Mar 20 2014

My (Recent) Problem With Video Games: Killing The Red Dots

Published by at 12:24 pm under Editorials,Video Games

red dead

As many of you know, I’ve been getting back into video games after a long absence over the past few months.  For the most part, it’s been a seamless transition.  There is one thing that’s changed, though:

I no longer get the satisfaction I once did from gunning down hordes of anonymous enemies – the eponymous “red dots” in the radar screen on most modern video games.

It’s certainly not because I have some age-induced squeamishness about virtual death and destruction, nor do I think it’s some kind of moral issue where fantasy violance has some negative psychological effect.  Rather, it’s just not as fun as it once was in GoldenEye, and I think there are a couple interesting reasons why.

I mean, it’s not like I think video games do this…

violent-video-games-flickr-nws

And I don’t think it’s the other swing of the pendulum either.  Last time I checked, I haven’t strangled any hookers with leather gloves, so I’m thinking my moral compass is soundly intact.

I think mainly it’s an issue with the games themselves.  It sounds strange, but I think the overall quality of games – especially story-wise – has really made the “kill the red dots” part of video games a little boring.

Don’t get me wrong, in games where that’s the main, essential aspect, it’s a different thing altogether.  Especially in games where any random enemy can drop an amazing item; it makes every pedestrian encounter have that flavor of “maybe… maybe this time…”

diabloii-322456

Like in Diablo.  Every stupid little goblin (once you got onto the higher difficulties) had a chance – a very small one – of dropping a unique shiny gold item.

But Diablo also didn’t have a great story or compelling characters.  I mean, you literally played a “Necromancer.”  (or whatever).  You had basically zero background, and that was fine because it was never about that.

With the games I’ve been playing – Red Dead, Mass Effect, Tomb Raider, GTA IV, Halo 3 – this is not the case.  I suppose technically Mass Effect 1 does have a varied drop system, but try finding your brand new Colossus armor in the scroll list of 38 random shitty assault rifles.  Overall, the thing about these games is that they have complex, multilayered characters, with large-sweeping, compelling stories, and then every half-hour they rubber-band back to “oh shit we have to have a part that feels like a video game” and you play whack-a-mole with 30-40 red-dot enemies.

I especially noticed this on a certain Red Dead mission:

rdr_0299

For those of you who don’t recognize it straight off, it’s the transition mission between the first big area and the second, crossing the river to Mexico.  You’re being pulled across by inveterate alcoholic Irish, when suddenly (surprise!) you’re attacked!  The line is cut, and you drift down the river, fighting off waves of enemies who snipe at you from the shore.

I found myself thinking: Who are these people? Irish mumbles something about “having made some enemies” in Mexico, but that’s about the extent of the explanation. As I was mindlessly headshoting the 35th guy, my mind wandered – wouldn’t this be a pretty big event, news-wise, if some cowboy fought off and killed upwards of 50 armed attackers, while on a raft? And also: how exactly are 50 people unable to kill one person on a raft, and why do they attack in such nicely-spaced waves of 3 or 4?

I mean, obviously, because it’s a video game.  But that’s kind of my point.  You’re not getting XP/Levels for killing them, they don’t drop items (well, ammo or money, but nothing cool), so it basically comes across as a shooting minigame you have to pass to get to the next story cutscene.  Which is an interesting turnaround for video games, because as a kid I remember the story cutscenes being the boring parts between the fun action.

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It’s possible there’s a bit of age-related bias to this post, admittedly

So there’s that.  If a game is good enough, the “shoot the red dots” part can break your willing suspension of disbelief.  (Which is why Mass Effect 2‘s “Lair of the Shadow Broker” is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever played, because it pokes fun at this very concept while managing to stay dramatic and fun at the same time).

Maybe there’s another part to it, though.  It has to do with emotional impact.

Here’s the moment in Tomb Raider when Lara Croft first kills a human being:

TombRaider_feature_2

It’s preceded by a pretty tense, heart-pounding chase, complete with near misses and feelings of helplessness.  It’s almost an accident when you do shoot him.  For the game to make such a big deal out of a moment like that (and it worked very well) and then have the player doing stuff like this less than 30 minutes of game time later…

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It just feels… dissonant.  It’s like there are two games going on, the one that plays out in cinematics, and the one you play yourself.

It’s an odd feeling.  As games have gotten more precise, more focused at storytelling, killing the red dots makes less actual sense, and I think we’re starting to notice.





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10 responses so far

  • cypher20

    Well, I think with any medium there needs to be a level of “suspension of disbelief” and you’ve hit the nail on the head on where it is in gaming. At least in a game with a quality story. You have to “go through the motions” to get to the next cutscene.

    Some games are better about this then others. FFXIII for example was really bad about this. I’m not upset that it had linearity, but it was entirely too linear for too long, didn’t have a rich world to explore (kind of the point of an RPG), and thus it really painfully highlighted the fact that you’re just grinding through mobs to get to the next cutscene.

    In a game like Mass Effect, I never really minded and it all seemed to jibe, especially given that it is a military type game. Tomb Raider it was definitely an issue simply because they didn’t go far enough with the concept. There’s all this build-up to the first kill and then after that, BAM, Lara Croft is flippin’ Prophet from Crysis. They should have taken some more time to build up to that level.

    People leveled a similar complaint at Bioshock Infinite, which never really jibed with me. I never felt the combat was out of place, so, to each their own. Anyway, I’m rambling. Point is, I do think age plays a part. We’ve “seen it all” and “done it all”. I’m also not sure it is a problem that really has a “fix”. You can do story focused games like the Walking Dead game, but not every game can be that way. You could go the Last of Us route, I’ve heard (haven’t bought it yet, minus 100 gamer points for me) that game had much lower kill counts and thus probably jibed better, but again, can every game do that? Ultimately, I think it is something that is here to stay and each game is just going to have to deal with it as best they can.

    • Indy Z

      Great points all around. I agree that I’m not sure there’s an easy solution to this. I think each game needs to take the problem and chew on it a bit, and come up with a way to at least address it even if they don’t eliminate it. Coming up with twists, ways to make endlessly gunning down bad guys different somehow.

  • http://nickverboon.wordpress.com/ Nick Verboon

    Indy, you totally just rewrote my Gamemoir article for the week. You’ll be hearing from my lawyers, homes. Actually, I’m pretty impressed you came to this conclusion this fast when I’ve been playing games almost nonstop since birth and have only recently started thinking this way myself.

    • Indy Z

      Damn, what’s with Unreality eating my comments? I had this rather long response typed out and now it’s gone. Point of the point – I checked out that article and it’s really good. I really like this sentence; it codifies a lot of what I was circling around:

      “Making a protagonist pretty much invincible and able to easily handle
      any threat may fuel the gamer’s power fantasy, but it’s becoming a
      liability on the story front.”

      • http://nickverboon.wordpress.com/ Nick Verboon

        Thanks. It’s funny that out of all the games we both ended up on RDR; a game that most people are loathe to criticize.

  • Vonter

    The thing it’s also shooting games have become stale. In the past the games had puzzle elements, search for keys, stealth or escort missions to add variety to the shooting gameplay. But as of late the shooting is the excuse to pad a story. Even with added presentation many games have felt the same with corridors roadblocked by enemies and you do that in between scripted cinematic setpieces, that for the most part, are not in your control.

    I think also the problem from a narrative point of view its that drama, si hard to translate into gameplay, mass effect has its decision trees, like adventure games, but several others are mainly, kill or not kill this character. I think the question is, how can you interact better with the gun? or what you could add to the game besides the gun but not underplay the core gameplay mechanic?

    • Indy Z

      Solid point. I would love to see a shooter where it gun itself was almost a character… evolving in a meaningful way, changing… you having to prevent it from breaking or wearing down. Could be interesting.

      • Vonter

        Actually that was an implication in Vanquish. But that’s more likely a cultural discrepancy in how Japan sees guns in games, in constrast to the West, which is merely a tool.

  • Indy Z

    Oh look, there it is… a day later. Anyone else not so enthusiastic about Disquus or whatever it’s called?

  • Indy Z

    That video is pretty freaking funny. I’ve seen some of his stuff before and always enjoy it, although having played the actual game it makes it much more enjoyable.

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