Interesting weekend of video games as I watched a friend play the open beta for THE SECRET WORLD, an upcoming MMO game, and some MAX PAYNE 3. The two games are pretty much on opposite ends of the spectrum: THE SECRET WORLD is a subscription-based PC MMO role-playing game, MAX PAYNE 3 is a cinematic, heavily story-driven shooter game with an online multiplayer component.
THE SECRET WORLD has an interesting premise for a role-player beyond the usual cod-medieval wizards and orcs settings. It’s the closest you’ll get to playing an RPG version of Grant Morrison’s THE INVISIBLES and HELLBLAZER. It’s set in a version of the 21st Century. You play a blank slate that gets magickal powers and join one of three rival factions that fight against supernatural threats against the world. The game takes the premise that all conspiracies, urban legends and supernatural secrets are true like THE INVISIBLES. Players fight zombies, ghosts, Lovecraftian horrors, unravel mysteries plaguing towns and cities, fight with the other factions for control of the world when not teaming up with them against common enemies.
From what I’ve seen, THE SECRET WORLD is a mix of intrigue and sheer frustration. Intrigue because there is some brilliant and witty writing in the game. Directed by Ragnar Tornquist, who previously made the classic adventure game THE LONGEST JOURNEY (deservedly worshipped by the likes of ROCK, PAPER, SHOTGUN), which shared the same themes of secret worlds, supernatural occurrences and solving puzzles to unearth mysteries. The different factions in THE SECRET WORLD, the Templars with their base in London, the Illiuminati in their corporate HQ in New York, and the Dragon and their ascetic temples in Seoul, are each distinctive you can only see the bigger picture of the premise of the game’s world if you see the introduction to each faction. The Templars stoically see themselves as guardians of the world, though of the big picture rather than individual people, willing to sacrifice entire towns and people for the big picture. The Illuminati are bitchy, amoral opportunists who seek to use their knowledge to secretly control the world through the media and Big Businesses they control from the shadows. The mercurial Dragons are agents of chaos who wreck havoc to create balance so that no single power controls the world. All three factions view each other with distrust, contempt and wariness, and actively plot against each other to seize control, territory, knowledge and resources under and uneasy truce. As a player, your character is not The Chosen One but just one of hundreds or thousands (if it gets enough players) of footsoldiers fighting a never-ending war of attrition. Sounds good, right?
Now the frustrating part of the game, which is ARRRRGH! MORE TEDIOUS GRIND-Y BULLSHIT! Fetch-quests again! Go kill X number of rats/minions/zombies for lootz/rewards/XP. Now, I know fetch-quests are a staple of RPGs and MMOs. I’ve spoken to enough games designers to know how they’ve become a necessary part of an RPG game’s design in order to maintain balance in the player’s progression and to keep from becoming too powerful too early in the game. In the case of THE SECRET WORLD, the combat is the usual clunky pressing-on-the-numbers-keys to watch numbers rise out of the enemy until it dies. And there’s a lot of it, which tends to get in the way of experiencing the story, which THE SECRET WORLD is being sold on. It seems to be the same kind of game design that every MMO feels the need to replicate from WORLD OF WARCRAFT because they think it’s what’s needed to be successful. The tedium is that the same anonymous enemies you keeping hitting will be there to attack you again when you have to go through that area again, which, to me, breaks the sense of immersion in the story. How is the story believable when there’s no sense of change, that a whole area is reset in a few minutes after you’re finished with it. The other problem I have with MMOs is that they feel too much like work rather than fun. It’s like another full-time job, except you’re paying to do it rather than getting paid. There are interesting things in THE SECRET WORLD that are new and interesting, like the way the puzzles are based on ideas and knowledge from real life that you might find through an in-game Google browser if you can’t figure out the answers by yourself. But the long, arduous, tedious grinding keeps the game from taking flight for me.
And then there’s MAX PAYNE 3, the shooty-shooty lunkhead has come to current-generation console. Here’s another game where story and gameplay threaten to be in conflict with each other.
Now, I’ve made fun of the first two MAX PAYNE games for the silly pastiches their plots were even as they made bullet-time shooting work in video games for the first time. The pastiche-y plots were in the service of the game design and play, after all. With Rockstar Games taking over the franchise and Dan Houser co-writing the script, the story tends a more serious direction in the noir genre with its depiction of the hero as an alcoholic burnout doomed to failure and trapped in a world of death and carnage. There’s a reasonably plausible context now for a world so hellish that it makes sense to have Max Payne killing literally hundreds of really bad people by shooting them in the face (which in real life would make him a mass murderer no matter that they’re really bad people). There are interesting themes and subtexts about male crisis, failure and redemption, the dark places of the male psyche that noir has always been perfect for addressing, and there’s an attempt to show us things we haven’t seen before, like locating the story to Brazil and making explicit social and political commentary about class, money and corruption as it transforms the landscape into a hell that matches the hero’s inner landscape. The fear of failing to save or protect someone is a recurring tragic theme in the story. It’s a downbeat romantic macho fantasy for men the same way something like TWILIGHT are romantic fantasies for girls.
On the other hand, the gameplay threatens to get in the way of the story because of its difficulty. In shooting games, I’m getting annoyed with enemies that are idiotically resilient bullet-sponges. For all the hype about added realism in games, with graphics looking more and more real, you still have human enemies who aren’t aliens or superpowered mutants who will take a whole clip of ammo and still be hail of health and trying to kill you. It’s one thing if they’re aliens with tough skin or whatever, but these are humans with soft, squishy flesh. Sure, they might be wearing body armour, but you’re firing high-calibre bullets at them, and no human should be able to jump right back up to shoot at you. In real life, bullets hit with the impact of a truck and will take the wind out of you even when you’re wearing a vest, not to mention risk breaking your ribs or causing internal damage even if they don’t kill you. The whole point of increasingly powerful guns is to drop a target and keep it down, bullets are designed to do maximum damage. When people get shot in real life, there’s no such thing as “just a flesh wound”. There are always long-term health effects long after a bullet wound heals that will be there for the rest of one’s life. In too many games, including MAX PAYNE 3, I’ve had enemies take two shots to the head and shrug them off when they’re wearing only fucking baseball caps. I’m not one of those masochistic gamers who like to play games at high difficulty to test my skills, nor do I play on the Easy setting. I play for story, and I get pissed off when elements in the gameplay get in the way of progressing the story. Every time I get to this point in a game, I just think it’s fucking stupid and want to rage-quit. As Tom Bissell pointed out, games and Story are frequently at odds, because the gameplay’s objective is to prevent the story from progressing. It becomes a problem when the game does this too well. That’s why when I played the demo for SPEC OP: THE LINE this week, I was pleasantly surprised that enemies reacted to getting shot the way people would in real life – they actually went down when the first bullet hits them.
Maybe I’m just starting to get burned out on the parts of games that have become accepted as the norm in game design. Then again, I always thought those parts were frustrating and bloody stupid back when I first got into gaming. This is the first time I’m actually feeling tired of them, and as someone who works in the entertainment industry and even done some work in the games industry (a very tiny bit), this is not good. For me, anyway…
MAX PAYNE 3 is out on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 this week. THE SECRET WORLD is out in June.
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