Sunday, 6 May 2012

On Bulletstorm and Modern Scripted Shooters

It's good to test and challenge one's own viewpoints, because sometimes you'll discover a fatal flaw in the received wisdom, underlying assumptions or logical reasoning that you were relying on for your malformed, small opinion. And sometimes you'll discover that you were right all along, of course, and ask quite why the bloody hell you just spend half a weekend playing a shooter you knew you wouldn't like.

I'm being unfair here: Bulletstorm is just fine when it actually lets you play with all its toys freely, but it also confirmed almost everything I'd heard and read, but, I realised, not actually experienced for myself about contemporary scripted shooters.

You see, I read quite a lot of games journalism and criticism, but write about games only as an occasional hobby, and have little enough time for either of those activities to cram in as much actual playing of games as I'd like to. So naturally I choose to spend my money, and more importantly my spare time, on only the most intriguing and interesting sounding games, or at least ones that I'm pretty damn sure I'll enjoy. As for the CoD:MWs, the Battlefield 2s, the Homefronts of this world: a lot was written on their bombastic, manly, tightly scripted ways and it never appealed in the slightest. The closest I'd come was Gears of War (for the co op) and Call of Duty back when it was set in the old, big, real war as opposed to the semi-real, looks-a-bit-like-the-news one, and both of those were a long while ago and far from my favourite gaming experiences.

So when my regular co op gaming group got our mits on Bulletstorm in a Steam sale, I didn't give the single player a great deal of thought until I found myself in the rare position of needing some fairly mindless distraction/entertainment and having too much spare time. Why not, I though, it might be great.

Like the United States of America or homoeopathy, to an educated, intelligent, well read but detached onlooker, the modern FPS is utterly baffling in both its hubris and relative success. Now Bulletstorm isn't bad as a shooter, as my enjoyment of the uncomplicated co op portion of the package attests, and its points scoring skill shot gimmick is a decent and effective one. The problem is everything else.

I wonder why people think this is a good way to make games. I wonder why this sells (OK, in Bulletstorm's case it didn't so much, but it's clearly aping the bigger franchises that do). I play indie titles created by single starving, penniless auteurs that present deep, emergent spaces for novel forms of play or incredible, personal worlds and stories designed and implemented on a strict pixel-budget. I hold down a button to automatically stare, bored and irritated, at a scripted explosion that probably cost the person-hours and money that gave the world an AI War or a Darwinia, and I find that I'm shaking my head.

Yes, I exaggerate, and I'm in danger of making this about big versus small budget games in general, which is not my point at all. There are of course some things a Skyrim or a Mass Effect 3 or a Deus Ex: HR can do that an indie cannot and I'm not (yet) ready to disown big budget games as a whole. But I find it bizarre that the intelligence that is clearly on display in creating fancy lighting effects, satisfying ragdoll physics or balanced weaponry and shooting mechanics is so totally absent from the storyline, characters, pacing and levels of player freedom that sit within the same game. I find it bizarre that having created a satisfying FPS, so little is done with that and so much is done that is unnecessary or annoying.

The story, especially its tone and delivery, is a confused mess. There are points where it seems to be knowingly embracing the macho dumbness of Gears of War or CoD, creating a mocking but fond parody of their one-liner spewing nonsense. Then it gets scared of being in any way clever, the parody evaporates, and it just is macho nonsense. Despite a few genuinely funny moments of silliness or self-aware banter, Bulletstorm neither goes far enough beyond nor parodies intelligently enough the idiocy of its peers and ends up resorting tiredly to dull sub action movie sludge.

And gosh is it a turn off. A lot is written, quite rightly, about terrible, over-sexualised female characters in games. Bulletstorm's girl, Trishka, is not so bad by mainstream games industry standards: she wears less armor than the men for no good reason, but her attire isn't ridiculously sexualised and she's as potty mouthed and "bad-ass" - and dull - as the three male characters. In other words far from great (and the more important issue on this front is that you, as usual, play only as a male character throughout), but I think the game and its peers have a much bigger problem with its portrayal of men.

I fucking hate Grayson Hunt, Marcus Fenix and every other over-muscled, two dimensional testostoprick that the mainstream games industry has spawned. I hate the portrayal of these idiots as heroic or admirable and I despise playing as them. I hate I hate I hate.

So shouldn't I just avoid playing as them? Yes, I will, just like many other sensible men, along with many women, LGBT people and people from demographics other than white male. We'll flock to the (many) games that don't rub our faces in shit, boring stereotypes, by being either neutral or at least not flagrantly awful on this front, while games like Bulletstorm remain a demographically exclusive cultural backwater. Or, of course, these people will be put off gaming entirely because the awful portrayal of females, males and just about all sentient life in (most) big budget games is presented as a gaming-wide problem both by the mainstream and gaming media - but that's a whole other very complicated, very angry rant. What I'm trying to say is that I think more people might like to shoot pretend things, if only the perceived existing audience and its perceived desires weren't pandered to quite to heavily and boringly. (And I think this issue and GFWL are two enormous elephants in the room to ignore while blaming poor sales on piracy.)

This entire piece, by the way, could be one huge metaphor for my single player experience. You, dear (non-existent) reader, may want to hear about the good bit of Bulletstorm: the actual shooting. I sure as hell wanted to play that bit when I initially sat down for the SP campaign. But just as I've rambled on about the shooter genre, game budgets and sexism, Bulletstorm seems to do as much as it possibly can to get away from the actual business of shooting stuff.

Hammy, boring cut-scenes and intensely irritating faux-quicktime sequences where your only interaction is "press LMB to shoot" dominate the early sections, as if People Can Fly didn't realise they had created a solid FPS, and thus felt the need to dazzle the audience with scripted explosions and weak plot and stage setting. Things do improve, a little, as the game goes on, but I was constantly struck by the un-subtle, annoying way the narrative was integrated with the experience of play, and the lack of clever smoke and mirrors to disguise how restricted and forced the player's path is. No emergence, no creativity, no ownership or identification with this awful man I'm playing as or the world I'm in, just many guns and someone else's stupid, overblown story.

And on top this, there was clearly someone in the dev team with a check-list of everything a dumb shooter should include: bits where the characters walk slowly to listen to their com-links, mutants later in the game with glowing weak spots, repetitive boss fight, lack of logic and consistency in how to open or "hack" doors, on rails section, exploding barrels. The list, I'm afraid, goes on.

It's sad and it's bizarre that games are made in the strange, limited way. I'm by no means against all linear structures or the inclusion of tried and tested ideas; my problem is that the enforcement of linearity is so prescriptive and unintelligent and the ideas so tired and boring. My problem is being slapped in the face with "this is a game" or "this is not your story" moments at regular intervals. My problem is features that made no sense five or ten years ago still being present because it's just the way things are done. My problem is being rewarded with points for looking at something "interesting" because it wasn't actually interesting enough for me to look at otherwise.

My problem is everything that your single player is and stands for, Bulletstorm. Well, except for the actual shooting, which is, y'know, half decent.

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