Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019): An Analysis

I was rather excited when I picked up Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019) on opening day. It has been nearly a decade since Modern Warfare 3 came out, and I was interested to see what this supposed reboot would bring to the table.

After Modern Warfare 3, Call of Duty kept pushing and pushing further into science fiction, with 2017’s WWII as the outlier by being set during, well…World War 2.

Then the series jumped forward again the following year and ditched single player in Black Ops 4. So with a return to both single player and the setting that made Call of Duty the household name it is, I was looking forward to it.

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Modern Warfare (2019) takes the characters from the original game from 2007 and updates them for the present day. (Source: callofduty.fandom.com)

I wasn’t the only one. At the time of writing the reveal trailer for Modern Warfare sits at over thirty-three million views, with a 99.7% positive like-bar. That is phenomenal. The game has received generally favourable reviews, despite some controversy over rewriting history about locations and atrocities mentioned in-game.

I’ll be going on a whistle-stop tour of everything I felt during the campaign, so there will be some spoilers. It is less of a review and more of an impression. Enjoy!

“Let’s Do Dis!” – A Look At The New Modern Warfare

Modern Warfare was a sensation back in 2007. While games set in a modern conflict had existed before then, nothing had really grabbed hold of the zeitgeist aside from the sci-fi romp Halo 3 two months earlier.

It was clearly a market that wanted something before it knew what ‘it’ was. MW1 was both a crazy power fantasy willed into existence to satiate public opinion on two Middle East conflicts that had outlived their welcome, but also a brutal critique on the nature of said conflicts and the forces that conducted them. The new Modern Warfare continues the former thread, but never follows through on the latter.

While MW1 had major set pieces take place on highways, dusty streets, and palaces (all iconic imagery of both invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan), the new Modern Warfare tries to echo more recent events with levels set in urban areas as a first responder, suburban anti-terror operations, and protecting an embassy from waves of enemies.

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A night-time raid on a house in Camden Town is tense and thrilling, with tight corners and hidden enemies. (Source: escapistmagazine.com)

It feels odd to play some of these missions as the game is obviously making references to certain real-world events (anyone who says that “The Embassy” mission is not a reference to Benghazi is just wrong, plain and simple) because when someone says “terrorist”, these are the first things that come to mind; atrocities and rabid hordes.

But this isn’t new. The Modern Warfare series has always used real life events to influence its campaign. After Somali pirates infamously took control of the Maersk Alabama freighter ship in mid 2009, the next modern CoD game, Modern Warfare 3, had a level set in a shipyard in Somalia.

MW1 had its Middle Eastern sections set in a nameless region, but by the time MW2 and MW3 rolled around they were much more upfront with their locations, with Afghanistan getting prominent billing as the first location of MW2. The new Modern Warfare creates a fictitious country to set part of its conflict in, Urzikstan (cos if its got a ‘Stan at the end it must be full of terrorists, right?) with the characters speaking Arabic, just to fill in another stereotype (and not say any of the other languages spoken in the bordering countries of Georgia, Russia, or Turkey).

We sadly don’t get much information on Urzikstan during the campaign. It is the background to a three-way war between Russia, freedom fighters (backed by the USA) and a terrorist group, Al-Qatala. It would have been interesting to see what the battle in Urzikstan was about, and what each group was fighting over.

CoD2019Urz
Despite being set on the Black Sea, Urzkistan is portrayed using the same desert-blasted cities synonymous with the War on Terror. (Source: forbes.com)

The whole game is like this, no narrative fluff to give flavour or even context, it is just a succession of scenes ripped from the headlines. An action game like this can get away with exposition in the form of mission briefings, but here “show don’t tell” has been skewed so much that we aren’t shown why we are fighting, just that we are.

I only learnt that the Russians invaded Urzikstan to stop terrorists heading into Russia from a loading screen. It would have been good to know that before the game dropped me into a firefight and told me to shoot all the Russians on sight.

The invasion plot gets even more ridiculous when it turns out the Russian leader, General Barkov, has apparently got so much influence over the Russian Government that they simultaneously endorse his actions and believe he has gone rogue. It’s another reductionist quality brought over from the original game, “These are ultra-nationalists, not like regular Russians. These are only the bad ones.”

CoD2019Child
The player takes over a child fighting for her life during the initial Russian invasion, using a pair of scissors to defend herself. (Source: gamerant.com).

At least the game deals with its Arabic characters better (relatively speaking). There is a split between the freedom fighters and the terrorist organisation Al-Qatala. It’s better that having all enemies as the monolithic Arab ‘other’, dressed in identikit robes and turbans that MW1 ignited. But again, we have no reason other than a short freeform poem read by bad guy “The Wolf” at the beginning of the game telling us what Al-Qatala’s aims are. It is mentioned during “The Embassy” that Al-Qatala was once supported by the West, but it is never addressed again in-game.

On the freedom fighters side, having their leader be a kickass woman was a charming turn. Come to think of it, a lot of the characters are rather refreshing. The main British character, Kyle Garrick (who is revealed to be fan favourite character Gaz at the end of the game) is Black British, which adds a nice bit of diversity to the series and the industry (I can think of only one other Black British character in gaming, that being Dudley in Street Fighter IV).

The main American character, CIA operative “Alex”, (his name is always in quotations, which is cute) has some good chemistry with rebel leader Farah, giving them a few more shades that just “Gruff Military Type #147” and “Silent Female Warrior #12” Captain Price has a nice display of softer tones when coaching Garrick, with Barry Sloane doing a fantastic job of replicating the iconic Billy Murray voice from the original game but putting his own spin on the character.

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From L to R: “Alex”, Cpt. Price, Kyle “Gaz” Garrick, and Farah, the main characters of Modern Warfare (2019). I would love to see these characters again in the next game. (Source: metro.co.uk)

But apart from these isolated scenes, most of the rest of the game veers from scene to scene trying to outdo itself on shock value. The opening warning labels of CoD have almost become a staple of the series in of itself. Ever since MW2 let you shoot up an airport, the series has been trying to make a level that is guaranteed to send tabloids into apoplectic rage.

In the new Modern Warfare we have terror attacks in Piccadilly Circus, chemical warfare, child soldiers, a waterboarding mini-game, and play Russian Roulette as part of an interrogation. Another part that ticked me off were the American Marines cheering and oo-rahing like a bunch of drunken fratboys as they gun down and blow up bad guys, without a hint of self-awareness.

MW1 had some, shall we say, morally questionable scenes. One that sticks with me has secondary villain, Khaled Al-Asad, tied to a chair as Captain Price beats him to a pulp. However, one dramatic scene that is remembered from the original game is a nuclear weapon going off and killing the playable character. It was shocking, but didn’t feel as uncomfortable as threatening a man’s unarmed wife and son with a loaded pistol, something which I did during the campaign of the new title. You are able to skip the torture in one scene, but all it does is fade to black and skips to the next part.

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The player threatens the wife and son of a terrorist in a bid to trade intelligence for their safety. (Source: gamerant.com)

And yet the game seems to just brush it off without lingering. In the original Modern Warfare the SAS toughs are seen as violent thugs, ready to throw allies off cliff edges and repeatedly stab enemies in an act of mutilation. In the new story, they still have that ruthless streak but it is moralised in dialogue by them saying that the world needs people morally questionable people to act. It feels even weirder when I realised that we weren’t playing as a squad of SAS or US Marines, but just a ragtag collection of shooters. Captain Price is seemingly known throughout the military world and can be called by a CIA handler to help kill some terrorists on his off days.

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The great moustachioed one returns, seemingly because he had nothing better to do than shoot some foreign types on his holiday. (Source: gamespot.com).

Part of the reason Call of Duty gained prominence when it first came out was that the player was part of a squad and wasn’t a one-man-army. In the new Modern Warfare quite a few of the missions feel like we are fighting entire battalions by ourselves.

The game pulls me in two different directions. It looks beautiful, sounds great, is responsive, and the acting is phenomenal, but nearly everything that is wrapped around the game puts me off. And while it seems to want to be taken seriously, it starts throwing out memes and references to the original such as reusing the iconic lines, “check your corners,” and “your fruit-killing skills are remarkable”. The references weren’t even in the lighter scenes, thrown in the middle of a terrorist event and stealth mission as a nudge and a wink.

Even still, I am excited by the return to the modern day. I enjoyed the original Modern Warfare Trilogy and enjoyed the Medal of Honor reboot that was set during the 2001 Afghanistan invasion.

I want to see where the series goes after this, but this time it just wasn’t my type.

 

Banner Photo Source: game4u.co.za

Ideas For Post-Shadow Tomb Raider

It has just been over one year since Shadow Of The Tomb Raider was released. I wasn’t bowled over by the game (Rise is still my favourite of the new reboot series), but it had enough to keep me engaged.

However, I feel a need for change is coming on again. 2013 was a revelation, creating a Tomb Raider game and a Lara we hadn’t seen before. Rise built upon its predecessor’s work and tweaked and refined the experience.

Shadow… it feels a bit like replication. It is a very good replication and has a few nifty surprises hidden in its backpack, but it is not so much a step forward rather than a step sideways.

I don’t think this is just personal bias. For all the talk of Shadow being the final event that turned Lara Croft into the Tomb Raider, it felt like a story being stretched further than it needed to be.

So, with the reboot trilogy finished, let us throw a few ideas around that I would want to see in a new Tomb Raider game.

Where Should Tomb Raider Go After Shadow Of The Tomb Raider?

  1. A Different Lara

One of the things I find fascinating about Lara is that in twenty years she has gone through several redesigns but remains instantly recognisible. That may be a statement on female characters in gaming, but also could be because of her iconic outfit and accessories.

Now that we’ve had half a decade of hyper-realistic Lara, I wouldn’t mind a touch of cartoon styling for her next appearance. I don’t mean make her the impossibly proportioned character from the 90s, but something a bit more…Amazonian (a descriptor that was actually used in The Angel of Darkness at 1:03:16).

Lara is meant to be this kickass character able to throw herself up sheer cliff faces and fight a whole manner of creatures, so make her the peak of ‘killer kickass’. Shadow teased us with a character model with biceps before they nixed the idea. Let’s see that this time around.

My main two ideas for a cartoony Croft were Gridlock from Rainbow Six Siege and Laura from Street Fighter V (seen down below respectively). Both these women look like (and can) go toe-to-toe with any male character in their games, and I think it would work well seeing a physically imposing Lara, showing how she has changed over time. I wouldn’t even mind if they kept the scars from Rise and Shadow, another token of the change and history of the character.

With a less realistic design we could change Lara’s movement as well. I’ve recently been replaying Legend and one thing that struck me was that Lara’s movement is…goofier?

For example, instead of just climbing up a ledge, Lara will fling herself up using only her upper body strength and onto her feet. If a player continues to tap the Roll button, Lara will throw herself into a gymnastic display worthy of an Olympic gold medal. I haven’t even mentioned the swan dive and handstand that she could perform in the original series. I like these more over-the-top approaches.

In terms of character, yeah, I kind of want to see a more playful Lara next time around. Rise had a few moments, but I felt Shadow had hardly any levity (although that game was about the apocalypse so I’ll let it slide). And regarding her parents, it’s been cleared up, let’s move on.

  1. A Reworked World

It was quite a bit step in 2013 to have Tomb Raider set in an open world, although it seems rather obvious. Previous games would have massive levels (with some in TR4 actually having multiple points of entry and having to return to a few of them several times), but 2013 nailed a great formula.

But just like a change regarding Lara, I am feeling an itch for a change in the level design. While I was playing Shadow I went for a trek and found some interesting places and hidden nooks, but then when I returned and spoke to the NPC to start a mission, the NPC took me through a whistle-stop tour of everywhere I had just been. It felt so weird to play through, and this would happen multiple times throughout the game, to the point where I stopped exploring (which is the antithesis of the game’s vision).

However, going back to a more linear frame would hamper the series, as it seems to have flourished now it has more room to play around with. So let’s make a compromise; a big but linear hub world, with several paths leading to several tombs. These tombs can be signposted by small but very deliberate signs like rocks in an odd formation or a broken tree (similar to the Monolith Puzzles in Shadow, which I suggested could be a gameplay feature back in 2017).

Once we play through the tomb we return to the hub world and follow another path to another tomb. The hub world could be a mash-up of Prince of Persia and Mirror’s Edge, with Tomb Raider’s aesthetic and individual trappings giving the world flavour (come to think of it, with all that climbing, surely Lara Croft would have learnt some gymnastics or parkour?).

Prince of Persia 2008
Prince Of Persia (2008) had several paths leading to each hub world, making the land feel expansive despite having a linear design. (Source: ripostedisponible.wordpress.com).

The hub world also allows us to open up geographically. While I enjoyed the single locations of the past three games (with Yamatai and Siberia having some geographical variety), the hub world allows our explorer to find all the pieces to a treasure in one location (after finishing all the tombs), before heading off to a new location with its own hub world and selection of tombs.

One request though, cut the collectibles, at least in the hub world. I get anxious whenever I access an open world map for the first time and all the items load in, and I can’t be the only one (not to mention ‘Touch The Shiny Thing’ doesn’t exactly get my blood racing). Keep the secrets to the levels and leave it as that. However, a counter argument to this would be,

“Why have an open world if there is nothing to do in it?”

This is a valid question. So I propose another solution to go with the level-based secrets; unmapped locations.

While Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag and Skyrim had some locations off their maps, the main game that gave me this inspiration was the original Mafia.

Mafia had an open city to drive around in, but many prominent locations were just off the map edge, giving the countryside a sense of danger and making any mission set outside the city tenser. There were several places in the city of Lost Heaven that the player was under no obligation to visit, such as the Lost Heaven Lighthouse or Dam. I think something like this but for Tomb Raider, like a disguised path leading to an optional tomb or puzzle, would be a good addition.

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The Lost Heaven Dam from Mafia. This location is not on a map or used in-game, yet makes the land feel richer for its inclusion. (Source: mafiagame.fandom.com)
  1. The Combat

Part of Lara’s iconic image is the twin pistols. They were missing from the reboot series, instead replaced with another now-iconic weapon, the bow.

Whoever the developer of the next game ends up being, the bow has been an integral inclusion of the rebooted Tomb Raider games and it would be a little sad to see it leave after three games.

The pistols were seen for one small scene near the end of the 2013 game, with Lara wielding akimbo pistols to shoot bad guy Mathias off a cliff edge. However I thought the dual pistols scene looked silly (even in a game about Sun Queens and zombie samurai) because the game had been aiming for realism for the past 20+ hours. If the series were to take a less realistic slant then twin pistols could make a return, complete with flips and kicks.

In terms of gameplay, of Lara is already throwing herself over ledges and walls why not have her take a leaf from Max Payne or Rubi Malone and fly through the air? TR has dabbled in bullet time before, both in set pieces and player enabled so it might be a cool thing to include.

The main reason why I wanted to mention combat is violence and death. The older Tomb Raider games got away with some gruesome deaths by their lack of graphics. Spike pits, being set on fire, drowned, shot, stabbed, eaten alive, blown up, disintegrated, all that jazz got Tomb Raider an 11+ rating.

Over time the series has fluctuated between 11+ and 16+, with the reboot being the first time that the series broke the 18+ rating. President of Eidos Interactive, Ian Livingstone, said the change was made to deliver the “gritty realism” that players wanted.

And I get it, the market in 2013 was heading in that direction. However, a lot of the violent deaths in the reboot felt that they were going for shock value (especially that spike through the neck, you know the one I’m talking about).

The market today is a lot more colourful and cartoony. I want Tomb Raider to be playable to anyone who wants to pick up the controller, and I think taking that step back on the snuff film aesthetic would be a bit more refreshing.

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Overwatch, a game with fast frenetic gunplay and only a 12+ rating. Uncharted only got a 16+ rating. Why can’t Tomb Raider go lower? (Source: polygon.com).
  1. The Story

I’m not going into an in-depth “what-I-would-write” post, but there was a tease at the end of Shadow as to where Lara would be going next before it was patched out. On Lara’s desk in the original epilogue scene, there was a letter addressed to her from a Jacqueline Natla. Natla was the head baddy in both Tomb Raider 1 and the remake Anniversary.

I don’t want this to be the next Tomb Raider game. That story has already been done twice and I don’t know what making that game a third time will add to the experience.

So instead, I propose this. This is the trailer to the Hitman reboot, released in 2016.

To fans of the Hitman franchise (such as myself), this was a geek-out moment. All of the kills featured come from the previous games.

The sniper kill is “Kowloon Triads in Gang War” from the original Hitman game. The sushi death is from “Tracking Hayamoto” from Hitman 2. The drowning man is Fritz Fuchs in “Traditions of the Trade” from Contracts. The cello player is Don Fernando Delgado in “A Vintage Year” from Blood Money. And the final bullet through the one-way mirror kills Dom Osmond during “Hunter and Hunted” from Absolution.

There was a lot of grumbling in the Hitman community as to what it meant to the legacy of Agent 47 when 2016’s Hitman was referred to as a reboot. Fans were assuaged when we heard David Bateson’s voice in the “Sapienza” trailer, and this trailer was even better. We weren’t losing the character’s history and it was a great set-up to see where the new game was set in the timeline.

I think this would be a good way to reintroduce Lara. A trailer in a similar style, seeing Lara at Yamatai, Kitezh, and Paititi (the reboot games), then St. Francis Folly (TR1), Venice/Barkhang Monastery (TR2), River Ganges/RX-Tech Mines (TR3), Valley Of The Kings (TR4) and beyond would be a great moment. It would allow Lara to grow beyond the reboot without throwing out the character established in the past three games.

Call it a soft reboot; heading back to square one, but with the knowledge and experiences of the reboot and the classic series filling in Lara’s backstory.

Speaking of all of that established lore, a soft reboot allows us to keep the excellent Camilla Luddington as Lara and bring back many characters. Winston and Jonah are a given and I would personally love the return of Sam, Zip, and Alister as periphery characters.

One thing I would love to see in Tomb Raider are rival archeologists. We had Pierre and Larson in TR1/TRA and Chronicles, Von Croy in TR4, Chronicles, and Angel of Darkness, and Carter Bell in The Temple Of Osiris. It would be fun to have a story where Lara is facing off against people who are just as smart and slick as her. There is even a multiplayer component there, having players face off against each other if the developers wanted to.

Conclusion

I remember when Shadow was first teased, Square Enix said in a statement that it wouldn’t, “…be very long between the official reveal and when you can play.” With Shadow Of The Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition releasing earlier this month, a new lease of life has been given to the instalment.

There will probably be a moderate wait before any new moves for the franchise are announced. Square Enix, working with Eidos Montreal on Shadow, were able to deliver a relatively quick follow up to Rise as most of the pieces were in place. But for now they should have some time to relax, celebrate their success, before coming back with whatever new ideas they want to explore.

The reboot was a much needed boost for Tomb Raider. It brought me back to the series, and brought in a whole new set of fans. I don’t want to forget it, but I think Tomb Raider needs to strike out again.

 

Gridlock Photo Source: rainbows.fandom.com

Laura Photo Source: reddit.com (r/StreetFighter)

Photo Banner Source: twitter.com (@tombraider).

Learning To Love The Uncharted Series

During the late 2000s and most of the 2010s I was the owner of an Xbox 360. I think my main reasoning behind choosing that system was that all my friends had one, so if I wanted to play with them, that would be the console.

Before I had chosen a 360 I was scouring through games that looked interesting to me and I remember one catching my eye. I remember going into game stores and continually picking up one box and reading and re-reading the back cover.

That game was Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. I knew nothing about the series at that part of my life, but I was already hooked. I mean, it looked like a modern Indiana Jones game. Anyone who knows me knows I love Tomb Raider, so another treasure-hunting simulator would be right up my street.

But alas, when I finally picked up an Xbox I realised that Uncharted was a PlayStation  exclusive title, therefore I couldn’t play it (and I was not the position to buy a separate console). So Uncharted moved to the back of my mind until I picked up a PlayStation 4 in mid-2018.

With Uncharted being one of Sony’s premiere exclusives, the first three games were given a quick polish and sent out as a boxset to customers. I quickly bought the collection and settled down for some classic shooting/platforming fun. I mean, these games were beloved, how could they be anything more than excellent?

Well…

What Spending 100+ Hours With Nathan Drake Looks Like

I felt very confused while playing Uncharted 1. Here was this game, lauded as inspirational and influential in its design and gameplay…yet all I could think was single sight plains, flat geometry, and tedious whack-a-mole gameplay.

I died many times just to try and speed up the process; it felt like my life was ebbing away from me as I continued to play. The only time when it livened up for me was when the Nazi Mutants appeared, changing gameplay into a more run-and-gun affair. This was on normal/moderate difficulty setting (because ‘normal’, as the word suggests, would be the standard way to play the game), yet it was like pulling teeth.

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The game certainly livened up by the end, but couldn’t save the rest of the experience for me. (Source: engadget.com).

I rationalised my thoughts by thinking, ‘Maybe this was standard for 2007.” However, 2007 also gave us Assassin’s Creed (genre-defining), Bioshock (narrative behemoth), CoD4 and Halo 3 (game-changers). Even Tomb Raider Anniversary, much maligned by its own fanbase, felt fluid and fast, the complete opposite of UC1.

So maybe this was just a blueprint game, one that would get better with subsequent titles.

I put those bad feelings aside as I booted up Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. This one was going to be good. It is generally accepted as the best game in the series.

Hhhmm, how to put this…Uncharted 2 made me want to stop playing games.

There have been times where I have played games I haven’t enjoyed. There have been games I’ve actively disliked. But never have I played a game that has made me waver in my love of the medium.

Most of my complaints for UC1 were back, but tenfold. Long flat corridors or arenas, plinking away from behind cover with ineffective weapons, I could feel that draining sensation again.

The gunplay was serviceable, but it was nothing compared to the climbing. In most platforming sections, Uncharted 2 switches to a cinematic camera. I’m all for the cinematic approach to games, especially when it heightens the gameplay.

I hated Uncharted 2 from the very first sequence because of that bloody camera. Climbing up the train cars is a moment most gamers found thrilling, but because of the camera switches I couldn’t even figure out where to go.

The angles would throw off my depth perception, making me push forward and die when I should have been pushing sideways. Dying over and over again two minutes in because the game is giving you insufficient information will drive anyone to anger.

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Even now I still can’t do this sequence in one go…I feel my blood pressure rising already. (Source: playstation.com).

Even the introduction of Chloe Frazer hardly tempered my loathing. Just like UC1, the game picked up during the final stretch at the monastery, mainly due to the excellent level design and geometry, and the inclusion of the Nazi Mutants again.

As I booted up Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, I was worried. Was this third entry going to be more of the same? What was wrong with me? Was I playing the game wrong?

I knew I liked third-person shooters; I’ve spent unknown hours with several 007 games, I love all of Remedy Entertainment’s work, Spec Ops: The Line is my favourite game of all time. Even at the same time of playing UC2 I played The Order: 1886, Ready at Dawn’s Victorian-steampunk shooter PS4 launch title. I loved that game and still hope to see a sequel some day.

So, I started Uncharted 3…and a new feeling came over me. I was having fun. Good-hearted, honest fun. I thought there had to be a catch, but none came. It was a blast.

The fights and shootouts in London, the rooftop chases in Colombia and Yemen, the attack on the citadel in Syria, the shipyard/sunken cruiser (with a beautiful cinematic camera, this time not obscuring the way to go), the cargo plane…repeat, THE CARGO PLANE, the horse ride into the desert, then finishing off once more with an ancient city crumbling to dust, I loved it from start to finish.

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Uncharted 3 still has some of the best set-pieces in all of gaming. (Source: YouTube.com, GameSpot).

Upon finishing UC3 I had a lull in my games at the time, so I went back to the first two games and cranked up the difficulty to Crushing. I had nothing to lose if I didn’t enjoy it, but I adored every second.

I don’t know what came over me, but it was like experiencing the game for the first time again, but this time being the game that everyone told me it was. Even in Uncharted 2, it seemed all the levels I had hated had switched positions, making the final push towards the monastery even better.

Uncharted 4 follows in UC3’s stellar footsteps. I’ve always liked when Nathan has had someone to bounce off like Charlie or Chloe, and Sam is a great addition to the narrative. Throw in some excellent set pieces and locations and delving into the married life of Elena and Nathan (something seldom seen in games), I think this one might be my favourite one.

Conclusion

So what changed? Well, obviously the graphics and design became better and more intricate as subsequent games were made, but what about that turnaround for UC1 and UC2?

As I said previously, I’ve played my fair share of third-person shooters, but I wasn’t exactly raised on them in same way I was raised on racing games or Tomb Raider. Looking back at my favourite TPSes, most come from the PS2 or 360 generations. I haven’t played a straight, linear shooter since Spec Ops, because they aren’t really made as much any more.

Sure, there are shooting games galore, but not many single player shooter games. Even Amy Hennig said they are “…a harder and harder proposition.” (Takahashi, D. 2019). The closest I could think of besides The Order: 1886 was Ghost Recon: Wildlands, which is another open-world extravaganza from Ubisoft.

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If you haven’t had the chance yet, please play The Order: 1886. It looks and sounds stunning. (Source: huffingtonpost.co.uk).

That might be the reason. It is enthralling to see a gameplay or mechanic that hasn’t been felt in over a decade, to see a simple beginning-middle-end structure with some shooty bits in the middle. I know, what a concept!

But that sounds offensive, ‘I only liked your game because I had nothing else to play,’ that is definitely not the case. I must come clean and say the problem was probably me.

I just needed time. I came to Uncharted with my own ideas on what it would be and my own biases. I wasn’t on the game’s wavelength, and I found it increasingly hard to get a handle on.

It may have taken a few games to get me to understand, but I get it now.

I like it now. I love it now.

I’ll treasure the experiences, both good and bad.

 

Banner Photo Source: gamespot.com

The Hunt For Biographical Games

Historical and biographical media is currently riding high in a big way.

Chernobyl, HBO’s newest mini-series, retelling the worst nuclear disaster in history, is the highest rated television show of all time on IMDb. Gentleman Jack, another HBO/BBC series following the true story of the first modern lesbian, Anne Lister, has just been greenlit for a second series.

I’ve been on a bit of non-fiction binge of my own, re-reading The Unwomanly Face Of War by Svetlana Alexievich. The book is an oral history of the women who fought in the Soviet Army in World War II.

It is a great polyphonic work filled with both mundane stories of waiting for hours in a ditch for a battle that never arrived, to the tense such as running into No Man’s Land to drag away the wounded whilst dodging gunfire.

While reading The Unwomanly Face Of War I got thinking about the recent Battlefield games and that both featured female warriors in Arabia and Norway respectively. While there was some…‘spirited’ discussion on the historical accuracy of the stories in Battlefield, it got me thinking about the stories highlighted by Alexievich, and how similar they were to the BF narratives. I started to think about stories in games and tried to think if there were any with biographical qualities.

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‘Nordlys’ was my favourite of BFV‘s stories. I would love to see stories similar to it and to those featured in Alexievich’s record. (Source: pcgamesn.com).

The games industry has always had genres, but these are still mostly on how we experience the game; it is an adventure game, a point-and-click, a first-person shooter. But from there we can have genres of story; a war story, an adaptation of religious text, a comedy, sci-fi, the list goes on.

Even in the small grouping of “open-world crime story” we have satire (GTA), historical (Mafia III), drama (Yakuza), and techno-thriller (Watch_Dogs). There are so many genres to explore.

So would it be possible to make a biographical game, or do we have some already? I went for a look.

Life Without Theory – Biographical Accounts In Video Games

The first thing that comes to my head when I think of biographical features in games is the one I started with at the beginning of this post, war stories.

With Medal of Honor in 1998, the game was touted for its account of true events and scenarios that soldiers would have faced during WWII. The continued throughout the early 00s as WWII shooters became the norm for almost the entire FPS genre.

Even when Medal of Honor followed the market leader Call Of Duty into the modern day in 2010 and 2012, there was another attempt at bringing an authenticity to proceedings. Some levels in the 2012 release, Warfighter, were subtitled “Inspired By True Events”. This was in stark contrast to Call of Duty, which would often leave details vague on locations, time, and people.

One instance of ‘historical retelling’ in game that I remember from my childhood is Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4. Of the fourteen pro skaters in the game, several of their ‘Pro Challenge’ missions were based off their previous exhibitions. While some changes were made, these missions were meant to be recreations of famous skating moments such as Tony Hawk’s Indy 900 gap, Bob Burnquist’s loop-da-loop or Jamie Thomas’ one-day photo shoot.

Another might be The Beatles Rockband. With the song progression being in release order and with stages set in the Cavern Club, on the Ed Sullivan Show and on the Apple Corps roof, it felt like a memorial and musical biography, like a video game adaptation of Ron Howard’s documentary Eight Days A Week.

BeatlesRB
The Beatles Rock Band takes you through The Beatles entire career in 45 songs, charting their rise and change. (Source: polygon.com).

Another game that comes to mind when I think ‘biographical narratives’ is Assassin’s Creed. Ever since AC2 first included a database filled with locations, customs, and characters, detailed historical biographies (narrated excellently by Danny Wallace) have become a staple of the series. When I first played AC2 I spent an untold amount of time scrolling through the database, reading every last scrap of text. One entry that has stuck with me over the past ten years is Annetta.

Annetta is one of the first characters outside of the Auditore family that the player meets. She is one of the Auditore family’s servants and helps Ezio get his mother and sister out of Florence after the family are branded as traitors. Her database entry is only six lines long, ending quite sadly,

“Ultimately, little is known about Annetta’s life. She passed on without making a mark on history.”

I still think back on that entry even to this day, mainly for its almost achingly beautiful melancholic tone, but now I think how interesting it would have been to follow a servant girl during the tumultuous time of Renaissance Italy, rather than the 1500s answer to Batman.

However, most of the games mentioned above are historical retellings. They are facts and dates, historical figures and public affairs.

Even in the historical offshoot of “heritage” media, which focuses on historical periods, but with fictional characters, I can name several games; the previously mentioned Assassin’s Creed, the Mafia series, Kingdom Come, Pillars Of The Earth (which is also a novel adaptation). Where are the personal tales that aren’t straight historical documentations?

A Different Perspective – The Personal Angle

There have been two games that I’ve been leaving off mentioning until now, as they are almost perfect examples of the autobiographical form, both from the indie market.

The main one is That Dragon, Cancer, a 2016 release created by Ryan and Amy Green, Josh Larson, and the studio Numinous Games. The game is based around the Green family and their son Joel, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer at twelve months old. The game follows the five years of Joel’s life and how the family coped with his illness. It is a raw personal story, with Ryan Green stating in an interview with The Telegraph,

“[Video games] can do something no other medium can, you can create this world and ask the player to live in it and love what you have created.” (Robertson, A. 2013).

The game was praised widely for its story and heartbreaking exploration that could only be achieved in a game, whereas others believed that its lack of gameplay disqualified it from being a game.

The other game that came to mind when thinking of biographical games was Depression Quest by Zoe Quinn, Patrick Lindsey and Isaac Schankler. While Quinn and Depression Quest are more likely known from the ‘GamerGate’ hashtag, is was created as a form of self-expression. Quoted in The New Yorker,

“Quinn…has suffered from depression since she was a teen-ager…game-making provided Quinn with a community and introduced her to Lindsey, who also suffers from depression. Lindsey suggested that the pair attempt to communicate their experience through a computer game.” (Parkin, S, 2014).

DepressionQuest
Notice the ‘(non) fiction’ subtitle on the game screen. (Source: sites.psu.edu).

While not a direct autobiographical tale, the game was informed by the duo’s experiences and the game was praised for its depiction of depression with gaming. However, some claimed it was too simplistic a representation, which Quinn admits to in the interview with The New Yorker. Just like That Dragon, Cancer, the game was also criticised for its lack of entertaining quality or gameplay, being mainly a text adventure.

Conclusion

In research for this piece I found an article by Kawika Guillermo on Medium that also discussed the autobiographical nature of some games. Alongside That Dragon, Cancer, Guillermo gave a host of other examples such as Cibele and How Do You Do It by Nina Freeman.

Guillermo talks about the ‘death of the author’, a term coined by Roland Barthes, which posits there can be no singular reading of a work because we all have our own prejudices and views. Guillermo quotes game designer Robert Yang who said, “No-one makes personal games,” mentioning that due to the international market, what he terms ‘identity stories’ would lose meaning to non-Americans.

However, people do write their own tales into their work, be it in literature, film, or even games. Recently there was a thread on Twitter by Osama Dorias where developers described when they had put personal stories into games. I gave my personal experiences that informed my work on Story Beats. While these games may not have been fully autobiographical, there is a sense that this could be a new, mostly unmapped avenue for the industry to explore in the future.

We also have to think about what biographical stories that can be explored. The top selling biographies have included former presidents, businessmen, and musicians and have ranged in topics from road trips, traumatic childhoods and the final days of living with cancer. We would have to think on how to represent those in gameplay form. With a resurgent of point-and-click style games as well as the gameplay stylings of David Cage, there is more outside of the general action/adventure mould for games.

However, in the FPS/action genre there was Six Days in Fallujah, which was an attempt to document the Second Battle of Fallujah of the 2003 Iraq War. The game, by Atomic Games, was made alongside veterans of the battle and was made to highlight, in the words of Creative Director Juan Benito,

“…the importance of the stories of the marines that we worked with and were inspired by…to make people understand what those individuals faced…What we had set on was the first war documentary that was a video game…” (Paprocki, M, 2018).

SixDaysFallujah
At the time of development, the FPS market was filled with generic power fantasies. SDIF might have been a new look at the conflict. (Source: lattices.com).

The game was said to feature interviews with veterans between missions, bringing the story to life (GVMERS, 2017, 5:05). The game was cancelled after backlash from several anti-war groups and parents of soldiers that died during the conflict. A similar viewpoint came from Captain Dale Dye back in 1998 when he was asked to consult on the first Medal of Honor. When first told about the game, he was said to have called it, “…an exploitative, tone-deaf, irresponsible thing.” (Edge Staff, 2015).

To quote Linda Hutchinson, “Whether it be in the form of a videogame or a musical, an adaptation is likely to be greeted as minor and subsidiary…” (2006, p.xii).

These are things that would have to be addressed in making a biographical game. What would be removed, what would be added? Can we only make stories about events far in the past? Are no living people to be represented in games? Or would most of these games be too inherently political, grappling with the social and cultural context of the time?

Maybe biographical games are to stay in the independent or experimental market. But then there are stories that are almost stand-ins for AAA games already. For example, Paris by Julian Green is a semi-biographical book where the narrator takes a stroll through the French capital and describes the locations he visits. Could that not be similar to a Ubisoft game, describing the city as we travel it? But again, that is just a history lesson.

Where is the story of the man or woman in the street, of the personal tales that enthral audiences across the world? Where is Annetta’s story? Those are possibly harder to capture, but can offer a story rarely seen in games and bring a new facet to the medium.

Photo Banner Source: oculus.com.

007: Nightfire’s ‘The Exchange’ & Player Induction Through Level Design

I recently finished reading the first James Bond book, Casino Royale. Despite being a 007 fan for as long as I can remember, I had never actually gotten round to reading the classic stories by Ian Fleming.

While I was obviously introduced to the series with the films (every week I would head to Blockbuster and get a new one to watch), I think I truly became a fan when I was introduced to the games.

Picture the scene; it is 2003. I am seven years old. Our household console, the original PlayStation, ups and dies. We upgrade to the PlayStation 2 which is few years into its lifespan. We get three games with the PS2; FIFA, a Dave Mirra game, and James Bond 007: Nightfire.

The latter is the first FPS (first-person shooter) I play, and I become both a lifelong fan of the genre and the character.

There are no nostalgia goggles when I say Nightfire is one of the best games of the sixth generation. I have bought that game several times for different consoles, playing it well into my adult life. And I think that it all comes down to the excellent opening of the game, ‘The Exchange’.

This level features so many variations and little things to help a new player immerse themselves into the world of 007, so I thought I would take a look back and analyse how it creates and inducts the player into the gameplay.

“Provide Conditions In Which Students Learn” (Albert Einstein) – How ‘The Exchange’ Teaches Players Mechanics Through The Level Design

‘The Exchange’ is the second level of 007 Nightfire. The first level, ‘Paris Prelude’, is strictly an on-rails/driving affair with ‘The Exchange’ being the game’s first proper FPS mission.

If a player has not played the game before, ‘Paris Prelude’ starts. Aiming is computer-controlled; the player just has to shoot using the R1 button (the button is helpfully flashed on-screen when it is needed).

Nightfire Paris
‘Paris Prelude’ acts as a tutorial to Nightfire, teaching driving mechanics as well. (Source: superadventuresingaming.blogspot.com).

Even if the player has not got to grips with all the controls (by reading the game manual) then they know at least one button and what it does.

‘The Exchange’ begins with 007 on a mission to infiltrate an enemy castle in Austria. Bond starts a few hundred metres away from the front door on top of a guardhouse. This starting placement is important.

This guardhouse allows the player that has never played a game before to get used to the movement controls. This is a safe space. There are no enemies patrolling, nothing shooting at you, it is nice and calm. The game even allows you to fire your weapon once just to try the controls out. If you fire a second shot then a guard will investigate the sound (a good way to discipline the player for forgetting what the button does).

Bond’s placement on top of the guardhouse also helps player navigation. The end of the opening cutscene and the player starting position draw the eyes forward to the large castle, pointing the way forward. The player can venture backwards on the road, but will find the path blocked by a locked door, forcing them to have to move towards the castle.

Exchange Opening
The opening section of ‘The Exchange’. Notice how we are guided towards the castle. (Source: infinitemirai.wordpress.com).

This is such a small thing, but it helps aid movement. Imagine if the player started inside the guardhouse. It would be a more claustrophobic start instead of the freedom of the open environment. It would be counter-intuitive to player guidance by not showing us the way forward.

Once the player has got the hang of the controls there are three main ways to get into the castle; one aggressive, two stealthy. We will go with aggressive first.

Aggressive

The player makes their way down the stairs of the guardhouse and sees a bad guy stationed just outside the door. This is the first enemy of the game. This set-up allows us to be ushered into combat without being overwhelmed. The guard is facing away, allowing the player to play at their pace.

This is where knowledge of shooting comes back. Guns and bullets are player interaction at its purest. The guard must be dealt with to proceed, but since he is unaware of the player, the player can take their time to line up a shot. If the player has tinkered around on the roof, they may have found Bond can punch or use a stunning gadget. If the player accidentally wanders out of the guardhouse, Bond will make the guard surrender, a safety net for those still struggling with the controls.

And to top it all off, this guard is a singular entity. Unless the player completely messes up and doesn’t deal with him, he cannot alert other guards.

Nightfire First Enemy
The first enemy of the game, allowing the player to get to grips with the game before entering combat. (Source: oocities.org).

Subduing this guard will net us a new weapon, a sniper. The other enemies at the beginning of this level are visible in the distance (white outfits against a black/grey backgrounds), and so the sniper can be used to pick enemies off. Again, the player knows the shoot button and will use it to interact with the world.

The guards further up the road are stationery and will not notice the player until they get close. This allows the player to find an unobstructed viewpoint (the middle of the road) to survey the bad guys. The sniper is also silenced, allowing for players to take down bad guys without alerting others.

As the player moves up and dispatches the bad guys, they may acquire another new gun, a machine gun. This brings Nightfire’s weapon matrix into play. Now we have three distinct weapons. They each have their own strengths and weaknesses in regards to damage and range. After the player takes the machine gun, there are two more enemies in this starting area that it can be used against, allowing the player to familiarise themselves with the new weapon.

From there, the player heads to the main door and once they have found the action button, they continue to the next section.

Stealth 1: The Wine Truck

If the player waits on the roof, they can use the wine truck method. When the truck passes through the guardhouse, it will stall for a period of time. This allows the player to hop into the back from the roof and get inside the castle without killing any guards.

Nightfire Truck
It is such a classic Bond moment, one that isn’t signposted and just requires the player to mess around to find. (Source: superadventuresingaming.blogspot.com).

This is one of those moments that reward the player’s imagination. If the player thinks they can do it, then they quite possibly can in Nightfire. It is such a long way from the funneled systems of many big budget games of this generation where a mission will fail if you step an inch outside of the creator’s vision.

Stealth 2: The Castle Wall

Continuing the jumping aspect, if the player jumps from the roof to the rocky cliff face (the same way if they were to head backwards) they will find a footpath that leads to a ravine.

Nigthfire ravine
The ravine is another stealthy way into the castle and gets the player closer to the next objective. (Source: cheatcodesgalore.com).

If they continue, a pop-up in the corner of the screen indicates there is a grappling station nearby. If the player looks around with their grapple equipped they can see a white target reticle. Focussing in on the reticle with the grapple turns it green (the universal colour of ‘go’). Once the player has used the grapple they have to make their way around the outside of the castle, sneaking past other guards.

Nightfire Stealth
You have to monitor enemy movement to sneak past the windows. If you don’t, several bad guys will spawn in. (Source: cheatcodesgalore.com).

This path introduces the (optional) contextual movement aspect where the player can traverse a wall or zipline by shimmying along. These are some serious stealth strategies though and failure will lead to heavily armed goons coming to take you down. This is for a player that has mastered the controls and locates the opportunity.

However…

There is another contextual movement section before the one previously mentioned.

After the player has got through the first wave of bad guys but before the main door, there is a little path leading off to the left.

Nightfire Pathway
Notice the pathway to the left, highlighted by the wooden handrail. (Source: xTimelessGaming, YouTube).

Heading down there allows the player to scale around the wall. During the cutscene Bond moves through some crunchy snow (5:28). The guards at the door (if they are alive) will come and investigate, but soon head back to their post. This introduces sound into a larger gameplay loop.

If the player has gunned their way to this section, they already know about sound and its role in alerting guards. This gameplay section highlights that quick movements can give you away and that slow movements (such as when the player is crouching) can make you silent and less easy to detect.

Each one of these variations on infiltrating the castle starts you in a different place during the next section. If you came in with the wine truck you start near the wine cellars. If you walked through the main door you are a few corridors away. And if you took the ‘Stealth 2’ route you start in a guard tower.

Nightfire Castle
The different play styles net different rewards and new locations, making each style feel unique. (Source: infinitemirai.wordpress.com).

Even better, all these other places are available to visit. If you came in via the castle wall you can find the truck and where it ends up. It’s almost like reverse engineering, seeing where certain gameplay decisions spawn you.

Conclusion

I am going to finish this piece here because I don’t want this article to run long, but I will give a few bullet points as to what the next gameplay sections deliver.

  • A non-violent social stealth element where the player must work their way through the environment (useful in later levels like ‘Night Shift’).
  • Bond uses his micro-camera in two cutscenes. Its appearance shows it can be used for surveillance and to complete objectives (like in ‘Chain Reaction’).
  • We are barred from following the bad guys, so we go another way to rendezvous with another agent. On the way back, the barred section is open. As it is now unlocked, we can follow it. This is a perfect way to guide players in a non-linear fashion.
Nightfire Interior
The player is familiarised through non-violent gameplay sections before the level opens up. This allows for the game to guide the player without needing waypoints. (Source: infinitemirai.wordpress.com).
  • After some shooting we get another weapon (an unsilenced machine pistol, another element added to the weapon matrix).
  • We head back outside and encounter a contextual zipline. Like the guardhouse there are no enemies shooting at us, so we can find the button that makes the zipline work without the worry that we will die.
  • Alternatively, the player can stay inside and get to the next objective quicker.
  • Alternatively, if we did go outside we would be awarded with another weapon (a machine gun with a silencer) and a stun grenade. These weapons make quick work of the guards at the objective, as they use cover and have machine pistols.
  • When the player completes the objective by retrieving a suitcase, they also pick up a rocket launcher. It is impossible to pick up the suitcase without also getting the launcher.
  • Once the player has got to the cable car station (which they would have visited if they went outside, but is also in a straight line if they stayed inside), a helicopter shows up. What do we have that can take down a helicopter? The rocket launcher.
Nightfire Helicopter
Bond in combat against the helicopter. (Source: superadventuresingaming.blogspot.com).
  • The cable car has several windows. These can be shot out with regular ammo, allowing an almost perfect 360 degrees view.
  • The rocket is automatically on guided rockets, so when a player first shoots one they control its destination. While this may seem confusing on the first shot, the player’s previous movement controls come back into play and they can deliver several follow up shots on the helicopter.
  • The rocket launcher has full ammo capacity so even if the player misses a few shots, they will have enough to finish the mission.

Each following level takes one of the aspects from the ‘The Exchange’ and expands it, whether that is close quarters combat (‘Double Cross’), stealth (‘Night Shift’) sniping (‘Chain Reaction’) or all-out action (‘Phoenix Fire’).

While there might be some stealth in ‘Phoenix Fire’ or action at the end of ‘Night Shift’, these are only very small elements. This allows the levels to have their own distinct tones and themes. But that is why ‘The Exchange’ is a perfect opening. It allows for that difference in playstyle but also player freedom, educating them on how to play the game.

Newer 007 games like Blood Stone and Goldeneye Reloaded also have this balance of stealth and action in their opening levels, but none of them give the freedom of Nightfire, instead they railroad you through a directed experience.

That is not to say that strict linear games are bad. On the contrary, I love Blood Stone. But I think that freedom gives ‘The Exchange’ and Nightfire an excellent sense of character and gameplay. And that is why it is so fondly remembered.

And it doesn’t hurt that they absolutely killed it with the multiplayer. ‘Skyrail’ anyone?

Banner Photo Source: techraptor.net.

Assassin’s Creed, Jacob Frye, & Bisexuality In Games

I recently completed Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate and loved the entire experience. While I have enjoyed certain aspects of each Assassin’s Creed since the exquisite original, none of them have really captivated me as a whole.

While I enjoyed the majority of the predecessor, UnitySyndicate really felt like a step up. The setting of Victorian London was a great location, and the constant liberation missions through the boroughs were on the right side of grinding for me. But the major selling point that got me interested in the game were the dual playable characters, twins Jacob and Evie Frye.

I was excited at playing as Evie due to her being the first playable female Assassin in the main series and loved her no-nonsense attitude and bubbling chemistry with fellow Assassin Henry Green. I at first neglected Jacob for his more charming sister, but became intrigued at reading online that he was confirmed as bisexual. Jeffrey Yohalem, lead writer for the game, confirmed Jacob’s identity on The Assassin’s Den podcast, and the official Assassin’s Creed Tumblr posted,

“Jacob Frye is bisexual. This is canon. The end.”

AC as a series has always tried tackling serious topics in the games. Religion and hypocrisy managed to fuel four games, but the series has also turned an eye towards colonialism, slavery, and the idea of ends justifying the means.

Even Syndicate manages to debate imperialism, with Evie trying to convince Queen Victoria to retreat from India after the end credits. Syndicate also includes the series’ first openly trans character, so if the game wanted to focus on one of its leads sexuality, I was all for it.

Jacob’s sexuality is brought to the fore in Sequence 8, where a vaguely flirtatious relationship is developed with bad guy Maxwell Roth, culminating is Roth kissing Jacob as the former dies. It was a small moment, and Jacob’s reaction can be read in numerous ways.

Despite being an avid gamer, I can only name a few game characters that are bisexual. Compared to the gay and lesbian characters (both open and can be read as) that I could rattle off with ease, it was a struggle. So, in a bid to both better myself and hopefully learn something new, I decided to go for a look.

“Of course, people do go both ways– (Scarecrow, The Wizard Of Oz) – A Look At & For Bisexual Characters In Games

There is one place that bisexuality does come to the front in gaming spheres; role-playing games. The houses of Bethesda and Bioware have an amazing hold on one subsection of games because they cater to gamers who want to explore a different identity or play as someone similar to themselves.

As Keza McDonald says in the documentary How Video Games Changed The World,

“In Mass Effect your character is basically bisexual by default. You can flirt with whoever you want and pursue a relationship with whoever you want…” (1:02:26)

Games like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Elder Scrolls and Fallout start off players in the middle and then allow them to move in any direction they want.

While there are characters like Steve Cortez in Mass Effect that will only romance you if you are the same gender, most characters can be romanced by both genders. There was even some fan backlash when character Kaidan Alenko, who had been a heterosexual character, became a romantic possibility for a male main character in Mass Effect 3.

However, my issue with RPGs like the ones listed above stems from that openness to player choice. While Mass Effect has been thoroughly mocked for its “input-gifts-output-sex” approach to sex and sexuality, it is entirely player driven, and not part of the default character of Shepard.

Games that use the Marvel properties give a massive boost to LGBT representation. Characters like Mystique, Prodigy, Deadpool and Lightspeed are either bi or pan, and have appeared in everything from Ultimate Alliance to Lego Marvel, games catering to all ages and players. Yet these characters are from another medium, they aren’t solely bi/pan within their games. And that is even if the topic of their sexuality comes up during the experience.

In a similar vein, games of other properties have confirmed bisexual characters like Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World and Korra in The Legend Of Korra. But again, does it count toward representation if their sexuality doesn’t come into the game? According to the LGBTQ Video Game Archive, the character of Asami from The Legend Of Korra (and girlfriend of the eponymous bisexual heroine) is omitted from the game, taking away a large amount of bi visibility from the franchise.

And what of people from history that would have identified as bi or pan? In AC: Unity, Marquis De Sade is one of main character Arno’s contacts, and embraces his relationships with both genders. While it is only really found in side-missions rather than the main game, it is nice that it is included.

***

Before doing some research into the topic, I could only name two other bisexual characters besides Jacob Frye. Those two were Juri Han from the Street Fighter series and Trevor Phillips from Grand Theft Auto V.

I like Juri, she’s a fun character and her crazy fighting style in Street Fighter IV drew me to her. All of her dialogue in the games points to her attraction to other characters or being sexually aggressive. When she squares off against Chun-Li in the latter’s Rival Fight, Juri ponders whether Chun-Li has “a schoolgirl crush” on her. However, none of Juri’s flirting is confirmed within game, so it could just be Juri’s way of mentally screwing with her opponents.

With Trevor, the game is explicitly up front about his sexual preferences, with his LifeInvader profile stating that, “any hole’s a goal”. When asked by his friend Franklin if he is gay, Trevor responds,

“No. Yeah. Whatever. Labels, bro…”

He seems indifferent to who his partners are, just going along for the ride and propositioning several members of the cast. That makes a debate on whether Trevor is bisexual or pansexual, but he can be easily identified as ‘not straight’.

With Jacob, it is more layered when it comes to his sexuality. I’ll link here to an excellent article on New Normative by Susana Valdes, which goes into more detail than I ever could. Valdes breaks down all the subtext and personality traits of Jacob, highlighting how his sexuality is foreshadowed throughout the game.

Conclusion

There is one genre that I have neglected to talk about in this post; dating sims. A notable one in recent years was Dream Daddy, a dating simulator game where all the characters that can be romanced are fathers, with the player character being gay or bi, cis or transgender.

And sure, dating sims are a great way to have that diversity, it is inherent to the product. But Jacob’s story is one that I wish we could see more of. Something different to the ‘bisexual-as-sadist/psychopath’ trope that has been perpetuated for years in media (highlighted by Trevor and Juri), or not just as someone to bed like in Mass Effect.

There has been a massive boost to diversity with games like Overwatch and Apex Legends, where characters preferences and sexualities are highlighted, but are never more than a bark or backstory, one that we may never see.

I’ve only really scratched the surface in this short post, and there are much smarter and more qualified people to really dig into the stuff I’ve mentioned. But there is a reason I wanted to write about this topic. While I wholeheartedly approve and promote for more representation and inclusivity, I want to add to it. It was an important first step to show LGBT characters, now I would like to see mainstream games tackle issues around it.

Some of the best books (Giovanni’s Room), television shows (The Soprano’s Seasons 5-6), and films (Call Me By Your Name) have been about coming out, homophobia (internal and external), and civil rights, why not games? The only game I can think of that has broached these subjects is Persona 4. In that game, punk biker dude Kanji Tatsumi struggles between his outward masculinity and his sexual identity, which he feels are incompatible with each other. His internal battle is something rarely seen in games and it helps develop a compelling character in the process.

It doesn’t have to be for a whole game, but have it as a continual thing in the background, waiting for its chance to come into the limelight, rather than being thrown out for a level or two. I want to move the focus to the main character, where their relationships are part of the main story. Player and avatar don’t always have to be in sync, and I feel that’s where the best stories are found, where the player lives in another’s shoes.

Let us step into those stories, experience a character’s world, and who knows, we may find ourselves identifying with them more than we could have ever known. That can only be a good thing.

The LGBTQ Video Game Archive has been instrumental in the creation of this piece. Check out the website here.

Banner Photo Source: assassinscreedfandom.com

Vito Scaletta: A Character Study

He is one of the most beloved characters of the seventh generation and possibly the face of an entire franchise. Even now, almost a decade on from his role in the spotlight, you can find a myriad of blog posts and forum messages detailing why Vito Scaletta is one of the greatest characters to ever grace a computer screen.

Vito Scaletta is a central character in the Mafia series. An Italian-American immigrant brought into the fold of Cosa Nostra, we play as Vito in Mafia II through the 1940s and 50s as he rises through the ranks of organised crime. Despite only being a playable character in the second game, he has featured in the series from the start.

While not named in the original Mafia, a mission near the end of Mafia II retroactively inserts Vito into the story, being the hitman that kills previous main character Tommy Angelo. After playing through his story in Mafia II, he is brought back in Mafia III as an underboss.

Vito Mafia 1
Vito (left) as he appears in the original Mafia, completing the hit on main character Tommy Angelo. (Source: stemacommunity.com).

It is cool having this unique connecting thread through the series, rather than a more standard sequel with a returning cast. Other series such as Assassin’s Creed and Timesplitters have had similar through-lines, but not as clear as Mafia’s (AC’s are usually just cameo appearances such as Charles Dorian in AC: Rogue, and TS had the Jones family featuring in the years 1853, 1965, and 2243).

So what made Vito such a compelling character? Well, I thought about doing a little character study. Let’s jump in.

“You look like a protagonist…” (Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell)– A Look Back At Vito Scalleta

The first thing we have to address in looking back at a character, any character, is how the story or text is framed. Context is important, how the creator presents it can affect how it is received. The entire Mafia series is presented by flashback format; Tommy tells his story to Det. Norman, Vito looks over his family album, and Lincoln’s story is told through interviews of other characters in a documentary format.

Characters retelling a story can lead to embellishment, skipping over points that may seem inconsequential to them, but would aid a greater understanding of their life. This is nothing new; games ranging from Battlefield to Silent Hill, Dragon Age to Monkey Island have used unreliable narrators for action set-pieces, antagonist reveals, or even just for a laugh.

It seems that the team at 2k Czech were aware of this aspect. Games Radar mentioned that the original Mafia,

“…centered on the most significant events in [Tommy Angelo’s] life while largely ignoring his day-to-day life as a mobster.” (Reparaz, M. 2008)

In response, writer/director of both games, Daniel Vavra said,

“The player is going to experience more of everything…those action sequences will always be in context to the story and the mafia theme…[but aren’t] mutually exclusive to the ‘nitty-gritty life of a mobster’”. (Reparaz, M. 2008).

We also have to keep in mind the aspect of the nature of the avatar. Depending on who is playing Vito, he could be a bloodthirsty psychopath or a pacifist, a road rageaholic or someone who never passes 30mph. It is both one of the great foibles and assets when trying to dissect a videogame, as there is never a “concrete” personality to a character when in gameplay.

Personally, I will be working off the idea of the only characters that the player is under obligation to kill die during the narrative, as it is a good medium.

So with those addendums given, let us start on the game proper.

Vito Mafia 3 First meeting
Vito’s first appearance in Mafia III. Soon after, he joins with Lincoln Clay to take down the Cosa Nostra. (Source: pinterest.com)

The first aspect ties in with the nature of the avatar, but from a designer point of view rather than a player. Jack Scalici, Director of Creative Production on Mafia 2 listed Vito’s character traits,

Scalici: “…he’s a nice guy. He has strong morals. He doesn’t kill people because he wants to, he kills because he has to.” (FAIR/PLAY, 2017).

I’ll add a few more; he is quiet, unassuming, and rational. He is the complete opposite of “shoot-first-ask-questions-later” Joe, that’s why they make a great pair. But all of these terms to describe Vito are rather nebulous. There is nothing standout about him, he is tabula rasa, a blank slate.

The technique of tabula rasa is used a lot in games, as it helps develop quick player identification. If there is no set personality, we can project whatever we want onto a character. Some of the most iconic and beloved characters are like this; Gordon Freeman, Link, Crash Bandicoot, Doom Guy, none of them have any notable character traits besides vague concepts like “brave’ or “wacky”, but they are often found at the top of ‘Favourite Game Character Lists.’

Tabula rasa can also lead to great narrative twists. Characters like James Sunderland in Silent Hill 2, Nilin in Remember Me, and Walker in Spec Ops, these characters are kept vague in the beginning, before their personality is revealed later into the narrative, leading to shame, shock, or abhorrence at their true colours.

Vito doesn’t have these quirks. He is kept elusive and quiet, possibly for player connection, but that unfortunately bleeds over into the game. It makes Vito look like someone who only takes orders and has no initiative. He’s constantly the fall guy, from start to finish, always kowtowing to his higher-ups. When Luca Gurino asks whether Vito is willing to “take the next step” by,

Luca: “…taking somebody out, just ‘cause someone points his finger at him and tells you to do it.”

Vito replies,

Vito: “I was in the war, Mr. Gurino. All I did was kill people I was told to kill…”

Luca laughs and responds,

Luca: “We need guys like you. Guys who can follow orders without asking questions.”

Throughout the two games that he prominently features in, Vito has this veneration for authority. When Cassandra and Vito square off, Vito falls back on his seniors,

Cassandra: “You can blame Marcano all you want, but it was your men who ambushed us.”

Vito: “My men were following orders. We got rules.”

When Lincoln breaks up the argument, Cassandra follows up,

Cassandra: “…do you know how many of my men this connard killed ‘cause Marcano ‘told him to’?”

It could be that Vito appeals to authority due to his absent father. Throughout Mafia II, Vito doesn’t look too kindly on his father’s memory. When Joe mentions him near the beginning, Vito quickly shoots in and calls him a “deadbeat”. And when Mama Scalletta says she wished Vito’s father could have seen him return from the war, Vito sarcastically replies, “Yeah, sure.”

This could be a reason why Vito jumps in with the mafia, to have a surrogate family. He obviously looks up to Leo Galante as a father figure (although Leo does not see Vito as a son). This could be why Vito goes along with things that are a detriment to him because he’s wanted a security of family.

Vito and Leo Mafia
Vito Scaletta and Leo Galante at the end of Mafia II. Vito looks up to Leo, but the older man sees Vito as disposable by Mafia III. (Source: ‘LoudMouthZander’, YouTube.com)

There are only two times that Vito pushes back against other’s actions, both times weakly. When Vito returns from the war, Joe get him out of the service. Vito objects, saying that he will go to prison if caught. After Joe placates him, Vito never brings up the subject again, even after going to prison partly because he went AWOL.

The second is when he and Joe team up with Henry Tomasino after killing Alberto Clemente. Henry proposes the three go into the drugs business. Vito objects, saying,

Vito: “Drugs are bad. They kill people.”

On top of this, when swearing allegiance to the Cosa Nostra, Frank Vinci, one of the other bosses in the city, says,

Vinci: “Whatever you do gentlemen, stay away from the dope! No dope! That’s our policy.”

Yet, Vito goes along, swayed by the money Henry promises. He is greedy. When his house is burnt down by the Irish mob, Joe tries to console him with the fact that,

Joe: “…all that stuff that got burnt up, it’s just things Vito.”

However, Vito does not see it like that. He replies angrily,

Vito: “Just things? Hey, those were my things Joe. Why do you think I do the shit we do anyways? It’s to buy things, ya know, suits, cars, broads, houses.”

This thin motivation of material possessions is brought up again in Mafia III,

Lincoln: “Nobody forced you to get greedy. You could’ve sat back, been content, watched the money roll in. But no, that wasn’t enough.”

Mafia II Vito and Eddie
Once Vito is ‘made’, we get montages featuring him buying cars, a big house, and smart suits. Money seems to be Vito’s main motivating factor. (Source: tiltingatpixels.com).

So, other than a substitute family, it is a drive for the American Dream that pushes Vito forward. When thinking back on his arrival in Empire Bay, Vito remarks,

Vito: “Never in my life had I seen anything as fantastic as Empire Bay. It was beautiful…on the other hand, I’d never seen anything filthier or more disgusting than our new shithole of an apartment.”

He is always trying to better himself, motivated by an almost loathing of his parents for raising him in poverty. Maybe this is why Vito is notoriously work shy, throwing in the manual labour job at the port he gets at the beginning of the game, as it reminds him of his father. This aversion to the lower class is seen in dialogue with Joe near the beginning of the game.

Joe: “The working man is a sucker, that’s for damn sure.”

Vito: “You said it.”

And when talking to Joe after they exact revenge on the Irish mob for torching Vito’s house (therefore losing all of his accumulated wealth), Vito explains,

Vito: “I promised myself I’d never be poor again, end up a fucking wharf rat like my old man.”

Senior producer Denby Grace shed some light on Vito’s motivations during pre-release promotion of the game,

Grace: “He [Vito] just wants to get a bit of money, a bit of respect and a bit of power. Vito doesn’t aspire to be the Don.” (FAIR/PLAY, 2017).

Unlike Tommy who joined up for safety in Mafia 1, or Lincoln who was raised by the Black Mob in Mafia III, Vito just starts off as a delinquent and never wavers, even after a stint in prison.

The only acknowledgement that Vito wanted to be a gangster is an internal monologue during the scene where he becomes a made man.

Vito: “You might wonder why I’d take this risk again after spending almost seven years in the can. You see, where I grew up, the only guys who mattered were the ones who had the balls to take what they wanted…

…and after years of doing everybody else’s dirty work, I was willing to risk anything to finally be somebody.”

There is obviously a feeling that he always wanted to follow this path. In Mafia III, Vito’s death mission is literally called “I Deserved Better.” When he is beaten, Vito says,

Vito: “I gave up everything for this life. Everything! And look where I ended up!”

But Vito is wrong. He did not ‘give up’ everything. He lost everything. He lost his family, with his sister Frankie breaking ties with him. He lost his freedom when he went to jail. He lost his friend Joe and lost his way within the Cosa Nostra when he killed Carlo Falcone. As Tommy says in the epilogue of the original Mafia,

“…the guy who wants too much risks losing absolutely everything. Of course, the guy who wants too little from life might not get anything at all.”

Vito mafia 3
Vito is at first sceptical of Lincoln’s help, fearing that he would be betrayed once again just like he was back in Empire Bay. (Source: pinterest.com)

Vito’s ‘death’ in Mafia III also sheds light on his character. If Lincoln kills the other two bosses, Cassandra and Burke, he is restrained and gentle in their final moments together. He sits with Burke while he drifts away, and returns Cassandra’s pendant with a picture of her dead daughter to her.

Vito is the only one that is holding a gun in his final cutscene, dropping it to the ground after realising it is empty. However, he pulls a switchblade out and rushes Lincoln, forcing the latter to shoot him dead. This can be seen as a continuation of his traits in Mafia II. As Vito says in his confrontation with Lincoln,

Vito: “There’s always been someone waitin’ to fuck me.”

The switchblade makes sense; he’s been around for too long and will take any chance he gets to bring some semblance of balance to his world. He’s turned grey with age and anger, only having dominion over a scrap of land given to him more out of loyalty than being an earner.

And once he is dead, his underboss Alma sadly refers to him as “a good little solider.” That is seemingly all he was, even after all this time.

Yet if he takes over when Lincoln leaves, Vito seemingly drags New Bordeaux out of dirt. Unlike Burke or Cassandra, Vito revitalises the city and lives into old age. He builds casinos, arenas, convention centres, turning the city into “the Las Vegas of the South” according to Jonathan Macguire. He finally ‘wins’. It is all material, nothing but bricks and mortar, but as mentioned previously, that is all Vito wants for.

Conclusion

As I said in the introduction, it is rare to find a character like Vito that develops with subsequent games. Even the other famous Italian gaming icon, (no, the OTHER one), Ezio Auditore, doesn’t change much over the thirty-five years we spend playing as him, only really changing in the first act of AC2 when his father and brothers are murdered. And that’s the main difference; Ezio starts with tragedy, Vito ends with it.

I think it is this beautifully melancholic arc, which is why Vito is so loved. Tommy in Mafia 1 doesn’t get as much time to grow, and Lincoln is seemingly indifferent by the end of Mafia III. We see Vito through both the major moments and his everyday life, and it endears us to him.

Mafia 2 Vito and Joe
Even now nearly a decade on, Vito and Joe’s story is fondly remembered by fans of the series. (Source: greghorrorshow.wordpress.com)

His nature as a protagonist also makes us look favorably on him. As an avatar, we have a slight bias towards him. I think a character, especially one in a story-driven game like this, digs into a psyche deeper than a general protagonist in an open-world crime sim.

Following on from that, the setting also helps aid our connection to Vito. For all the open-world games we have nowadays, there are very little that have a period setting. And while the original Mafia is a fun game, it is brutally unforgiving. There is an idolisation of the gangster trope, seen in Hollywood since the 30s. This was the intended goal by 2k Czech, as Cinematic Director Tomás Hrebícek said in an interview,

“We want to present the whole game in a Hollywood film like style…” (FAIR/PLAY, 2017).

Sat next to your best friend, both dressed in snazzy suits, wielding a classic Tommy gun, driving a sleek convertible, listening to classic rock-n-roll blaring out of the radio, it is hard not to see the draw. And being the guy we get to experience that with would make him stick in your mind.

And speaking of friends, what of Joe? Even when he kills innocent bystanders and causes havoc for Vito to clear up, it is never questioned, because of that bond. Joe is Vito’s friend, therefore by extension is ‘ours’. The company we keep can be just as enticing as the lead.

In the end I think I like Vito more in Mafia III. There is a history there that is interesting to ruminate on and more to play off. But the simple layers of Mafia II worked their magic, seeing this once promising young lad reach for the dream of something better, but lose everything in the process.

He may not have much to say, but he has a damn good story to tell. And a good story will be remembered and treasured.

Banner Photo Source: goodfon.com