Sunday, 18 March 2012

Well-Rendered Mother's Day Special! Or, More Accurately, My Favourite Games of 2011

I never did a rundown of 2011 on Well-Rendered. This is mainly because I spent 2011 playing JRPGs on the PlayStation 2, which, as anyone who's ever played a JRPG on the PlayStation 2 will attest, leaves little time for anything else. I did play some new games however, and I feel enough time has elapsed for me to tell you which my favourites were.

Dark Souls' Cheshire Cat. Smiley.

The best game was Dark Souls. Its brilliance comes in being so clear with what it wishes to achieve, so precise in its execution, and thus so compelling, a feat when you consider how brutally difficult it is. It's also got the best monster design I have ever seen, which, for the benefit of any goldfish reading this, is saying something because I play a lot of JRPGs.

I also had a lot of fun with Nordic dragon-fest Skyrim. However, the fact that I was reviewing it meant that I tried to get through as much as I could as quickly as possible, which meant fighting several dragons on Easy (admitting that is the internet equivalent of sending a some photos of yourself with a room full of hookers dressed as the cast of The Muppet Show to The Sun, thus saving them the trouble of hacking your phone), specialising in several different forms of combat and never really following any kind of moral code.

One of Skyrim's Dunmer, or Dark Elves.

I think I would have enjoyed it more if I'd played on Hard, because that requires you to get very good at certain skills in order to succeed, which in turn solves the second problem, and would have made the role-playing aspect of the game more immersive. Role-playing is not, oddly, that important to everyone who plays RPGs (by which I mean Western ones, where you create a character and run around a big open world doing whatever you fancy), which I find very odd. To me, the appeal of a role-playing game is pretending I am someone else. Not someone too different from myself, you understand, just a foxier, more heroic version of myself who can shoot fireballs. To this end, I usually choose to play as a Chaotic Good character with unkempt hair and an athletic yet bountiful physique, but to review Skyrim I ended up playing as a Chaotic Neutral in order to explore as many outcomes as possible, which did not please me at all.

At least I looked cool though. Here's a picture of my character, which, as the totally professional video game pontificator that I am, was taken with a camera pointed at my TV.

My High Elf, or Altmer. Her name is, cringingly, Hawthorne.

So what was my favourite game, you ask? Well actually, it is a tie between Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, unsurprisingly because both tell great stories. I can't say which is better because they do entirely different things, equally successfully. Deus Ex: Human Revolution tells you the story of a world by putting you in the middle of an imaginary scenario and letting you uncover it however you want. Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception tells a straightforward story using techniques that have worked in films for decades, and yet somehow making the entire thing interactive.

I'm not even going to try and suggest how Naughty Dog managed this, because I just can't. I've played so many games that try to be cinematic, but fail to be engaging because they take control away from you at crucial moments because they don't trust you to do the right thing. To be fair, in those games you probably wouldn't. You do in Uncharted, however, because it's so intuitive. Oh crap! You just fell out of a plane above a desert! What do you do? Obviously you grab onto a falling crate of supplies, because you know that since it was meant to be dropped to a caravan below, it will be equipped with a parachute, which you pull. Of course, the controls in this section are fairly simple, but it would have been so easy for Naughty Dog to just show you the whole thing in a cutscene.

[insert joke about Ryanair here]

The action, for all its brilliance, is only part of it. The story's as emotional as it is exciting (oh, you know, ancient secret order, Elizabethan conspiracy, mind-control, pirates, genies etc), which is all down to the strength of the characters. One thing video games are very well-equipped to do is banter, which gives you a lot of time to become attached to characters. Most other media that tells stories has to use character interaction to advance the plot, but in games, there's a lot of time where you're engaged in some kind of task and the characters have time to chat to each other, giving you great insight into their relationships, either because you're watching them get to know each other, like Nathan and Elena in the first game, or learning what makes a long-standing friendship work, like Nathan and Sully in this one.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is entirely different. There are no set-pieces, and since Adam Jensen's character is yours to manipulate, he doesn't have the meaningful relationships that Nathan enjoys. This game is about putting you in a world and letting you discover it for yourself. Because of their ability to let you explore a world without the necessity of having good characters or even a plot, games do science fiction really well. Even the best science fiction often falls into the trap of being so concerned with the ideas it's trying to communicate that it neglects its characters and its script, reducing them to vehicles that ferry you through the story. It's sadly the case that science fiction with good characters tends to be pretty light on the "science" side of things.

An advert for Sarif Industries, makers of high-end biomechanical augmentations.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is very strong on the "science", and its focus is on the effect of biomechanical augmentations on human beings, and whether such developments are merely the next logical step for a species whose lives are already defined by technology. The story is told through the world, be it overheard conversations as you sneak through secret bases, conversations you have with anti-augmentation protesters or e-mails you read after hacking a computer. Levels are cluttered, full of kipple, which is appropriate for a game that seems so influenced by Blade Runner. You can sift through the detritus of thousands of confused lives, gradually building an understanding of the world that is yours to interpret.

Of course, neither game is perfect. Uncharted 3 never quite manages to balance Nathan Drake's charm with the number of people he kills. Once I'd completed the game on Crushing mode (I mention that in a vain attempt to regain kudos my Skyrim confession, above), I viewed the statistics, only to see that I'd killed nearly 2,000 human beings. Unlike Han Solo, who definitely shot first, Nathan Drake is not a self-interested scoundrel who slowly learns the meaning of self-sacrifice just in time to help Luke blow up the Death Star. He can't be, because in order to keep the game fun, there needs to be a lot of shooting, and the shooting must continue right up until the end of the game.

Nate does "morally ambiguous" in a London pub.

What makes the Uncharted games even more awkward is the fact that even though he always ends up trying to stop some megalomaniac gaining control of a magical WMD, they only have access to it in the first place because Nathan spent the preceding eight hours merrily blowing up guards, mercenaries and pirates because he wanted it himself. The fact that he only finds out that the statue/stone/city is evil after he's given the baddie the means to get hold of it isn't really an excuse.

In all three games, Nathan goes after some mythical artifact in the full understanding that not only did a famous explorer go to considerable lengths to erase all record of its existence, but that some comedy accented-villain with means and inclination to hire an army of mercenaries is after it too. He completely ignores everyone who points out that running around with keys and maps will mean that the aforementioned baddie will find it a LOT easier to wreak global havoc should they ever catch up with him (which, since he keeps gatecrashing their secret hideouts and leaving a handy trail of corpses behind him, they inevitably do), and then ends up having to risk the lives of himself and his loved ones once he figures out that Francis Drake/Marco Polo/T.E. Lawrence probably destroyed all evidence of their discoveries for a good reason.

Nate and Sully get interrogated by Katherine "Scary Poppins" Marlowe.

Uncharted 3 doesn't try and excuse this stupid behaviour, but it does at least give us the means to draw our own conclusions. It's far more successful in doing this than Tomb Raiders Legend and Underworld, which try to convince us that the reason Lara Croft is such an inconsiderate sociopath is because she's looking for a way into Avalon in order to find her dead mother. I really, really wish I was making that up.

Instead, Uncharted 3 gives us a glimpse into Nathan's past, either via flashback or casual reference, and although it never tells us the answer to the question that people keep asking him - "what are you trying to prove, Nate?" - it gives us a fairly good idea. The whole thing works because although Nathan (brilliantly acted by Nolan North, which everyone knows, but he deserves all the praise the internet can fling in his direction) might be a dysfunctional jerk, he's an adorable, charming dysfunctional jerk who eventually realises that he's been looking for closure in the wrong place.

I have that exact scarf.

I've now cried at the ending three times, but then I cry at Red Dwarf, so I don't know if that says much.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution doesn't need to worry too much about giving Adam Jensen a motivation because a) it's his job to be a badass and b) you are Adam Jensen, and his motivations are up to you. Like Uncharted 3, its narrative difficulties also arise from having to balance gameplay and story. Despite being very open in terms of how the player is able to approach things, Deus Ex: Human Revolution still has to move its tale of accelerated evolution, lost love and corporate skulduggery along. In order to do so, it has to remove control and choice from you at certain points, which is very jarring, as if someone else took control of your body for an hour a day and made you do peculiar things in public. It means you never truly feel free, which is a problem in a game that is defined by the freedom it gives you.

Adam Jensen wasn't too happy about the boss fights either.

Yet these are still my two favourite games of 2011, mainly because of their stories, flawed though they may be. It's actually pretty sexist to even bother pointing this out because it doesn't really matter, but I'm both interested and encouraged to see women at the narrative helm of both projects.

Seriously Mary, "narrative helm", really? Geez.

The narrative designer for Deus Ex: Human Revolution is Mary DeMarle, who has pointed out that her position is an unusual one in the industry. Games have had writers for almost as long as there have been games, but the idea of a narrative designer is fairly new. It stands to reason that it's necessary in a game like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which uses about six different channels to tell its story, since someone is needed to conceptualise and co-ordinate them all. There are so many threads running through the game, that tying them together while still giving the player the freedom to explore and interpret them as they wish is a great feat.

Deus Ex:Human Revoluion uses renaissance imagery to frame its tale of intellectual and technical evolution. This picture is taken from a dream sequence in the incredible trailer, but I kind of wish there were people actually dressed like that in the game.

The Uncharted series' creative director and head writer is industry veteran Amy Hennig. I mentioned Uncharted's "banter" before, and Hennig deliberately uses supporting characters to bring out certain qualities in her main characters. Hence Chloe Frazer beings out Nathan's darker, more mercenary tendencies, Victor "Sully" Sullivan shows us Nathan at his most cocksure and relaxed, while Elena Fisher awakens a conscientious side to Nathan, one which he keeps trying to run away from whenever things get too real. It's a disarmingly simple technique, and one which video games are uniquely placed to deploy.

It looks like the Uncharted series is over, though Naughty Dog have already announced their next project, the incredible-looking The Last of Us. Eidos Montreal, whose first game was Deus Ex: Human Revolution, are yet to announce their next game, but I look forward to whatever it is. After all, there's no reason why thought, moving, intelligent stories can't be fun.

Of the people reading this blog post, there are only a very few who are unlikely to have seen the trailers to these magnificent games. The most important of these people is my mum, and since it's Mother's Day, here they are.

Well-Rendered, ladies and gentlemen, for all your explosive, bloody Mothering Sunday needs!

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