why’d you choose death over life?” It’s dragging you down the bloody path, and all the while berating you for it as if you had any choice.
I suppose you do have a choice — you can turn the game off. But I’ve never heard of any piece of art whose message was that you shouldn’t view that art, or that deriving some sort of pleasure from that art made you a bad person.
Far Cry 3 is also guilty of a gamer-hating stance, even though it seems much more ambivalent about it, or perhaps just unintentional in the comment it makes. As I wrote earlier this week, the game plays with shooter cliches and tropes but ends up lampooning anyone who would play such games: protagonist Jason Brody plays out adolescent fantasy after adolescent fantasy, much to the dismay of characters who actually want to return to the real world. All the way through, the game pitches Alice in Wonderland quotes our way to remind us of the rabbit hole we’ve gone down. Its ending does a superb job of reminding us of what a joke we all are as we fire fake guns at fake bad guys and do fake hunting and watch fake sex with fake tribal people who fake worship our fake heroics.
Great, fine, maybe these games are right, and maybe we do need to grow up some. The medium of games is definitely overflowing with insane, violence-for-violence’s sake games that usually come with a side of specialized jiggle physics specifically created for female characters. None of that is a good thing on the whole.