Hi There (again)!

Hi there!

 

I haven’t  posted here in a quite a while but for this summer I will be posting some more content focused around the games industry as a whole as opposed to in-depth game commentaries.

The purpose of these posts is really to allow me to voice my opinions surrounding some of the more controversial practices that have become commonplace in the games industry.

With that being said, let’s dive into the first entry of the series- Season Passes.

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TOMB RAIDER (2013) COMMENTARY

In a video game market filled with compelling male protagonists it’s nice to have a character like Lara Croft once and a while. She’s daring, confident and of course a girl. What I appreciated most from the Tomb Raider franchise though was it never tried to push an agenda that promoted the idea of “Girls can kick ass too”.

Lara’s gender wasn’t chosen on the basis of proving the value of girls in games as part of some social justice crusade. The character is simply more interesting and enjoyable because she is a girl (and not because of low poly triangle breasts). Indeed the character faced scrutiny for supposed sexualization during the franchise’s inception.  It’s worth noting though that the primary reason why people loved Lara and still do wasn’t because of her tight shorts or pronounced chest but because she did exciting things and kicked ass. However, when Square Enix decided they wanted to revive the franchise they understood that Lara’s sexualization in the earlier games would not fly in today’s more progressive video game industry. They needed a more humanistic approach to the character that players can connect with at the levels of others gaming greats like Commander Shepard, Ezio Auditore and Nathan Drake (among others). It would be a bold undertaking that would require new gameplay systems that compliment the character and a new environment to really test the character’s limits. It wasn’t going to be an easy task. But they nailed it.

Figure 1: A visual representation of Lara's constant modernization
Figure 1: A visual representation of Lara’s constant modernization

Tomb Raider is the origin story of Lara Croft as she transforms from a vulnerable, innocent archeologist into a beloved video game icon. To put it very simply, Tomb Raider does a lot of things right and very few things wrong. Its gameplay is built on 3 pillars: combat, platforming and puzzles. Each one is very well crafted and has few flaws. Additionally, its narrative is told in interesting ways that few games I’ve seen do as well. However, what sets Tomb Raider apart from other games is how it weaves narrative and gameplay components together in unique, organic and effective ways to create an enjoyable game experience.

This commentary aims to elucidate what Tomb Raider does right and wrong with regards to its gameplay and narrative. At its core though, Tomb Raider reinvents the franchise by melding its gameplay and narrative in ways that allow the player to invest in both the game world but also the timeless gaming icon: Lara Croft.

GAMEPLAY

Tomb Raider’s gameplay is comprised of of 3 pillars. At all points during gameplay, the player is engaged in one of these three activities.

Figure 1:  Tomb Raider's gameplay pillars are designed to support the narrative for a cohesive experience
Figure 2: Tomb Raider’s gameplay pillars are designed to support the narrative for a cohesive experience

The game melds each of these 3 pillars under unifying gameplay mechanics which creates an organic world that the player can really buy into. The first of which is Instinct Vision. This ability highlights interactable objects in the world clearly for a few moments. It provides players with a greater understanding of the game world by identifying to them if they can scale that wall over there or blow down that piece of debris for example. It is subtle enough to help players in the opening stages of the game when they are not familiar with the ludic language that the game presents (this will be discussed in depth later on) while not appearing too necessary or condescending to the player. Because the player can’t toggle the vision on or off indefinitely, they can’t rely on it to navigate the entire game world unlike similar mechanics like Detective Mode for example in the Batman Arkham Series 

Figure 2: Batman Arkham Asylum's Detective Mode  was often a crutch for inexperienced players
Figure 3: Batman Arkham Asylum’s Detective Mode was used often as a crutch for inexperienced players

This mechanic is particularly important because its application spans across all 3 gameplay pillars. It marks explosive barrels that damages enemies in combat. It marks scalable walls while platforming. It marks levers or switches when puzzling. It’s a mechanic that melds each of the 3 gameplay pillars seamlessly by having all information being presented to the player in the same way. Combat, platforming and puzzle objects are highlighting in the same fluorescent yellow tone. It’s up to the player to figure out how to interact with the given objects. It provides the player with the tools to solve any problem in the game without discreetly telling them the solution.

Figure 3: The Instinct Vision is essentially Lara's Detective Mode  equivalent
Figure 4: The Instinct Vision is essentially Lara’s Detective Mode equivalent

The second way Tomb Raider melds its gameplay pillars together is by having Lara’s equipment be very versatile. Here is a table of Lara’s equipment, what functions they can fulfill and under what gameplay pillar does the equipment serve. Note that these functions all exist within gameplay and don’t include cases where Lara closes a wound with a searing arrow in a cutscene for example.

  • Combat (red)
  • Platforming (blue)
  • Puzzling (green)
EQUIPMENT FUNCTION
Pickaxe
  • Prying open doors
  • Attacking enemies/ animals
    • Stunning enemies
  • Stealth takedowns
  • Ziplining
  • Turning valves
  • Scaling rocky walls
Bow & Arrow
  • Shooting enemies/ animals
  • Pulling down walls(rope arrow)
  • Igniting loot caches(fire arrows)
  • Igniting explosive gas (fire arrows)
  • Destroying flammable cover (fire arrows)
  • Creating ziplines (rope arrows)
  • Stealth takedowns
  • Pulling objects towards Lara
Pistol
  • Shooting down suspended objects
  • Shooting enemies/ animals
  • Igniting Explosive Barrels
  • Executions
Rifle
  • Shooting down suspended objects
  • Shooting enemies/ animals
  • Igniting Explosive Barrels
  • Executions
  • Destroying tin walls (grenade launcher)
Shotgun
  • Shooting down suspended objects
  • Shooting enemies/ animals
  • Igniting Explosive Barrels
  • Executions
  • Stunning large enemies
  • Destroying debris
  • Opening new paths
  • Igniting loot caches (napalm shells)
  • Destroying flammable cover (napalm shells)
  • Igniting explosive gas (fire arrows)

As you can see, every piece of equipment can be used in multiple pillars of the game. It isntills a sense of mastery in the player both over their own skills as a player but also over Lara Croft. It also enforces the survivalist mentality in the player by making the most out of whatever they can find on this deserted island.

These are just two ways that Tomb Raider unifies its 3 gameplay pillars through universal mechanics. However each pillar is well developed in their own way. Let’s take a look at each in detail.

Figure 4: Apart from springing traps and puzzle solving, the rope arrow can be used in combat to yank enemies off high places
Figure 5: Apart from springing traps and puzzle solving, the rope arrow can be used in combat to yank enemies off high places

COMBAT

Tomb Raider’s combat is in a word: satisfying. This is primarily because Crystal Dynamics perfected all the gun and bow elements from realistic sound design to proper amounts of recoil put behind each pull of the trigger. Additionally, the game’s auto-aim system is intentionally loose which forces players to carefully pick their shots. This is certainly a wiser decision than having a more generous auto-aim system that conventional action games employ. It forces the player to value each shot they take providing a more potent sense of realism, a good thing to have in a gritty survival adventure game.

These points aside, Tomb Raider’s combat is not without its flaws. The loose auto-aim is smart because it promotes a survivalist mentality and improves engagement by requiring the player to focus when placing their shots. However this idea is effectively moot because the ammo in Tomb Raider is far too abundant. There is no need to conserve ammo and be careful in combat when the player has 3-4 magazines of bullets in each of their guns. The player doesn’t feel afraid or desperate like Lara when they have more than enough bullets. It creates a needlessly large disconnect between the player and the character.

A common criticism upon launch was that Lara’s tolerance of shooting an enemy goes from that of a hippy nun to a blood thirsty Patrick Bateman in about 2 hours or so. This is certainly true but this observation is only a microcosm of the true issue. Not just Lara, but the entire game’s tolerance of violence is wildly paced. The best way describe this is to provide an example:

1 hour into the game:

  • Lara is hungry for food and struggles to loot a dead body.
  • Lara’s leg is caught in a bear trap and has to fend off savage wolves with her bow.
  • Lara apologizes to a dead deer after killing it for food.
Figure 5: In the opening hours, Lara faces more grounded threats like hunger and wolves
Figure 6: In the opening hours, Lara faces more grounded threats like hunger and wolves

8 hours into the game:

  • Lara escapes a burning cult castle in a helicopter which crashes because of a freak lightning storm caused by an ancient sun goddess.
  • Lara fights waves of ancient Japanese warriors who deflect bullets and fire explosive arrows.
  • Lara stops a Japanese sun goddess reincarnation ritual after scaling an ice monastery housing warrior golems and machine gun wielding cultists.
Figure 6: "Yeah I could really go for those wolves right about now"
Figure 7: “Yeah I could really go for those wolves right about now”

It’s tonal disparities like these that just makes the player say “what the hell happened?” If Lara can’t shrug off a bear trap in the opening hours, she sure as hell can’t shrug off an explosive arrow in the closing hours. I understand the need to raise stakes constantly throughout a narrative but establishing visceral survivalism as a theme in the opening hours than having the game compromise its tonal consistency is a major disservice to those who appreciated the tonal change in the first place.

This level of dissonance and ammo abundance can pull the player out the experience and soil otherwise engaging action sequences near the end of the game.

That being said, these two flaws are seldom realized due to combat being frantic, fast paced and fun above all else.  One way Crystal Dynamics accomplishes this is by having the player constantly being shoved around during combat sequences. There are several ways they manage this including:

  • Dynamite/ Explosives thrown at Lara
  • Destructible cover leaving Lara exposed
  • Enemies flanking Lara’s position

These all force the player to maneuver around enemies and the environment which makes each encounter more dynamic than other “stop-and-pop” third person shooters. Despite the missed potential for grittier survival gameplay by increasing ammo scarcity and having tonal dissonance from the beginning and the end of the game, Tomb Raider’s combat is successfully executed because it is dynamic, engaging and satisfying.

PLATFORMING

It pains me to be vague when describing such an important part of this game but Tomb Raider’s platforming just feels really good to play. Lara has smooth animations that hold up well when the player is traversing the game’s complex geometry. Level design complements Lara’s weight and nimbleness with intelligently placed jumps. Occasionally there are instances where it seems like Lara can jump 40 feet which always cracks a laugh or two while playing because of its absurdity. However for every silly looking leap there are some truly tense moments where Lara barely grabs a ledge and must quickly regain her grip wth a quick time event (QTE). I found this the most effective way of implementing QTE’s in this game. They seem natural to do as a player and make sense within the game world. It is also subtler than the other QTE’s like the obnoxious trigger mashing climbing sections.

Figure 7:
Figure 8: A unobtrusive QTE that melds with platforming nicely. More games need QTE’s like this

It is rare to have a third person action game with a “good” camera. I can say with certainty that I had no troubles with the camera throughout my playtime. Tomb Raider has a static camera during platforming sections that gives the player the perfect amount of information as to where to jump next. The player can move the camera slightly just so it seems like they haven’t lost complete control but ultimately the camera is placed in perfect angles and is also a non-issue in combat scenarios. I wouldn’t consider this camera “perfect” because I’m not entirely sure what that would even entail but it is certainly one of the game’s strongest assets.

PUZZLING

What makes Tomb Raider’s puzzle design so special is the use of the unified game mechanics like Instinct Vision and equipment versatility to make the puzzles feel organic and satisfying. The best way to describe this game’s approach is to compare it to Valve’s game “Portal”, a first person puzzle platformer where players can place up to 2 navigable portals in the game world to solve puzzles.

Portal’s art direction is entirely focused on the puzzles. The game takes place in a testing facility where the the player’s ability to use the portal gun to escape test chambers is tested. Apart from a thin narrative of the protagonist trying to escape this facility, “Portal” really focuses on the puzzles and not much else. This is why the setting of a test facility is perfect. It’s boring, clean, easy to  design and isn’t distracting. Tomb Raider on the other hand is different. The puzzles exist to complement the game world of a deserted island- they are not the focus.This means that when Lara turns a certain valve with her pickaxe or ziplines using her rope arrow, the player’s goal isn’t to solve the puzzle like they would in “Portal” but to further explore the island and advance the narrative.

When the player is using Instinct Vision and their tools effectively to solve these puzzles the player’s satisfaction is not a derivative of their pride in puzzle solving skills (like in “Portal”) but rather their desire to further explore the island and to watch the narrative unfold. Puzzles aren’t testing the player’s intelligence but rather Lara’s ability to survive with the player serving as a vehicle. Tomb Raider’s puzzle system connects these two things and in turn makes puzzles more enjoyable.

If there is any flaw in Tomb Raider’s puzzle sections it is that the tombs themselves are very simple and need to be fleshed out much more. They lack complexity and length. None use the existing mechanics in novel ways that the player hasn’t already utilized in the main storyline.

There are a total of 7 tombs in the game however each only contains one or two puzzles and lasts no longer than 10-15 minutes. It is a shame as I was looking forward to what this franchise’s name lives up to. I do appreciate the notification the player receives when they are near a Tomb if it’s any consolation (it’s not). Crystal Dynamics is aware players want to experience the tombs but doesn’t force those who aren’t comfortable with the puzzle mechanics. There isn’t much to say apart from Crystal Dynamics needed to make more tombs that had more than just a couple of puzzles.

Figure 8: It truly is a shame that the tomb raiding of Tomb Raider is no barebones
Figure 8: It is disappointing to see that the tomb raiding of Tomb Raider is so barebones

NARRATIVE

The story that Tomb Raider tells isn’t unique by any stretch. Lara and her friends find themselves on a deserted island and must fend off crazed cultists as they try to escape. There is a long and convoluted back story about a sun goddess, samurai and nazi scientists, and yes, it is as crazy it sounds. That being said, Tomb Raider’s strength isn’t necessarily the story it’s trying to tell but rather how the story is told.

The relics system is a simple but very effective way of immersing the player into Tomb Raider’s narrative.

As you can see, the player is rewarded for exploring the game world and finding these treasures.The experience points (used for upgrades) provided by inspecting an object further has enough incentive for the player to put in the extra effort  but also provides facts insightful enough to leave the player feeling like they have learned something. The system caters to both kinds of players. If the player is simply looking for experience points to improve the gameplay experience they can. Conversely, if the player is looking for more information to enrich the narrative experience they can as well.

This is just one the many ways that Tomb Raider blends the gameplay and narrative in a unique and rewarding way.

Being on a deserted island, Tomb Raider’s narrative lends itself well to themes one might find in a book like Lord of the Flies. The degradation of sanity, the idea of civilization vs. savagery and the will to survive are all touched upon in Tomb Raider but the game does not comment or provide a new perspective on them. The player can see quite evidently the descent into madness a character like Whitman faces, the robust cult politics/ hierarchy, and Lara’s unwavering will to survive. However, these are all themes we have seen before in other mediums like books or movies. Not adding a “video gamey” take on these themes seems like a squandered opportunity on Crystal Dynamics’ part. Games like Deus Ex that handle the ethical implications of human/robotic augmentation through its characters or Spec Ops: The Line which comments on glorified game violence through its combat are truly unique because they broaden the game’s narrative scope.

Figure 9: William Golding's Lord of the Flies is one of many works that explore the struggle between civilization and savagery when faced with isolation
Figure 10: William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is one of many works that explore the struggle between civilization and savagery when faced with isolation

The deserted island locale also gives Crystal Dynamic great liberties when designing death animations the player must watch when they receive a game over. As cringe inducing as they are, these animations provide a glimpse of comic relief in the game. Laugher is likely not the response Crystal Dynamics wanted to have when players watch these but some of these animations are just….well take a look.

LUDIC LANGUAGE

A subtle but not unimportant mechanic in Tomb Raider is how it implicitly communicates with the player the ways in which they can interact with the game world. The game uses objects that feel natural on the island to indicate how the player can advance through the game. For example, every ledge Lara grabs or sidles is lined with the same faded white paint for the entire game. Every scalable rock surface uses the same texture. Every rope arrow post uses the same art asset.

What is important is that these elements do not change over the course of the game and the cues that are being used do not feel out of place in the environment of a deserted island. Here is a model outlining the learning process the player experiences when they encounter a new obstacle like the jagged wall for example.

Figure 10: A simple graphic outlining how Tomb Raider introduces gameplay elements
Figure 11: A simple graphic outlining how Tomb Raider introduces gameplay elements

This is a very simple framework that Crystal Dynamics used to help both the player and Lara come to terms with their abilities as the game progresses. By the end of the game, the player can fluidly navigate the toughest platforming sections as they are accustomed to the “if X do Y” mindset that governs this game.

Figure 11: In the case of this scalable wall, the rock texture serves as the visual cue to player to climb
Figure 12: In the case of this jagged wall, the rock texture serves as the visual cue to player to climb

To prevent staleness in these sections, Crystal Dynamics integrates certain set pieces that through the player off guard, like having chunks of ice fall on Lara as she scales the ice monastery during the game’s climax. Despite the player seeing an obstacle and then executing the proper response many times throughout the game, there is a constant sense of danger and novelty to the platforming due to the stakes constantly rising, even if they do reach comical proportions (i.e Samurai golem fire arrow attacks).

Figure 12: Same mechanic, MUCH higher stakes
Figure 13: Same mechanic, MUCH higher stakes

This ludic language is arguably the most integral mechanic with regards to how Tomb Raider operates fundamentally as a game. It applies to all pillars for its entirety. None of the explosive barrels in combat, rope arrow posts in platforming, or rotatable valves in puzzles change over the course of the game. This mechanic allows the player to traverse a complex level geometry by teaching the player simple cues that are acted on in conjunction with the tools and upgrades provided over the course of the game. Similar to Instinct Vision, this mechanic is subtle enough to let the player know what they CAN do but not what they SHOULD do.  All this while still providing a sense of achievement not just over the game’s rules but of the island itself.

Figure 13: I think we all know what these do...
Figure 14: I think we all know what these do…

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Tomb Raider is a great game because it’s shortcomings are in the least influential aspects of the game and its strengths serve as the bedrock for which it is played for its entire duration. As mentioned prior, the player is always shooting, platforming or puzzling. When each of these developed facets of the game’s design are able to weave with the narrative in unique ways like the relic system, the experience is truly satisfying.

One could argue that the villain of Mathias was weak because he was one dimensional. One could argue there too few Tomb and were too short. One could even argue that the game lacked memorable characters. However, it is near impossible to argue that combat isn’t frantic, satisfying and fun or the platforming wasn’t smooth and tense.

Tomb Raider told the coming of age story it needed to tell in an effective way by melding narrative and gameplay seamlessly. It rested on 3 solid gameplay pillars that were complemented by a ludic language which created a natural and enjoyable game experience. Once again Lara can stand tall beside the gaming icons of today’s testosterone filled video game industry. And if she must be subjected to countless Polygon articles about feminine gender equity prerogative nonsense, so be it.

SPEC OPS: THE LINE COMMENTARY

Spec Ops: The Line instills the strongest sense of futility and self loathing I have ever experienced in a game. It is a game I doubt any player would consider ‘fun’  but I am certain every player would consider “frighteningly engaging”. Since its release, there have been countless analyses of the game’s motifs, symbols, themes etc. The purpose of this piece is to answer the fundamental question that many have overlooked. What is Spec Ops: The Line trying to say and how is it saying it?

Beyond just being a video game, Spec Ops: The Line is ultimately a commentary on the game design and narrative conventions that modern shooter games employ and the players that play these games. The goal in which Yager is trying to accomplish over the course of Spec Ops is to illuminate the absurdity of conventional shooter design and to condemn the player for adhering to its formula. This is done primarily by frequently and shamelessly exposing the player to the game’s three major themes.

  1. Player agency in games
  2. Glorified game violence
  3. Moral contextualism vs. moral binarism in games

It is important to note that these three themes all relate specifically to video games. Unlike works that have heavily inspired Spec Ops: The Line like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and more recently Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, this piece exists within an interactive medium – a video game. This implies that the player has a degree of autonomy over their choices in the game and aren’t inhibited by the words an author wrote or a scene scripted by a director. However, playing with choice in games isn’t a new concept either. For a while, developers have refined the idea of a game’s narrative being shaped by the players actions. The most relevant example would be Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead,  a point and click adventure that provides players with multiple dialogue options in conversations and the ability to save certain characters while leaving others to die to hordes of zombies brought together in a 5-part narrative. However, you’ll find in the video below that these games aren’t necessarily as open-ended as they may seem. This links to the first of Spec Ops: The Line’s themes – player agency.

PLAYER AGENCY IN GAMES 

There are many instances where Spec Ops: The Line provides the player with choices. The most evident example of which is when Walker is faced with two living Dubai residents strung up, suspended by rope and being aimed at by distant snipers. Walker hears from Konrad over the radio that one of the men has stolen water, a capital offence while the other inappropriately apprehended the man by killing five of his family members. It is up to the player to pass judgment onto one of these two men by shooting whoever deserves to die. The snipers then shoot the rope of the man the player did not select, setting him free.

 In two senses of the word, there is no “right” answer to this scenario. From a game perspective, choosing to shoot the water thief provides the same outcome as shooting the murderer meaning the player isn’t rewarded by picking a certain option. From an ethical perspective, who the player chooses to shoot is a question neither the player nor Walker has the right or authority to answer. Most players of Spec Ops: The Line would interpret this situation with simply two options, shoot person A or shoot person B. However, few players try to either shoot the rope suspending the two men, freeing them or to shoot the snipers aiming at the men. Despite thinking outside the box,  players who follow this route are met with enemy reinforcements that overwhelm the player and will likely kill them. To add insult to injury, the snipers kill both men before Walker’s squad mates can shoot them down. Even when the player outsmarts Spec Ops’ game rules by taking a third option, the game punishes them heavily. This simply goes to show that the idea of a choice is completely an illusion. Even after the player has made their choice to save either the water thief or murderer, the entire situation is rendered meaningless when the game’s ending reveals all of Konrad’s communication and scenarios like this were simply manifestations of Walker’s obsession with the idea of heroism.

Figure 1: One of many hallucinations created by Walker's insatiable hunger for heroic purpose
Figure 1: One of many hallucinations created by Walker’s insatiable hunger for heroic purpose

It’s not surprising to see that the most emotional scene in Spec Ops, the infamous white phosphorus scene, also relates to the theme of illusional player agency. Walker, Lugo and Adams are met with a heavily fortified military camp they must advance through to save a group of Dubai civilians. They are heavily outnumbered and would likely face a swift death if they were to engage by conventional means. Adams notices a mortar that fires white phosphorus shells, which emit a white cloud that burns the victim’s skin and provides a very slow and painful death. Lugo refuses to use such means and states they should find a more ethical way of advancing by saying “There is always a choice”. Walker responds with “No, there’s really not”. Walker, the player’s character, even states the futility of trying to make sense of a choice. The player can choose to not use the white phosphorus shells but will then face an infinite number of enemies with no way of replenishing ammo – using this mortar is the only “choice”. The game attempts to make the player feel a sense of detachment from the action on the ground by having the point of view from a drone camera that the player controls. It marks any enemies by white dots and the player lines up their aim over their border then pulls the trigger. After all the targets have been neutralized Walker and his squad must walk through the damage they have done and uncover an unsettling truth. Take a look below:

Choice or not, the player has killed dozens of civilians and they are personally held responsible for the atrocity committed by the hands of the developer. In Spec Ops: The Line, there are no choices in the traditional narrative capacity. The only choice that the player is faced with is if they put down the controller and stop playing or not. Konrad even states this in the finale of the game by explicitly stating to Walker, but more so to the player, that “none of this would have happened if you just stopped”.

To put in this in context for the readers of Heart of Darkness, as Marlow journeys towards Kurtz and the inner station from his own morbid curiosity so to does he explore the reasoning for why Kurtz has devolved from a noble conqueror to a deranged slaver. In Spec Ops, as Walker proceeds to continue this increasingly futile mission to rescue survivors from Dubai, his manifestation of his own madness and obsession with the idea of heroism, John Konrad grows ever realized and all-consuming of his psyche. The only choice these two protagonists share is the choice to fall deeper down the rabbit hole of darkness/ trauma or to stop their adventure all together.

None of this would have ever happened if you just stopped. – Konrad

After the game’s launch, it was noted in several developer interviewers that Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was Spec: Ops’ largest influence, so much as to name the antagonist Konrad. Personally I believe it suits the genre and the medium well. Emulating the severity of certain themes found in the novella in an interactive game format allows players to witness the narrative and character arcs play out by their own hands. For example, madness is a common theme behind both pieces but unlike Heart of Darkness, the player is responsible for the devolving of the characters’ mental integrity as they both figuratively and literally pull the trigger which end the lives of hundreds of Americans.

Figure 3: Published in 1899, Heart of Darkness explores the themes of  imperialism's hypocrisy and  madness
Figure 2: Published in 1899, Heart of Darkness explores the themes of imperialism’s hypocrisy and madness

 Contemporary shooters don’t have the same focus on choice as Spec Ops does. In other games, the player is assigned a mission and can not proceed until said mission is accomplished. In Spec Ops, Walker has a mission but the reason behind the mission becomes more skewed as the game progresses and as choices are made. Walker attributes the more contentious acts of violence to the basis that he “didn’t have a choice” just like the player. Every major character in Spec Ops,  tells Walker to give up on rescuing survivors as the mission becomes progressively more futile. Being the player however, a third-party wanting to witness the conclusion, they will keep advancing only to find more emotionally demanding scenes that shame the player for their foolish desire to be the hero and save the day. This allows both the player and Walker to experience the same sense of cognitive dissonance throughout the game. The game is so aware of this feeling that Yager included the definition of the term in the loading screens. Cognitive dissonance works well to drag a player unwillingly through a series of ethically questionable acts that they are required to carry out and then face the game’s denouncement of their actions instilling a sense of guilt and anger which combine for a truly unsettling experience.

Figure 2: Spec Ops is known for its self aware loading tips like these
Figure 3: Spec Ops is known for its self aware loading tips like this

This is one of three major themes that Spec Ops: The Line explores in attempts to elucidate the foolish design and narrative choices that modern shooters make and the consequences of an obedient player not questioning them.

GLORIFIED GAME VIOLENCE

 Modern shooters today are plagued with game mechanics from infinitely spawning enemies to spawn closets to regenerating health. It was important for Spec Ops: The Line to adhere to as many of these as possible if Yager was to tell their story correctly. In order to show the foolishness of modern shooter design, Spec Ops The Line includes the following generic shooter mechanics and tropes among many others:

  • Military theme
  • Turret sequences
  • Infinitely respawning enemies
  • Cover system
  • Regenerating health
  • Bloodied screen effect
  • Squad with wise cracking sniper and LMG wielding African-American
  • Two weapon inventory
  • Multiple grenade types
  • Synchronized stealth takedowns
  • Melee executions
  • Explosive red barrels
  • Heavily Armored Enemy (Juggernaut)
  • Squad call outs
  • Headshots
  • Generic weapon arsenal
  • Tight and responsive aiming
  • Infinite stamina
  • Enemies withstand unrealistic amounts of bullets (upwards of 5-6)

 Before Spec Ops: The Line can denounce the player for their ruthless acts of violence, the game eases the player into the game’s culture by beginning with a turret sequence in which Walker guns down enemy helicopters during a sandstorm. The set piece is large-scale, high stakes and wouldn’t be considered out of place in other shooters like Call of Duty or Battlefield. Following that, Spec Ops introduces the mechanics and tropes listed above. By about the 90 minute mark, the player has experienced almost all of the gameplay features the game offers. This was a common criticism for the game as critics found the gameplay stale and generic for the game’s entirety. For any other game, I would agree. However, I believe the genericism of Spec Ops’ gameplay strengthens the message of trivializing its genre’s conventions. If the game was very unique and shared very few elements with common shooters, it wouldn’t say anything about the conventional shooter market, just itself. The most important trope that Spec Ops includes though is gratuitous violence.

From a game design perspective, it is wise to include gratuitous violence in video games. It engages the player in a visceral way that they otherwise would not be able to experience (hopefully) and provides them with a sense of empowerment (read my Metal Gear Rising review for more on empowerment). Combine this with the conventional system of moral binarism, which reinforces the notion in the player’s mind that they are a force for an objective good and can single-handedly defeat any force for an objective evil and the developers have some pretty happy players.

Spec Ops: The Line does not follow this convention in the slightest. Indeed the game includes Walker killing hundreds of American soldiers and dozens of civilians, but the game frames this system as a product of the player’s own agency and not the game’s intention. For example, despite Walker mercilessly mowing Americans down that the game spawned and programmed to shot at the player, the player is still met with condescending loading help tips like “Do you feel like a hero yet?” or “How many Americans have you killed today?” This point ties back to the first theme of illusionary player agency as the player has no choice over the degree of violence but will still be condemned by the same game that forced them to carry out such acts. Unlike other military shooters, Spec Ops’ isn’t proud of the player for defeating the enemy and trying to save Dubai, it is disgusted by them and shows no hesitancy when reminding them how much of a monster they really are.

Figure 3:  Another loading screen reeking with condescension and shame
Figure 4: Another loading screen reeking with condescension and shame

Spec Ops: The Line also shows the transformation of both Walker and the player from a stoic, pragmatic individual to a blood-thirsty, justice hungry monster in subtler ways than the loading tips. In the opening hours of the game, Walker’s call outs to his squad mates are precise and efficient (“Tango down” or “Neutralize that target”). Near the end however, these lines are much more savage and cruel  (“He’s fucking dead” or “I want him dead now!”). Conversely, enemies who are more aggressive and harassing in their language at the beginning of the game, become much more calm and even afraid of Walker. Squadmates are also more reluctant to Walker’s orders. Additionally, Walker’s melee executions become increasing more violent. The opening executions are quick and efficient often involving a quick bullet the head. However, these slowly turn into Walker snapping a man’s neck, choking him out or bashing his skull in with the butt of his rifle. These all combine to show the effects of gratuitous violence on Walker, his “victims” and his squadmates.

At the root of all this violence, Yager clearly understands why players enjoy this trope so much – a power fantasy. Many people would argue that they play video games to escape reality and explore new worlds. Others may argue that they play games to pass the time or occupy themselves. However, very few would be willing to admit that they play games to satisfy a craving for power they otherwise would not have in the real world. This is the backbone of almost every action game. It is what makes the player experience pride, control and ambition. Spec Ops is very aware of this innate desire and directly addresses the foolishness behind it. In the final scene with Konrad and Walker, Konrad states “You’re here because you wanted to feel like something you’re not – a hero”. It was the player’s craving for justice and empowerment alone that brought Dubai to its knees. So long as the player wants this form of empowerment from the game, they will continue the campaign through Walker’s eyes and bring devastation to all parties involved, including themselves. The game’s progress and ultimately the severity of the player’s shame is hinged on their willingness to continue playing the game. So long as they are firing bullets into heads of American soldiers and are enjoying it, they will continue playing. 

You came here so you could feel like something you’re not. A hero. – Konrad

Ultimately, Yager included this glorified violence to clash with the guilt ridden narrative. The largest form of shame that the player feels comes from the actions like the white phosphorus scene, or firing on the Dubai civilians and then following these scenes up with watching American soldiers heads explode when they score a headshot. It instills an incredibly strong sense of cognitive dissonance that no other game has ever matched (to my knowledge).

 MORAL CONTEXTUALISM vs. MORAL BINARISM IN GAMES

It is not uncommon to have game developers implement a morality system in their games as a means to shape the narrative to the player’s liking. However, unlike actual human morality, games often present moral choices in a binary fashion: good or evil. This binary morality system is obviously much more feasible to design then trying to emulate the incredibly complex processes involved in human morality, but creates one critical problem apart from being utterly unrealistic.

 These binary moral systems reward the player for exclusively following one moral path (usually good and evil) by granting the player new gameplay and narrative features. This discourages players from approaching the game’s moral scenarios honestly. For example, in Sucker Punch’s “Infamous” franchise you play a superhero blessed with the powers of electricity and have to choice to save a city or destroy it. Performing acts of kindness grants players new combat abilities exclusive to that path. This forces the player to make choices like whether or not someone deserves to die through a lens that doesn’t accurately represent their own morality as all choices are governed by the player’s desire for new powers. The game developers in this instance subscribe to an egotistical morality system as opposed to an Aristotelian welfarism system which would better influence a player’s decision. In fact, in most games if the player chooses to approach situations honestly and weighing the effects of both choices equally, the player will likely not receive any new gameplay features as the good and evil choices balance out. Ultimately, taking a humanistic approach to conventional video game morality systems  punishes players by withholding certain features that could only be obtained by exclusively following one moral option.

Spec Ops: The Line does not employ a morality system like this at all. When looked at closely, one could argue that Spec Ops doesn’t even have a morality system, but rather a series a choices that the player has no control over (see player agency section) that creates the illusion that their moral compass is misguided because the options lack the typical good/evil choice dichotomy.

Figure 4: From Infamous: Second Son - An example of moral binarism
Figure 5: From Infamous: Second Son – An example of moral binarism

That being said, Moral contextualism is still a theme in Spec Ops. Instead of including the conventional system of objective goods (e.g save an innocent man) and objective evils (e.g. murder an innocent man) found in most games, Spec Ops states how absurd this system is by placing players in scenarios where the lines are blurred and neither option is favorable over the other. All decisions regardless of their moral standing must be evaluated on their context. For example, after Riggs is pinned under a truck from blowing up the rest of the water supply in Dubai, effectively killing thousands of civilians of thirst over the coming days, the player is given the option to let him burn slowly or put him out of misery by executing him. On one hand, the man has condemned thousands to die because of a misguided political outlook and could deserve to die, but on the other hand, what would his execution solve and what would that say about Walker as a character and more importantly the player as a human being? Similar to the sniper scenario addressed in the player agency section, there is no “right” answer and both options have the same outcome. Spec Ops is essentially challenging a player who is comfortable having the right and wrong choice stated clearly by laying out 2 options that make all parties worse off. The game resents the player’s moral naiveté by truly testing them as a human being that has desires like revenge and not simply as a gamer who’s desire is an interesting cutscene or a new gun. This foray into normative ethics theory is largely unexplored in games and is understandably a large source of uneasiness in players during the game.

 Another example where Spec Ops tests the player’s judgment and moral standing is the scene after Lugo’s death. After the Delta Force is separated following a helicopter crash, Walker and Adams hurry to find Lugo. Upon their arrival, they find Lugo’s body strung up and stoned by the Dubai citizens mistaking him for the 33rd Battalion (the game’s enemy forces who are also American soldiers). After releasing Lugo and discovering he is in fact dead, the player is faced with a “choice.”

This is one of many instances in Spec Ops where Yager utterly deconstructs the ethical school of thought that many game developers follow know as moral absolutism. It is obvious that shooting these civilians is ethically wrong from an objective perspective, however the fact that at this moment many players make their choices based on the context, which is largely indicative of a contextualist or even a consequentialist mentality, may suggest the opposite is true.

Similar to the snipers example, there appears to only be one option- shoot the civilians, fulfilling Walker’s thirst for revenge and scattering the hostiles away. However, the player may also shoot into the air and scatter them without any harm. The game never states this is an option. It simply begins by having Walker’s aiming reticle aimed at a citizen’s head, aiming down his sight with a full magazine of bullets and then hands control to the player. From that point on, any decisions are made entirely by the player, it merely suggests that you shoot these civilians.  Once again there is no real choice as the outcome does not change. Lugo is dead and Adams blames Walker for not giving up on the mission. As mentioned prior, Walker’s progress hinges on the player’s willingness to keep playing Spec Ops. Following this logic, any attack at Walker for his irrational outlook on the mission is also an attack on the player’s desire to complete the game like any other modern shooter campaign.

 This theme creates guilt in the player by eliminating the binary nature of most moral choices in games and posing questions with no right answers, only consequences for which the player is held accountable for.

APOCALYPSE NOW

 In 1979, Francis Ford Coppola released the critically acclaimed film Apocalypse Now. It followed Captain Willard as he travelled up the Nung River in Vietnam to find and kill Colonel Kurtz. Similar to Heart of Darkness and Spec Ops, it focused on the degradation of man’s mental integrity as he becomes more desperate and isolated from civilization. Furthermore, both Willard and Walker try to juggle the same two ethical philosophies of state consequentialism and virtue ethics which creates potent cognitive dissonance both within the characters and the audience/player. This movie is worth noting because Spec Ops replicates the movie’s ending and takes it a step further.

Figure 5: From Apocalypse Now - Lance leaves the tribal village after killing Kurtz
Figure 6: From Apocalypse Now – Willard leaves the tribal village after killing Kurtz

Apocalypse Now concludes with Willard killing Kurtz with a machete, and leaving his tribal village with a fervent sense of PTSD. Conversely, in Spec Ops after Walker “kills” Konrad the player is put into an epilogue sequence after the credits roll. Walker sits on a street curb, weapon in hand wearing Konrad’s uniform. American soldiers arrive to take Walker home and ask him to lay down his weapon. Should the player open fire on the Americans and survive the onslaught from their reinforcements, Walker essentially takes the place of Konrad, ruling Dubai with nationalistic brutalism. The player can also surrender their weapon knowing their mission is complete and return home to America if they like, just like Apocalypse Now.

Apart from providing the player with a choice as to whether they want to stay in Dubai or leave, Spec Ops puts a twist on Apocalypse Now’s ending in a very unique way: transitions. It was stated in a developer interview that any screen transition that fades to white indicates that the scene was simply a hallucination in Walker’s mind, while any fade to black indicates that the scene really happened. If Walker kills the Americans in the epilogue and either dies or survives, the screen fades to black- the scene actually occurred. However, when Walker return homes after completing his mission like Colonel Willard, the screen fades to white- Walker never goes home.

Figure 7: Walker’s last line trying to kill the American soldiers

This could indicate that Walker, unlike Willard, is incapable of escaping Dubai so long as he can not escape himself and his everlasting desire for heroism and the lingering effects of his PTSD. Both Willard and Walker have been truly scarred over their journey but at least Willard really gets to go home after all of it. This inability to escape is the final nail in the coffin that is the player’s sense of self-worth and an incredibly demoralizing way to finish the game. Once again the player is reminded that they are truly a monster that should rightfully be condemned to this death-plagued, sand-filled purgatory that makes the Nung look like a lazy river at a waterpark.

Gentlemen. Welcome to Dubai. – Walker

CLOSING THOUGHTS

A video game inspired by Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness is simply genius. Spec Ops tackles all the right themes like agency, violence, and moral contextualism. It leaves the player a husk of what they once were similar to its protagonist Walker. Additionally, Spec Ops: The Line is a testament to the story-telling capabilities of the video game medium. This could not be a book nor a movie – it could only be a video game to accomplish what it wanted. I respect Yager and 2K for developing and publishing a truly unique game.

In summation, Spec Ops: The Line instills a sense of self-loathing in the player by exposing them to its 3 primary themes which simultaneously serve as a backbone for its commentary on the absurdity of modern shooter design elements and the docility that exists within their players’ minds. I love Spec Ops: The Line, but even after playing it multiple times, researching its production and writing this piece, I still don’t know if it is even a “good” game.

METAL GEAR RISING: REVENGEANCE COMMENTARY

Published in February 2013 and developed by Platinum Games, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance(MGR) served as a spin off and continuation of the Metal Gear franchise. It stars a secondary protagonist, Raiden, a highly advanced cyborg ninja, who was first introduced in 2001 in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. It garnered substantial media attention by enduring a complicated and messy production process, first created by Konami then passed off to Platinum Games.

MGR is a strong action adventure game whose metacritic score of 80 is not unwarranted. Platinum Games succeeded in their efforts of honouring the established MGS franchise and venturing into untapped action adventure territory. That being said, MGR often holds itself back from being a solid, respected installment by implementing misfitting gameplay mechanics and paying homage to MGS in unnecessary ways. This review covers the game chronologically, so we will begin with the game’s tutorial.

TUTORIAL

The game chooses to open with an optional tutorial system as soon as the player clicks new game from the main menu, presented through the lens of a VR Simulation. I have two gripes with this tutorial system:

  1. It introduces the player to Raiden by following orders from “Doktor”, a character who the player would not have known until roughly 10 minutes into the game. It poses more questions as to who is who and what is happening than answers questions about important gameplay mechanics like the ninja run and the parry system.
  2. The basics of movement and combat could have been explained in the first combat encounter of the game. The AI in the first fight is not nearly punishing enough which makes an in-game tutorial much more favorable. In the video below it is evident that the player slightly knows the controls by moving, and executing both light and heavy attacks prior to the instructions appearing on screen.

I understand the need for an out-of-game, optional tutorial as it diminishes frustration from players who wish to replay the game and don’t want to replay a 5-minute tutorial section, but the solution would be to delay the tutorial until after the opening cutscene, then ask the player if they wish to skip, so the first memory people have of such an ambitious and somewhat contentious project isn’t a VR Simulation tutorial component.

OPENING

The opening cutscene of MGR is very well designed and executed. It establishes the character of Raiden (our protagonist), the location in which our story takes place, what is happening contextually in this world and introduces Raiden’s rival and game’s anti-hero, Sam, all in an efficient and effective manner.

Establishing Sam’s character, and more importantly his strength, is integral to how the game will approach its stylized combat. You’ll notice the very first instance of violence in MGR is committed by Sam where he slices a man in two with a swift strike of his sword. See below:

Figure 1: Sam cuts open a a guard with his katana.
Figure 1: Sam slices open a cyborg guard with his Katana

Not only does this establish what Sam is capable of as a villain but it introduces the player to the severity of the violence they will be met with over the course of the game. Following this cutscene, the player is put into gameplay where the player maneuvers simple obstacles and disposes of easy enemies. However, it isn’t long until they face off against Metal Gear RAY.

The Metal Gear RAY fight is exceptionally well executed because it epitomizes what Platinum Games does so well in their games: empowering the player. It is easy to assume that the player feels a tremendous source of pride when they are capable of tossing a machine as big as a Metal Gear only 15 minutes into the game.

Figure 2: A example of player empowerment after defeating Metal Gear RAY
Figure 2: A example of player empowerment after defeating Metal Gear RAY

This idea of empowerment is inverted entirely when the player faces off against Sam on a moving train only a few minutes later. Once Raiden is sufficiently injured by Sam, the player only has access to one attack, a limp vertical swing. Sam is dancing around a near stationary Raiden and mocks the player. The HUD appears damaged and the screen applies a static filter to show Raiden’s damaged state. This encounter provides a complete juxtaposition to the Metal Gear RAY encounter and teaches the player that they are not nearly as strong as they thought.

 

ABKHAZIA 

The Abkhazia section of MGR introduces new game elements like security cameras, subweapons and item crates. It also introduces one of the most integral combat mechanics apart from the parry and ninja run system- Blade Mode. I found difficulty in learning the ins and outs of how this mechanic operated so I would’ve appreciated a more robust tutorial. The game prompts the player with a potential VR mission to hone their Blade Mode skills after the mechanic is introduced but it’s unlikely that players would be willing to exit the game to practice such a fundamental skill when they could simply advance in the level.

 

MISTRAL

Mistral is the first major boss fight in MGR. For a franchise known for its creative and memorable boss battles, it is dispiriting  to see that Mistral’s motivations for committing her actions are far from justified. Her philosophy of “I am a born killer, so I’m a boss fight” is weak, irrational and doesn’t humanize the bosses to the same degree as other Metal Gear games do.

Figure 3: Mistral's character model boasting a total of 14 arms (for no reason)
Figure 3: Mistral’s character model boasting a total of 14 arms (for no reason)

Apart from her motivations, the fight itself is entertaining and engaging. Each boss fight in MGR tests the players knowledge of the nuances in the combat engine. In this case, Mistral requires players to perform Blade Mode and make precision cuts to sever the handle of her staff. Not only this, but it tests the players basic proficiency within the combat engine like parrying attacks and managing multiple enemies simultaneously.

The boss battle takes place in 3 locations over the course of the fight: the top of the refinery, a long pipe, and a lower refinery level. Surprisingly, the Mistral fight is the only fight to apply this practice apart from the final encounter with Senator Armstrong (albeit to a lesser extent). This is a  squandered opportunity as it adds a substantial amount of intensity and dynamism to the encounters. Freezing Mistral in cryogenic gas then dicing her into pieces is incredibly satisfying and a very rewarding payoff for the fight.

The weapon the player receives from the Mistral Fight is the L’Étranger (French for “Stranger”) a pole arm weapon that replaces Raiden’s strong heel attacks when equipped as a “custom weapon”. It is arguably the flashiest of the 3 custom weapons in terms of combo ability, however it acts too similar to Raiden’s stock strong attacks. This means that the player has no incentive to select this weapon if they have already invested BP into skills that are exclusive to Raiden’s stock attacks. This then leads to the player using their stock attacks and investing further into stock skills until the Monsoon fight. By the time the player receives their second custom weapon, they have no reason not to stay with their stock weapon, effectively making all custom weapons in MGR useless.

A brief video outlining the abilities of the L’Étranger

SEWERS

The sewers section of MGR is a topic of controversy and frustration, primarily because it introduces MGR’s broken stealth system. It it weren’t for how misguided the stealth system was implemented, it would be a fine level. The next section is devoted to MGR’s dysfunctional stealth system, as there is little to discuss regarding the sewers section.

 

STEALTH GAMEPLAY

The primary reason why stealth doesn’t work in MGR is because it doesn’t reward the player. Below you will find the score breakdown the player views after each successful combat encounter.

Figure 4: Combat Report provided after each combat ecounter
Figure 4: Combat Report provided after each combat encounter shows how much currency the player receives for completion and a letter rank.

By taking a stealthful approach to combat, the player can only receive more BP from one category- time, as executing a stealth takedown takes considerably less time than engaging the enemy with Raiden’s normal attacks. The number of Zandatsu’s and kills remains the same assuming the player is facing an equal number of targets in both cases. However it is possible for the player to receive more BP from a non-stealth approach by performing blade mode on certain body parts for extra points. Additionally, the “longest combo” metric provides a much stronger incentive for the player to not take a stealth approach, as the max combo a player could receive in that instance is higher than 1 – the value the player would receive if he/she took a stealth approach. This means that according the game’s scoring metrics, the player is rewarded more for not taking a stealth approach and dispatching enemies with long combos and precise blade mode use.

Even if the math worked out in such a way that a stealth approach rewarded the player more points, a host of players would still opt for an action oriented approach. This is because of one very simple reason- combat is much more fun and engaging than stealth is. There are many reasons for why this is the case but I don’t want to go into further detail because it is already self-evident.

Another facet of MGR’s stealth system that fails is the alert/caution percentage, a staple mechanic in the MGS franchise. In MGR, Raiden is always in one of these 3 states:

  1. Guards have detected Raiden
  2. Guards are looking for Raiden
  3. Raiden has not been detected

The system is weakened by the fact that the game is displaying categorical data (Raiden falls in one of these 3 categories) in a quantitative fashion (a percentage). Almost every instance in MGR in which the player is discovered is likely to engage the enemy, as opposed to hiding in MGS. This is because of the following:

  1. It takes too long for the percentage to return to 0% where Raiden is undiscovered and players get bored waiting
  2. Players usually prefer combat to stealth
  3. It is too easy to be detected again and be put back into the same position

The idea of being detected, a typical fail-state in a stealth game is tossed aside because players are willing to fight.

Finally, the iconic MGS sound effect that signifies to the player they have been detected, convinces the player into thinking they have failed. This is simply not the case. Almost any MGS fan would instinctively connect the alert sound effect to failure . The player has been detected and the goal is not to be detected, therefore the player has failed in advancing through the level. In MGR however, when the player has been detected, (which is frequent) they are thrust into combat and are discouraged from fleeing (i.e the barriers closing off the combat area). Seeing as many MGR players will be coming from MGS, this sound effect makes many players think they have encountered a fail-state when in fact they are simply advancing through the level. This cognitive dissonance confuses players and instills a sense of guilt when entering combat that they really shouldn’t have in the first place.

RESEARCH FACILITY + DENVER

There are two pieces worth noting between the sewer section and the fight with Monsoon.

First, a contrived stealth section involving Raiden controlling a Dwarf Gecko in the research facility. This is one of few cases that Platinum Games did a poor job of changing the pacing and gameplay experience by making the player lose control of a character they love (Raiden) and gain control of an insignificant enemy they would rather kill ( the dwarf gecko). It’s equivalent to forcing the player to play a mandatory puzzle section through the eyes of a Goomba in Super Mario Bros.

Figure 5: The Dwarf Gecko, an enemy universally hated by the MGR community

Conversely, the scene in which Sam instructs Raiden to listen to the voices of his victims as he fights them in Denver stands among one the best parts in the game. In the cutscene, Raiden is apprehensive towards hurting the guards he is fighting upon hearing truths like “I have a family” and “I didn’t sign up for this”. Once the cutscene ends though, the player must engage these enemies or face death and ultimately a game over screen. A few quick taps of the attack button though result in Raiden delivering a merciless flurry of blows that the player would rather have not done. The rules that the player follows and Raiden’s animation juxtapose the actual characters intentions beautifully. Find the video below .

I don’t comment much on MGR’s narrative merits but here is an interesting video I stumbled on explaining the depth of MGR’s storytelling and how it masterfully weaves the games narrative and player experience together (NSFW Language).

MONSOON

Monsoon is the only boss not introduced in any cut scenes apart from the actual boss fight. I believe players would have appreciated some more knowledge about Monsoon because he is a character that is supposed to carry substantial weight in the gameplay experience.

Figure 6: Monsoon, the second major boss, wields dual Sais and can manipulate electromagnets in his body
Figure 6: Monsoon, the second major boss, wields dual Sais and can manipulate electromagnets in his body

The Monsoon fight tests the player’s ability to parry multiple attacks in quick succession. Furthermore, Monsoon’s electromagnetic mechanic prohibits the player from simply mashing attacks as he will always dodge Raiden’s attacks. Unlike Mistral, this fight teaches the player that a slow, calculated approach is required to succeed.

I have very few problems with the Monsoon fight. It sports a great soundtrack, inventive boss design, and an appropriately sized arena. I found Monsoon repeating his telekinetic segment in which he throws helicopters at Raiden creative, if a bit monotonous. Also Platinum Games should have made an effort to introduce and explain the Ripper Mode mechanic as Raiden is permanently in this state throughout the entire battle. It is also counter intuitive to introduce a mode that allows the player to dice any enemy up during a boss fight where the boss can avoid every attack.  The battle ends with a satisfying finisher in which Raiden pummels Monsoon into the side of the World Marshall HQ.

Monsoon’s weapon is disappointing for the reason I stated in the Mistral fight section but also because it lacks any function apart from a stun and a gap closer, two tools an MGR player isn’t in desperate need for.

WORLD MARSHALL HQ

The World Marshall HQ level is well done because it demonstrates the ninja run’s cinematic capabilities, introduces players to an interesting setting – the Japanese Garden and surprises the player with two returning boss battles.

One of the more memorable set pieces in MGR has Raiden running through a collapsing World Marshall HQ, vaulting over obstacles and sliding under debris. To refer back to my point about Platinum Games in the Metal Gear RAY fight, this set piece absolutely epitomizes empowering the player. Over the course of this scene Raiden sprints through a crumbling building, defeats a GRAD miniboss, defeats sliders outside the building, sprints up the side of said building and finally makes it through into the Japanese Garden. Take a look and see. The scene ends at 13:26

The second element this level does well is introducing the Japanese Garden setting. At most the player will spend 30 minutes in this area of the game, but it’s nice to see that the art team developed brand new assets for what could have been more office hallways. This new setting is slightly squandered by providing the player with a stealth section, but it’s the principle of making the gameplay experience memorable by devoting days if not weeks to this new setting that really shines through.

Finally, the World Marshall HQ level pleasantly surprises the player by granting them a rematch with both Mistral and Monsoon. This is particularly interesting as the past 15 minutes of gameplay or so has been strictly devoted to creating excitement surrounding the Sundowner fight. It would have been wise to add more unique attacks or mechanics to these two boss battles as the novelty of each rematch wears off quickly and doesn’t engage the player as it should.

 

SUNDOWNER

Seeing as every boss tests a certain skill, it is obvious that a player’s Blade Mode proficiency is at the forefront of this fight. Failure to cut a specific direction perfectly across Sundowner’s shield releases an explosion, deals heavy damage and pushes the player across the arena. It is a skill that the player must be able to accomplish if they are to stand a chance against Senator Armstrong during the finale so it makes sense to test it near the end of the game.

Figure 7: Sundowner holding one of his two pincer blades and dawning his explosive shield(s)

Sundowner’s first phase in this battle (with his explosive shield) is very tame as he seldom engages the player unless they attempt to break his shield. This is likely why Platinum included a attack helicopter hovering the helipad to keep the player occupied, as Sundowner’s passive combat approach is simply too boring to be considered an adequate MGR boss fight. This is not likely what the player was expecting in this fight nor does it shine the best light on the boss. In every cutscene the player has seen Sundowner in action, he is threateningly quick and strong. This fight deflates the player’s expectations of this threatening Desperado member.

Another misstep in the boss design is the difficulty of the fight declines in the second phase after Raiden destroys Sundowner’s shield. After the shield has been destroyed, the player is put into a standard combat scenario where the usual combat rules apply and players can damage Sundowner without the immediate fear of an explosive retaliation. Fortunately,Sundowner ultimately regains his speed and strength which the player may have yearning for in the first phase.

Figure 7: The player must align their slashes across the squares or face explosive consequences
Figure 8: The player must align their slashes across the squares or face explosive consequences

The sundowner fight boasts one of the most satisfying and cinematic finishers in the game and is executed masterfully by engaging the player in the cutscene through an interactive slider mini-game before delivering the final blow. It engages the player on a level beyond quick-time events which many may have been looking for as they approach the end of the game.

Not unlike Monsoon’s Sais, Sundowner’s weapon (The Pincer Blades) are dissatisfying. They are sluggish in their animations to the point where they can not keep up with the game’s pace so close the finale. It is near impossible to counter with them against boss fights which dominate the remaining two chapters of the game nor can they be used in normal combat scenarios without sustaining heavy damage. I understand having a light and weak weapon (Mistral’s), a gap closer and stun weapon (Monsoon’s) and a slow and powerful weapon (Sundowner’s) in an action game like MGR, but perhaps the order the player receives these is inappropriate for the game’s pacing.

 

PAKISTAN

The only gameplay instance in Pakistan I would like to note is a vivid example of how narrative and stealth gameplay clash. Once Raiden enters the military base in Pakistan, Boris states over codec “Raiden there is no time to worry about the soldiers. Get to the control tower”. Upon hearing that the soldiers are not important, the player will do one of two things.

  1. Ninja run through the enemies triggering a combat scenario. Holographic walls trap the player until they defeat all the enemies.
  2. Use stealth mechanics like the cardboard box or tin barrel to sneak slowly past the guards.

Neither of these options yield what the story requires. If the player takes option 1, they are forced into the combat scenario for the next few minutes effectively negating the urgency of the situation. Should the player take option 2, they also negate the urgency of the situation by sneaking along walls and destroying security cameras instead of rushing to the objective. This is a scenario where poor level design and script writing leave the player frustrated and disinvested in the narrative. See below an example of how both a stealth and action oriented approach fail:

 

METAL GEAR EXCELCUS

The Metal Gear Excelcus fight is well done. I can only find two points worth noting.

First, the fight could have been improved substantially if the Metal Gear was placed further into the pit of debris and have its attacks come at a flatter angle. Often times, the player has to angle the camera has high as possible to view stomping and vertical blade attacks from Excelcus and then take appropriate evasive maneuvers. This steep camera angle makes it difficult for players to discern their location in the arena and may result in getting damaged unfairly by having to look so high.

Figure 9: Metal Gear Excelcus is likely the biggest foe the player has encountered thus far and only prefaces the real final battle
Figure 9: Metal Gear Excelcus is likely the biggest foe the player has encountered thus far and only prefaces the real final battle

Second, integrating blade mode with Metal Gear Excelcus’ blade arm is incredibly creative. The player leaves the boss fight empowered such that they believe they can handle Armstrong with no problems. It is the perfect feeling to instill in the player before the game’s most important and final confrontation.

 

 

SENATOR ARMSTRONG

Fighting Senator Armstrong atop of Metal Gear Excelcus is a very strong way to finish off MGR. The fight tests all of the player’s abilities tested in previous boss battles in an incredibly high stakes environment. First, movement and combat knowledge acquired from the Mistral fight is showcased throughout the fight. Additionally, parrying enemy combos from Monsoon’s fight is required as Armstrong has the highest damage output of any enemy in the game. Finally, intelligent blade mode cutting is vital to inflicting major damage to Armstrong and deflecting his cinematic projectile attack.

Figure 10: Senator Armstrong is the most human boss in MGR, but surprisingly can deal heavier hits than Metal Gear Excelcus
Figure 10: Senator Armstrong is the most human boss in MGR, but surprisingly can deal heavier hits than Metal Gear Excelcus

Initially I was very frustrated by Armstrong’s healing ability as I saw it as a crutch to needlessly extend the length of the fight. It provokes players to naturally attack Armstrong as he heals as at this time in the game, it’s instinctive. To their frustration, Armstrong parrys each of Raiden’s attacks and counters while still healing himself. I believe a better system would be for Armstrong to heal as he performs his cinematic projectile attack, where the player has no control over combat. It would simultaneously decrease frustration towards the healing, and creates urgency and pressure on the player to perfectly execute blade mode cuts on the incoming debris. It would make completing that sequence successfully even more satisfying.

Performing the final zandatsu on Armstrong is likely to be cemented in many MGR players’ minds because of its immense level of satisfaction and empowerment it provides. Zandatsus could not have been performed on any major boss throughout the game and having a special animation for Armstrong’s is something truly memorable. Take a look.

 

 

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Metal Gear Rising Revengeance is a strong action adventure game that treats the Metal Gear name with reverence while still being ambitious enough to be considered an entirely new game. It falls short on poor implementation of stealth mechanics and a weak custom and sub weapon system. However, these mechanical oversights will fly over most players’ heads as Platinum Games has constructed a combat engine and narrative that is simply perfect in so many ways. The studio plays with the idea of player empowerment in clever ways and is not afraid to design a unique mechanic like Blade Mode to truly bind the experience together into a nicely wrapped 5-7 hour Metal Gear thrill ride.

Thank you for you for reading,

 James

 

Welcome!

Hi there,

My name is James and welcome to my blog! This blog is primarily dedicated to posting written commentaries about games. Good or bad, recent or old, I aim to provide my insight on a game’s design choices and how they impact the player experience.

Expect each of my pieces to be upwards of 3,500 words each so I can dive into the nitty gritty of a game’s systems and mechanics. The reviews I provide cover full spoilers and shouldn’t be treated a consumer’s guide approach to games reviews but rather a critical analysis of how the game operates and if it is successful in accomplishing its goals. If you are interested in playing a game I am currently critiquing, it is wise to play the game first then return to my piece.

Because one could write for quite a while for any given game I will be sure to identify the major elements, and how functional they are in my commentaries and try my best not to harp on small gripes I may have.

With that being said, please enjoy my posts and comment away! I would love to hear any reader input.

Thanks, James