Avengers, Assemble! And Provide Commentary on Games!

You're reading Reaction Time, a weekly column that claims to examine recent events, games and trends in the industry, but is really just looking for an excuse to use the word "zeitgeist." It debuts on Fridays in Engadget's digital magazine, Distro.
The world of popular culture was left awestruck last week after colliding with The Avengers, an extravagant, unavoidable glitter ball of an asteroid. The simultaneous sequel to five popular movies, The Avengers accrues a crew of incredible superheroes, including one that already claimed "incredible" as a capitalized adjective in his name.

You've got the irradiated scientist who grows out of his pants and into a green behemoth, a demigod who wields mythical hammers and perfect strands of L'Oréal hair with equal aplomb, a pouting assassin, a smart-ass billionaire encased in weaponized toasters, a guy with a bow, and Captain America, the patriotic straight arrow who might as well sit in the quiver of that other guy. The best part of the film is seeing how they all get along.

They do eventually, of course, because it's an entertaining arc and because together they have to navigate a spectacular gauntlet of alien invasion, non-depletable cosmic power sources and lots of other things that cost a fortune to render and/or blow up. There's an inescapable wave of critical condescension toward the audience whenever they sign up for unrealistic, "dumb" thrills en masse, but the reality is that certain movies – just like games – can't exist unless they spend their money in the right places. The Avengers, which essentially sneaks in a witty geek comedy when nobody's looking, has dollars whizzing by on the screen every second. Also, every dollar is on fire.

You can level the same observation – not complaint, necessarily – at the Call of Duty franchise, which is wedged in a rut of its own expensive creation. Each annual shooter has a burgeoning budget fueled by what came before. It must pack in more content, more exhilarating scripted sequences, more explosions and more demonstrable justification that it's better than the last one. It's not really clear if that upward curve exists because the publisher can afford it, or because it can ill afford to abandon it. Ironically, it's a boom that's holding back Call of Duty's fundamental advancement.

Much like The Avengers, which wouldn't be feasible or sustainable had other movies not created a pattern of familiarity and bigger-and-better growth among fans, the next Call of Duty (Black Ops 2) will almost certainly be praised and damned for its adherence to the formula. We'll bask in the glow of its glorious pyrotechnics and mastery of spectacle, and then wonder why it's so clearly made for the – condescension alert! – lowest common denominator.

But perhaps that's not giving full credit to the sophistication at play, even if we suspect it's not in play. Yes, these games (and movies) serve a clear purpose, one that's as easy to identify as it is to dismiss. There's still thought, artistry and hard work to it, and I think it's silly to assume that your enjoyment of a well-constructed spectacle, presented in a visual medium, automatically robs you of the ability to discern between good and bad.

The crucial bit, however, is to notice exactly how these games are really becoming like movies. It's not that they're huge investments – it's that money is being spent on a critical path. The only way you miss the most expensive shots in The Avengers is by nodding off or having a poorly timed bathroom break.

And just like that, Call of Duty (and even Half-Life) forges a linear adventure and commandeers your viewpoint – sometimes in a subtle way – to make sure its huge expenditure of resources finds reward in a set of eyeballs. It's a matter of practicality with these ginormous games, and it makes me question whether the most powerful elements of the medium, such as the tension and doubt created by traversing one route over another, can survive in the face of more elaborate presentation and frugal accounting. Will glossy, branching games like Mass Effect be considered too impractical five years from now? Who can afford to spend money on scenes that might not play to every audience?

Well, maybe Call of Duty can. The monolithic franchise is in a position to experiment too, and this year's game, Black Ops 2, is toying with alternate missions and character paths resulting from player interaction. I don't expect the divergence to be very deep, but it's a risky move in a franchise that can subsist in safety for years. I'd like to be proven wrong here, and come back in 2015 to tell you how different Call of Duty 12 is – especially in comparison with The Avengers 2.

Ludwig Kietzmann is the Editor-in-Chief of Joystiq.com. He's been writing about video games for over 10 years, and has been working on this self-referential blurb for about twice as long. He thinks it turned out pretty well. Follow him on Twitter @LudwigK.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.