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2013/01/24

Two very different shooters

WARNING: SPOILERS

Part of telling a good story is knowing what stories have already been told. I don't play as many games as I did in my youth, and back then I didn't have a critical eye towards analyzing game stories. I'm trying to fix that by playing more games and write my thoughts about them.

I finished two games recently that have basically opposite reactions to shooting people: Saints Row the Third and Spec Ops: The Line.

Before going in, some background: I very rarely play shooter games. Before these games, probably the last one I finished was Borderlands 1. Before that maybe Ghost Recon, about ten years ago. So I'm terrible at shooting games. In both Saints Row and Spec Ops I turned the difficulty down to the easiest level.

Lately my tolerance for game violence has been getting lower. I purposefully don't include human enemies in Flare and I'm even uneasy about sentient neutral creatures like Goblins and Minotaurs. It's just easier to swallow violent gameplay when it's against hordes of undead or demons instead of wiping out entire tribes of regular dudes. So I was curious to see how I'd react to the gunplay in these games.

This is also in the wake of the Connecticut Shooting and endless online debate about the affects of guns and video games. I don't have much to say on these larger issues, just noting that they do temper my reactions to these games in some way.

Spec Ops: The Line

Immediately after finishing this one I devoured Killing is Harmless - A Critical Reading of Spec Ops: The LIne. And then I had several uneasy days while this game knocked around my head.

Right from the beginning I felt a bit out of place. I'm already not at ease shooting people, so I started questioning everything that was happening the first time I had to use my rifle. I had an idea of the story and questions the game was setting up though, so I forced myself to play through the game -- even though the game outright asks the player why they continue to play.

I'm especially intrigued by Brendan Keogh's analysis of how these games usually make us "other" the enemy. Because they're usually not American/Western, they're automatically outside our Monkeysphere. To introduce US soldiers as the main enemy was jarring and made the game even harder to play. Then the later reveals that these soldiers were only trying to help really stabs at the heart.

I also really like the themes of interventionism here. Three separate groups -- the 33rd, the CIA, and the Deltas -- all show up to Dubai trying to help. But the game shows us in a vivid way: showing up with guns to create order isn't going to be a simple solution. It's an effective way for a video game to convey a fictionalized version of what actually happens "out there".

The contrast between Dubai's rich architecture and interiors and the brutal desert and gunplay is stark. It's an interesting thought that civilization is always teetering on the brink of collapse. It also plays on the concept that capitalism isn't some magic cure that makes places automatically good.

The transformation of the main character is handled incredibly. By the end of the game the "hero" looks and speaks like a monster. Keogh notes that at that point he's on the same level as other game heroes e.g. in Gears of War -- brutish and bloodthirsty. Games like to assume that a character can be so horrific and still be heroic; it's honestly great to see Spec Ops take a darker and more serious tone.

Saints Row the Third

On the complete opposite end there's Saints Row. It's a lot like Grand Theft Auto but takes itself much less seriously (which works in its favor).

In this game you play the leader of a group of international superstar criminals -- complete with clothing lines and energy drink commercials. There's essentially no consequence for mowing down pedestrians; sometimes the characters even applaud you for it. But the game is so completely over the top, so unabashedly violent and flashy, that none of the violence can be taken seriously. None of the deaths here felt anything like the ones in Spec Ops.

The game welcomes violence so much that it's actually tricky to play the game safely. I opted for a main car that was on the slow and safe end because I never felt comfortable just thrashing through the streets over people an cars and lamp posts.

I ended up spending a lot of my time on character creation and wardrobe options. I've been doing 3D armor in separate equipment slots in Flare so it was interesting examining the methods they use here. I like the variety of clothing options even though it served no practical gameplay purpose. I may experiment with Flare games in the future where armor is more about style and less about defensive values.

Most of the story was over-the-top and kinda fun. I thought the voice acting of the main crew was great. There's this incredibly good character-building moment where you're just driving to the other side of the city and the two main characters are singing along with the radio. Completely unnecessary but an interesting break between ridiculous violence; it served to almost humanize the characters. It reminded me of the "Royale with Cheese" scene in Pulp Fiction.

I thought the ending was handled especially well and ended up being more thought-provoking than expected. You're given a choice to save a friend on one end of the city or get revenge against one of the main bad guys at the other end. I chose to save the friend which gives kind of a happy, playful ending -- the two remaining big bad guys leave and the Saints go back to being entertainers. I watched the other ending on YouTube. There you're given the chance to kill both big bad guys. It's a very violent, vengeful, serious ending but requires the player to let friends die. The vast differences in the tones of these endings -- silly and peaceful vs. vengeful and bloody -- says something interesting about the players on both sides.

Either way, by the end I was getting headshot streaks and not batting an eye. Not sure what that says about me. I think I will take a break from shooters for a while.