Mixed Media Platforming

A wire of recent events: controversial game designer cancels anticipated sequel to brilliant debut, announces exit from industry; reclaims spotlight on April 1, declares return to industry and reactivation of sequel project.

image credit: games reviews

image credit: games reviews via google

image credit: front towards gamer

image credit: front towards gamer via google

The fates of two mythic figures come to mind: Icarus, his wings singed, falls back to earth; Sisyphus, existentialism’s unwitting posterboy, feels the boulder slow, stop, and roll against his will. Icarus for his direct disobedience of his father’s low-flying wishes, Sisyphus for his condemnable cunning and mendacity, each must answer to punishment administered by gravity. Indeed, in reflection, we associate the arbitrary force of gravity with the transformation of hubris into humility. We return, and we are returned, to earth.

Our avatar pauses at the edge to look out at the emptiness between this lonely platform and that lonely platform. We understand – perhaps better than he does, if he has yet to fall – the great tyrant oppressing him is gravity. He leaps and falls in accordance with inalienable physical law. Our side-scrolling avatar moves not through but across the world in leaps and bounds. In the early days of side-scrolling platforming, he even found his identity in his work. He was a jumpman.

image credit: Michael Todd Games

image credit: Michael Todd Games

In this post, we bear in mind the fates of Icarus and Sisyphus as we explore two pieces of the modern platforming revival, each game unique and vital to the discourse: Trapdoor and Polytron Corporation’s 2012 release FEZ, a two-and-three dimensional shape-shifter about a two-dimensional character named Gomez who embarks on a quirky non-violent quest for three-dimensionality, created by a subject of a polarizing controversy; and Michael Todd Games’ 2013 release Electronic Super Joy, an orgiastic EDM-cranked adventure of an absurd hero (survivor of the Disco Wars of 1515, etc.) on a heretical quest to reacquire his missing butt by any means necessary.

image credit: Michael Todd Games

image credit: Michael Todd Games

In each of these examples, gravity plots to fulfill its dirty promise of violent death but of the two games only ESJ features enemy combatants. We must acknowledge FEZ’s revolutionary pacifism, its fulfillment of the promise to create compelling gameplay without violence, without enemies. We can see FEZ, also, as a return to puzzle-focused jumpman form for the platforming genre.

FEZ starts twice in the first five minutes of the game: first in 2-D, coming across as a fresh interpretation of Cave Story until, just as the story gets going, the game crashes, mimicking the sudden pixel-platters and atonal whining of an NES game on the fritz. We endure a false BIOS screen and return to the start screen in 2-D with 3-D rotation and a new pixel-and-polygon art style. Gomez can have his power to transcend dimensional limits. He must yet answer to gravity. Physical law maintains governance over his existence, should he jump too early or too late; should he linger for too long in the sky.

image credit: Polytron Corporation

image credit: Polytron Corporation

Viewed from our angle, FEZ represents equal parts genius innovation and reckless ambition. We liken Gomez’s adventuring between dimensions to Icarus’s soaring on wax wings in the sunshine. (Permit us, now, a diversion into poetics, as it will serve to inform more directly topical judgments of FEZ.) As the speaker of W. H. Auden’s poem Musee des Beaux Arts sees a guiding hubris in Brueghel’s Icarus, we see in Gomez a guiding hubris, a desire to explore forbidden dimensions of experience. For Icarus, it was the air; for Gomez, it is the third dimension of space. Auden, a radical of the written word, slips revolutionary values between stanzas. His speaker points out the cold responses of the countryfolk to the tragic drowning of Icarus. We do not stop to take in the suffering of Icarus. Life goes “dully along.” This, we are told, is the “human position” of suffering.

image credit: Polytron Corporation

image credit: Polytron Corporation

FEZ’s breakout moment arrived in the 2012 documentary Indie Game: The Movie. We learn that its creator, Phil Fish, has scrapped his FEZ designs and started anew multiple times. He discusses early projects, demos an experimental game prototype by sitting and staring into the flickering lights of a home-made Virtual Boy, intent on altering his perception. (Perhaps a carryover from this earlier work, flickering shapes figure prominently in FEZ.) He shares upsetting details of his personal life and brings up suicide, with a disquieting deadpan sincerity, as an option for himself, were FEZ to fail. (Those among us who have stood on the ledge and stared out into the abyss withhold judgment.)

A similarly tragic eccentric, Albert Camus reads into the myth of Sisyphus his deliberately absurd, suicide-contemplating brand of existentialism. The myth tells the story of a prideful king condemned to roll a stone up a hillside, watch it roll back down, and do it again. Camus’ macabre takeaway from the story suggests Sisyphus finds angry satisfaction in the inherently meaningless struggle. “We must imagine Sisyphus happy,” goes his most famous contribution to the discourse, challenging us to create meaning from chosen suffering.

Battle-hardened gamers bring a similar contempt to hardcore platforming. Run, jump, fall, die. Again. Run, jump, strike, miss, fall, die. Again. No satisfaction, no check point. Back to the start. Run, not fast enough. Again. Continue? Of course, continue. Dead. Back to start. Try again. Having fun yet?

image credit: Michael Todd Games

image credit: Michael Todd Games

Cold and merciless to human suffering, the world keeps turning, and we arrive at the traditional two-dimensionality and ecstatic boom-ba-doom-boom bass in Electronic Super Joy. In this 2013 release from Michael Todd Games, we take control of a one-armed, one-eyed, legless, entirely butt-less individual in an absurd cubic world divided into four sets of levels. ESJ’s level design brings to mind Braid‘s rule-making and rule-breaking puzzle sequences. One level bestows a smashing new ability upon our avatar, another redefines gravity’s intensity, still another trades smash in for the double-jump. Musically, the thump-tick thump-ticking soundtrack fades out and in, some intervals eight-bars, some four-, others sixteen-bars. Like any good rave, Electronic Super Joy’s world is populated by benevolent head-bobbing shadow-dwellers, hot-and-heavy howling, heresy-enthusiasts, rainbow-trails, and sudden comedowns.

As a genre, platforming experiments with perception by attaching player-constructed meaning (and high-stakes immediacy) to relationships among physical bodies. In other words, we base our avatar’s actions, first and foremost, on changes of shapes (i.e. platform, abyss, enemy rocket nearing our precious one hit-point wonder of an avatar, etc.) within our avatar’s immediate environment. An enemy rocket homing in on our avatar elicits action on the player’s part more intensely than, say, one’s desire to learn the details leading up to the Disco Wars of 1515. Shots fired danger-close turn each survivor of the attack into either an absurd whisky priest or a meaning-making existentialist. ‘Fraid we’re all outter whisky, Bub…

Michael Todd, creator of ESJ, gives lectures which put game design in multiple contexts, intermingling suggestions regarding “lifestyle and balance for game developers” with insider info and strategies for the programmer wanting to stand out to an employer. Follow the link to Michael Todd’s legendary 2009 PAX lecture (great content, imperfect mic). Todd’s emphasis on positive coping strategies for programmers becomes more poignant in the context of Fish’s public meltdown. Game design is a solitary act, like writing strictly structured poetry, especially for independent programmers. Sitting alone with uncooperative myths and legends of your own creation, obsessing over them, working out the bugs. We do not excuse Phil Fish’s Twitter meltdown, public tantrums, and empty threat-making. We stand in solidarity with indie gaming innovation.

The topic’s gravity brings the post to a close as it began. Absent from the Indie Game: The Movie interview with Fish is FEZ’s irreverence and adventurousness. He seems defeated, bogged-down by ambitious vision. In the months following the interview, Phil Fish released FEZ to near universal acclaim. Then, quickly as he appeared, in a tradition borrowed from Hollywood actresses and musical prodigies, he abandoned his creative post, choosing exile over collaboration with a gaming industrial complex. At press time, the writer can only speculate as to whether Phil Fish has indeed returned to jotting notes for a sequel to his masterpiece (as we, along with louder voices in the industry, wish to believe).

In the meantime, in sincerity and goodwill, we must imagine Phil Fish happy.

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No, I Won’t Take Your Hand and Marry the Game State

Capitalists move in, assimilate your battle-hardened ideals into hope-and-change plush commodities, all rhetoric and no fire; you are waiting for the collector’s editions to go on sale. You watch the trades closely these days. You do not apologize, your conscience is clean. Out in the streets somewhere, somebody in a balaclava sees his reflection in the proverbial corporate coffeehouse window. You would have us imagine the man in the mirror and how he must feel, next time we reach for the brick.

thegamingrevolution

image credit: sean mort via reddit

Presently in the gaming world, designers and gamers wish to shatter the two-dimensionality of linear gameplay by forcing into it meaningful decision-making, a buzzword describing algorithm-guided sudden obligations for the gamer to bend and, in some instances, redirect his avatar’s story arc. (Click the preceding link for an in-depth examination of the meaningful decision-making craze by one of its enthusiastic proponents.)

As we gamers are not our avatars; as we cannot live in fiction as our favorite characters do; as we cannot share experiences with the pictures of people on the screen – though it can be fun to pretend; the meaningful decision-making craze, like its literary counter-part the Choose Your Own Adventure novel or the gamebook, opens up the medium to one-note moralizing *link contains Telltale’s Walking Dead spoilers* about individual will. (To be clear, there is a sublime, absurd exception to every natural law.)

This is my brick; there are many like it but this one is mine: released in 2013, amid both the meaningful decision-making craze and an upsurge in self-criticism among gaming industry elites about depictions of women and femininity in gaming, Rockstar Games’ Max Payne 3 can be interpreted, and should be interpreted, as a standout example of linear gameplay done right; as the action genre’s rebuttal to the claim that linearity means predictably bad writing; and, importantly, as emblematic of the need for the gaming industry to its own boyishness (link potentially Not Safe For Work) and do some growing up.

MaxPayne-3

image credit: Rockstar Games

In this extended post, we use Max Payne 3 as a venue in which to explore linear gameplay and non-chronological storytelling — the art of the effective flashback, if you will; sexism in gaming; gaming’s role in maintaining capitalism as an institution; and capitalism’s misapprehension of womanhood. We put the meaningful decision-making craze in a position within the context of a dying industry hellbent on providing (money-making) interactive cinematic experiences.

Fans of the Max Payne series know from the outset that Max has a track record of making the deaths of his wife and daughter all about him and what he wants. He is a shootdodging anachronism: a present-day film-noir figure, the surviving patsy of a corporate conspiracy; an absurdly named alcoholic ex-cop; a narcissist and an eternal widower incapable of protecting those dear to him, dependent on pain killers pick-pocketed from the bodies of fallen perps; quick to anger yet calculating in combat.

At its root, Max Payne 3’s linear gameplay and non-chronological narrative exploit the unhealthy relationship between boys and guns, between masculine identity and male misapprehension of the complexities of womanhood under capitalism.

The opening cutscenes of Max Payne 3 trade in the graphic novel presentation established in the first two games for an overblown cinematic style of which Tony Scott would be proud. As the scenes unfold, they add to Max’s anachronistic identity some new positions for the bloody old ceremony: American bodyguard to the heiress of the wealthy Branco family in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Great, another damsel-in-distress to protect from armed thugs. No way Max will screw this up*SPOILERS*

Game critic and novelist Yahtzee Croshaw takes issue with the disconnect between Max Payne’s self-loathing and his murderous gift of bullet-time perception (the franchise’s defining gameplay gimmick, an exploit of the popularity of The Matrix film franchise). He goes on to describe Max – rightly – as “completely lacking in self-awareness” (4:17 in Zero Punctuation’s review). To be sure, Max Payne is the unwitting digital torch-bearer of the Cain- and, later, Hammett- and Chandler-tradition of perceptive anti-heroes haunted by inextinguishable alcoholic dread and bad timing in all aspects of life not involving the quick-draw of one’s guns. Max Payne has brief episodes of Bogie’s despair-as-cool, preferring to it, instead, pitch-perfect impersonations of Robert Mitchum’s desirous insularity, a man apart in a mad, mad world full of bad men with guns.

maxpayne3

image credit: Rockstar Games

In Max Payne 3, all of Max’s enemies in the single-player campaign are young men: strong, fierce, eager to prove something, especially if they can prove it by intimidating, coercing, and kidnapping women. Women appear as bystanders and victims, in the ritzy dance club and, later, in the dive strip club, femininity sexualized on a pedestal for men’s amusement, turned meek and defenseless under fire. Strippers: the classic embodiment of capitalism misapprehension of, and aversion to, the feminine mystique.

The objectification of women in mass media — and, especially, gaming’s willingness to sexualize women while conforming strictly to the edicts of the heterosexual male gaze in cinema (non-threatening powerless naked women, men as strength and influence, possessors of women) comes across as foul pandering to the ogre-fratboy demographic. To illustrate, in the flashback to the Hoboken bar, which serves, primarily, to introduce Raul Passos as a deciding factor in the Max Payne pre-Sao Paulo mythos, we watch a woman – drunk, rough around the edges, a perfect fit for Max, really – who tries to get Max’s attention. He seems disinterested, appearing – temporarily – to have learned from his femme-fatale-chasing mistakes. It is she who fatefully exacerbates Max’s conflict with Tony DeMarco, whose murder will give Max incentive to get out of Dodge.

DeMarco calls the woman a whore and slaps her. As gamers (bullied in school for our presumed meekness or perhaps ourselves survivors of violent domestic disputes), we feel outraged at DeMarco’s display of physical violence. We may recoil, too, from the designer’s decisions to allow the men in the scene means and agency to assert power effectively via physical violence and, yet, to deny the same means and agency, arbitrarily, to the only woman in the scene. In fact, Max describes the woman in both diminutive and masculine terms — as a “girl” having the “balls” to speak up, effectively denying her feminine identity at the precise moment that her actions have an impact on the story. At DeMarco’s inexcusable transgression, Max the avatar makes a meaningful decision without the player’s input, independent of one’s own values: he avenges the woman, chooses to put a bullet in the gangster wannabe.

MaxPayneShootBar

image credit: Max Payne Wiki

Take note: it is Max’s decision to shoot the kid in the bar, but the game designers have left the dirty work of pulling the trigger to the player. Cutscene becomes interactive — without an intrusive HUD, like the quick time events of ye rare olde tymes. If we do not pull the trigger, Max dies, we watch him die – again, we are not our avatars – and the game immediately returns us to the moment of decision. So, we consent to the parody of choice and give the game the blood it demands.

The immediate price of our consent for our avatar: the player’s “decision” to pull the trigger has turned Max into a marked man in his mob-run American town. Now, forget the avatar: a person sits in front of a screen and actively chooses to participate in the drama on the screen, agrees to perpetrate simulated violence for the sake of moving the story along — and because we don’t like DeMarco, this punk has it coming, he deserves to die.

As further evidence of Max Payne 3’s detournement of meaningful decision-making, examine the achievement The Only Choice Given: the player chooses not to pull the trigger on a dying enemy, whom Max has just struck down and who bleeds out, anyway. Decisions, decisions.

DeMarco’s execution and The Only Choice Given are not anomalies in gaming. They express the same sentiment presented by the hilarious Red or Blue door “decision” in Saints Row IV, in which the avatar either agrees, potentially, to sacrifice all of mankind or to kill himself — at which point the credits roll, the game is over, and the player has failed the mission. In both Max Payne 3 and Saints Row IV and indeed in all violent video games, ultra-violence is made palatable by its occurring in simulation, in gaming’s digital world.

The creation of our beloved digital world is politically charged. As gamers, we desire the luxury of an electronic life, invite and accept a digital diversion from the dreary life with others, on the condition that the diversion allows for gratifying interactivity: good controls, challenge, achievements. Just give us that payoff (we’ve paid for). Concurrently, an individual gamer, identifying as a citizen of the world in the colors of a revolutionary, feels aversion to slave-wage labor, men with machetes outside precious metal-mining operations, petroleum-based plastics involved in packing, gas burned in shipping, etc. used by the capitalist – that state-sanctioned hoodlum – to construct electronic technology. Give me the loot, declares the consumer, in fantastic emulation of his capitalist overlords; spare me the bloody sob story bio of paupers made poorer by contingencies attached to my decision to gain technological access to a designer’s digital daydreams. As Max Payne 3 is an interactive intellectual property distributed for private gain, its sardonic dialogues on capitalism belong in a sociopolitical context – in particular, ours.

A person’s decision-making in the real world is made meaningful by its impact on oneself and others. In our lives, we forge an uneasy peace with pixel-production, its attending industry. We stand tall and face the charges of radicalism from gaming peers. Can the revolutionary gamer, in the same breath, deny charges of collaboration from revolutionaries rallying in the streets? Our revolution will be brought in not through a window but through a flat screen. In the quiet before the storm, we crouch in our dark places, hyper-focused, supporting metal-mining and its attending atrocities to dodge pretend bullets in our cyber-lives; all as we hope — against cataclysms of evidence — that the meek, of whom we fancy ourselves protectors, survive to inherit what is left of the earth.

We have selected and purchased a license to play the game, consented to Cloud saving methods and permitted anti-piracy safeguards access to our hard drives. Beyond the game’s sardonic commentary is the reality of anti-capitalist concepts subsumed by privatized intellectual property, trademarked with all rights reserved. When the brass of Rockstar Games claim to prefer anonymity, we imagine the anonymity of pampered lives, anonymity complete with stock options and art auctions: decadent companion pieces to the programming sweatshops.

programmingsweatshops

image credit: banksy/the simpsons

Recall the drama of brick and window. We return to it as the crosses the two-dimensional plane. The speed of things slows as brick connects with glass. As an observer, take in the airborne tufts of glass shattering where the brick pushes through. Slower, even slower now: loose quartz crystals breaking from the pane in plumes.

Through the best of times, through the worst of times, time determines our changes and, therefore, it gives our changes meanings. The past consumes our previous selves, lovers, the neighbors, first pet, that homeroom teacher you never really cared for, your last pet, your last anything, my only life, yours. No difference, rejoiced or lamented. In the Max Payne trilogy, time cannot be stopped or rewound; rather, adrenaline sharpens one’s obsessive perception to cut into the near-infinite nanoseconds when a bullet sheds its shell, pops hollow-tipped out of the barrel, and spins into the great wide-open like a heavy metal ballerina burning bright in a tutu of kinetic hot air.

To begin, again, at the beginning: the game opens in the middle of things. “Say what you want about Americans but we understand capitalism,” Max says in narration over the game’s first cut scene, before the player has had any input in the action. Max’s head is shaved; we have never seen him looking so rough. He stands with a gun over a man with severe skin burns and clothes smoldering. “You buy yourself a product and you get what you pay for.” Max identifies himself as a villainous product; hired killer bought and paid for; an “angry gringo,” imported from the U.S.; “a dime-store Angel of Death,” destructive to others and to himself, not an avenger of his wife and baby girl’s deaths (as we have come to expect him to identify himself, no matter how falsely it rings) but a perpetrator, a “rent-a-clown” murdering “other bad guys” for money.

max payne3

image credit: Rockstar Games

We the gamers have stakes in similar arrangements. We feel uncomfortable with our own complicity in the capitalism funding our gaming operation. Like Max says, we understand capitalism; we got exactly what we paid for. We, too, have hired Max to kill for us.

Trolling the Bastards On the Bridge

Even before one opens the executable to play a game, the level of interactivity the player will be permitted has been predetermined by factory-set parameters. Simple, stringent, and closed to discussion is the politics of consent regarding the use of interactive media. A prospective player faces two options: either participate in the game, and thereby comply with the rules of the game and accept one’s new identity as a ward of the game state; or abstain from the game. “With us or against us, Player One. What’ll it be?” Depending on the particular game’s present status in gaming forums, the foul fruits of one’s resisting the temptation to play it may be unpalatable anonymity or, far worse, a bitter stigma on one’s name: obstructionist; hater; troll.

The writer treads softly, carries a big stick. By one’s own contrariwise nature, the writer of this article could be branded, rightly or falsely, a troll. That monster without a country, the troll has come to represent the harshest voices in the public forum, characterized by abrasiveness for its own sake. Like other buzzwords with origins on the internet, the act of trolling must be crowd-sourced to be understood. Definitions of trolling abound. Academics have wrestled with it. The business savvy have employed its ugly methods. Working-class heroes and hate-mongering scoundrels fit the bill.

Important to our cause: two fiercely trolled franchises mentioned in the previous post have special places in the hearts of censorship-hating gamers. That Caesarimitating controversy-stirring lover of movies, the late Roger Ebert, was branded a troll (by other trolls) for speaking his mind on the subject of gaming’s place in the Zeitgeist. The abrasiveness of trolls, matched in intensity by their ingrown loneliness for freaks like themselves.

Let’s think, now, about the proverbial troll under the bridge. Classically, he is seen as a villain, his hunger reprehensible and his tactics those of intimidation and terror. To the moral absolutists on the bridge, he is mad, snarling, a would-be devourer of the defenseless. The troll’s physical position under the bridge separates him from the billy goats on the bridge, their culture and its prevailing ideologies. He dwells in a shadow realm between two fields, two worlds. In the story, the picture of justice features greener pastures for meek billy goats and death by violence for vulgar trolls.

Turn the tables, give the bridge-promenading billy goats the bad name. What need does a billy goat have of a bridge? They swim just fine and go where they please, impervious to gravity – trolling physics, as it were.

 

The backwardness of the trolling label does not stop there: if an internet troll is, essentially, a bully, wouldn’t a more hurtful label be one which evokes the big bad third billy goat who trounces the troll? Perhaps, but to give the question its due regard, we would have to play the internet troll’s game.

House of Gat

A conservative gamer’s sentimental perspective not without merit: beating the game used to mean something. It was a sign of compliance with the game’s demands. You had to have the willingness and the follow-through to complete the series of expected tasks in the order in which they were prescribed. There was little wiggle-room for diversions unrelated to the primary objectives. It was simpler time in gaming. That’s all gone now.

glory days

image credit: gamingdead

In this brave new open-world of post-Grand Theft Auto III gaming, designers are sick and tired of punk gamers beating their ultra-violent action-adventure games. With the October 2001 release of GTA III, the teams at Rockstar Games accomplished a grand theft of the entire interactive gaming industry and, particularly, a takeover and makeover of the action-adventure genre’s rules and aesthetics. In modern gaming, progress is scored by completeness, success in percentages of total quests checked off, cold math where the old high score board once glowed in glory. Heroes once. Now, look at us – blood-spattered errand boys.

Rockstar Games

image credit: Rockstar Games

An imperfect illustration of gaming’s evolution from linear design to nonlinear design: imagine a dark closet – three walls and one door covered in posters of Amiga and Atari games. Barring the occasional moment of Rogueness, one can walk untransformed in a linear progression from one end of the closet to the other. Now, situate this closet at the mid-point of a cubic labyrinth of hallways and doors beyond which are more hallways, more doors.

With GTA III, gaming came out of the closet of linearity, erected some new hallways, put in a few more doors, and promised us the blueprint of a dream home. Today, that glorious dream home is a reality. Game design has expanded exponentially in self-similar sharp angles, more hallways, even more doors. (The first of many hallways where everything looks the same and all you want to do is go back in the closet, that’s GTA IV.) Modern gamers have inherited anonymous McMansions of organized complexity and have grown accustomed to echoed footsteps and the creak-creak groans of a foundation three sizes too small.

GTA III

image credit: Rockstar Games

Mainstream conservative perspective without merit: the popularity of Grand Theft Auto, and therefore the popularity of its imitators, has crippled the gaming public’s sense of empathy, has increased aggressiveness and bullying, and (depending on the severity of your source’s conservative indoctrination) may be responsible for anti-Americanism (whatever that might be), terrorism (read: violence stigmatized and deemed illegitimate by the State), and better or worse driving. Many gamers cry witch-hunt at any association of simulated violence with acts of actual violence. Our games will not be your scapegoat, they cry. Count the writer of this article among the flock of gamers which believes that only the foolhardy would make pariahs of pop culture sensations and thought-criminals of innocent fun-loving video game enthusiasts.

One has no intention of participating in chicken-or-egg arguments regarding violence in the real world and works of the violent imagination. Rather, for our purposes, one wishes to cast the legacy of the GTA franchise in a softer light and view it through an industry-wide lens. Focusing on trends in game design, we see the legacy of the GTA franchise as two-fold: innovation and imitation. GTA III bestowed upon the gaming community the right to free-roam through an open world of varying eventualities and random encounters. With its patterns of purchase and play, the gaming community has responded in recent years by retroactively declaring inalienable the newly recognized digital liberty of free-roaming open-world exploration. Out with old-school linearity and in with – well, lots and lots of walking around and looking for random dudes to slay.

Rockstar Games followed the unprecedented success of GTA III with two similar titles. Just as Rockstar Games hit its stride, its loyal fans were made to grapple with the outstanding accomplishment and unforgivable filler-as-action hubris of GTA IV. Its unwelcome earnestness and dark tone stirred a new sort of controversy: some critics wondered aloud whether Rockstar Games was washed-up.

Sharing in the contemporary sea change from linearity to free-roaming, other popular franchises would have action-adventure gamers become modern digital bean-counting companion to the hit-point-obsessed table-top role-players drooling on their Dungeon Master’s Guides in the days of yore.

We can see the feverish explosion of open-world gaming as innovation’s legacy or imitation’s fallout, a welcome changing of the guard or an unjust coup d’etat, but we cannot ignore it. We feel Rockstar Games’ influence, for instance, in Deep Silver Volition’s Saints Row series, another free-roaming, car-jacking, cop-killing, crime epic with all the requisite open-ended gameplay elements. First released in 2003, the original Saints Row has produced three sequels and has made a cult icon of its lovable bad boy Johnny Gat. The madness of 2008’s Saints Row 2 secured the franchise credibility among respected voices, whereas Saints Row: The Third (2011) served as a marketing experiment in brand-awareness.

brand awareness

image credit: Volition

If Rockstar Games wrote the floor-plan and laid the foundation; if, in essence, all open-world action-adventure gaming makes its home in the house that GTA built; then it is the same house that Gat rented out for a decade-long weekend and which he has, with 2013’s Saints Row IV, at last burned to the ground. Saints Row IV breaks franchise form and elects the player’s crime-doing avatar to the Oval Office. Aliens invade, interrupt the Presidency, abduct the Cabinet, enslave humanity in a digital Matrix-like prison yard full of rogue code which can be collected and redeemed for death-becoming worlds-destroying straight up bonkers super-powers. It is a lunatic plot most accommodating to open-world exploration and its love-it-or-hate-it trademarks, such as non-linearity, side missions, random encounters, hidden collectibles, expansive customization options and level-based character-building – and over-powered mayhem.

Pop cultural score-keepers would be right to appraise Saints Row IV’s anything-goes silliness as an affront to GTA IV’s tone-related missteps; the same score-keepers would be right to tie Saints Row IV’s deviation from franchise form to GTA V’s 2013 return to the cold-blooded zaniness of its roots. Insofar as Saints Row IV’s legacy is concerned, it would be best, for the moment, to remain conservative.

Renegade Op[timism] for the Revolution

Assessing one’s progress at work or in love, a gamer comes to wish for check points, highlighted context clues and back alley secrets to easy success, feedback and achievements, a little something to show for his efforts. The gamer understands hierarchy and limited upward mobility, will grind for loot and greater status – provided, of course, that the world has been properly designed. Gamer logic: if the city should crumble into the sea, search the trash cans for ammo cartridges. Neighbor’s dog keeping you awake? Let me at him. I will put down the snarling beast and from his hide fashion wallets, armor, sharper weapons for fiercer foes. On Church Street, no particular Tuesday and with the clarity of an atheist’s vision, the gamer imagines coins hiding inside certain sacred bricks. A villain like the terrorist leader Inferno would have his work cut out for him: drop the bomb, strike it rich.

renegade ops

image credit: Sega

If we are to make any sense of the world the teams at Avalanche and Sega have presented us in Renegade Ops, we must conclude that Inferno is just a patsy. The war is bought, sold, and paid for, a spectacle for the real villain who has already won. The heroic Renegades – Roxy, Diz, Armand, and Gunnar, assembled by the ubiquitous General Bryant – relish their orders to bring down the fiery strawman with a fiercer, a bloodier, a sharper-fanged brand of ultraviolence.

We find in the opening cutscene definitive evidence of our avatars’ complicity in a conspiracy of silence between two megalomanical leaders. Bryant rips the medals from his uniform and swears unilateral intervention at the first sign of delay from – for our purposes – the UN.

Shortly thereafter, Inferno smells the petrol trademark of Bryant in the exhaust fumes of our avatars’ mass-murder cars. “Bryant! I should have known it was you!” Who else would it be? What other General would have access to an endless inventory of munitions? Who else but Bryant’s ragtag team would bring Jeeps to a genocide-fight? Should we be surprised that, with each conspicuously deathless defeat, Inferno vows to return better fortified like a paid-off boxer who has just thrown a match?

Are unnerving little details like these the fingerprints of a go-between arms dealer’s Invisible Hand, distributing comparable weapons to terrorist and Renegade? No cutscene shows the arms dealer’s face. Nor do the later twists in the narrative spell out his name (from what I can gather). Yet he exists, he must exist. Surely as the vehicle of our selected avatar trembles in syncopation with the rumble feature of the Windows compatible XBox 360 controller in our hands, a bomb does not construct itself.

renegade ops

image credit: ign

At any rate, the future is bleak. There will be war, fiery war, unending ever-profitable war. The revolutionary gamer sees war’s function as primarily land-grabbing. The Too Bloody Rich take by force the soil from beneath the sandal-less feet of those who Have Little Else, shake every penny loose from the indigenous couch cushions, and stuff one’s overseas accounts with stolen loot. Dirty money that should never have been theirs to invest stews, and wealth-adoring alchemic interest-rates slow-cook the copper into a petulant pus-gold. The powerful fingers of one warring nation pick at them and the accounts boil over. Pockmarks on the Swiss mug of the Big Cheese. Now, the adversarial nation must defend against preemptive attacks and feverishly demands bombs of its own. In come its own filthy fingers. The infection spreads. The true nature of war’s unsavoring hunger is to perpetuate itself, integrate its machinations with the Zeitgeist, to become interminable and economical, to be a fact of life.

The terrible truth of war tends to arrest the progression of logical inquiry and, instead, to inspire pity and despair. Bryant mustn’t hear our misgivings about the realities of war. We’ll keep them to ourselves. As is the case in all conversations with power, the revolutionary gamer must withhold the truth from the avatars of power. We the powerless players have no use for truth.

renegade ops

image credit: ign

Truth is, self-professed renegades rarely go it alone. Much as we might prefer to ignore it, a single-player gamer – nerd, geek, wimp, loser, voyeur, creep – sitting alone in the dark stifles any chance of his becoming a participant in the sexual revolution always on his mind and just out of his reach. In the traditional view, playing video games, a distinctly solitary endeavor, impedes social change in the real world. There he sits with his toys, making nothing happen. The Downloadable Content craze, clients like Steam and Origin, and Cloud saves requiring an internet connection during single-player campaigns seek to correct, via new methods of capitalistic aggression, the lone gamer’s unexcused temporary absence from the marketplace.

Online multi-player gamers network with the disembodied voices of faraway friends, play digital ghost-whisperer at a cyber-seance, effectively dead to the outside world. It is no accident that we feel most alive in Renegade Ops when, given the opportunity, we find ourselves reliving the 8-bit era gone-by in its local co-op campaign, where P1 and P2 make the beast with two hearts and four hands in the bluesy river-light of one shared monitor; where the world of the flesh and the realm of the sprite couple as one, and the screen splits to accommodate our interdependence. Two guns are better than one.

Inferno’s tanks and mortars would make a My Lai of every village, would die trying. Inferno has minions the world over, willing to strike blows in different area codes. His only peer in power and influence is our fearless leader Bryant toting the oppositional party line that his Renegades’ might makes the retaliatory cause right.

Power does not believe but, rather, knows there are pennies in the bricks of the Church. Power need not have them planted there to be discovered, for instance, by the jump of a princess-obsessed castle-plundering plumber. Indoctrinated by Bowser in his cathedrals of dungeons and corridors, no enemy of Mario was ever surprised by the apparition of coins from a broken brick. They are bound to a code, a conspiracy of silence. No inquiry as to where the coins came from, who put them there. Indoctrinated by Inferno, no enemy of the Renegades puts down his gun, none refuses to give blood to the war effort. No flame burns the Invisible Hand which feeds it. Nor should we, in-game.

renegade ops

image credit: ign

Take it on faith, good Renegades. Match Inferno simulated war crime for simulated war crime. Slaughter the agitators. Rescue the hostages, bring them to the Church. Play your assigned role, fall in line. And stepping out again into the world of the living, for the sake of all good things spiritual and corporeal, think about what you’ve done, what you’ve cooperated in – and discuss.