This is the second in a series (maybe) of posts labelled "Hindsight" that discuss games you may have thought we were done writing about. Last time: Godfather II The Game. This time: X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
There are many awards for video games. There are almost as many rationales for the granting to game makers and their games various prizes, trophies and sentences—spoken and written—that conclude in exclamation points.
But gaming awards all miss certain kinds of greatness, as they likely will this year, when they will probably fail—with some justification—to recognise one great thing about the way Wolverine killed.
It is true that gaming award-giving is, like all things in gaming, a young process. Video game award-givers are not yet as thorough and sophisticated as those who hand moviemakers gold statues. The professional film-praising organisations celebrate best movies and best writing, best editing and best directing. They also commend the best acting that a man does, the best acting a woman does, then commend one more man and one more woman for acting well but not as much. They commend the people who make movie music, the folks who design movie clothes and the people who engineer movie explosions.
The clever non-accident of these movie awards is that they all go to people, as they almost all celebrate something that is the product of someone's particular cinematic job.
Video games sort of do this too, to a lesser extent. Most websites and academies of game creators—and the few TV networks that care about great video games—all recognise the Best Game of a Year. But they also recognise the best dialogue-writing, the finest drawing of graphics (But what about best supporting graphics?) and the most superb voice-acting recorded by a woman. I don't know if the person most responsible for the best lighting of the year gets an award, possibly because no one knows who that is. And I am certain no one gets a big-time award for Best Controls.
The lack of a Best Controls of the Year award is the biggest shame — bigger than the likely snubbing of this one deadly Wolverine attribute I'm about to finally detail. A gamer with good taste will tolerate a game that doesn't have the Best Graphics of 2008 or the Best Soundtrack of 2004. But no one who clasps a controller would consider a game with wretched controls worthy of a top award. (Right?) Yet when will a Best Controls plaque be handed out? (My nominations for 2009 so far include inFamous, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Flower and—the outlier!—Dragon Quest Wars on DSi).
A failure to celebrate the Best Controls of the year is an omission that will keep a paperweight off the mantle of a man or woman who made the best use of analogue shoulder buttons.
It also risks stunting gamers' appreciation and developers' creation of ever-better game controls. After all, what are awards good for beyond celebrating people and their achievements? They are good for designating something as wonderful, allowing it to be compared to something wonderful in the same category the year before (right, Nobel Peace Prize committee?) and they help set the standards to which the things in the same category will be held in the year to come.
We as gamers, I think, would want controls to be held in such regard.
If you're with me on that, let me stretch your agreeability, and see if you'd also back up the issuing of an award for Best Approach To In-Game Killing.
Consider Wolverine in this spring's X-Men Origins: Wolverine. He is a video game action hero defined in the game's marketing by his well known uniform, claws and attitude. He is defined in his game, however, in the manner so many game characters are: By the way he beats up the bad guys. Simon Belmont was the whip guy. Mario was the guy who jumped on other guys. Kratos was the guy with the butcher knives that could yo-yo from his wrists. Wolverine is Kratos all over again, a buzzsaw of blades that can slice close and far, thanks to the reach of his arms. Wolverine has some added moves: A lunge that can shoot our hero across a room like a short-range, sharp-tipped rocket; a two-tiered regenerative health system. Wolverine's button-combo moves list is 41 techniques long.
If there was a Best Approach To In-Game Killing award I'm just not sure Wolverine would get beyond the nominations circle and into the winner's podium. But if he and the game did, I'd hope that the Reflex system—my favourite element of his arsenal, aside from that lunge—would be considered a valuable contributor to the accomplishment.
The Reflex system may not be new. I hadn't experienced it before, but it doesn't seem so exotic that it couldn't have appeared before. This Reflex system, I would judge, is good. It is a system that makes Wolverine a more effective combatant against enemies he has fought multiple times.
The game has five meters that track Wolverine's reflexes. These tabulate the number of times he has fought guys with machetes, guys with machine guns, jungle mutants, robots and specialised military units. If Wolverine kills enough of any of those enemy types, the meter fills and Wolverine gets a bonus: He will now inflict greater damage on that enemy type.
That system felt right to me — so right that I hoped it or all of Wolverine's combat arsenal could be up for some sort of award so that it could be recognised for taking action-gaming in a good direction.
I'm used to characters that gain experience points and generally become more powerful, the more they kill anything and everything in their world (Wolverine has this kind of system in his game, too). I also appreciate the Ratchet & Clank approach which makes any gun become more powerful the more times it is used against enemies. Fable has a smart system, too, which splits the difference between those other two and makes broad aspects of a character—brawn, shooting ability, magic-wielding—improve the more actions in those categories are committed.
But the Wolverine Reflex system—which, again, may have been in other games—feels natural to me. It feels like it operates within the physics of real life, where we get better at fighting ninjas the more we fight them, but not necessarily better at fighting pirates...where we become more comfortable talking to girls the more of them we find to talk to, but not necessarily better at talking to bosses or police officers just because we spoke to more girls.
The Reflex system also feels right to me because it feels like an apology for one of games' recurring limitations: A lack of enemy variety. We gamers are always orchestrating combat against a lot of repeated offenders. And while our heroes may become more effective against the whole lot of them as our skills improve and our characters level up, I must praise a game design team that explicitly rewards dealing with the repetition of a dozen more jungle mutants or 30 more killer robots. Wolverine should get better against the people and things he has fought so many times before.
I don't believe I have effectively argued the X-Men Origins: Wolverine deserves the academy's award for Best Approach To In-Game Killing, nor maybe even to Best Combat or Best Controls. I don't believe the game would be a shoe-in for any of those categories, though I would not protest if it was nominated. I wish it could be, because if awards help set standard, I want standards set ever higher for controls, combat and killing — not just for graphics, handheld gaming and sound effects.