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Shock value and terrible writing: the future of gaming?
Editorial by 
October 28, 2009, 01:31:45
Games are looking more realistic and developers keep trying harder to excite their audiences but I'm finding that instead of them getting better, many are crossing a line of good taste and demonstrating just how shallow our talent pool of writers and directors is.

The march of technology should automatically improve games, shouldn't it? But instead of games rivalling film and literature in their ability to express ideas and emotions, the demands of the technology are instead exposing the juvenile, shallow and overall inarticulate nature of a lot of developers. Today, story and visual impact is valued as much as gameplay, but it doesn't feel to me like most developers are able to deliver.

For me, Resident Evil 5 was spoilt by the ignorant portrayal of Africa. Whether you could say it was unintentionally racist, blissfully unaware of the socio-politcal context of its imagery, or just laughably spun from crude Japanese stereotypes of black people and the continent, it was a disaster because it felt so dimwitted. Expensive, flashy and shocking, yes, but devoid of any creative integrity. Capcom had the budget and the tools to make something incredible, but either their ambitions or their skill as content makers failed them.

Bad content displayed in high defintion at 60 fps with blood physics and surround sound voice acting seems so much worse than bad content displayed in 8-bit pixels.

We all knew that as the generations went by, the violence that most games are based on would start to get more realistic and perhaps more uncomfortable to experience. As the graphics improve we expect deeper and more nuanced stories to go with them, to live up to what we see on the screen and to justify the violence, or better yet, flesh it out with other experiences. Unfortunately great ideas and great writing seem to be in short supply. Do developers have the right kind of directors and writers to achieve it? Is the talent there? Where it's lacking we'll see more and more games that rely on shock value to stand out, and that's unfortunately what I think we're seeing.

Take Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. The game has a level in which you play a terrorist (or undercover agent with terrorists) shooting civilians inside an airport. The civilians in the crowded terminal are your only targets during this mission, and with state of the art graphics the crowds howl and scream as they try to run and are cut down by your hail of bullets or are picked off through the scope of your rifle. It's pretty shocking. If you haven't already seen the movies, you're bound to hear about it when the mainstream media picks up on it.

Maybe I'm just turning into Danny Glover and getting too old for this shit, but from what I've seen it's genuinely repulsive and it doesn't exist for any other reason than to cause controversy and to appeal to the anarchistic nature of teenagers. Let's be honest, Infinity Ward doesn't have the literary skills for this to be described as a commentary on world events, or a thought provoking interactive sequence - or any of the other things they will defend themselves with.

This seems to be the worrying formula:

Inherently violent game genres


increasing realistic graphics


densensitized gamers


crowded marketplace


mediocre developers desperate to stimulate them


Depressingly unsophisticated games clamoring for your attention with thoughtless graphic violence

I'm not bothered by the fact that artistically bankrupt games exist. It's that the gaming media seems to embrace them as being the core of gaming. Journalists write off the old guard, imaginative games like Mario platformers as being casual, kiddy, family, not for the core, meanwhile these clumsy, grisly epics are held up as the biggest releases of the year. They are the poster children of modern gaming, they're what people inevitably judge gaming by and so long as they do that, the medium won't progress.

Those games wouldn't stand a chance in hell of garnering respect in other mediums. MW2 wouldn't stand up against a double episode of 24, let alone a novel or film with actual depth. It's sad to me that we have so far to go.

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Posted: 10/28/09, 01:31:45    
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I don't really see it as a simple moral choice. IW doesn't want you to identify with the terrorist or choose a binary good/evil path (Will you save the kitty in the tree or will you unleash anthrax on the neighborhood?). They assume that you don't WANT to kill non-combatants, and place you in a situation where your survival and mission is at risk if you don't. It's the kind of thing that almost works better and more cleanly in an episodic game like CoD than in an RPG, because your actions don't have to affect the whole rest of the game.

I really feel Infinity Ward is one of the last companies that people should criticize for this kind of stuff. It's true that they still make games about shooting lots of people, but at the end of the day, making the game play well is more important than delivering a message. Every person has to decide for themselves how the scene is handled, I guess. I'm really interested to experience it, myself. Which is more than I can say about... pretty much any other narrative-driven scene in a video game.

Of course, the scene heavily relies on the gameplay balancing and other features that IW creates around it. Maybe they won't pull it off. But I'm glad that they're trying (and most of those kind of good/evil-path games don't interest me at all). And, the less boundaries, the better, as far as I'm concerned. Put it all out and let each consumer decide for themselves what they can handle. Even though GTA is a juvenile game in many respects, it has expanded the boundaries of gaming for everybody. The ends justify the means.

Posted by 
 on: 11/05/09, 20:52:25
I apologise that I lost the will to carry on discussing this when the idea was brought up that it was a question of 'political correctness'. Somehow you're not able to talk about this subject without it getting polarized into 'Games are murder simulators' or 'Games are just games, anything goes!'. I'm not in the first camp, and I'd be disappointed if anyone here was in the other. Both are such shallow points of view.

Still, I've carried on reading and I just wanted to add this about MW2's deep and meaningful commentary on terrorism:

The way that level is presented in MW2 is so hamfisted it would be laughed at if it was in any other form of expression. You're an undercover agent with terrorists in the midst of a civilian killing spree, but hey, you gotta play along with it because maybe they have something even worse planned afterwards. So what are you going to do? It's a moral quandry suitable of King Solomon himself!

Choice 1: Kill the terrorists

Actually no, you can't kill the terrorists. There is no 'finish the level by killing the terrorists' sequence.

Choice 2, then: Play along and kill some civilians. No too many. Maybe just some of the older looking ones.

Well, this seems like a choice of sorts and in fact is the only way you can advance in the game, but the terrorists shoot you dead at the end of the level anyway. Boom! Now your head is spinning. You're punished for being evil even though it was the only way you could progress. And also rewarded by being able to continue the game. Hope you learned a lot about morals and war and stuff. Now let's go shoot some bad guys in a desert and feel better.


If Infinity Ward actually wanted to put some effort into interactive story telling they'd make a branching game where moral choices led to different scenarios.

Or at the very least, they could have planned this level as a situation where you're maintaining your cover with the different characters in the terror group for as long as you could, but you know that you have to divide and stop them all before they massacre an airport full of civilians. It could involve subterfuge, and stealth, character interaction and maybe some morally unpleasant wounding of civilians to throw the terrorists off the fact that you're working against them. But of course, that's a fuck of a lot harder than making a traditional FPS level.

There is no scenario on earth, where an undercover agent facilitates mass murder on the hopes of gathering intelligence on something worse. So why did they choose it? Because it deals with a taboo subject in a way that can be easily simulated, that pushes people's buttons, but ultimately goes nowhere and so doesn't need any clever writing or planning, or the creation of alternate content. It comes down to money and laziness and developer ego, and the acceptability of increasingly explicit violence in games.

It's only going to get worse if the media blindly accepts there isn't even a discussion to be had.

Posted by 
 on: 11/06/09, 02:44:49
Side topic: Is this going to make MW2's launch more or less successful?

Is modern warfare really the perfect subject for juvenile, mindless fun? You wouldn't see a top budget Hollywood movie use current events for gory, popcorn entertainment without any creative depth. Why is it fine for games?

Posted by 
 on: 11/06/09, 04:01:03
Actually no, you can't kill the terrorists. There is no 'finish the level by killing the terrorists' sequence.

See, this is what I mean by there is no true open-endedness.

Hmm, and it led me to think of another point. Let's say killing all of the terrorists is unrealistic. You know what MIGHT actually be the most moral option at this point? Kill as many as possible and die in the process. But it's tough to put something like that into a game because, you know... you'd be dead. All of the moral choices seem to conveniently hinge upon keeping yourself alive. It's tough to set up a truly fluid moral process if you have to exclude real sacrifices, including self sacrifice.

Of course, this could work in a team based game where you are actually somewhat emotionally connected to many of your units, like Fire Emblem or something, and then you have choices, some of which may lead to that character's ultimate demise. But for most games, nah.

Actually, come to think of it, Fire Emblem already has some of that built into the core mechanics. When you let a unit stray too far and they are in danger, you have a choice... send more units to try to save them, risking more lives, or... accept the loss and move on. Of course some people STILL hit reset and start the stage over when a unit dies, but I've learned to just keep moving forward in that game.

Mostly. When a really, really cool unit dies, I still go for the reset, heh.

Posted by 
 on: 11/06/09, 06:13:18
You're right, sacrifice isn't something that's used much in games. Certainly not of a playable character, and not through the choice of the player.

Countless party members in Final Fantasy IV sacrifice themselves in a way that becomes unintentionally funny after a while. Dupre sacrifices himself for the avatar in Ultima VII: Serpent's Isle. Gremio in Suikoden sacrifices himself to save your life in a more touching scene (and you can unexpectedly resurrect him if you gather all 108 stars), but if there's a good example of actively choosing to sacrifice yourself, or something useful like your favorite weapon or party member, I can't think of one...

Posted by 
 on: 11/06/09, 20:21:17
Probably a lot of RPGs do sacrifice playable characters, but not from actual choices very often. JRPGs are notorious for offering a choice window but if you pick the wrong one it just keeps popping back up until you pick the right one, lol.

Do you accept your role as the legendary hero? Y/N


The world is depending on you! Do you accept your role as the legendary hero? Y/N


The world is depending on you! Do you accept your role as the legendary hero? Y/N


The world is depending on you! Do you accept your role as the legendary hero? Y/N


The world is depending on you! Do you accept your role as the legendary hero? Y/N


The world is depending on you! Do you accept your role as the legendary hero? Y/N


The world is depending on you! Do you accept your role as the legendary hero? Y/N


The world is depending on you! Do you accept your role as the legendary hero? Y/N


The world is depending on you! Do you accept your role as the legendary hero? Y/N


Excellent! I knew you would make the right choice!

Posted by 
 on: 11/06/09, 20:55:03
Valkyrie Profile DS apparently makes your life hell UNLESS you sacrifice characters to the gods. That's an interesting approach. I don't even know if the game is beatable without doing so, but assuming that it is, it's very, very hard. Good balancing.

Anyway, that MW2 scene doesn't sound to have such optimal execution, if it plays out as you say. I kind of wish that I had never heard about it in the first place, honestly. I'm not big on spoilers for games that am likely to play, and knowing how a magic trick is performed takes all the fun out of the performance. As long as you believe that you are making a decision that affects the game, it's still cool, whether illusory or not.

Anyway, all of these good-and-evil games are a bit too binary for me. I'd rather have a world where your interaction with every single character was based on only the behavior that that character was aware of. The whole 'reputation' thing that follows you everywhere is a bit unrealistic.

Also, I always wanted to play/make an adventure game that focused on possession mechanics (sort of like Geist), where you'd have to stay in character (with dialogue choices and behavior) to acquire the intel that you needed to figure out whatever you had to figure out. Like, if it was set in WWII, you might have to possess a Nazi and behave like one long enough to get the goods.

Maybe Geist is already like that. I dunno. But most possession-based games focus on possessing people with guns and shooting other people. I think it would be cool to be, like, a psychic spy.

Posted by 
 on: 11/06/09, 23:20:19
Haha, that's pretty good, Zero.

More JRPGs should take a cue from their grand-daddy, Dragon Quest, in which the villain at the end of the game offered you to rule by his side. And you could say yes. And it wasn't a good idea, but at least you could make the choice!


Posted by 
 on: 11/06/09, 23:45:25
There are a lot of parts in God of War where you can kill people on your side to get extra health and stuff, but I dunno if that game ever feels like it offers moral options, as pretty much everything you do is selfish in the end. The "sides" seem so arbitrary there.

Posted by 
 on: 11/07/09, 00:50:20
Yeah I actually love the games a lot but the character does nothing for me, and his "plight" is impossible to relate to because he was, is, and probably always will be a totally self-centered character who deserves no ones pity.

It was also funny when the PS2GB was trying to defend all the blatant nudity as being some strict adherence to Greek art because, you know, Greek art had a lot of nudes. Funny because most Greek nudes look something like this...

I'll give you two guesses as to what the major difference between God of War female nudes and actual Greek female nudes is. I'll also give you zero guesses as to how many nude males there are in God of War.

Posted by 
 on: 11/07/09, 08:03:14
Okay, so I played Modern Warfare 2. Not the whole thing, but past "the scene".

It was pretty horrible. Not horrifying, because I have no soul. But horrible, because there was absolutely no room for improvisation. I tried everything. Shooting the main bad guy in the head immediately, shooting the teammates 'accidentally', shooting other stuff... no dice. So I just started killing civilians to see their death animations. That was the only satisfying part of the level. Well, that and taking out groups of riot shield guys with a single grenade, a la Commando (Arcade).

Someone should make a reimagining of Commando. Infinite grenades. People are always constraining your ability to use the most fun weapons in games. Someone should just make a game that ONLY has those weapons, and balance everything else to match.

Anyway, back to MW2. Missed opportunity. And, even though I enjoyed the single-player in CoD4 (after hating that of the earlier games), I found that MW2 gave me that same 'where the fuck am I supposed to go, and where do those guys keep popping out from?', linear-but-confusing-and-arbitrary CoD headache. Bleah. Spec-ops seems cool, but I didn't get a chance to play it.

Posted by 
 on: 11/25/09, 17:44:09
Interesting impressions, thanks anand. I haven't played MW2 because it's just not my type of game.

I probably come across as a little sanctimonious in some of my posts in this thread, but I'm not anti-violence, I'm anti-stupidity. What excites me about gaming is the interactivity and the potential for exactly what you were missing playing that level: improvisation, role-playing, experiencing a story in a personal way... Either the medium is too young to be dealing with serious world-issues like terrorism in a graphic and realistic way (maybe) or the developers that decide to jump into those issues aren't pushing themselves hard enough to create weighty experiences.

Infinity Ward made a very one dimensional, flimsy experience out of something provocative. That's dumb. Lazy and dumb, which is why it's not surprising when gaming as a whole gets a bad reputation. MW2 was heralded as gaming's biggest and most important release, but what does it actually bring to the medium? The writer of NCIS? At least something like Wii Sports Resort pushes part of the medium forwards.

Hope that better explains my point of view.

Posted by 
 on: 11/25/09, 18:09:33
I beat MW2 this weekend.

That airport scene was pretty shocking to me, especially when they first opened fire on a large group of people waiting in line or something. My jaw dropped at what was going on...even though I expected something shocking (the game asks if you want to skip "certain missions" and I heard something about an airport scene, so I figured something bad was about to go down when I started the airport level)

I didn't shoot any civilians...I wasn't planning on shooting at all during that mission, until the game forces you to shoot the riot shield guys.

But anyway, yeah they did make this mission to get attention and sales thanks to controversy and FOX News, and it's been done before...GTA, Manhunt. Activision probably actively unveiled that scene before release to get that extra press.

This mission did provide an interesting story element though. I didn't quite catch it (I didn't quite catch much of any of the game's story...) but a friend told me later: [spoiler alert] this mission happens in a Russian airport. At the end of it, the terrorists somehow know you're American and shoot you, leaving you to die. This sends a message to the world that there was a dead American with a gun in the airport after the tragedy, hinting that the US is to blame for the attack.

How that plays in with the rest of the story, I don't know. I didn't pay much attention to the story.

Great game though. Started out kinda "meh" but the second half is very good. One mission in particular stands as one of my favourites in an FPS: The Gulag. Very cool.

Posted by 
 on: 11/25/09, 18:14:02
^^ I found that [spoiler] to be the irritating cherry on the annoying sundae. I mean, could that game BE any more linear? Jesus, you spend 99% of your time as a bullet-absorbing, death-dealing badass, and then they force you to eat it in a cutscene. Bleah. I like the shifts in perspective, but, at that point, why be interactive at all? They're trying to have their cake and eat it, too. But that's kind of what the franchise has always been about, with its heavily scripted 'tactical' action.

To be honest, CoD isn't really my type of game, either, but I feel like I have to personally experience all of the big, culturally sticky games. You know, to be a more well-rounded person. It's the same reason I force myself to listen to pop music, no matter how shitty.

You know what, though? That level could've been really cool, if they had built a truly reactive environment. It could've been really awesome. The more realistic games look, the harder it is to suspend your disbelief of everything else.

Really nice death animations on the civilians, though. You can't crawl away from me, bitches!!

Posted by 
 on: 11/25/09, 18:19:18
Haha...you sadistic little...

No, yeah, I was annoyed at the end of it too, because all of it was for nothing. I could've ended the game right then and there, but no, instead, all those people died AND the bad guy got away. For nothing.

That's how I felt after that mission.

But that extra story that my friend clued me in on does make it more interesting. Still, it was silly that the American didn't just kill the guy then and there, really.

Posted by 
 on: 11/25/09, 18:30:57
Yeah, he's the main bad guy, right? They probably should've made him second-in-command, or something.

I forgot to mention the ice-climbing. I found that really satisfying, using the triggers as icepicks.

Posted by 
 on: 11/25/09, 18:33:46  - Edited by 
 on: 06/26/11, 21:36:02
They did ignore gameplay. Most of it really was just a cutscene in which you control the character.

But, since this mission is optional, I don't think they really intended for it to have much gameplay or "fun." Think of it as an interlude.

...a very disturbing interlude.

You're right, it could have been more interesting if it was how you described it, but if it was and I was squeemish and didn't wanna watch that crap happen, and chose to skip the sequence, I'd have missed out on a pretty cool mission, gameplay wise. So maybe it's a fair thing that they did ignore gameplay for that mission. Fair in the sense that the people who don't want to play that terrible mission aren't punished by missing out on neat gameplay.

Posted by 
 on: 11/25/09, 19:26:42
Yeah, at first, I shot at the walls. Then I experimented to see if NOT shooting had any effect whatsoever. NOPE. Like I said, that really broke my suspension of disbelief. Why create such a realistic situation if the behavior is still totally unrealistic?

But, y'know, part of that could be just PC considerations. I mean, since they knew you were a double agent, they could've forced you to shoot a particular civilian to prove your loyalty, or something, but that would probably make a lot of people uncomfortable. Beyond the 'sensitivity' stuff, though, I don't think IW has the ability to pull off such nuanced gameplay and storytelling. Climbing the ice WAS fun, though.

Posted by 
 on: 11/25/09, 19:31:00
Haha, climbing was fun, and they underused it!

Posted by 
 on: 11/25/09, 21:53:37
My friend let me borrow Modern Warfare 2 and I just "played" the airport scene. God, not only could you not do much, but you moved really slow while doing it. The funny thing is I decided to see what would happen if I just decided not to kill any good guys and I really saw the conceit of the game's missions. As much as they yell at you to hurry up and to help, you're not really necessary for anything. Maybe on higher difficulty levels you are, but not on this one. I did absolutely nothing to aid my side, watched as my terrorist friend got shot like 100 times but eventually he killed all of the soldiers and I "won" the mission. So I played it again thinking it would be more fun to go in and mow down civilians but like I said, you move so slow that even that's not really fun.

That said I just spent about an hour trying to beat a really hard (for me at least) Spec Op Mission and it was really fun having to figure out the best strategy and stuff. Much more enjoyable than the typical modern Half-Life style FPS of small challenge, autosave, small challenge, autosave, cinematic sequence, autosave.

Meanwhile, I don't have anything really to add this years old moral discussion

Posted by 
 on: 06/26/11, 21:12:04
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