Hi, if you’re a games journalist, critic, games scholar, or whatever you’ve declared yourself to be, and you’ve said something along the lines of the FPS is dead in recent months? Go fuck yourself. You’re the worst part of games culture that isn’t rampant bigotry, and I utterly hate your existence. Because you’re the cancer that is killing innovation, you’re the thorn in the side of ingenuity, spouting a memetic ideology that completely, and utterly misses the point of just what is “holding games back” on an intellectual level.
This newfound ideal that we need to force game developers to take all the guns out, that Bioshock: Infinite should have been a non-violent parlay, that somehow violence is what’s ruining games - really goes to show that games journalism is the lowest of the low as far as intellectual criticism. When you have old gods and washouts like Warren Spector also championing this idiotic cause, it really goes to show that this supposed promised land of games criticism, is really nothing more than a childish, pretentious, ideological circle jerk where appearing well-read and intellectual is more important than actually being a cultured, thoughtful critic.
“It’s Time We Put The Bald Space Marine Away,” writes Patricia Hernandez over at Kotaku. First of all, who the hell is “We?” Do you own a game development studio in your pocket? Are you a developer? No? Are you very subtly trying to ignore the fact that you’re a games “journalist” telling other people what to make with no personal stake in the matter? Right, I just wanted to make sure.
(Note: The rest of the article is actually pretty alright, however, that title is inexcusable)
With that out of the way, to make a gross oversimplification such as “Put the Bald Space Marine Away” with the history of bald space marines in games being as shallow as it’s been over the past decades, is an utter insult to games as an artistic medium. Quite frankly, there’s still so much unexplored space with the realm of bald space marines. To write off any game with a bald space marine in it instead of the content of the gameplay and mechanics is utter childish nonsense, someone seeking to be seen as mature instead of actually being mature.
Bald lady space marines. Bald space marines running a checkpoint in an occupied city. Bald space marines in a futuristic take on the Battle for Stalingrad, holding the line for their country against impeccable odds, debating whether or not to resort to cannibalism, or surrender and run away, losing their minds as the world around them burn and crumbles. A squad of bald space marines sent behind enemy lines to strike at a clone army, and the paranoia of knowing one of your fellow marines has been replaced with an undercover clone who is subtly and quietly undermining your mission. A bald space marine sent to escort a political diplomat negotiating a peace between galactic civilizations.
There’s still so much to do, so much to explore, just with bald space marines. The problem isn’t the protagonist, but the complexity of gameplay, mechanics, and interaction. We’ve been mowing down hundreds of nameless goons over and over for years now - this is ancestry, the passing down of ideals from one generation to another, going back to the arcade days of yonder. Blasting away hundreds of invading spaceships, hundreds of nameless soldiers from some foreign land, in 8-bit and 16-bit graphics - we as a people enjoyed this then and we still enjoy it now, to some extent.
However, as AAA budgets have skyrocketed, publishers hire executives from unrelated industries like finance that have no concept of the cultural value of a game, and everything surrounding mechanics - visuals, audio, narratives, the window dressing - all have rapidly advanced, yet for a lot of titles, the complexity of the player’s interaction with the world hasn’t evolved beyond this Golden Age arcade era mindset of blasting away hundreds upon hundreds of enemies. Not people, not robots, just the same concept as the space invaders or centipedes or what have you - “enemies,” if you will.
To pull from my earliest memories of gaming, I recall a moment of pure, unbridled joy. Trapped in the base of a volcano, I engaged in combat with an ancient dragon king, massive in size and power. Mechanically, it was simple enough - dodge his attacks, throw bombs into his mouth, and then attack him with my sword. I was eleven at the time, not mature enough to comprehend such technical concepts. In the end, I was overjoyed to fell a beast of such great size. I ran around the house once, I felt accomplished. Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was a crazy game to play at such a young age, the scale of combatants one faced over the course of it was a masterful experience.
When I grew older, I came to appreciate games at their purest to be a journey of overcoming impossible odds - defeating the dragon in his own lair for the good of the kingdom, conquering the world and building an empire, leading a squad to victory against an army - not a simple power fantasy of simply shooting away at hundreds, but being given a set of tools, an objective, and being able to experiment and interact and eventually overcome. Games like X-COM, Alpha Centauri, Total War, Deus Ex, Thief, Majora’s Mask, many more, but those are just a few off the top of my head.
Videogames taught me one could fight the world. Fight the world and win, if you were smart enough, crafty enough, patient enough, and resourceful enough.
Later on in life, in my college years, I came across a majestic work of art, that hardly anyone in games journalism has acknowledged, much less come to appreciate - Armed Assault 2. (ArmA2) A modern military simulation, with gaming’s greatest feature to date - it’s editor has been unprecedented. Playing it online, cooperating with the SomethingAwful goons and later on, Shack Tactical, I learned to love the lack of power, of cooperation, of having only one job and a million jobs at once. Taking orders over radio, laying down covering fire, the range of emotions from terror to triumph to camaraderie to loss.
One time I was with a squad of men, on the outskirts of a town fighting to take it from an occupying force. A fire team leader gave the squad next to mine orders to shift and lay down covering fire from a different location. One of their men got hit, and was down in the middle of the road. We were outnumbered, waiting for CAS to come in and clean up our mess. To my right I saw a technical approaching us - with a man on a .50 cal getting ready to bear down on us the second he cleared the shacks. I took a knee and lined up a single shot, eliminating the turret gunner, then sprinted for cover along the vehicle’s path. Leaping out, I took the vehicle by surprise, dumping what was left in my magazine into the driver’s side window.
He crumpled, I took his place and peeled out, pulling the vehicle around so it was a barrier between my wounded comrade and the enemy. Jumping out, I took cover behind the vehicle, called over a medic, and laid down covering fire. I knew if the vehicle was empty, the A.I. wouldn’t target it. I forgot to relay this to my team, someone jumped in the turret, and the enemy lobbed an RPG right at us within minutes afterwards. I was down, bleeding out, sure to be dead. CAS nowhere in sight.
I died, camera and mic-chat switched focus to the mystical helicopter that never showed up. The chatter between the two man crew was simultaneously horrifying and hilarious - unable to make contact with us, they simply decided “fuck it, kill everything,” and leveled the town with rockets.
This was a story, that could have ended in any way. We could have taken the town, completed the mission. The chopper could have showed up and leveled the town while we took cover. My squad mate could have known about the AI issue and not jumped on the turret, keeping my cover safe and protecting us from bullets. A number of endings could have ended this story, and not a single games writer was involved, not a single piece of dialogue was written - it was a story of numerous people working together to accomplish a single goal against an opposing military force.
This story, this experience - there was no scripting, no “designed user experience,” no nothing but mechanics, systems, but plenty of guns, military hardware, blood, and marines. All the things the current games journalism sphere have grown to hate. Yet it was a very real, very non-linear, very human story. I have many more like them from Armed Assault 2, that I cherish very much. For the most part, it’s one of the only games that’s given me a story, instead of told me a story.
It’s not a matter of having guns or marines or not having guns or space marines or being violent or non-violent. It’s a matter of creating mechanics and systems and transporting the player into a state of mind they wouldn’t encounter in their daily lives. Whether that be manning a mercenary company in a violent takeover of an island nation (Jagged Alliance 2) or in the boots of a soldier on a battlefield, all equally as strong and fragile as one another (Armed Assault 2), or into the flight suit of a pilot of a multi-million dollar stealth attack chopper (Comanche 4) or managing the challenges of a growing, colossal empire during the Renaissance (Empire: Total War) or hell, the challenges of defending earth from an overwhelming alien invasion in X-COM: Enemy Unknown.
Armed Assault 2, as a matter of fact, recently had a user generated mission come out that simulates the thrilling, melodramatic existence of manning a roadblock in an occupied nation. (http://forums.bistudio.com/showthread.php?115906-COOP-06-Roadblock-Duty-(ACE)) With randomized events including IEDs, car bombings, insurgent attacks, and civilians just trying to get through to their families and get on with their lives, it is a faithful attempt to recreate a very real life drama that goes on in this world. This is one of the proudest moments of our medium, and yet games journalism is still flailing over how monumental the racist power fantasy that is Bioshock: Infinite.
These shooters, are all games with soldiers, guns, violence, slaughter, and all the other horrors of humanity. This debate, this argument that bald space marines and guns and jamming a whirly knife thing into a violent oppressor’s throats are the cancer that is killing games is an utterly childish, pathetic argument. Violence and killing in general, are a very real, very daily part of our global civilization and culture.
Drones in the sky kill suspected terrorists abroad by day and advertise the latest Star Trek film by night. Rampant shootings in America are in the news monthly, almost weekly it seems. Syria is still in a state of civil war. Toxic masculinity still perpetuates our Western culture, where might somehow still makes right. Kids have been playing army men, cowboys & indians, and play-fighting since the beginning of Man, whether it’s a tussle on the playground or playing a pretend soldier with the latest and greatest in futuristic military technology online in Call of Duty.
Games journalists trying to force developers to make gun-free, non-violent games a pretentious, futile task, and a part of me thinks they know that. Part of me thinks they want to play game designer, in charge of their own multi-million dollar budget and team, and watching them try to pressure developers for so long, in such force, makes me feel gross after a while. I mean, it’s a thought experiment we all like to play in our heads, the mental gymnastics of the perfect game, dream game, whatever. However, I keep that in a shoe back in the back of my mind, and think of what I can do to implement it on my own time, in some form. I don’t use my following to push my ideal vision for what games should be on someone else who has a hell of a lot more on the line than some asshole with a blog.
The problem games journalists are trying to rally against has nothing to do violence - violence is a very real, very human part of life. The problem lies within power fantasies, within ancestry from decades of mowing down hundreds upon hundreds of enemies, ancestry from the simplistic shooting mechanics of Wolfenstein 3d still haunts our AAA shooters, within a divide from using fantastical settings and mechanics and interactions to put the mind in an entirely new and foreign state of thought and simplistic, mindless choices without consequence that rely heavily, if not entirely on techniques from another artistic medium to emotionally resonate with the viewer.
Gaming is a young medium, an experimental medium, an artistic medium with unprecedented potential. Developers, creators, hell even publishers sometimes need support - I don’t just mean praise, I mean harsh, brutal, and honest criticism of their output. This needs to come from critics who haven’t spent their entire lives obsessing over video games, but instead those who have a deep, artistic understanding of other mediums like cinema, literature, and social issues as well - global events, political movements like feminism and anti-racism. They’re getting there on the feminism part. Throwing people of color under the bus in their large, and utterly horrifying discussions on the failures of Bioshock: Infinite is far from where things need to be.
Frankly, the current state of games journalism right now, is so self-obsessed, childish, dull-witted, and detached from a proper understanding of games as an artistic medium to properly comment on it. To cry out to developers to take away the guns and the space marines and not create new, deeper, more intricate, and more complex systems, mechanics, and worlds to interact with - championing mildly interactive films like Telltale’s The Walking Dead and the highly scripted, non-violent moments of Bioshock: Infinite as what games should be all about is a betrayal and a total misunderstanding of the artistic medium.
Games will always be art, guns or not. High art will be remembered as the games that took you out of your own shoes and put you into those of someone who’s life you’d most likely never encounter in your own time. High art in games will be putting you in your own, unique story, going through the mental gymnastics of survival, in order to overcome grand obstacles be they based in reality or utterly fantastical.
A game’s qualification as art or not should never be decided whether or not a developer chooses to put a gun in their game, or if they have a bald space marine for a protagonist. It should matter what they do with those items, and if what they do has value.
We’re in a dark fucking hole here. I don’t honestly have a light that’ll get us out of this pseudo-intellectual circle jerk. Hell, we may never emerge.
I remember growing up, raised on an influx of action films and toxic masculinity. I started drawing a lot of action scenes, with demons and guns and swords and whatever. I enjoyed it, it was my outlet, I didn’t have formal art training and had a thrill crafting crazy worlds and universes for my goofy protagonists to spout one-liners and fight evil organizations. People of all kinds, whether they be grown-ups or fellow students, tried to tell me to draw other things, looking down on me for it. Sometimes even tried to shame me.
It just drove me down deeper into that hole. Games development is going to follow down the same road, I can tell you from experience, and we’re all just going to be kids on the playground throwing sand about it.
It’s a real shame. Quite frankly, because the shooter isn’t dead, with an infinite realm of possibilities of gameplay to explore that genre alone, it’s quite honestly a fucking crime to write articles with headlines like:
“It’s High Noon For Shooters”
“It’s Time We Put the Bald Space Marine Away”
“The Ultraviolence Has to Stop”
“Ultraviolence in Games Going Too Far”
“[Industry Washout] Doesn’t Think [AAA Videogame] Shouldn’t Have Been Made”
Games journalists from their ivory tower on their imagined city on the hills, surrounded by indie game jams and retro remakes and review events, have utterly no concept of how much there’s left to explore in the world of wielding a gun and trying to survive in a hostile environment. Considering the sheer amount of human history involving someone with a gun in an almost infinite amount of various situations over the past thousand years, it’s a childish view to take, especially when you have no real stake in the game.
A real shame.