When it comes to the question of taking video games seriously, many people have become a little caught up in looking for the Citizen Kane of the medium or, at least, looking for a game that possesses greater depth than a half-submerged rubber ring in the Dead Sea.
At the moment this seems to be too lofty a goal, and instead we should be seeking something that is easier to accomplish right now within mainstream video games.
Citizen Kane is about a subtle and all-encompassing self destruction of the main character, an ambitious person absorbing himself and destroying everyone around him. No matter how charismatic he may be he is doomed. This is presented through the eyes of those around him and at no point is he the narrator. This leaves the story ambiguous and open to interpretation. Although the film strongly leans toward one conclusion it is still down to us, the audience, to decide what we believe. Already, some who have watched the film will be calling me on my opening three sentences and saying â€œThat’s not what is about at all!â€
For games to attempt something similar to this would involve invoking something that games are not about. Within the industry as it exists today it seems unlikely that something similarly open to interpretation could function, because the audience is so actively involved in the experience. That’s not even to mention how much of the gaming audience is resistant to the idea of anything being ‘non-canon’. Fuck, people struggle to appreciate how Ico could be about a massive bully. How are games supposed to articulate, in any kind of constructive manner, the idea that a protagonist is not the winner, that he might be a shitty person, without instantly turning off the majority of their audience?
Gaming is too involved, too personal and – letâ€™s be honest – almost every verb used in almost every game is about destroying or killing something. Literally.
So, what I am trying to get at is that I don’t want to see a Citizen Kane of games. The atmosphere and environment of that film is not right for this kind of medium. What would be right for it, and is also something that every attempt at has failed, is a Die Hard game.
Certainly game versions of the franchise have been produced as early as the NES, but no developer has been able to accomplish what Die Hard does so well.Â Bruce Willis is iconic as the main character John McClane, a character who dragged action films away from Hollywood super-men (ubermensch if you will). He wasn’t some steroid-pumped fuck with perfect hair and perfect aim; instead he had no shoes and a prominent, receding hairline. His quips were something that everyone could identify with because they were down to earth. John didn’t want to be Clint Eastwood; he wanted to be Roy Rodgers. This self-deprecating nature endeared him to us and at the same time made us care.
Some may argue that recent efforts like Uncharted have approached this idea of a Die Hard-style character. I would agree that Nathan Drake is more appealing than most stars in games, but the reason that Uncharted slips more into the Indiana Jones field is not just because of the archaeology angle but because Uncharted doesn’t have the right villains and Nathan Drake is just too clean.
Die Hard has these human, evil but oh-so easy-to-like bad guys. From the onset of their storming the Nakatomi building you are given insight into the people they were before they embarked on this endeavour. The bigger parts played by Alan Rickman and Alexander Gudunov are easily identifiable and even have lines to rival Bruce Willis. However the illumination is in the details of the bit characters: the scummy cokehead co-worker, the pregnant secretary, the Johnson agents. One of my favourite moments happens when the police are about to storm the Nakatomi building and in response the bad dudes group up in the main foyer.Â While waiting for the SWAT team assault one of the villains waits behind a counter, only to hesitate, look around, then scurry under the counter to eat a chocolate bar in preparation. The scene is totally throwaway but it is hard not to like because it breaks that personal barrier. You might not like this guy but you can certainly identify with the urge to eat free sweets.
Outside a small handful of games – Bioshock’s Big Daddy and Little Sister relationship being the first to spring to mind â€“ games cannot capture that same humanity within the ‘bad people’ players are pitted against.
Die Hard is also able to play with you because, deep down, there is a part of you that kind of wants the terrorists to get away with it, with the result that the scene where Rickman is thrown off the building becomes twice as effective. Despite his setup as the antagonist, and you do want him to fail, you still are gutted that such an intriguing character is gone.
This is why I was so deeply disappointed with Halo 2‘s unravelling. At certain points the game puts you in the shoes of an Arbiter, a mortal enemy of the protagonist Master Chief, giving shape to the alien’s reasons for wanting to kill the original protagonist. This, and some solid voice acting from Keith David, makes it easy for you to identify with with the character. As the game flits between the two perspectives it is the Arbiter who you end up liking more as his plight represents a more personally compelling story. The game cleverly starts making the two stories wind ever closer together and it feels like the game is going to end in a painful moment where you, as Master Chief, will have to kill the Arbiter. Of course Bungie pussied out and made them best buddies.
Few games manage to to come close to that Die Hard feel because we are so overly obsessed with ‘winning’ that it becomes difficult to understand someone else’s perspective. Far Cry 2 had a stab at it with the buddy system but the resolution of that did not feel right – in fact it seemed carted out at the last minute as a rushed chapter close.
There are a few other games that have hinted at such an approach: No One Lives Forever and Sword of the Berserk: Gut’s Rage. Neither are quite right in terms of what it is they are trying to convey, the former because it is inevitable that you will kill because the mechanics dictate as much and the latter because it is what the narrative dictates. This inevitability is forced in such a way that the most important advantage games have over other mediums – player agency – is removed and this dulls their impact.
So my question is, have we come close to a Die Hard of video games? Is there any hope of using these verbs we are so accustomed to in such a way that designers can still make us like the things we must kill? Where could we be looking?