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…
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…”
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:
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.
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:
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…
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.