When Does Vista Matter?

In Video Games on May 4, 2012 at 7:44 pm

Telvanni Concept Art

I was going to come at this with purple prose, pontificating on how the times have changed. How games used to never take place in an environment we’d call familiar or recognizable. How even Doom‘s Mars-based military bases were only broadly and abstractly recognizable as such and quickly devolved into gamey hellscapes. How the first World War II military shooter took place in a castigated castle, rather than a blasted battlefield. How the inception of the RTS genre was not amidst tanks and planes, but Ornithopters, thumpers and sandworms. But I realized, I could say all of these things, with one simple sentence.

Back in 1997, when Duke Nukem 3D came out, it was considered significant and unusual that most of its levels were in an ostensibly modern setting.

There’s an ineffable number of things that just scratch an unreachable part of my psyche, where when a game begins talking about certain things, dealing with certain themes, aesthetically looking like certain things, or whatever, I suddenly have this dire, dire need to know more, to play it, to tell them to shut up and take all my money. You may have seen me reference a number of these tics already: games with in-universe justified Augmented Reality interfaces, near future shenanigans, cyberpunk, a cool technology behind the game, space sims, being able to land on planets …it’s ineffable, really.

One of the hardest things to pin down is when the game design allows for fantastic level design.

I don’t mean fantastic, like “good;” I mean fantastic, as in something truly outside of what you’d normally see, something that might be surreal, or ephemeral, or achingly beautiful in its suggestiveness and implication for the setting.

Sometimes, this note will strike when I’m playing a game and didn’t expect to see it.

Other times, I’ve had to manufacture it.

It’s become harder to find nowadays.

What really scratches at the walls of my sane, rational mind is the rubble-and-destruction based level design, where the ideal path from A to B can usually be found through some ideal series of fallen walls and stacked rubble.

I understand this is an abstraction. They want to take you to travel through the course they’ve plotted, showing you the destruction, the stakes, the juxtaposition of grandeur mixed with the grim loss of conflict and war. But I always can’t help but think of how the entire plot of the game hinges on every wall falling at a stable forty-five degree angle.

This grandeur is why I bought Alice: Madness Returns.

On some instinctual level, I knew and hoped that a game loosely tied to the whimsical fantasy of Lewis Carol, viewed through American McGee’s McFarlane-esque lens, with a generous dousing of the eponymous madness to really drive the point home.

I have to say, I wasn’t disappointed.

Excepting that much of these beautiful vistas were just distant tapestries for those weightless platforming platforms we all know and love. But still, the game had an art style and let the setting be ruled by it.

Such is the rarity of this, that I’ve begun to really, really look for this wherever it might crop up.

Spec Ops: The Line is (as the title suggests) a military shooter, but instead of taking place in a bombed out cityscape or a middle-eastern hellhole, it takes place in Dubai, after severe sandstorms have left the city largely evacuated save for those too poor to leave (among other insurgents).

Now, Dubai is the jewel of the middle east, a gorgeous city that has been the center of architectural innovation and cultural influence in the middle east. It is gorgeous. It’s a rich place built by people proud of their culture and heritage. And, instead of being bombed out and wrecked, it’s simply wracked by sandstorms, leaving the city swept by its surrounding environment and mingling to produce something strange in its largely evacuated state.

Color me intrigued.

As I brace my expectations — sand-swept Dubai is probably, most realistically, going to be very similar to a bomb-blasted cityscape, I see a number of other features of this title that stand out.

For instance, it will be a morality play. Not one that shows you a meter of your progress towards becoming Darth Soldier. Instead, the goal of the game is to show you something of the horror soldiers sometimes face, and the horror they take with them after doing what’s needed to survive.

An early example of this would be choosing between using a chemical warfare agent (“Something we wish we could un-invent” -Nick Cage) against some enemy soldiers, or hope to avoid them. Using the agent doesn’t treat you to a quick cutscene where they fall to the ground and die. Nooo. Instead the game forces you to watch the very realistic and horrific way their skin peels off as they scream in anguish.

Bearing in mind the alternative still likely involves killing them, you can see where the game lives in the grey areas. They want to kill you, right? So how bad can it be to ensure your own survival?

I disdain ooh-rah patriotism. War is terrible, and most of the time the other guy probably would rather be someplace else too. Soldiers aren’t unthinking killing machines. Death affects them as much as anyone else.

That this game is trying to show just a little bit of that definitely scratches that itch.


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