40

I’ve had murder on my mind since, oh, let’s just call it March, let’s trace everything to Bioshock Infinite, that’s a fine narrative. Dishonored was kind of a first step: I distinctly remember a moment in which I got to see the spine of a guard whose head I’d chopped off, and that wasn’t something I particularly wanted to see, but DIshonored had some merit to it. Bioshock Infinite was Extruded Videogame Product, and while I can’t say “murder simulator” with a straight face, the story seemed like a half-assed act of self-aggrandizement designed to give a lame veneer–to pretend that the game was something classier than an opportunity to control a dude who gets to slaughter people by the hundredfold.

Look–Killing is Harmless is overwritten–its endless summaries and half-baked analysis seem more like a term paper written the night before, it’s padded using tricks that every sophomore knows, and one of its main theses–that one can be held as morally culpable for a videogame action as one can be for a real-life action–isn’t one I agree with at all–but it’s certainly one of the few pieces of game criticism to come out of that particular scene that’s remotely worth a damn: Whatever your opinion of Spec Ops The Line, Keogh’s question–why are you playing a game whose basic actions can be boiled down to “repeatedly murdering dudes”?–was posed prominently enough that it’s worth attempting to answer, and the realization that we might not necessarily be able to do so satisfactorily is significant, yeah.

I’ve been playing RPGs of one form or another for most of my life: Combat has always existed, for me, more as a series of numbers hitting up against other numbers rather than anything more visceral. It can’t be insignificant that I was such a Dragon Warrior guy–still am. Thanks to Akira Toriyama, Dragon Warrior has always had wonderful monster designs–many of which, especially the Slime, are iconic of the series–and so I almost get the sense that a game where you fight primarily humans, especially in a fantasy scenario, is evidence of laziness on the part of the developers. (The so-frequent zombie, really, is usually a way of avoiding the moral questions surrounding killing humans–zombies are soulless monsters and therefore “safe” to kill–without having to do pesky things such as using your imagination to come up with creatures.)

Monsters, not wild animals–there’s something as equally odious about killing a pack of wolves defending their territory as there is killing a guard who simply took the job because it had good insurance and would let him retire early with a good pension. Games have been experimenting with making enemies feel like people for years, as simple things like a wider variety of voice clips became possible; in the effort of games to embrace realism, you don’t necessarily want a bunch of enemies which feel like ducks in a shooting gallery.

I’m not sure I’m leading up to anything more profound than, I’m just bored of games which make an effort to bring the experience of combat into further realism. Anvil of Dawn is hitting this: The enemies are all gruesome and cool-looking monsters–a good motivator to move on to the next dungeon is to see what they’re gonna come up with next, which is something that’s entirely lost in the likes of Skyrim. The combat is extremely simple: You shuffle up to enemies, bop them on the head, shuffle back, let them miss you, then go back and bop them on the head again until they die. It’s not as quick as the fights in the earlier Lands of Lore, and its descendant Legend of Grimrock all but perfects the bop-and-shuffle–but I think it’s satisfying enough. The timing is different for each of the enemies, and there’s some basic strategy to learn, some of that certain-weapons-or-spells-damage-certain-enemies-better thing, but not that much more than that. You don’t even have to aim.

I guess it puts combat in a secondary role, and I like that. It works as a pacing device, as a way of creating an atmosphere of danger and dread, and as a way of worldbuilding, in a way: This isn’t generic Tolkien orcs and shit; Tempest is a fairly alien world, and its enemies are likewise alien. But the game is not about the experience of combat: It’s about the experience of navigating mazes. The mazes contain monsters, just as they contain treasures and they contain puzzles. And I love mazes.

I like abstraction, I guess. I want to look at cool stuff. One of the main reasons AAA has completely left me cold is it isn’t giving me cool stuff to look at, it isn’t giving me cool stuff to fight, but it’s asking me to pretend to be soldiers and murderers and, again, it’s not that I feel guilty about it, but I think it’s time to start being more careful about who I pretend to be. Maybe it’s as simple as I think it’s just nicer to pretend to be a hero sometimes.

22 – Clock of Atonement/You Sick Fuck

Here’s a cheery story, and stop me if you’ve heard it before: A man walks into a woman’s house, confesses his obsessive love for her, and strangles her to death. The eponymous Clock of Atonement lets the man–who feels Very Bad about what he’s done–rewind time and fuck around with the objects in the woman’s apartment and hopefully fix it.

As a disturbing set piece, Clock gets it right–helped in no small part by some pretty snazzy graphics. Everything is bright primary colors and cheerfulness and bright read clown blood. It’s not garish, it’s not one of those horrid neon-pink-and-yellow combinations that you see in some of the more lurid indie games out there–it just isn’t the color scheme that matches these themes, to great effect. This is juxtaposed against the kind of violence that takes place more in the head than on the screen; still, a certain jerky and frenetically quick stabbing sequence sticks in my head.

The game’s structure is, more or less, choose-your-0wn adventure brought into a top-down tile world. Time stops at a number of predetermined points, at which you can rewind, poke around the apartment, or turn time forward. The whole thing ends up taking the form of several time blocks, each of which has a couple of actions you can do. The goal, for the most part, appears to be distracting or blocking the killer as he chases the woman, and so you end up doing things like turning the TV on or throwing a chair in his way. The entire thing takes place in the one room; I’ve bought RPGMaker only recently and have only just begun to poke around with it, but already I can tell that there’s a LOT of very interesting and complex stuff going on under the hood.

If there is a flaw in the work it’s the flaw common to all science fiction-style stories with lurid plots–that is, any potential for a moral is kind of lost because of the intensity of that particular situation. Much of the protagonist’s atonement comes from his gathering realization that Murdering The Woman Who You Are Stalking Is Wrong and that Her Life Would Have Been Better If He Had Died Before He Killed Her–to which I say, well, yeah, no shit. The story ends up being about its own mechanics–which in itself isn’t a bad thing, of course.

There is, no doubt, some sort of message about player complicity at work here, the usual Killing is Harmless bullshit about The Only Way To Win Is Not To Play Because Playing This Game Means You Like Killing, You Sick Fuck. This is a theme which I have always had massive problems with. Give me a little while to tease it out, but I’m beginning to see resonances and contradictions between You Sick Fuck, Games Are Art, and Death of the Author.

We are very much in Clock of Atonement developer “daigo”‘s hands; we are on the rails that he (?) has set up. We are seeing the different possibilities that he has seen in his own premise. Know that I am not faulting him for his premise or making any kind of inferences about his views towards women or his psychological issues or anything like that. There’s that notion popularized by Stephen King of terror, horror, and the gross-out. While Clock doesn’t really hit terror–the game’s halted pace and bright colors make that difficult–it’s got its share of horror and the gross out. It just has little to teach us.

And I suppose it might come from that same impulse that I’m so repulsed by You Sick Fuck–because it sidesteps authorial intent completely and foists blame on the audience. I’m just giving the people what they want to see, a You Sick Fuck game says. They’re the ones who want these murder simulators–I wash my hands of my guilt. Spec Ops: The Line is a politician blaming a soldier for the very concept of war. Clock of Atonement doesn’t go quite that far–and, frankly, it’s a much better game. Those facts may or may not go together.