It's starting to look as though game developers have moved their cinematic ambitions beyond the story of Charles Foster Kane and on to something a good deal more violent and possibly more attainable. To put it glibly: Apocalypse Now is the new Citizen Kane.
As we saw at E3, mainstream video games are in a particularly violent stage of their artistic evolution. As a result, most big-budget games feel much better-suited to tell the sort of violence-as-narrative put forth in Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 Vietnam film than they are to perform a character study like Welles' Kane. But when a video game story concerns itself primarily with chaos and murder, is it truly born of a desire to tell a specific story, or is that merely a focus born of convenience?
In an article published today at Kill Screen titled "Are Military Shooters Finally Getting Their Apocalypse Now?", Spec Ops: The Line's lead designer Cory Davis makes a surprisingly unfiltered, if not entirely convincing, case that the answer to the article's title should be "Yes."
The game's story of rogue soldiers fighting one another in desert-buried Dubai isn't just a ripping yarn, Davis implies; without invoking Coppola's film directly, it seems clear that he feels his the game has something to say about violence, war, and America's role on the global stage.
I think gamers today are going through a lot of the same evolutions that occurred in film. You remember the old John Wayne war movies? There's always going to be a place for those. But when people are shocked and horrified and angry about what we do, that's also an interesting response. We want you to think about the bloodlust that you might have naturally, as you approach this game after playing so many other games. We wanted to put it right in your face.
Here we have a game developer saying that he wants players to have a reaction to the violence on screen, to subvert our natural video game inclination to kill into something more interesting. "We didn't want to just give you violence for violence's sake" he says, later in the interview.
That may well be true, and regardless of my doubts am looking forward to playing Spec Ops: The Line for myself. But all the same, the Apocalypse Now thing smells like an easy way to slap an air of legitimacy onto an experience that is primarily about gunning down human beings. There's a dubious distinction between "killing for killing's sake" and "killing because it's art," and video games have, by and large stayed firmly on the latter side.
2008's Far Cry 2 may be the closest thing we've got to the Apocalypse Now of video games. It cast players as one of an interchangeable group of mercenaries and sets them about working both sides of an African civil war for profit. It was a splendidly hostile, misanthropic game, and effectively channeled the dread and eventual dark epiphanies of both Conrad's novel and of Apocalypse Now.
Ostensibly sent to find and kill an arms dealer known as The Jackal, players wind up falling deeper and deeper into the ruthless anarchy of a nation infested with violence. The Jackal is never the villain of the story. If anything, he's revealed over the course of the story to be the hero, and it's the player who is revealed to be the true villain; the man who has no loyalties and believes in nothing. The perfect killing machine.
But if Far Cry 2 already did the Apocalypse Now/Heart of Darkness thing, what of its sequel, this year's Far Cry 3? That game looks nothing like its bleak, hostile predecessor. The protagonist is a single character named Jason Brody, with a penchant for muttering to himself like Uncharted's Nathan Drake. In every demo I've seen, he's using a vast arsenal to clear out huge set-piece-like arenas of enemies, blasting and exploding to his heart's content.
In other words, it looks a lot like a polished but fairly typical video game. A couple weeks ago at E3, I spoke with Far Cry 3 lead designer Jamie Keen and lead writer Jeffery Yohalem about the game and found myself intrigued by their responses. It would seem that on top of the usual video game trappings, they too are interested in using violence to tell a very specific, sophisticated story.
"The whole game is about subverting video game cliches," Yohalem told me. "It's a psychological adventure. We're definitely trying to question what a game is, and I think that's what Far Cry 2 did as well, where they tried to explore the limits of video games. And our game is about video games to a huge degree, and about what you expect from video games, and how we change things up."
Well hey, that sounds pretty interesting! I voiced my skepticism: Based on what I'd seen of the game, I was having a hard time believing that it will truly have something new to say. Every demonstration I've seen involves the player blasting through enemy compounds with huge, powerful weapons and taking down dozens of soldiers, just like any other shooter. How is this a commentary on video games?
Keen, the lead designer, was quick to sing that now-familiar E3 tune: What they showed doesn't really demonstrate the heart of the game. For example, the E3 demo takes place halfway to two-thirds of the way into the story.
"When you start off," Keen said, "when you get dropped into the beginning of it, you're fucked." He laughed. "I mean, you really are. You don't know what's going on, there's guys that are coming to get you, animals are jumping in your face all the time…"
"But at the same time," Yohalem picked up, "for me, it's about how Jason is a character, and the player is a character, and they're different."
I asked him to elaborate on that. "If the player's good a headshots, Jason's good at headshots," he said. "The player pulls Jason in certain directions, and that dialogue [between player and character], I find it really interesting. You have this everyman who's lost on an island, who's never shot a gun before, and you have a player who has played first-person shooters before. And the player shows Jason what's what about first-person shooters, but that will come back to haunt the player later. That's the kind of stuff that you saw in Far Cry 2."
If Far Cry 2 approached the ideas behind Apocalypse Now directly, Far Cry 3 seems to be going about it in a more roundabout, psychological fashion. I'm intrigued. Few games play with the relationship between the player and his or her avatar without overtly breaking the fourth wall. Metal Gear's Psycho Mantis battles are the most famous example, wherein the villain forces you to relocate your Playstation controller and taunts you about which games you've played in the past. Deadly Premonition also did something along these lines, with the player occupying the role of the protagonist's imaginary friend and advisor.
But will Far Cry 3 take this idea into the dark and surprising places it deserves to be taken, or is all this talk of genre subversion just another arty excuse to give players a gun and set them loose in a vast and violent playground? I'm not sure. Far Cry 2 always felt like an art-game dressed up as a AAA shooter, and given that it was a financial disappointment for Ubisoft, I doubt that the publisher is going to take a risk like that again. But after speaking with Keen and Yohalem, I did come away with the impression that Far Cry 3 will be a darn sight more interesting than your average shooter.
Games are more violent than ever, and so game designers are looking into that violence for ways to tell interesting stories. And why not? Game-makers have spent decades developing and perfecting the technology required to accurately render bullet trajectories, locational damage and explosion physics. Artists work with what they've got, and as E3 so effectively demonstrated, what most artists making AAA games today have got are guns, bullets, and death. That could still result in some provocative, stimulating work — plenty of great art has been created by makers working with a limited toolset.
All the same, I have my doubts. Far Cry 2 dared to be different and was branded a failure, and four years later, most AAA game developers seem to be playing it safer than ever. I have to wonder whether either Far Cry 3 and Spec Ops: The Line will truly explore the heart of darkness, or if they'll take the easier route, content to simply exploit the darkness in our hearts. We'll find out soon enough.