A Tale of Two Forces
There’s a growing rift in the indie game community that I am detecting, which has led to an imbalance in Forces. And this rift is emblematic of the bad trends in gaming that have led me to markedly reduce the degree to which I play games.
I am, of course, referring to Broforce and Super Time Force.
Both are fine games with a kind of similar premise: Make an homage to the bombastic 1980s and early 1990s, to action movies and shows like Macgyver and The A-Team. Both are effectively games about an elite team of morons sent to do fairly stupid things in a highly exaggerated world.
Yet the games actually have markedly different design philosophies.
Broforce in all of its incarnations has been an incredibly simple game. Every level iteration is quick: You’re likely to either fail or succeed within five minutes.
Super Time Force, on the other hand, features a very complex and innovative design element. While the idea of playing with time is not new (and wasn’t new even with Braid and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time), Super Time Force does implement it in a way that is challenging and rewarding.
And yet I have seen people have so much more fun with Broforce.
Indie gamers have been blowing up about Super Time Force. Hardcore reviewers, from Tycho of Penny Arcade on, have simply had nothing but good to say about the game.
Yet the game has pretty severe flaws when actually played. A large part of the game is spent rewinding, which means that actual playtime is going to be a lot more passive than Broforce. There are some levels and encounters that may not be terribly clear as to how to complete or resolve the first time through.
This is not to say the game is a bad game by any stretch of the imagination. Obviously it has an innovative approach.
But there’s something pretentious about Super Time Force, something that is unquestionably “indie” and proud of it. The hipster kind of indie that wants to be up in your face.
This pretension is totally missing in Broforce.
Broforce is much more like the average phone or casual game: It’s about immediately getting back into satisfying, simple and intuitive gameplay. One never is confused in Broforce about where to go or what to do.
Broforce has silhouettes which are instantly engaging and evocative, combined with caricatures in the corner that make clear who you are playing. Super Time Force has far less clear distinction between characters, even as they have a skateboarding dinosaur!
Much has been made of Super Time Force being innovative. But if you think about it, the gameplay is effectively just a bizarre iterative turn-based tactics game. You have a finite number of units and you have to use them intelligently. The rewinding doesn’t change that much: The best way of playing that game is to have each character do their specific task, then rewind, then build to a mass of damage burst quickly. Anyone who has played any tabletop roleplaying game, or cooperative board game like Arkham Horror, or tactics video game, will get the idea instantly. Like many ideas that aim to wow you with their originality, it’s simply not that original once experienced.
Video games are indeed art. But I am afraid that, in the effort that both AAA publishers and indie gamers have been putting forward to try to convince reticent non-gamers that video games can match Citizen Kane, they’ve lost sight of the basic idea of games.
The fundamental appeal of video games is interactivity. It may not be “fun” strictly, as experiences like Silent Hill may not be “fun” in the most literal sense, but video games are for the vast majority of people intended to offer enjoyment.
I personally count games like Terranigma, Final Fantasy IV, Breath of Fire 2, and others (not just JRPGs I promise) as having some of the best stories I’ve ever seen. They used interactivity, especially Terranigma, to deliver on a promise.
Terranigma in particular is bleak. It is dark. Staggeringly few of you reading this article are likely to have ever been able to play this gem, the sequel to Soulblazer and Illusion of Gaia, both games that were also bleak, story-driven and deeply interactive. They were enjoyable games first, and then delivered on the promise of a narrative and of art second.
Video game storytelling can be tremendously powerful and memorable. From Mass Effect to Final Fantasy VII to Jade Empire to Bioshock, it’s impossible to support the assertion that one can’t tell a story that will stick to one’s ribs in the video game format.
Yet our stories still want to be movies, or TV shows, or anything but games. We want people to look at a game and say, “That’s art”. We want the average non-gamer to be able to compare a video game to some experience they know and understand.
We put in twists, especially the kind of railroaded twists that one expects as a matter of course in Bethesda games, that would work fine in a screenplay but rob one’s agency as a player. The new Wolfenstein was marred by that and other problems.
We rob ourselves of interactivity for extended periods with cutscenes. One of the reasons I have largely said goodbye to the AAA world has been that, from Mass Effect (a game whose storytelling merits anyone has to concede, the fiasco of the third game aside) to Assassin’s Creed IV (a game I otherwise loved) to Wolfenstein (a real and sincere attempt to humanize a classic franchise that simply did not work for me) to Metal Gear Solid IV (a game with real themes of war and death), I keep finding myself not having any fun. Between loading times, cutscenes, setpiece moments and missions where I am put onto a track, and travel times between locations, I find myself bored.
Assassin’s Creed IV delivered me a world of piratey goodness. Anyone who knows me and my love for Monkey Island and Pirates of the Caribbean knows that this was like a dream come true. But once I left Havana and went out onto the open ocean, the pace of the game simply stopped dead in its tracks (emphasis on “tracks”). I had no interest in moving onto the next story mission, which would be far less engaging than just having fun being a pirate, and exploring to find the next quick travel location bored me. The engagement simply left the room like an airlock had opened and sucked out the fun. Just like every single Grand Theft Auto game, I found that the underlying gameplay was a blast and each mission offered out of gameplay was a resented and annoying distraction. Worse, each mission in Assassin’s Creed IV and GTA was a mission that was keeping me from having more of the fun world I liked to explore.
Anyone who has ever tried to break prematurely into locked parts of the city in a GTA game has experienced this problem to a degree that deserves angry, anvil-dropping commentary until game designers get it. They want to play your game so badly they will find every way of skipping the impediments you put into the way. It’s a testament both to the fun of those games and the way that designers have somehow been infected with an intellectual and memetic virus that makes them think the game will be taken more seriously if it stops being the fun thing that people want to play.
A video game that doesn’t maintain that level of enjoyment is not a good video game. It might be a fine movie or a fine book, but it’s not being presented in that medium. Watching a movie does not give you the lurching, stop-and-start, nauseating sensation that modern games have forced us to endure (as if at gunpoint) for years now: The sensation of losing and gaining agency at the flip of a switch. “Play this section as you wish. Now play this section with only these two tools. Now spend time going from place. Now watch a cutscene”.
No movie, no book, no painting, no television show, no matter how awful, can replicate this specific sensation. This is because, when you watch a movie or read a book, you are not waiting for the moment where you can interact with the world and make choices. You know this is an experience where you watch or read, and your engagement is based off of your interaction and thoughts absorbing this material.
The people who made Broforce wanted to make a fun game that would allow you to feel like you were in the backyard, eight years old again, playing at being John Matrix (of Commando) or a T-800 or Ellen Ripley. That was their first goal, and the art style matched it. In Broforce, you never lose your agency: You are constantly playing, making mistakes, and improving. Like classic Mario, the most elemental of video games, you are learning and iterating every single second.
The people who made Super Time Force clearly had many of the same inspirations, but they also wanted to make something “innovative”. Even though nothing like Broforce exists, Super Time Force wanted to trot out an indie trope for the sake of delivering on the kind of gameplay that indie game snobs would enjoy.
In Super Time Force, you are spending much of the game waiting for bosses or other setpiece moments and rewinding. You are being repeatedly sucked out of the gameplay for something else.
Ironically, movies like Avatar have themselves tried to deliver on something that even a mediocre video game can do in an incomparably superior fashion: Deliver on interactivity and immersion.
Let me repeat that: Summer movies want to be like video games, and video games want to be like summer movies. We are getting the worst of both worlds.
At its core, video gaming delivers on something that is inherently artistic. It allows us to immerse ourselves in worlds and experiences.
When Assassin’s Creed IV was engaging me, I felt transported to being seven again, playing in the woods, immersed in being a pirate. I dashed across rooftops, fought guards, and sailed the oceans.
I wasn’t watching a pirate. I was being a pirate.
When that engagement stopped, I wasn’t a pirate anymore. I was a passive observer.
And I hated the game for giving me that indescribable feeling and taking it away from me. It gave me a toy and then grabbed it from my hands. It was like a chiding parent, telling me to stop playing.
Everyone ranted about Spec Ops: The Line, and I believe part of the reason why is that the gameplay revealed the theme to you through your choices. Unlike Metal Gear Solid IV, you weren’t being hammered over the head by scenes that took away your time controlling the events of the game. There are cutscenes in The Line, but it is the gameplay itself that makes one feel like one is stuck in a quagmire.
Video gaming as a medium is still young. I have every confidence we will soon have something like the rise of the great storytellers of the 1970s. Gaming’s Stanley Kubrick, Stephen Spielberg, George Lucas, Brian De Palma, and Martin Scorsese are likely emerging right now.
To get there, we need games to be more like Broforce. We need games to suck you into a feeling and a world. When someone has that level of immersion, other aspects of storytelling can be communicated and illustrated at a level below thought. You put down the controller and realize you have things to think about now, ideas and themes that have pushed themselves into your soul.
Certain critics will say that this is accomplished by a focus on mechanics as storytelling, but as accurate as that is, I think the problem begins earlier.
The problem begins when someone sits down and says (or thinks in the recesses of their minds) anything besides, “I want to make a video game”. Full stop.