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by Ethos

Sunday Soapbox: BioShock and the Death of the Cutscene

Monday, February 15th, 2010

BioShock1It’s not often that a game like BioShock comes around.

And odd thing to say, seeing that it “came around” some years ago. Right now, the gaming world is busy playing through and sizing up the long-anticipated sequel, BioShock 2. Anyone who’s read my two separate impressions of the game knows that, despite all my prior misgivings, I’m having a blast with it.

Playing BioShock 2 has made me realize what an influential game the first BioShock was. BioShock 2 doesn’t feel as fresh as the first game did, and here’s why: not only have I seen these gameplay mechanics and storytelling conventions in BioShock 1, but I’ve seen them in countless games since. I thought it before, and I’m almost sure of it now: BioShock may, in fact, be the Ocarina of Time of this generation.

Quite a bold statement, you say? Well, here’s another one for you: in this console generation, videogames have finally come unto their own as a legitimate and unique form of storytelling, and BioShock was one of the main proponents of this movement.

BioShock was one of the first games to effectively tell a deep, involving, and well-written story entirely devoid of non-interactive cutscenes. You’re never, ever taken out of the gameplay in BioShock – you’re in control the entire time. The plot is developed through dialog spoken during gameplay, as well as numerous “audio journals” scattered throughout the world.  Even during the game’s most pivotal moments – for example, the fated meeting with Andrew Ryan himself – you never left the world of the game in favor of a cinema.

As a result, BioShock was a very unique, immersive, and seamlessly story-driven experience. It was proof that games could tell stories – not movie scenes interspersed throughout gameplay segments, but games themselves.

Dead SpaceThe number of games that have adopted a similar or identical model of storytelling are numerous and obvious. Dead Space, for example, is almost identical in its storytelling: almost no cutscenes are utilized, all dialog is spoken in-game, and dozens of audio/video logs develop the game’s mysterious backstory. The seamlessness and consistency that comes with such a model allows developers to craft a more immersive, poignant atmosphere – can you imagine if Dead Space utilized traditional cutscenes to tell its story? Much like BioShock, Dead Space thrives on its constant, unsettling atmosphere – and being broken from such an atmosphere for the sake of watching a movie would cause the game as a whole to lose its frightening effectiveness.

It’s not only Dead Space, of course. Batman: Arkham Asylum, Uncharted, Mass Effect 2, and perhaps even Modern Warfare can all be considered part of BioShock’s legacy in some way. In Arkham Asylum, how dull would it have been if we only ever heard Mark Hamill’s rendition of The Joker when he appeared in cutscenes? Listening to his jeering voice over the asylum’s intercoms was one of the most awesome things about that game.

And in Uncharted 2, what if you had simply watched a cutscene of Drake battling his way up that train? It must be noted that the Uncharted series still makes fairly liberal use of the non-interactive cutscene, but it combines them with fantastic sequences of interactive storytelling. (Incidentally, that’s one of the main reasons why Uncharted is so awesome.)

BayonettaThere’s nothing wrong with the traditional cutscene, of course. We’ve been watching them for years, and there’s no reason to entirely do away with them now. Games like Uncharted 2 show that there’s still a place for them in the current gaming landscape, but they are to be used sparingly. Take Bayonetta, as a bad example – well-done as the cutscenes were, many of them felt entirely out-of-place in this day and age. Why, exactly, do I need to watch a movie scene of Bayonetta and Jeanne dueling? Why can’t I just fight her myself?

In the game’s defense, you are indeed given the pleasure of fighting her yourself – but only after sitting through a lengthy and entirely superfluous cutscene.

Videogames are the art of interactivity, and to create an artful interactive experience, it’s crucial to achieve a certain level of immersion. Gameplay segments should never feel like obligatory hoop-jumps that connect non-interactive plot points. Rather, the player should feel that with every passing moment that they play, the story is advancing. The player should feel, quite literally, like they’re playing through a story – not as if they’re advancing through a level in order to get to the story.

The reason BioShock was and is such an amazing experience is because it’s not something that can be fully replicated through any other medium. The same story told through film wouldn’t even be comparable. It thrives on its atmosphere, and atmosphere in a videogame thrives on interactivity. Not every game needs to be BioShock, and not every game needs to tell its story through audio logs; however, games do need to remember that it’s not what a gamer sees, but what a gamer does that defines an experience.

Worse than February: Paying for Online Multiplayer

Friday, February 5th, 2010
Me in February.

Me in February.

Yeah, it’s definitely February. The weather is cold, rainy, and foreboding. Like always, Time feels like it has nearly halted in place.

For the next twenty-three days, it’ll be inching along at an excruciating pace.

It’s currently 1:57 a.m. CST on a Friday. I should be in bed, but for some reason I feel like discussing something that’s arguably worse than this soul-crushing month.

That something is paying for online multiplayer.

The desire to write this editorial actually hit me a few days ago, after reading IGN’s interview with Peter Dille, Sony’s vice president of marketing. Readers might recall that I brought up a few of the interview’s key points in my last Hey! Look! Listen! column. One of them was the possibility that, in the future, Sony might charge for their PlayStation Network services – much as Microsoft charges for an Xbox Live Gold subscription.

I reacted with disgust, naturally. I have no interest in paying console manufacturers for the basic function of online play – and I don’t think I should have to. This is why I don’t have an Xbox Live Gold subscription. And that’s why I really hope Sony takes an alternative route if they do introduce some sort of premium version of PlayStation Network.

Something that’s easy to forget is that online play has been around for years. People were playing Diablo online over Blizzard’s BattleNet network almost 15 years ago. The technology isn’t even close to being novel; however, it was some time before we saw it properly integrated into console gaming.

xbox-live1When Microsoft first launched Xbox Live, it was the first online service that was both stable and incredibly easy to use. Taking the PS2 online was a whole bitch, and few games had any real support anyway. The GameCube’s online support was even more of a joke. But Xbox Live offered reliability, ease of use, and a ton of people to play with.

And that hasn’t changed. Xbox Live is still a fantastic service, with a massive community that continues to grow. But Microsoft shouldn’t charge $50 for online play.

I’ve always praised Sony for providing PSN for free. Perhaps the service isn’t as “streamlined,” per se, as Xbox Live. But in terms of functionality, the two services are practically identical. If the service was buggy or unreliable, Microsoft might be vindicated – but as it stands, the difference is negligible, if it exists at all.

free-playstation-networkAnd, remember, it’s not just the PS3 that offers free online play – it’s every single gaming device aside from the 360: PS3, Wii, iPod Touch, PSP, DS, and of course, the PC. Sure, the Wii’s online functionality is a bit of a joke, but Mario Kart online is pretty fantastic. And guess what? It’s free.

So how, exactly, does Microsoft justify making gamers pay for online play? And why on earth is Sony considering adopting the same business model?

I have a simple solution that I believe would satisfy all parties involved: provide simple necessities such as online play for free, and offer extra, “premium” content to subscribers. By “premium” content I mean original programming like Qore, services like Netflix, and perhaps even exclusive game demos. Y’know, stuff that actually feels like it’s worth paying a little extra for.

IGN doesn’t require an Insider subscription to watch video reviews, but only subscribers can watch them in HD. It’s a business model that Microsoft should adopt, and I sincerely hope that it’s the route Sony takes if they do decide to begin charging for PlayStation Network service.

Oh, and $50 is too damned much. It’s significantly more expensive than the average magazine subscription. And seeing that most of the content on Xbox Live (TV shows, movies, services like Netflix) cost extra money, I’m unsure why I should be forced to pay a royalty just so I can… pay more later.

But hey, this is all just personal opinion, and a bit of a gut reaction. It’s probably worth noting that I’ve never had an Xbox Live Gold subscription, so I haven’t experienced the wonders that fifty extra dollars supposedly brings.

What are your thoughts, people? Do you Xbox Live Gold subscribers feel that your $50 was well spent? Do you think that console manufacturers should continue to charge for online play? Sound off!

In Which Ethos Melts Into Sap

Saturday, November 28th, 2009
Beautiful and sad.

Beautiful and sad.

There are many reasons I love living in Toronto. Number one, it works very well with my love for the underdog. Now, it’s arguable that living in Canada has, in fact, given me this underdog complex, but then it could be counter-argued that I live in the biggest city in the country and even the most American-like. But all nationalist reasons aside, I think I love the seasons most. Sure, I could deal with it if we managed to remove a month from Winter and place it…ANYWHERE ELSE, but I definitely wouldn’t want to remove the season altogether. The changes in climate, scenery, and collective mindset are so necessary for me. I love that the cyclical nature brings a sense of familiarity and nostalgia, but more importantly progression. I love that Winters remind me of previous Winters to not just comfort me with memories, but to feel proud or even discouraged when I think of where I am compared to where I was. Autumn, in particular has traditionally been my favourite. I love that the season literally brings about the death of so many things, but it does so with beautiful colours, smells, and the perfect weather. It’s more a celebration of life than anything else. It represents maturity and acceptance, but still vibrance and wonder.

But I’ve written too much about Toronto and Autumn without relating any of it to video games. I suppose my ultimate point is that I connect the strongest with any art – and particularly games – that can embody the same love of life in the face of death that Autumn does. Flower is a celebration of beauty and mood painted on a drab backdrop of melonchony and, penultimately, death. Shadow of the Colossus is the simple story of passionate courage in the face of – and at the price of – death. The most emotionally powerful Zelda games are the ones with themes of the celebration and eventual loss of innocence. Even Final Fantasy IX is an example of loving life in the face of death.

flowerWhat is it about this that resonates with me? I feel like it’s not disconnected from my morbid desire to see the apocalypse in my lifetime. I suppose I feel like Autumn and Autumn-like things best sum up what it means to be alive without making melodramatic sweeping statements. There’s depth in simplicity. There’s truth behind the beautiful celebration of life coexisting with the desperate struggle to stay alive.

All said, Autumn represents calm passion to me. It revives inspiration in me and resonates deeply in me when somebody is able to bundle up these thoughts into indescribable forms of interactive expression. It reminds me that life is more than just a zombie-like drift through life, and that even death is rarely a cause to mourn.

Anyway, that’s my vague ramble. The comments are there for your mocking pleasure.

Concerning Modern Warfare 2’s Terrorist Level…

Sunday, November 15th, 2009

modernwarfare

By Oliver Motok

Every so often, we are reminded of just how far the game industry has to go before it gains the respect that, say, the film industry enjoys.

Granted, progress has been made. Things aren’t quite the same now as they were in 2005, during the infamous “Hot Coffee” scandal of Grand Theft Auto III. And thanks to a certain fellow being disbarred, we don’t hear quite as much courtroom squawking about videogames and their corrupting influence on the minds of children.

Getting to the point, though, and as you might have guessed, I’m here to talk about Modern Warfare 2’s “terrorist” scene, which has been the subject of much scrutiny in both the gaming and the mainstream press lately. To fully understand the discussion, the scene should be described in detail.

During this level, you’re actually an undercover CIA Agent, working with the game’s main antagonist, Vladimir Makarov. The premise is simple: you, Vladimir, and two others walk into a Russian airport and begin mercilessly gunning down civilians. No one is spared, and no resistance is offered outside of a few terrified security guards. Once that’s finished, you and your three companions successfully escape in a hijacked ambulance.

Understand that this is all fully playable; it’s not a cutscene. To say the least, it’ll disturb you. There’s a reason why the game gives two different warnings that the sequence is possibly offensive, and allows you to skip it without penalty.

mw2snowIs Modern Warfare 2’s “terrorist” scene worthy of discussion and scrutiny? Sure it is. It can be a very upsetting scene, and it’s certainly not something seen before in the world of videogames. However, the tone of both the media and the gaming press seems to phrasing the question as “should the scene exist at all.”

If this fictionalized terrorist attack had been a scene in the next Michael Bay movie, nobody would have batted an eye. If it had been featured as a cutscene in Modern Warfare 2, nobody would have noticed. However, because it’s a playable sequence in the game, people are shocked. Why? Because it’s something they’ve never seen before. And it’s all too easy to fear what you haven’t seen before, now isn’t it?

Stephen Totilo of Kotaku was recently on MSNBC, discussing (or at least attempting to discuss) this very scene. During the segment he said something that I agree with 102 percent: “I think a lot of people look at videogames as children’s books.” And he’s entirely correct – despite how far we’ve managed to come, the general consensus still seems to be that videogames are a child’s pastime. So, when Modern Warfare 2 has the gall to present players with overtly adult material, the world is left wondering how to react.

Naturally, though, as gamers we have a different opinion. Videogames are proven to be a pastime that all ages can enjoy. Modern Warfare 2 has an “M” on the box for a reason – the content of the game is designed for a mature audience. The so-called “terrorist” mission was meant to be experienced by a mature audience. This being the case, then, the question of “should this scene exist” is rendered moot.

There are multiple reasons the scene is beneficial to the game. For one, it’s a guaranteed crowd-shocker, sure to cultivate attention and motivation from the audience. Even hardened gamers who think they’ve seen it all will surely be stunned, and that’s saying something.

MW2screen2Secondly, the segment acts as a major plot point, and it characterizes the main villain, terrorist leader Vladimir Makarov. Sure, it characterizes him as a black-and-white evil bastard, but regardless, it gives a face to the name that players will hear time and time again throughout the campaign. Secondly, it’s this attack that triggers the entire war that the game is based around. In other words, it’s not there simply for the sake of having a “terrorist” level – it’s a very crucial part of the story.

And finally, Infinity Ward is to be praised for embracing the interactive medium to it’s fullest. This is what all games should strive to do. Franchises such as Call of Duty and Uncharted understand that it’s not what you see, but what you do that defines the gaming experience. Naughty Dog could have simply crafted a cutscene for the train sequence of Uncharted 2 – instead, they designed two entire levels in which the player was forced to traverse it himself. Infinity Ward could have put together a hollywood-quality CGI scene that showed the terrorist attack, but they forced the player to experience it firsthand. Controversial as it may appear, it’s simply the best way for videogames – an interactive medium -to tell their stories.

Video games are all about the interactive experience. It’s the single unique advantage that games have over other storytelling mediums. So, should Modern Warfare 2’s terrorist level exist? Absolutely, and hopefully both gamers and developers alike will view it as a solid example to follow. Eventually, the world will get used to it.