Justin Keever | 27 March, 2017
Named for the Reverse Shot Series wherein films you probably liked get absolutely brutalized, here’s a list of 7 notable games I played last year that I despised, in order of least offensive to most offensive.
Battlefield 1’s opening sequence is an idea I had when I was 13 years old. The notion of a wargame where you switch characters within the same conflict after each death was a thought that occured to me while I was sitting in an 8th grade science class. It was, at first, invigorating to see that idea realized fully 10 years later in an acclaimed blockbuster; but that excitement was followed by the realization Battlefield 1’s most nuanced, emotionally substantial sequence is the sort of thing that an unremarkable teenager could sketch out after finishing an in-class reading five minutes too early. It is a sequence absent of characters, absent of real emotional stakes. But at the very least it is a messy sequence, the geography of the combat zone ill-defined enough to give the proceedings a chaotic edge. But it is the only sequence that does as much. Battlefield 1’s take on the Great War is detached and clinical, committing to a smooth, pleasurable frame rate and shamelessly repurposing the clean user interface of Battlefront – all in a setting that demands honest filth.
Quadrilateral Cowboy is the first of Brendon Chung’s games I’ve played that’s felt utterly ordinary. Its world and characters are pushed to the sidelines in favor of puzzle-solving. The puzzles are competent. The world the game gestures to is grand, fascinating. But it is seen only in glimpses, in miniscule interjections between lengthy sequences of simulated hacking. That we only play the planning stage of each heist ensures that there is never any tension, never any momentum. I fondly imagine a version of this game that repeats each heist, removing the levels from the void of simulation and into the game’s world. My distaste for Quadrilateral Cowboy comes down to basic math: minutes of worldbuilding, hours of puzzling and hacking. The ratio resembles every other videogame in existence.
Titanfall 2 is far and away the best game on this list, and the most bitterly disappointing blockbuster I played last year. I will acquiesce that “Effect and Cause” is as exciting and inventive as people say it is, but it is only one of two moments – the other being the woefully brief smart pistol sequence at the game’s conclusion – that provides enough a kinetic thrill to distract from the game’s thin plotting and characterization. That anyone is able to locate something like genuine chemistry in the dry conversations between Jack Cooper and BT speaks to how desperately starved this medium is for smart, funny banter (that Firewatch contains two characters who actually seem compatible with one another was enough to grant it prestige status).
But I loved the original Titanfall despite its barely-there narrative, and I dislike its sequel because it abandons the subtleties (and the less-than-subtleties) that made that original game interesting. The first Titanfall, by telling its story in a series of multiplayer matches where the player only ever had passing interactions with named characters, emphasized the expendability of the pilots and the Titans; important things happened around the player, not because of them. The result was thrillingly disempowering. You were a badass, but you didn’t matter to the fictional space you inhabited. Feelings of mastery were not sustained, but could be captured in seconds of skillful shooting or efficient traversal. The ludicrously fast pace of play and the general chaos only heightened that paradoxical sense of smallness; the battlefields of the original Titanfall were relatively compact and densely populated by NPC combatants, ensuring that there was always something going on, and that the player would find themselves at the center of a loud, confusing, exhilarating meatgrinder again and again.
Titanfall 2 contradicts all of that. It tells a story wherein the pilot and his titan are of singular importance, elevating the pilots in general to the mythic status of the Spartans of Halo. The pace of play has slowed considerably, and the fields of battle now contain more actual fields – that is, they’ve expanded in size, and now contain lots of flat plains that ostensibly grant the player a wider field of vision over the conflict that plays out before them, allowing them to approach the game’s combat more deliberately. In practice, this just makes Titanfall 2 a less interesting videogame, one that de-emphasizes speed and spectacle in favor of letting the player master its systems. The multiplayer has also excised the propulsive score that would play during multiplayer matches in favor of total silence, and drastically reduced the number of NPCs that appear on the field. Moreover, the game’s larger, outdoor environments are also more sparsely detailed than the compact urban-industrial spaces of the original, which results in both single and multiplayer environments that feel less like lived-in locales and more like coldly functional combat arenas – the fact that the story spends an extended period of time in a factory dedicated to mass-producing homes that are used for weapons testing reads like an acknowledgement of that emptiness. And that emptiness touches every mode, every single second of play, as the audiovisual stimuli that made the prior game exciting has been removed in order to emphasize competition and power. Titanfall 2 is an unnecessary apology for its past self.
The first act of Mafia 3 ends with the grisly assassination of Lincoln Clay’s adoptive family – the game turns upon this scene, transitioning from a tightly scripted, stylish period piece into an unbearably dull open-world shooter. Mafia 3’s missions are almost entirely generic open-world filler; short shootouts bereft of context or weight that take place largely in indistinct warehouses and, as an added bonus, are set to some truly horrendous, Ride to Hell:Retribution-esque guitar riffs. I can scarcely believe that a game that plays “All Along the Watchtower” over its title screen didn’t think to set its shootouts to licensed music (save for one shamefully brief chase sequence set to “Born to be Wild”). When Mafia 3 kills Lincoln’s family, it shoots itself in the foot for good measure.
But even if Mafia 3 wasn’t a horrific bore to play, it would be unpalatable simply because it paints Lincoln as a natural killer. His turn to crime happens when he was recruited into the black mob as a child – and thus is never dramatized in the actual game. We never get to see the system fail Lincoln, because America’s targeted systemic oppression of minority groups is taken for granted. While no one needs to be reminded of the broad strokes of the injustices of 1960s America, the game’s use of racial slurs and a brief scene of an all-white country club as shorthand for real oppression is inadequate. When the game begins, Lincoln is already a criminal, already acting in defiance of the legal system that has undoubtedly wronged him. But we never see those wrongs, never see how the injustices of American life make criminality desirable, either as a means of self-sustainment or as a means of resistance against the white establishment. Lacking that context, the violence Lincoln and the player enact never feels urgent and necessary enough to be cathartic. I do not feel that I am bloodying agents of systemic oppression as I play Mafia 3. I kill because killing is Lincoln’s trade, his raison d’être before his family was murdered. Even before he served as a soldier in Vietnam. And the suggestion that killing is the preternatural talent of a young black man, especially in a piece of entertainment that was designed largely by white men and for white men, is truly abhorrent. It is not that I want Lincoln Clay to abstain from killing; it is only that I wish he was a person first, and a killer second.
My kingdom for a videogame that doesn’t treat anticlimax as the necessary ending of a mystery. Virginia is unable to elegantly integrate its commentary on systemic racism and sexism into the investigation of the disappearance of Lucas Fairfax, largely because the game shows its thematic hand in its shockingly incoherent third act; a feverish, inscrutable montage – that still somehow fails to obfuscate the game’s straightforwardly symbolic imagery – which has absolutely nothing to do with poor Lucas. Virginia is remarkably unsubtle, but it’s never angry enough to compensate. There is no through-line of passion to its addressal of social issues; the game opts instead to treat Anne Tarver’s unwitting role in the systemic prejudice of the FBI as a grand twist, attempting to evoke not ire or outrage at a vile system exposed, but surprise that the system exists at all.
But Virginia’s gracelessly overt storytelling is even less forgivable in the context of its structure: the bizarre rhythms of its cuts are the game’s sole source of tension. Even in the game’s most tame scenes, you never feel truly present in a space, the game’s incessant cuts acting like a threat hanging over its environments, a force that will wrench you away from one place to another without warning and without rhetorical purpose – damn near every cut is an ellipsis, just a way to skip over travel time. The unease that results, wherein you never really have a grasp on your sense of self within the space of the game, would have been fascinating if it didn’t feel unintentional. But the game’s insistence that you understand it immediately (it flashes back to images you saw only twenty minutes prior to make sure you understand what’s going on!) ensures that the dissonance between its narrative and its form stays meaningless.
Overwatch is the most cynical game of 2016. Unconfident in the staying power of its (admittedly quite good) game design, Overwatch’s continued relevance and profitability is reliant on the easy appeal of its paratext, which gives the game’s playable characters tangible backstories and motivations that are completely unrelated to anything within the game itself. Overwatch the game does not give one solitary fuck about narrative, context, or theme. Its combat does not jive with the story in its paratext, as the personal vendettas and friendships that were used to sell the files that you probably purchased are set aside in the name of defending and attacking a cart in the middle of a street. Overwatch is a game before it is a videogame, a ruleset before a diegesis, code before image.
Overwatch is a contradiction, a combat-focused esport with a cutesy sub-Dreamworks aesthetic, with the latter serving as a despicable lure for the former; a game whose an uncomplicated, childish positivity that belies an agonistic core. Its sole interest in competition highlights the mendacity of its bubbly visuals; its environments, which already resemble the idealized facsimiles of cultures one finds at Epcot more than they do actual places, feel even more false once you are able to read them well enough to recognize their utilitarian purpose. Hallways become flanking routes, streets become chokepoints, and ultimately locales become playsets, populated by action figures that fans gleefully bash together.
The means through which Overwatch inspires that fervent fandom – and the way it exploits that fandom for direct monetary gain – are the roots of its cynicism. The stories told in the multitudes of animated trailers and webcomics do not act as a boon to the experience of the videogame, but instead serve to engender an awareness of, and fondness for, these characters outside of the context of the game. That I was aware of the tryhard edginess of Reaper long before I my first match, or that my roommate was aware of the phrase “It’s High Noon” without having picked up a controller in years, speaks to the tremendous success of Blizzard’s marketing. And that’s all it is: marketing. Its paratextual narratives are not earnest attempts at imbuing its hollow, pragmatic environments and cutesy characters with some actual emotional heft, but cynical attempts to charm players with oblique gestures to personality and theme that are appetizing but not wholly satisfying. The vignettes introduce much but resolve nothing, leaving players to find outlets aside from narrative closure to fulfill their passion for these characters. Cosplay and fanfiction/fanart are harmless enough, but Overwatch the game graciously offers the outlet of lootboxes, randomized assortments of outfits, gestures, and voice samples for the player to dress up their dolls with. Individual outfits can not be purchased, but lootboxes sure as shit can. And sure enough, I’ve watched plenty of people spend ludicrous amounts of cash in the name of obtaining as many of these outfits as possible. That these purchases are not actually necessary, that everything can be steadily unlocked through extensive play, only heightens the trickery. Overwatch does not demand that you spend additional money; it just lightly suggests it, as though it is doing you a kindness.
I do not take issue with players liking the characters in Overwatch. All I ask is some reflexive awareness of how Overwatch nakedly positions its players as consumers above all else, providing a space for people to embody characters whose stories exist only in marketing materials, and then allowing those same people to show their devotion to those characters through the expenditure of cash. Its gestures to inclusivity, including the webcomic reveal that Tracer is gay, are not attempts to provide meaningful representations of marginalized groups. Tracer is gay because it will please a large portion of the fandom, and Blizzard hopes that large portion of the fandom will take that elation derived from seeing an openly gay character and translate it into a renewed passion for buying in-game items. I would forgive Overwatch’s transparent commercial purpose if it was even just a little interested in the ideas raised in its paratext, if it had some semblance of a goal beyond “fun” and “money.” PT, for example, may have been an interactive advertisement, but it told a story about a marriage brought low by economic hardship. Its horrific imagery did not only suggest the kinds of things we might have seen in Silent Hills, but also served a real allegorical function. In short, PT was about something. If Overwatch cared even the slightest bit about actually being part of the larger transmedia narrative that surrounds it, if it gestured even slightly to context, I would forgive it. But it doesn’t. So I won’t.
I can feel my brain degenerating as I play DOOM. Id’s latest in the shooter series transforms the lo-fi, spirited grotesqurie of its 90s predecessors into a smug, vapid chore that was celebrated the world over for the sheer audacity of being about absolutely nothing. The game’s vaguely humanistic veneer, its halfhearted insistence that the Doomwalker fights in the name of the humans who were wronged in the name of technological advancement, is a feint that disguises the its amoral adoration of circuitry and machine. If DOOM is about anything at all, it is about the triumph of technology over flesh.
Everything that is repulsive about DOOM can be seen in the way it interprets and re-presents the Doom Marine. Think about how Wolfenstein: The New Order transformed the pixelated face of Wolfenstein 3D’s BJ Blaskowicz, taking a boring slab of blonde American muscle and giving him prominent, expressive eyes, scars, crows feet, and a quietly introspective demeanor. MachineGames was able to take an unimpressive portrait and from it fashion something human. Id, on the other hand, takes what small amount of humanity the Doom Marine once possessed – little more than a sadistic sneer and a pained yelp – and excises it entirely. The Doom Marine becomes a suit of Master Chief-esque armor, without a voice or even a face: a literal killing machine, a heap of thick green metal so derivative and absurd it would feel like parody, if only the game had the slightest sense of humor about itself. If it only it found its lazy aesthetics as hi-larious as corpses being mangled by its unfeeling, robotic protagonist.
That choice to remove all that was human from the Doom Marine is a succinct encapsulation of Id’s general ethos for how to adapt Doom into this era of blockbuster gamemaking. Like its protagonist, DOOM is a lumbering, coldly efficient mechanoid beast. Its tedious faux-metal soundtrack is an uninspired mishmash of mid-tempo downtuned chugging and analog electronic wails, playing like a combination of Meshuggah and Author & Punisher without the urgency, ferocity, and inventiveness of either. Its violence quickly devolves from being fierce and bloody to clinical and repetitive, as the touted glory kills begin to feel less like spontaneous acts of carnage and more like premeditated takedowns they actually are. Its aesthetic is navel-gazing techno-fetishism – DOOM adores its textures, lighting, and particle effects, but it has no idea how to present them artfully, satisfying itself with maintaining a high framerate in conjunction with these effects. This is not a celebration of the expressive potential of improved technology (a la The Order: 1886), but an acknowledgement of the ruthless of efficiency of the Id Tech 6 engine. Instead, DOOM offers a vision of Mars and Hell that consists solely of broad hallways coated in ugly clay reds and metallic greys, with filled with buzzing fragments of light that are meant to serve as a replacement for an actually coherent, crafted mise-en-scène. DOOM dares to ask what Doom the first’s broad, abstract hallways look like if they were rendered with high definition textures and high polygon counts, and discovers that somehow, they look like absolutely nothing.
DOOM is what happens when someone is asked to adapt a pastiche work and their only frame of reference is the work they’re adapting. All of the disparate influences of the original are filtered through an understanding of Doom as singular work, and the resultant adaptation coalesces those influences into a lump of low-calorie metallic sludge. The original Doom is crass, stupid, and hardly worth celebrating as the great work that most critics have deluded themselves into thinking it is. But at least it had style – a style that was basically lifted entirely from uber-masculine low culture of the late 80s and early 90s, but a style nonetheless.
Now, I don’t mean to suggest that low culture is the enemy of videogames. But the low art status of videogames means that someone who engages with videogames in a serious manner must be able to distinguish between good and bad trash art, between purposeful genre fiction and that which has no ambition beyond power fantasy and uncritical escapism. DOOM is a void, a slick helping of rote ultraviolence that prides itself on its own pointless nihilism. Its disposability-by-design means that soon enough it will be forgotten, but its inevitable disappearance is a trifling victory. I am not one to frequently despair about the state of the medium, but the general consensus that something as thoroughly dreadful as DOOM is not only acceptable, but exemplary leaves me with the lingering thought that videogames may very well be a ship worth abandoning.