July 10, 2008

The Spy Who Loved Me

James Bond got a free pass on being a misogynist. It probably irritated the harder-working lotharios not blessed with the ability to slap the girls to make 'em swoon, but Bond had no reason to care. He got the girls no matter who he offended, so why bother pretending to be something he wasn't? He was, indeed, a sexist. It was easier for him to act like it. So why did we let him off the hook? Well, for one, we thought he was cool, and -- here comes rationalisation -- he was born in an age and a culture of institutionalised misogyny, and the passage of time has desensitised us to antiquated excesses.

It's the same reason why Diablo doesn't seem as weird today as maybe it should. In 1996 it wasn't as curious a design decision for Blizzard to build a supermodel-level game entirely on repetitive and reductionist combat. The game is a point-and-click Space Invaders, with attack, parry, thrust, defend, shoot, reload, zoom, alt fire, holster weapon, duck, strafe, dodge, walk, talk, blink, breathe all mapped to the left mouse button. Click click click on lots of monsters, and that's Diablo; that's carpal tunnel syndrome. Combat like this would be a relic in any game on a similar production scale, if not for that once upon a time Diablo was very successful and spawned a franchise and imitators based on that singular mechanic. Today, amongst Gears and Gods of War; varied and multi-layered combat systems that provide the player with an ever-expanding array of input and feedback options, evidently there's still a place for Diablo.

Diablo has fans, Blizzard has their money, and thus Diablo 3 can be absurdly simple to play. If another major title, carrying with it a level of hype comparable to Diablo 3, came out and it was click click click? Disaster. Diablo has nostalgia, and it has a pass. Diablo-clones can get a pass too, but they'll never be the real thing. Titan Quest and Hellgate: London never generated as much affection as Diablo 2 and as much enthusiasm as Diablo 3. They're merely filling a void, and now the dark lord has returned to claim his throne. Nobody does it half as good as him.

It has an exemption, and so it is to gameplay what Metal Gear Solid is to narrative. More accurately, Metal Gear Solid is to cutscenes what Diablo is to monotony.

Metal Gear grew up in the pre-Half-Life era of high cutscene tolerance. Now, they're in the process of being eradicated completely. Tearing down Metal Gear Solid for its cutscene length is a tired grievance these days, and in leveraging the "genius" of Hideo Kojima, it's an easily deflected critique.

Still, put anyone with a broad gaming literacy in front of Metal Gear Solid for the first time and they'll be stunned. They'll have the same reaction when they see Diablo. There's so many mouse clicks. There's so many cutscenes. These games were designed in a vacuum where contemporary design sensibility never applied. How did they get away with this? How are they still doing this?

Indulgent cutscene length is another instant black mark for any game -- other than Metal Gear Solid. Kojima's impenetrable brilliance and pretensions are backed up by tradition, and a fanbase that will not only accept Kojima's idiosyncrasies but defend them. Metal Gear Solid gets players in any event, so why should Kojima bother pretending he's something he's not? His writing is repetitive, it is expository, it is ridiculous, but he can get away with that storytelling model while no other game can. Kojima's specific insanity has been endowed with the success of a Blizzard, and so he is granted the freedom to choose his own adventure.

Makes you feel sad for the rest. No one else can do what Kojima or Blizzard does, and what those two are doing is actually easier. Diablo's combat is as elementary as it gets. CliffyB can have all the paintball battlefield inspiration he wants, but Diablo, the anachronism machine, will remain a strong competitor. Meanwhile, other developers -- Valve, 2K -- are just as interested in telling a story as Kojima is, but without a history of lengthy cutscenes, they're stuck operating within modern narrative structures and gamer preferences. The preferences which say gamers don't care about cutscenes unless they're Hideo Kojima's. Marc Laidlaw and Ken Levine have to puzzle out a way to tell a story that doesn't wrench control from the player. It's easier to write a story as a screenplay than as audio fragments scattered around the architecture of a first-person-shooter. Kojima takes full advantage of his position; augmenting his epic saga with all the pseudo-science footnotes he wants. Like many have said, Kojima could use an editor, but no one's going to make him get one. For a writer like Kojima, the easiest setting is verbosity. Such is Kojima's luck that he gets to do what's easy.

Does it irritate the competition? Cover systems and squad AI can take months of work but click click click is a guaranteed hit? Perhaps it does. But when you look at why Kojima and Diablo are able to subsist at their most comfortable, it's because they never failed. They have the right to be nonconformists but they don't use it to make bad games. They never lost their audience. Never lost the critics, never lost the money, and never lost the right to ignore anyone who told them "no".

Kojima tells engrossing, emotional tales even though they're bizarre melodrama. It might be an unfairly discriminating set of circumstances that let him do so, but at that kind of intricate saga, he's the very best. Diablo's genius lies in its simplicity, as it translates to just one more monster addiction. They don't need to modernise it because everyone's already hooked. They trade on nostalgia, sure. But they'll never, ever betray those memories. They'll never stop reminding you of what you like about them. Diablo can stay conservative and Kojima can stay insane and they'll keep you coming home. Why?

Nobody does it better.


Noc said...

On a side note, for a perfect example of how yesterday's (or last decade's, really) gaming conventions fall flat in a modern setting without nostalgia to prop them up:

Play the first, oh, fifteen minutes of Lost Odyssey. They're pretty enlightening. If that's the right word.

Steve gaynor said...

Playing through MGS4, I'm amazed at how outright poor Kojima is at delivering story cinematically. The scene: two talking heads sit across from each other spewing exposition for 15 minutes. It's just really incredibly poor and I don't understand how anyone's praising it. Show don't tell, Kojima.

qrter said...

"They trade on nostalgia, sure. But they'll never, ever betray those memories."

I don't know.. is that an actual choice, though? Is Kojima actually able to do something different with MGS, thereby "betraying the memories"?

I really have no idea, I've never played any of the MGS games. How would someone like me react to playing MGS4 (ignoring the fact that someone like me wouldn't know the backstory, ofcourse)?

Ken Levine might also not be the best example - he already was doing the non-cutscene thing with System Shock 2, which was released around the same time as the first MGS, if I remember correctly.

Duncan said...

Steve, yeah, it's pretty bad. I think Kojima is the worst genius in video games today.

qrter: I'm sure he won't do anything different, which is why he won't disappoint the people who love him (as is the case with Blizzard.) Kojima's really never going to have to adapt to a different storytelling model, which is fine for him since that's where he's most comfortable, but the longer he does it the more anachronistic his style will become.

noc: yeah, there are quite a few examples. Dreamfall: The Longest Journey was a weird attempt at aping MGS that, despite being the game being a sequel to a cult classic, didn't work nearly as well as the Longest Journey or MGS. I feel like such a tool saying this but if Dreamfall had come out in 2006 and was a 2D point-and-click game -- trading on the power of nostalgia -- it would have done better.

Unknown said...

You're wrong about Diablo, and it just confuses things that you mix it up with MGS, where I think you're right.

People who criticize Diablo for being a "clickfest" are just like people who criticize the Myst games for being a "slideshow." In both cases, you're pointing at something that is not actually the core game mechanic and then criticizing the game as if it were the core game mechanic.

Criticizing Diablo because people playing it click the mouse alot is like criticizing Gears of War because people playing it sit on the couch alot. "That stupid Gears of War is nothing but couch-sitting. It's a regular couchfest."