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Tears of War

Minor Spoiler Alert: BioShock, Gears of War 2, Shadow of the Colossus

Marcus and Dom go back to back as Locust approach from all directions. An intense battle ensues. One of their enemies charges towards them atop a hideous, bipedal beast. It screeches as Fenix dives backwards, avoiding its deadly swipe, and plants a grenade square on its face before scrambling behind a bullet-scarred barricade to protect himself from the inevitable. Blood spurts into the air like some sort of beautiful red fountain, and the rider and his charge lie in amorphous meaty chunks all over the cave’s floor. Dom pops the kneecaps of the final grunt, and steadily stalks him as he drags himself desperately away. A trail of crimson liquid that follows the grub is a grim indication of what is to come. The COG soldier flips his already mortally wounded opponent over, raises his boot, and sends it slamming through face and skull. Chunks of brain are scattered among pieces of bone, and the arterial gushing sounds somewhat akin to a dam bursting open. It’s all very full-on, and moments like this are the crux of why many find Gears of War 2 so rewarding.

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But what’s this? A cut scene follows, with Marcus wandering around being his usual grunting self. Dom is jubilant having found the capsule-shaped drill-pod that his wife Maria is meant to be trapped in. Jack rips the door, and out shambles a grey, broken, shadow of a person, who is to all intents and purposes no longer alive. Her partner embraces her and mists up, crying out to his buddy, “I don’t know what to do! I don’t know what to do, man!” Poignant strings play in the background as Marcus tells him “It’s okay” and strolls off looking deeply touched and reflective. The camera returns to Dom, who holds a pistol up to Maria’s head, weeping and apologising for his inability to save her. We switch to Fenix a few yards away and a gunshot goes off. He briefly pauses, then continues forth.

“Marcus tells him “It’s okay” and strolls off looking deeply touched and reflective”We’re meant to care, but what is intended as an emotional interlude grates with absolutely everything Gears of War as a franchise is. It’s irrelevant and superfluous, an awkward tonal departure that really had no business being sandwiched between two ultra-violent and explosive sequences. Worst of all, save for a few throwaway lines when the game relinquishes control to the player, Dom continues on to murder more Locust as if he’s just come off the Schwarzenegger Express. This is not what Gears of War players want. What they are after is blood, guts, firearms, more firearms, and chainsaws mounted on those firearms. They don’t give a hoot about the character development or motives in a game which, until this moment, has indicated no interest in pursuing. Worryingly, this shows a horrific lack of the series’ at-first-glance apparent self-awareness, which in turn opens up a whole new kettle of fish when its brash racial stereotyping is brought into play.

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It’s by no means the first action game to attempt such ham-fisted nonsense, but it’s a recent and stark reminder of how far the industry thinks it has matured. The consensus appears to be that should a developer choose to throw in a weepy scene or two, its game is suddenly an artistic masterpiece, tugging at the heartstrings of even the most cynical player and lending a whole new meaning to its story. It’s progress, it’s boundary-breaking, it’s worthy of greater praise than its nearest competitors. Conversely, in reality all it does is show the medium up for how little it has done to tap in to the potential for high-quality, intelligent work that makes players feel something beyond what they’re expected to. There are those out there with intriguing plots and characters, no doubt, but when this is attempted badly in the context of a title that essentially centres around slaughtering enemies in as many gruesome ways as possible it comes off as childish and embarrassing and ultimately does gaming as a whole a disservice.

When engaging in discourse regarding videogames that actually moved players, the same two titles continually crop up. The classic watershed moment, Aerith’s death in Final Fantasy VII, has been the subject of pages and pages of discussion, and to evaluate its merits at this point seems unnecessary. It was at the very least an interesting milestone, and for 1998, with the advent of disc based gaming allowing for full motion video to be exploited as a plot element, possibly the first of its kind.

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The more recent and arguably more accomplished example is Shadow of the Colossus, Sony’s 2006 masterpiece of design that challenged every notion of what videogame storytelling was perceived as. It drip-fed scraps of information, but the sense of dread that something was badly wrong built throughout. The crescendo became all consuming by the final colossus, culminating in a deafening fortissimo at the end. Not only was it suitable in the context, it was the focus of the game as a whole. We didn’t play it to kill enormous beasts, we played it for the surrounding moral dilemma, for the way the plot unfolded, for the breathtaking imagery and musical score that neatly finished off the package. It wasn’t necessarily the gameplay that compelled us, and although it played a significant role, it’s certainly not the element that was debated on message boards. Any mention of Shadow of the Colossus these days relates inevitably to the problem of the colossi – they weren’t really Wander’s enemy. Many of them were peaceful and content in their environment, largely docile unless threatened, which was precisely the course of action the player was forced to take.

“Many of them were peaceful and content in their environment, largely docile unless threatened”Were we forced, however? There are those who put the game down before its conclusion, and this is a credit to Team Ico’s magical touch, one that lends Shadow of the Colossus an inherent moral and emotional weight that few others come close to. “Moral Choices” is often bullet-pointed on the back of a game’s box, and yes, though there may be an option to either kill or leave alone an innocent, none have managed to pull it off particularly well. The only such decision one faces when playing Shadow of the Colossus is whether or not to continue, and whatever happens, it worked. If the finale is reached, it’s one of despair, one that, on reflection, whoever is playing may have preferred not to see at all. It’s a sucker-punch aimed straight at the gut, knocking the wind out of its witness, so much so that bucket loads of man-tears were shed each time the last sequence played.

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Remorse and regret. These are two things that absolutely nobody felt whilst going through Splinter Cell: Double Agent. Sam can kill the prisoner or leave him, with dubious benefits either way. All the decisions truly hinged on was how the player wanted to balance out relations with each faction: follow the terrorists’ orders and make them happy, or follow the NSA’s orders and make them happy. Most would end up alternating between the two, because, overall, no-one playing gave a flying rat’s arse and was probably more concerned with appeasing both sides.

Another game that includes these tacked on moral decisions is BioShock – initially, they’re presented as being central to the entire game. Harvesting the Little Sisters can be disturbing, but accrues more ADAM, whereas setting them free is slightly less beneficial in the short term but helpful later in the game. The touted “alternate endings” sum it all up, in that the plural begins and ends with just one more than one. Apparently, the only shades that exist in Rapture are black and white. A fifty-one to forty-nine split in favour of harvesting will result in the “bad” ending and vice-versa, and this is a blundering missed opportunity if there ever was one. Perhaps the player did slay some in times of need, but is hailed the same as a virtual-Saint who laid nary a finger on the children throughout. Some shades of grey would have done wondrous things for BioShock, and simplistic moral choices like this don’t conjure up anything beyond ambivalence. Given that the core gameplay was little above average, it’s a shame to see a potentially earth-shattering feature go to waste, especially if the systems were in place and wrapped around a solid concept.

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“OK, the ending was abrupt, but nobody is going to forget that nuclear bomb scene”Call of Duty 4, on the other hand, is an example of a much more linear game that got how to affect players emphatically right. It was far more tightly scripted and less open to experimentation than BioShock, it didn’t have any in-your-face morality other than subtle undertones relating to its real life connotations and it was fundamentally about the player’s aptitude with a rifle, but the short campaign managed to move players in ways 2K Boston’s title never could. OK, the ending was abrupt, but nobody is going to forget that nuclear bomb scene. It’s ironic that a title which had zero ambition for this sort of thing could, through tight scripting and interesting characters, succeed where BioShock failed to a degree. Similarly, Shadow of the Colossus, despite its linear structure, managed to incorporate a spectrum of shading which even the best directors and authors would be proud of, and due to its interactive nature arguably exceeds that of the most ambitious films and novels.

These few gems are in rare company, and other than some other sporadic and unexpected moments in a handful of games though the ages, are essentially unique. Call of Duty 4 in particular proved that even a first person shooter can avoid the usual trite and puerile nonsense that the genre passes for sound writing, unlike the recent Killzone 2. To be fair, not all games aim for this, and that should be respected. We certainly don’t want to weep every time we unload a clip, however at the same time it’s not to say that developers shouldn’t try to pack in some more evocative material. Gears of War and its contemporaries could, if properly executed, succeed in this area, but there’s a time and a place, and simply bunging in the odd “touching” cinematic is not the way to go about it.

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in March 2009.

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