Editorial: 'I'm tired of saving the world'

Jason Lomberg
J. Lomberg|12.28.11

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Editorial: 'I'm tired of saving the world'
Heavy Rain asks us "How far would you go to save someone you love?" Few games bother with this sort of question because the answer is intensely personal. Most games would rather task you with saving the world than with rocking a baby to sleep or patching up a failed relationship. This intransigence on the part of developers to create idiosyncratic stories that resonate with the individual is holding the medium back.

Why should gaming's prime inspiration be Michael Bay instead of David Lynch, David Mamet, Paul Thomas Anderson, or even Mel Brooks? An interactive medium like this has the potential to tell complex stories in ways that are sublime, irreverent, and evocative.

Gaming could explore the human condition by interfacing with the player like books, movies, and TV never could. Instead, we do battle with rogue Russian nationalists, storm Normandy for the 47th time, or fight off an alien invasion. I can't relate to any of this.

I'm tired of saving the world, and the industry is belatedly coming to the same realization. My favorite games of 2011, L.A. Noire and Catherine, spent generous time on character development, with highly personal stories that resonate with the individual.

Heavy Rain's center is a father's love for his son; the game's elastic narrative stretches to accommodate your choices, and no two playthroughs are identical. Even if two players make similar decisions, the individualistic nature of the game ensures that everyone digests it differently.

Describing Heavy Rain in the Dutch magazine Chief, Quantic Dream's David Cage noted the following: "I wanted a much more personal story. The first thing that came to my mind as a father of two little boys was that the main theme should simply be a father's love for his son. This is not a game about saving the princess or the world."

Cage's magnum opus understands the value of ordinary, seemingly insignificant actions in building an authentic world. Your avatar performs various routine tasks like feeding a baby, drinking a scotch, and scrambling some eggs. The cumulative effect of all these mundane deeds is a feeling of comfort, the mark of a lived-in universe.

We can all relate to the anguish of losing a loved one or the desperation that drives a person to overindulge in adult beverages. Many of us appreciate a father's unconditional love for his son ... and the depths he'd stoop to in order to safeguard his progeny.

Catherine describes a scenario we've all experienced: relationship troubles. I can empathize with an insecure schlub who suffers chronic anxiety at the thought of commitment. Lead character Vincent seems like a real person with genuine feelings and emotions. His everyman charm makes the suspension of disbelief endemic to all works of fiction a breeze.

L.A. Noire sports well-rounded protagonists buoyed by fantastic writing. The game's advanced MotionScan technology not only transcends the uncanny valley, but it enables real emotions, and these subtle performances connect the player with their digital alter ego.

But most games ignore the individual. Given the choice between introspective character development or giant set pieces, first-person shooters opt for loud explosions.

Imagine if an FPS had the gravitas of Black Hawk Down. Take this scene from the movie, in which a friendly casualty prompts a tender moment of reflection among brothers in arms. With few exceptions (Shadow of the Colossus comes to mind), video games don't have anything approaching that level of granular emotion.

Some developers may consider Black Hawk Down, Hurt Locker, and Generation Kill an inspiration for the modern FPS, but I see only a superficial resemblance. Medal of Honor was purportedly based on Operation Anaconda, a key battle of the Afghanistan conflict. But the finished product reverts back to tired gaming tropes, as your POV character mows down thousands of nameless, faceless bad guys.

An old combat adage describes war as "hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror." If so, then the FPS – via long, protracted firefights – is a poor facsimile of the core experience.

I want to play a shooter that tells the soldier's story. Instead of inventing a fictitious conflict or alien invasion, why not adapt a combat memoir? War has global implications, but the average trooper experiences a small microcosm of the large campaign. E.B. Sledge's With the Old Breed chronicles the narrator's experiences in the Pacific Theater of WWII. Most historians consider Sledge's first-hand account one of the most compelling combat memoirs of all time. But the narrative's conflict is psychological: one man's struggle to retain his humanity amidst unimaginable carnage. The themes are intensely personal.

Yet the Modern Warfare series is more concerned with spectacle than subtlety. One cannot possibly experience the full spectrum of emotions when your only recourse is killing (with no underlying context). Video games are capable of so much more.

We deserve better than this. We need more auteurs with a burning desire to tell their stories. Instead of envisioning the next "epic," developers ought to look inwards. If the medium is ever to shake its frat-boy mentality, it needs to embrace individualistic narratives.

Jason Lomberg is the Technical Editor for Electronic Component News, a trade magazine for electrical engineers. He also edits for Bitmob.com and has written for PocketNext, ECN, and Bitmob. Jason is based out of Netcong, NJ.
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