Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Different Story

By the way, before I get started, Matt Matthews e-mailed me this about Killzone 2 and said (I'm not going to include a spoiler, so this is going to be vague) that the ending does indeed introduce some ambiguity into the story. He said "Great story? No. But not entirely to be dismissed either, I'd venture."

Fair enough.

After I bitched about Killzone 2 yesterday (I think what I needed was a set of testosterone wiper blades to clear the air), I decided that instead of just bitching, I should write about what I think would be better.

One of the aspects of games that I find most fascinating is that we are forced to make decisions, and it gives us the chance to choose differently than we would in real life. In the "Big Balls, Bigger Guns" genre, only rarely do we make any decisions at all. Instead, the entire game is a series of elaborately constructed setpieces. I think it would be fair to say that they are analagous to an amusement park ride--many things happen, and some of them may be quite thrilling, but it's not because of our input.

Something else that's seen all to rarely in games is moral ambiguity. I like it when games make it difficult to distinguish between good and evil, and we are forced to make choices with incomplete moral information.

Okay, so let's pretend we're making a Halo/Gears of War/Killzone game, but let's also turn it on its head. So it starts out as "we're the good guys, kill every bad guy you see", but there are a few minor differences. For one, instead of killing someone, you can choose to take a prisoner instead. No, I don't mean they'd follow around behind you like Pikmin--you'd just hit the "take prisoner" button and the rest would be handled without your attention.

If people started taking prisoners, members of their own squad would start berating them, calling them soft (and much worse). So there would be peer pressure inside the game to kill helpless soldiers instead of taking them prisoner.

I think most people would succumb to the peer pressure and just start shooting everyone. I mean, that's what we've always done in games like this, right?

After a few of these missions (to get the player comfortable with ignoring the prisoner button), the player's character is called in for questioning by Internal Affairs. It seems there have been reports of borderline massacres by this squad.

At this point, the player has a choice: he can rat out his squadmates, or he can claim that he hasn't seen anything wrong. And the IA officer interviewing him tells him that several of his squad mates have already fingered him.

This is a lie, of course, but it's a standard interrogation technique.

If he rats them out, he'll soon be put in a situation where he may have to kill his own squadmates to avoid being fragged. If he claims he knows nothing, Internal Affairs will come back to arrest him, and when he escapes, he's officially gone rogue.

At that point, he can become a mercenary and fight on any side. And he's gone from being the good guy to being something else entirely. As an exmaple, an enemy force could capture him and give him a choice: complete an assasination mission against his former side or be executed.

Let the player choose, too. And if chooses to die instead of kill, when he is about to be executed, give him a chance to escape. If he takes the assasination mission, instead, well, let him do that, too.

In other words, let him be both a hero and a traitor to his own country so many times that the concept becomes meaningless. He's forced to develop his own personal code of honor instead of relying on what his country is telling him.

If the player is to be honorable, force him to transcend the moralities of war.

Here's another one. Maybe his brother is in the armed forces, too, and the game develops their relationship, with a tagline at the end of their correspondence (or phone calls) that they can't wait to see each other. When the player goes rogue, though, one of the people responsible for hunting him down is that same brother.

The player doesn't know that, though, or it's only hinted at in the story. But at some point, he comes face to face with his brother, and it's entirely possible that he'll choose to kill him instead of surrender. Can you imagine shooting your own brother, almost certainly without realizing it, then having to watch him die?

To me, at least, war is only peripherally about victory. Mostly, it's about anguish, and that's an emotion that's never felt in these kinds of games.

I look forward to the game that makes me feel that way.

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