Editorial: How mainstream games butchered themselves and why it's my fault
Sorry about that.
I'm a horrible gamer. Hopefully it doesn't show in ordinary conversation, but as soon as I start playing something, I become an asshole.
The instant the first character speaks, I reflexively want them to shut up. If there's text on screen, I'm not reading it. If there's a cut-scene, I'm skipping it. If there are no enemies to shoot, I shoot my friends, and if I can't shoot my friends, I shoot just next to my friends and then swing my crosshair onto them as quickly as possible in a lame attempt to glance them with a bullet I know won't do anything. I thought that was normal.
Then, playing Bulletstorm the other night and hating every second of it, I had an awful realisation: this is my fault. I'm the reason games suck now. I'm the lazy, belligerent jerk every mainstream shooter seems to be designed for, and it's because of gamers like me that they're built this way.
Unskippable cut-scenes exist because idiots like me skip the skippable ones. There's text on screen because idiots like me don't listen to the characters, and the characters are repeating what the text says because idiots like me won't read the text. Friendly characters are invincible because idiots like me would shoot them, and we're not allowed to shoot them because idiots like me will try anyway.
I'm a game designer's nightmare: an angry, crazy asshole who's impossible to engage, has no emotions other than irritation and impatience, and at times seems to be trying to ruin every scripted sequence and miss every set piece.
Bulletstorm actually bribes you - with real, spendable in-game currency - to look in the right direction when something cool happens. You get more points the quicker you press the F key to swivel toward where the designer wants you facing. And it's become a point of pride for me to refuse to do so until the timer runs out and a text prompt points out that I've earned no points. I stare at the ground. LOOK: SOME MUD. THIS ROCK TEXTURE IS INTERESTING. DO YOU HEAR SOMETHING? I DON'T.
At one point the reason the game wants you to turn round is that enemies are pouring in behind you, and I still wouldn't do it. I charged backwards, bullets slamming into my spine, staring fiercely at a hot dog cart.
How does a gamer get this way? Is there some deep psychological damage I'm repressing from my childhood?
I don't think so. I was the ideal gamer as a kid. I only got games on my birthday and at Christmas, so they were rare, magical things to be treasured and explored with patience and an open mind.
30% of the time, they would simply not work. When they did, they were awkward to control, illogical to play and often absurdly difficult. I don't know how many games I actually completed in the dark DOS days before GameFAQs, but I diligently explored them all as thoroughly as I could, with a sense of wonder and excitement. Games got better, and my excitement only grew.
It changed with Half-Life, a remarkable game that showed the world how cinematic and atmospheric the medium could be. The world, broadly, got the wrong end of the stick. 'Games can be like films!' The world decided. 'We can script exactly what happens!' The world decided. 'We can play out whole scenes with digital actors just the way we want, and the player will happily stand there and watch!'
Not really, world. The player, in my case and the case of the legions of dicks like me, will beat your digital actors in the face with a crowbar six times for every word they speak. We're not watching your expensively acted conversation, we're punching the words 'SHUT UP' into the wall with bullet holes. Not everyone sat quietly through that long tram ride - people like me were crawling over the chairs in crouch mode and trying to stick their heads out of the windows.
For the most part, Half-Life and its sequel did it right: you could always look wherever you wanted, and after the intro you were usually free to move. You generally couldn't interact with the scripted sequences, but for logical reasons - they happened out of reach or behind glass. That subtlety was lost on its imitators, who've been progressively hobbling the player, smacking him around and locking his head in a vice more and more with each game since.
Call of Duty is barely interactive now. I had to play one scene in Black Ops four or five times before I figured out what the game designer needed me to do for the game to progress without glitching. Another time you're forced to put broken glass in someone's mouth and punch him. And the Cuba level doesn't even really need the player to be there, except as a camera dolly.
I bore with Black Ops because I was reviewing it - when it's my job, of course I'll wade through any amount of bullshit to find out if it ever stops or gets better. But it doesn't, it's not alone, and it's stuff like this that's broken me.
I don't have Attention Deficit Disorder, designers - you do. Only one of us in this relationship is forcing the other to look at what they're doing. We're locked in a destructive cycle of dickification: I resent when you take control away from me, so I'm as much of a dick as the controls permit. You see dicks like me being dicks in your playtests, and you think of new ways to be bigger dicks back: to force me to watch your scenes, play out your script, follow your high-school reading level plot.
Together, we have ruined mainstream videogames. And for my part, I'm sorry.
The first thing you have to do in Bulletstorm is shoot at an unarmed man's head while drunk, then kill him. 'Hate' is an awfully strong word to use about these things, but I hate the person who made me do that. I'd probably like them if I met them, but all I know right now is that they wanted everyone who played their game to belch in a man's face while they murdered him. I have to do it, because Rich gave this game 80% (I hate him too), so I know there's a good game beyond this. And I still love games, when I'm allowed to play them.
It feels like six hours of bullshit - but it's probably one - before the overscripting eases off and you finally get a decent weapon in Bulletstorm. And suddenly, it's a game. It's a fast, fun, vicious and inventive shooter with a magnificent visual imagination and an exciting sense of place. It's exactly my kind of thing.
But in a desperate, frantic attempt to engage disinterested jerks like me, it tried to shove its horrible characters, misjudged script and awkward on-rails sections down my throat before showing me what the game was really about. If it wasn't for Rich's review, I'd never have drudged through that miserable dross to the game I like beyond.
I am an asshole, it's true, but game designers are misunderstanding how to deal with that. You can never break through to us with brute force - morons like me will always out-dick you. The fact that you disapprove of what we do with our freedom doesn't mean you should give us less of it - it means you should give us more. Let us miss the odd pretty explosion or line of dialogue, and let us run on ahead. Let those of us who are itching to get to the game, get to the game. Once we do, we'll still be assholes. But we'll be assholes to our enemies, and we'll enjoy it.