This post would’ve benefited greatly from consistent alliteration in its title had Bad Company been named something else, but, like the substance of that game, it’s obvious that not everything is perfect, or even wholly good. Gearbox’s Borderlands and DICE’s Battlefield: Bad Company encapsulate almost entirely everything that is wrong with the current trends in popular video games. While Borderlands is by no means a bad game–I find its sense of progression very rewarding–it suffers from exactly the same thing as Bad Company, along with games such as Call of Duty, Gears of War, Crysis: all you have to do is shoot things. They also reveal something very interesting about the development of the video game industry, and the current state in which it finds itself. While they might be terrible games, they’re incredibly popular, and that means something.
The reader is perfectly entitled to arrive at the sentiment that what is about to be discussed is here merely a rehash of a pop-culture debate that is almost certainly careening away from any kind of rational coherence (much like anything to do with pop-culture). But, given the social and economic significance of games like CoD, GoW &c (although there is probably much to be said about the business model upon which their production values are set, given the stellar profitability of casual iOS games), revisiting this popularly discussed subject is unavoidable. Millions upon millions of copies of these first-person shooters sell year after year, and continue to be critically acclaimed by an influential, if not wholly uncorrupted video game media. BioShock Infinite stands as a case in point. I hope to deal with Infinite later, once I have enough money (hah!).
The pseudo-theory that I developed while discussing platformers earlier asserts that games that place special emphasis on substantive elements–in other words, conveying meaning–always make the better game. On the other hand, games that emphasise procedures and rules more or less always fail aesthetically. This argument was based on both logical and empirical claims–for example, some understanding of human cognition in a concrete sense is very important for getting a game to \’connect\’ with a player. This conceptual schema is the basis on which I criticise Borderlands and Battlefield: Bad Company.
Both games rely heavily on first-person shooting concepts in the wrong way. It is by no means bad for a game to rely heavily on a small set of ideas and concepts (NB. Tetris, Pokemon), and with respect to first-person shooting it is entirely possible to convey substantive, meaningful ideas to a player by exploiting such a genre (Half-Life (2)?), but the two have not been combined successfully, here.
Aside from the fact that it is almost impossible to play–its battle mechanics being very difficult to master given its dichotomously enormous landscapes but then unbelievably cloistered and claustrophobic close-quarters environments–Bad Company merely requires you to murder everything in sight in order to complete the game. It relies entirely on a single truth-procedure that fails to convey anything of substance to the player in order to be ‘played’. The tone of the game is light-hearted, and you get the sense that you’re a kind of post-Iraq war swash-buckling soldier-pirate, but that’s all the game gives you in terms of context. Like almost all first-person shooters, BioShock included, the story is delivered to through a radio. However the story floats on top of the actual ‘game’. Bad Company‘s story is an excuse for the actual game: it’s like telling you to go for a jog while you listen to an audio-book. You could just as easily go for a jog listening to anything.
The same thing goes for Borderlands, except its RPG elements make patently obvious the hollow repetition involved in the game’s execution. The idea of melding an FPS to an RPG places an additional obstacle in the way of satisfying the game’s truth-procedure: collecting things serves as a distraction from mindlessly shooting things. The emptiness of the game is apparent very early on, as you learn to sift through thousands upon thousands of dropped items. The incredible thing about games like Borderlands and Bad Company is that they have sold many millions of copies. Developers have achieved their goal to maximise sales and revenue without having to worry about important things like good plots or sound character development–substantive conveyance of meaning.
This situation reminds me of an infamous argument regarding Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Proponents of this argument charge that specific features of human biology such as the ability to perform abstract analytical thought, and practice highly complex forms of communication are incredibly wasteful and inefficient behaviours from the viewpoint of maximising individual and/or group species survival in a competitive environment. This is a pretty convincing claim; things such as talking and thinking would, in an immediate sense, certainly get in the way of any given animal’s interest in surviving and propagating itself. Coupled with this persuasive argument, however, is the fact that biological reproduction is not in any sense uniformly simple and straightforward. This doesn’t render it false, however. The argument and that observation are compatible, as we shall see.
What this argument from evolution has to do with video games bears directly upon the almost endless success of shooters these days. It holds a lot of explanatory power in elucidating why these games are so successful, despite any normative ideals we might hold about what a ‘good’ game is. The reason why terrible FPS games are so commercially successful is because they are very definitely graphically appealing, and at least enjoyable at face value. Those factors secure the absolute minimum measure of success in the video game industry: their purchase. The same goes from the game-Darwinian perspective: success is relative to the degree of a title’s dissemination.
However, just like the almost pointless complexity of human behaviour from a biological standpoint, even the stupidest first-person shooters seem like a pretty big waste of time and energy just to maximise the level of fun you want to have. Why not just take drugs? Some drugs might be really expensive, but they’re certainly more efficient at making you feel good. Why waste days trying to hone your motor skills when you can just chemically stimulate your brain?
The reason why gamers play games, and don’t just shoot up when they want to have fun is the same for why humans have evolved to be capable of incredibly intelligent behaviours: both are by-products of evolution. Communication and abstract thought are derived from two very simple processes having completed many iterations over a long period of time: interpreting the environment, and coordinating behaviour. Games, correspondingly, are form of entertainment that has evolved from the humans repeating the satisfaction of the desire for pleasure.
The important thing to take away from this is that the process of evolution is by definition:(a) totally random and entirely contingent on accidents, (b) slow and incremental, and (c) unfair. Following this way of thinking, the entire development of the video game industry makes perfect sense, and a water-tight explanation for its current status quo is achieved. Think about the way Nintendo is treading water in terms of conceptual development in its most recent titles, in this light. They might be ‘failing’, but they are appealing to the exact same motivations as their competitors: base pleasure satisfaction.
The amazing thing about the above evolutionary argument: it unifies the causal factors for all games. Aesthetic success (a ‘good’ game) comes from the same process as aesthetic failure. This might trigger the objection that evolution can’t tell the difference between a good and a bad game because it reduces everything down to pleasure satisfaction, but that misses the point. Just because evolution can’t tell the difference doesn’t mean rationality doesn’t exist. We have developed critical reasoning skills and observed the process of evolution from outside of it. The same should go for game development.