There’s that old saying, “A CRYSIS is a terrible thing to waste.”
The makers of the latest game in the series must know that.
Terrible pun out of the way, CRYSIS 3, the concluding game in the series came out last week. You play a soldier in a powered-up gimp suit running around killing stuff. I bought it for Xbox and had a jolly old time playing it, but it did get me thinking about Science Fiction and storytelling in video games.
I wonder if the trend for trilogies started because the first STAR WARS movies were so successful. Mainstream AAA games tend to take their storytelling cues from Hollywood, after all, and the CRYSIS series has been no exception.
For those of you who don’t know, CRYSIS has become a kind of cult title in the world of video games because the first game was a PC exclusive whose reputation was based on a graphics engine so intense that many PCs without a certain amount of memory or a strong dedicated graphics card could not play it. The benchmark for a gaming PC since 2007 has been “Can it play CRYSIS?” CRYSIS 2 came out a couple of years ago as a multiplatform title, which made some PC purists scweam an’ shout an’ cwy an’ cwy that it wasn’t exclusive to PC anymore.
The games have solid gameplay design: you play a soldier in an armoured muscle suit who fights human soldiers and then aliens that are out to destroy the world. You get to choose how to you fight: you can be stealthy and turn on the invisibility cloak to sneak up on your enemies and pick them off one-by-one before your cloak wears off, or you can turn on the maximum armour ability to be temporarily impervious to bullets and kill everyone before the armour wears off and you get killed. Big boss fights require some strategic thinking and pattern recognition as over twenty-five years of video games have taught us: recognise when the boss is going to launch a big attack, dodge, then attack in return. Wash, rinse, repeat until the boss flops over for good.
CRYSIS seems to be a series whose story video game fans never really paid much attention to, especially when you think about the insanely detailed and increasingly convoluted fiction built around HALO, of which only a fraction is every seen or hinted at in the games themselves. The HALO franchise has so much story built around it that it has to be expressed in hefty tie-in novels whose fans put on the New York Times Bestsellers List.
There are hints of ambition and scope in the story of CRYSIS. It’s late in the early 21st Century and the first one was about a squad of soldiers wearing experimental battlesuits sent on a rescue mission to a East Asian island and find themselves fighting not only North Korean soldiers but an alien race called the Ceph that had been on Earth longer than humanity that want to wipe out all life to take over the planet. By the time CRYSIS 2 was released, the story had expanded, taking place a few years later and revealing a world where an evil corporation named CELL had been using Private Military Corporations to exploit the alien technology for a new power source for profit and power, and that the Ceph have released a virus designed to wipe out humanity. In CRYSIS 3, it turns out that the battlesuits the games’ main characters wear that also defines the games are in fact bio-organic exoskeletons made from Ceph DNA and CELL has made the Ceph power source the only viable fuel and power source in the world, thus enslaving the populace while ignoring the prospects of an imminent Ceph invasion.
There are interesting hardcore Science Fictional ideas in the CRYSIS series, but they don’t quite gell to be truly resonant. Unlike pro-military shooter games like CALL OF DUTY: MODERN WARFARE, its politics are surprisingly leftist in positioning a corporation and a PMC as the villains with Lovecraftian aliens as the faceless merciless menace, the Other to be feared. As a game that takes its cues from Hollywood blockbusters, it keeps any complex storytelling to a minimum in order to deliver huge, Michael Bay-style action setpieces and shows up the limits of storytelling in games. Since everything has to be seen from the protagonist/player’s eyes, there’s a very small window in which to tell the story. The problem with the CRYSIS saga, then, is that it ends up being pulp genre fiction, which emphasises plot turns that strictly follow genre conventions and doesn’t have room for real story complexity or depth, even though the makes show some design to express some. You don’t come up with a common-or-garden SciFi plot and then hire acclaimed Science Fiction writers like Richard K. Morgan to script CRYSIS 2 or Steven Hall, author of experimental novel THE RAW SHARK TEXTS, to script CRYSIS 3 if you don’t have some degree of narrative ambition.
There is an attempt at existential angst in the story of Prophet, the soldier in the suit whose saga the three games turn out to be. In the first game, he was the player character, Nomad’s commanding officer. In the second game, the dying Prophet saves the life of player character Alcatraz by bequeathing the suit to him and committing suicide in order to make the suit accept Alcatraz’ body and DNA so he can complete the mission and save New York City, but by the end, Prophet’s mind and personality have taken over reasserted itself over the suit, subsuming Alcatraz, who didn’t have any personality anyway. By the third game, Prophet laments sacrificing his humanity in order to finish the fight against CELL and the Ceph and questions whether he’s more human than machine. At the end, the CRYSIS series is a celebration of the macho soldier as much as CALL OF DUTY, BATTLEFIELD and MEDAL OF HONOUR are, with as much depth as they possess, which is not that much. The reason attempts to create sympathy and pity for Prophet doesn’t work is because we know nothing about his life other than that he’s a soldier. He doesn’t appear to have a wife or kids or anyone he loves. We don’t know what he has to live or fight for other than that he’s the hero and therefore must fight to save everyone. What humanity is he really lamenting none has been shown to us beyond the emotions of the actor who voices him? The only character who almost has a personality is Psycho, himself the protagonist of the second CRYSIS game CRYSIS: WARHEAD, but here his default mode is Angry Sweary Cockney. In fact, he looks and sounds kind of like Ross Kemp to the point where I start to think of CRYSIS as a far-off spin-off/sequel to EASTENDERS.
This is all well and good, but I have to wonder, after playing through MASS EFFECT, GEARS OF WAR and CRYSIS, why do the stories of Science Fiction have to be about the end of the world and trying to prevent that all the time? It’s like “trying to prevent the end of the world” has become the lazy default plot to make you care. In CRYSIS 3, the hero’s existential angst is only lip service and there’s no real personal stake in his fight other saving the world because that’s what you expect a hero to do. There isn’t even an identifiable villain for us to hate, other than an “Alpha Ceph” that Prophet pursues for a fight to the death to save the world. It has no personality and there’s nothing personal at all in the fight other than the thematic hint that it represents Prophet’s fear and hatred of the loss of his humanity and soul. By the tine you get to fight the Alpha Ceph, it’s basically a giant penis shooting stuff at you that you have to evade and keep shooting until it finally flops over for good. You’re shooting a penis-shaped object that has no character at all. I know it takes more effort to write, but wouldn’t it be more worthwhile to have a shooter game about two different playable characters who are enemies with reasons for hating each other and wanting to fight more than just “MWAH-HA-HA! I’M GOING TO BLOW UP THE WORLD BECAUSE EVIL!”? After all, STAR TREK: THE WRATH OF KHAN is fondly remembered because it’s the story of revenge, a man pursuing a vendetta against another, who defeats him but at a price almost too hard to bear.
I’m not sure the writers of CRYSIS 3 thought very deeply about the subtexts of the game, but it is certainly full of rich pickings. A Freudian would have a field day going over the visual symbols of the game. It’s not for nothing my friends and I call the armour suit of the game “the gimp suit”. It looks like an idealised naked male body with rippling, fetishised muscles, and it gives the wearer superpowers. You could say all shooting games are an expression of masculine identity crisis. They’re fantasies of asserting one’s power by using a wide variety of phallic weapons and shooting them all over the place at as many enemies as possible. It’s as if Prophet’s fear of losing his humanity is more about his fear of the loss of his masculinity and virility, equating those with Humanity. Women don’t get much of a look-in other than as gruff supporting characters and love interests whose deaths provide the heroes with an excuse to rage and get revenge and reassert their masculine power by killing more baddies. The feminine has always been looked upon uneasily in the action genre, and CRYSIS falls into the same sets of ambivalent feelings. All in all, the CRYSIS series is more po-faced and has less wit than the HALO series. I know there are loads of female HALO fans out there, but I wonder how many women actually play the CRYSIS games.
Of course, you could argue that if you want real emotional and topical complexity, you don’t play video games, you go to books, television or movies, but there is already a drive amongst game developers to push the medium into more mature heights rather than stay in the shooty-shooty-kill clichés the industry is founded on. And why not try? Games are now entering the adolescent stage of their evolution where they’re trying to push against the boundaries even if they often make childish mistakes and faceplant. I may snark on CRYSIS 3, but I had bags of fun playing it. I’m just don’t turn off the part of me that picks apart a story to see how it works or fails to work.
Sometimes, a giant alien shaped like a penis shooting stuff at you is just a giant alien shaped like a penis shooting stuff at you. Sure…
My gimp suit does not stop bullets at firstname.lastname@example.org
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