This is the Golden Age of Video Games, or maybe it's just the Golden Age of People Who Like to Complain About Video Games. Or maybe it's both -- every six months brings us something magical, and along with it comes some horrible new business practice that makes video game publishers some of the most hated companies in the world.
So as the future of gaming was unveiled at E3, I was watching closely for reasons I should give up on gaming once and for all after three and a half decades. It would certainly free up some time. You can click here to go back and see Part 1 of my epic list of everything that's wrong with the medium that helped raise me, otherwise let's continue calling out things like ...
That up there is the protagonist of the wonderfully original Sunset Overdrive for the Xbox One, which boasts that it breaks all of the rules of modern gaming -- the trailer even mocks the Call of Duty-style shooters it's competing with:
But as you can see, there's one rule it doesn't break. Quick: Find me a game at E3 2014 that featured a lone human protagonist that wasn't a fit white male or a busty female. I couldn't. And that's too bad, because as for the current gaming landscape, well ...
Those are the human protagonists from the current list of best-selling console games, and that's even leaving out Mario, Luigi, the protagonist of the LEGO Movie game, and the blocky-yet-clearly-white Minecraft guy:
"That's bullshit, Wong," I can hear you saying, because we're both sitting at the same Starbucks. "I can see a black guy at the bottom of your infographic there!" Hey, you're right. One of the three protagonists in Grand Theft Auto V is the young African-American gang-banger Franklin. Here's what he sounds like (NSFW language):
A white guy wrote that!
But look, I'm not even talking about political correctness here -- I know I won't end racism by insisting that the gun at the bottom of my FPS screen be held by the dainty, wrinkled hand of an elderly Latina woman. It's just a sign of how incredibly narrow storytelling is in gaming. By the way -- when you bring this up, gamers flip the fuck out. Whether you're talking about ethnic diversity or sexism, gamers fiercely guard the medium's homogeny, as if even the gentlest criticism of their $100 billion industry will cause it to come crashing down.
"But Hollywood is full of strapping white male heroes, too!"
You're totally right. But even Hollywood has more variety when it comes to protagonists. The Internet's favorite TV action drama starred a scrawny 53-year-old schoolteacher who was riddled with cancer. Before that, it was a waddling 300-pound gangster played by James Gandolfini. Go to the theater and you can see a chubby everyman like Seth Rogen or Jonah Hill in a starring role, a 60-year-old Samuel L. Jackson, or an entire cast over 50 in a movie like RED. You can see a 44-year-old Tina Fey or a 53-year-old Julia Louis-Dreyfus playing the lead in movies and TV both. Shit, here's the badass cop hero of the crime drama Fargo on FX:
Can you imagine playing as any of those in a mainstream video game? Not some $5 indie game on Steam somebody made in their bedroom, either -- a full-blown game with all the bells and whistles that define the medium. A game that somebody was willing to invest in.
And in the Future ...
Here's a nice montage from Rebellious Pixels:
Yeah. And when asked at E3 why they couldn't put female assassins in the new Assassin's Creed game, the developers said it would have been too much work. "We'd have a thousand man-hours in rendering her ovaries alone! How can we manage that with Ubisoft's meager resources?"
As asinine as that is, it is actually part of the problem -- the deck is already stacked because they're not going to change the race/gender/body type of the protagonists in the many, many sequels to existing franchises that are coming (The Witcher, Uncharted, Metal Gear -- and Arkham Knight isn't going to be the first adaptation to break ground on a black Bruce Wayne). So ... I guess we have Mirror's Edge 2, which, instead of a hot, young, white female, stars a hot, young, Asian female. A bold risk, sirs!
Look, I know a lot of you are thinking, "Like we're really going to buy a game about a fat middle-aged Russian woman gunning down zombies!"
Well, who said they have to be gunning down zombies? See, that brings me to the next point ...
The image above is from the few seconds of Uncharted 4 they gave us at E3. It's a reminder that this franchise apparently can't just be about exploration, puzzles, traversal, and astounding escapes -- it also has to be told through the eyes of a glib, remorseless killing machine. "Make sure we get the gun in there! We don't want anyone getting the wrong idea!"
Likewise, the short featurette for Mirror's Edge 2 up there reminds us right away that they're fixing and adding to the combat in that game -- no way gamers could settle for just the astonishing skyscraper parkour.
Look, it's not that I want to ban video game violence. It's just ... here, let me give you an example. There's a moment at the start of BioShock: Infinite where your character pushes open a door and sees for the first time the floating city of Columbia:
That took my breath away. It had all been so beautifully crafted, and it promised such a deep, living world that I didn't immediately feel my normal gamer urge to genocide that shit. You're quickly confronted by the brutal realities of racism and class exploitation and soon have to make the choice to stand up for a persecuted interracial couple -- challenging stuff for a video game. But at that moment ... it all goes away. The guns come out, and for the next 15 hours of gameplay, it's just you mowing down waves and waves of mindless cannon fodder.
And almost every story-based game has to have that now. Combat is the default method of interaction -- Halo alone has resulted in 136 billion kills in multiplayer (that is, the population of 20 Earths). I understand that killing in a multiplayer FPS is like playing a game of tag -- that's fine, that's an e-sport, not a storytelling medium. But they want single-player campaigns to have that same pace of high-volume slaughter, and it turns almost any story into utter nonsense. One minute the protagonist is solemnly expressing sorrow over his violent nature (as in Grand Theft Auto IV); the next, he's happily killing a hospital.
There is a scene near the end of BioShock when the rebellion in Columbia has gotten out of control and you and Elizabeth enter a room full of corpses -- nobles from the city who have been slaughtered, execution-style. And while your female companion gasps in shock and gives an emotional monologue, you frantically rifle through the pockets of each corpse for money, health, and bullets. You don't have a choice -- you might need that stuff to fight the wave of mindless bad guys that is about to come spilling into the room at any moment. The story and the gameplay diverge hilariously -- the developers actually wanted you to be shocked and saddened by the sight of corpses, when up to that point we've been mowing down human enemies like weeds. So, am I supposed to feel something there, or not? If not, why bother?
That's why the last time I was really excited for an upcoming game was when I saw the trailer for Watch Dogs at E3 2012 -- a game that promised a hacker protagonist who uses data as his weapon. Or rather, I was really excited for exactly six minutes:
That's the point where the genius hacker hero starts beating the shit out of somebody with a stick. A minute later, out come the guns.
"OK, I've successfully hacked the security guard!"
So there you go -- what looked revolutionary and unique turns out to be yet another white male badass with a gun on a quest for revenge, mowing down enemies and for the most part using the "hacking" elements only to explode things and steal money. That's apparently as far as our imaginations will take us -- there can be no other ways to solve a problem in a mainstream video game story. See, because if you had a game that required different skills to overcome the bad guys, you wouldn't need the hero to be a grizzled, strapping badass. It could be an everyman (not that there's anything stopping us from having a game that features an overweight Chinese badass, but you know what I mean). The Tomb Raider reboot does the same thing -- promises a clever but vulnerable Lara, then gives us Gears of War in a tank top.
And in the Future ...
There is no shortage of zero-budget indie PSN/Xbox Live games that break the mold, like the beautiful ABZU:
Low risk, low production values, no promotion -- no faith from the industry that we'll want to play anything that isn't nonstop murder. I have high hopes for The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, which from the teaser suggests a slow-paced, gritty detective drama:
But that's what I thought Alan Wake was several years ago, and I instead found myself gunning down an entire small town's worth of possessed mountain folk every time the sun went down. So we'll see, I guess. But I suppose this just hints at a larger problem ...