Woods’ Weflexicon: 2012 in Gaming

… has been a bit shit, really. Like the non-prophesy that engulfed the minds of idiots everywhere for all of yesterday (and the many years leading up to it), 2012 in gaming has been, like the 21st December specifically, a matter of relentless promise left to fizzle out in blisteringly quick succession. It’s not as if there’s been nothing I’ve enjoyed from this year, but for one so seemingly packed-full of awaited-sequels and praised new entries it’s all been a bit underwhelming.

If I were to be fair – which I categorically refuse to be – then I’d admit that 2011 had Portal 2The Witcher 2Deus Ex: Human RevolutionSkyrim and Batman: Arkham City, three of which have easily become some of my favourite games of all the years, and so it was perhaps inevitable that 2012 would falter in my eyes. But even so, I can’t remember the last time I felt quite so neutral towards such a supposedly ‘good’ year.

Still, there remained beacons of impressiveness, so here’s a few begrudging thoughts on some of the year’s supposed highlights (also known as “the games I can remember off the top of my head”), for your own miserable consideration.

Journey

You’d think that Journey, going by the voices of internet commenters and critics alike, was the equivalent of peering into the abyss and being confronted by a 20-foot tall Kate Upton, all blonde and curvy and ruddy-well perfect. Moved to tears they all were; “this is proof of gaming as art!” they cried in chorus. Bad art, maybe. Boring art, bloody certainly.

A barely interactive, unambitious slice of generic pie, Journey has, I fear, claimed such accolades by looking pretty and acting a bit ethereal and not really saying anything whatsoever. Like the players it sets you next to, it is at its core an indistinct and unmemorable experience. Had it not received, and continued to receive, the reception it did, I’d have probably have forgotten all about it by now. Ineffectual and impotent.

Mass Effect 3

One of the biggies. A really quite wonderful creation offset by a disproportionately large furor over the fact that it had, quite shockingly for a video game, a pretty shit ending. Claims are sent this way and that about false advertising and how choices didn’t matter and blah blah blah. What I know is this: Mass Effect 3 is an ending. Every damn minute of it. And as a whole, it’s then divided into lots of little endings. True, the last miniature ending was probably the worst. But I’ve seen worse and I’ve no doubt I’ll see worse again.

What that last ending didn’t do was make me angry. It made me feel sick, genuinely anxious about facing that final firefight in the rubble of London, and possessively nostalgic for the characters and events of the series’ past. Few films I’ve seen  (although The Lord of the Rings comes to mind) have quite so gut-wrenchingly emulated the feeling of being marched towards your own doom, nor so devastatingly beaten characters into a ditch and forced them to push just that little bit further. And for that, I’m quite sure that I loved it.

Max Payne 3

I’ve reviewed a few games now (none on this site so far, bar Hitman: Absolution) and none have later left me so split on the praise I’d given them. Max Payne 3 is the single-best, straight-up third-person shooter I’ve ever played – when you actually get to play it. The rest of the time it’s a bombardment of overly-long, irritatingly frequent cutscenes too in love with its own, admittedly and annoyingly decent, writing.

DishonoUred

DishonoUred was to be my darling baby, but in the end it’s left me cold: mechanically exquisite it may be (and it is, for the most part), but its narrative ultimately proves so uninteresting, its characters so dull, that in the end I find myself difficult to be enthused by it post-play.

But then I remember all the hijinks I got up to freezing time; all the “WTF?!”‘s of the guards I possessed; the ridiculous, engineered suicides of my attackers; the time a patrolman caught me sneaking away with a body slung over my shoulder and blew himself up after throwing a whale oil tank to the ground to pull his sword on me. And then I chuckle, and chuckle more as I read about other people’s vignettes of silliness and imagination.

It may not have robbed my attention like it should have, nor created a world or narrative that drew me in as its forebears managed, but DishonoUred was an important game, and its success may, alongside that of Human Revolution’s, help resuscitate a genre that’s slowly looking to breathe regularly again.

Hitman: Absolution

A perfect contrast to DishonoUred, Shitman: Absolutely is what happens when a genuinely unique series is left in the hands of people who only half understand, or indeed care about, it. Not only is Absolution a terrible Hitman game but a legitimate fuck up in its own right, muddled with systems that are completely broken, right down to the bloody save system. Throw in a laughably fucking awful plot and watch as one of gaming’s greatest crumbles under a steaming pile of utter shit.

Spec Ops: The Line

Much like JourneySpec Ops managed to encourage of chorus of “Oh, look how fucking arty gaming is!”. Unlike Journey, it wasn’t shit. Whether it’s quite worth the PDF book someone’s apparently written analysing it or not (I fall firmly in the “Hellz Nuh” category), it was most certainly a pleasant surprise and a subversive little fucker, packed full of cues and subtleties hinting towards its big reveal.

Is it better than its similarly themed and similarly inspired counterpart, Far Cry 2? I’m not sure. Far Cry 2 certainly has the upper-hand in that it relentlessly adheres to making you live its every waking moment as your character must – to put it crudely, it’s more of a game – but then I suppose Spec Ops had something of Bioshock in its message/theme/idea as well, and its initial appearance as generic third-person shooter is key to its subversion.

In truth, I suspect the volume of its reception has been somewhat overblown, but not the nature of the reception itself.

Sleeping Dogs

A painfully unimaginative and average addition to its genre, Sleeping Dogs seems to have gotten praise simply because it all works better than GTA IV – not exactly a difficult task, considering GTA IV was 4 years ago and virtually none of it actually fucking worked. But instead of actually forging a crime epic that takes note from the double agent aspects of Splinter Cell: Double AgentSleeping Dogs establishes your character as an inside-man without making you actually play one.

An interesting concept wasted on safe-bets and a lack of aspiration, given free passage by a baying crowd of Yes-Men.

The Darkness II

A terribly short and engaging little number, The Darkness II was a bite-sized slice of self-contained cleverness and good writing. Whilst it wasn’t a blockbuster title, it did manage to evoke the balancing act of thoughtfulness and action that Christopher Nolan’s encouraged in that particular corner of the film industry. Touching and brutal in appropriate measure.

So there we are. I’ve left one particular game off for a Game of the Year post: maybe you know what it is, maybe you don’t. In any case, nobody actually cares what you think you know, Steve.

Merry fucking Christmas.

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Dishonoured: Karma Get Some Morality

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Originally I had intended for this piece – or a version of this piece – to be the next in my regular column, The Scripted Sequence, in Haywire, but it seems it’ll overlap with a longer, more thorough discussion-type feature that Joe (of Deadpan Lunacyhopes to get going. Still, waste not want not. I’ve adapted it a little to be less magazine-y, but it’s most definitely the original piece in mind, spirit and body(ish). 

And on the plus side, I get to spell Dishonoured properly. Every cloud. 

Mark Twain once said a person should, ‘Always do what is right. It will gratify half of mankind and astound the other.’ Well I’m sorry Twainster, but your mumbo-jumbo doesn’t cut it anymore. With The Witcher 2 and Deus Ex: Human Revolution both asking us in recent times to make up our own damn minds about what is right, it seems that even game developers no longer dare impart their own morals onto the choices they give us. Even Mass Effect 3, still using the Red ‘n’ Blue dichotomy of Knights of the Old Republic, makes a decent crack of the whip at being impartial towards our decisions. But now Dishonoured’s come along, reared its beautiful – but really quite bloody ugly – skull-faced head and, some have argued, stuck a shiv in the moral-relativism of those other games with a system it calls ‘Chaos’.

Quite.

Chaos in Dishonoured is simple. Cut your way through the streets of Dunwall like the Demon Barber of Fleet Street and kill all manner of folks, both nasty and nice alike, and you’ll come to realise that you’ve probably done more harm than good: Samuel the boatman certainly won’t be afraid to tell you as much. But choose to cuddle your opponents to sleep and you might just find yourself looking on the brighter side of life: Little Miss Empress will be crowned at the beginning of a new Golden Age for Dunwall, and not atop a pile of corpses that you’ve lovingly carved up for her to sit on. Samuel’s final departure will see him impart feelings of pride and loyalty, not disgust and trepidation.

Although Chaos was sold as a system of subtleties reliant on your physical actions throughout the entire game, in practice you come to realise that for all the things that do and don’t count against you as kills for whatever reason, the system is still just counting kills. And once you kill one chump too many, your gameplay stats are sent to Broadmoor and the end-of-mission slaughter count brands your Chaos rating ‘High’. Binary’s great for getting computers to do their bizzle and for saying naughty words in code (01100011 01101111 01100011 01101011), but that’s about it. In the wake of the monster-slayers and transhumanists, one can’t help but feel that Dishonoured’s apparent commentary on players’ choices is a little antiquated; a regression on new-found (or newly regained) principles of choice-systems in gaming.

I foresee a Dishonourable discharge in the near future.

To counter this, Deus Ex the First employed an extremely clever tactic of having a number of characters with ranging personalities react differently to your field-methods and general behaviour. By doing so, the game let players feel as if they were genuinely impacting upon the characters around them and averted the issue of making them feel as if they were being demonised by the developers for certain behaviours – a potentially problematic trait for any game that sells itself on letting you play how you want. Dishonoured does try this, but only once. And with only one character. A character whose moral alignment is “just a nice guy”. Yes, dearest Samuel: you’re a part of the problem. Because if you only have one character commenting on the player’s actions and it’s only once in the game and that character possesses the moral alignment of pretty much any regular, non-psychopathic person, then you may as well have the developers themselves send you a letter of elation/disappointment (delete as appropriate) in response to your actions.

So far then, so unsuccessful.

But whilst there are definite failures to be noted in light of Dishonoured’s cyperbunk ancestor, there are also legitimate, deviating paths to be mapped. Like, oh I dunno, the very essence of the Chaos system itself! Aha! If you were inclined to kill Anna Navarre after rebelling against her orders in Deus Ex then Gunther, Anna’s old partner, would have a personal vendetta in tow as he hunted you down. A pragmatic consequence to a physical choice. The narrative of Deus Ex is not unlike a tapestry, ready for you to pick your own needle and thread and embroider into it your own tastes and opinions. Sure, some bits are filled in already, you can’t choose the material and the tapestry isn’t endless, but when you’re finished you’ll find each of your own threads has a traceable lineage, and with a personalised touch.

Dishonoured, on the other hand, is like a Picasso. There is reason and meaning (or so my Art-student friends tell me), but its relevance to what you see in front of you can be strained and even tenuous. The link between action and consequence is karmic. And whilst the philosophy is quite obviously a load of horse shit in real life, it’s not an uninteresting concept to embed within an interactive narrative. There’s little practical logic in having Corvo’s bloodlust lead to a more plague-ridden Dunwall, but there is a theoretical and defined logic in his negative behaviour impacting upon the city around him in an equally negative way: a kind of pathetic fallacy.

Dishonoured’s Chaos certainly isn’t perfect, and I’ll rally alongside its detractors and many of their criticisms. But it is important to remember that there are two sides to the system: one which failed by being too limited in scope, and one which might prove a valid alternative to the approaches to choice and morality we have now, also hindered by that limited scope. And although it seems unlikely that a karmic system could ever live up to the satisfaction of seeing the practical repercussions to your actions, or entirely avoid the pratfalls of attaching a developer’s morality to a player’s decisions, I don’t know if it’s something we should discourage just yet.