A great year for the video game industry, 2012 was not. But it was an amazing year for video games as a medium.
For the first time, games were exhibited in the Smithsonian Museum, the Museum of the Moving Image, and were even added to the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection -- convincing many naysayers that games were art. A thriving indie scene produced stunning and challenging works. Games like “Spec Ops: The Line,” “Dishonored,” and “Mass Effect 3” told their players breathtaking stories. And “The Walking Dead” broke new ground in interactive fiction and episodic content, showing zombie fans that a game adaption of a popular comic book and TV series could actually be a good thing.
The narrative pieces of video games still have an uncomfortable relationship with their more game-like properties, however. As the game critic Tom Bissell wryly noted, its hard to believe that Max Payne is an “incompetent failure” when, moments after drinking himself into a stupor, he starts “leaping in slow motion from a speedboat while shooting an incoming RPG out of the sky and then single-handedly massacring an entire army of Kevlar-encased Brazilian commandos.” The technical term for this is “ludonarrative dissonance,” and it's rarely more glaring than in the final moments of a game’s story. Game designers, or at least the marketers and PR managers around them, often tell players they are the true owners of the stories that unfold before them. As players, we want to believe them. And we can, for the most part, until that final moment when the narrative designer has to step back in and remind us of their vision for the direction the story was meant to take.
“Nothing that literature contrives, after all,” Jack Miles once wrote, “is so artificial as its endings.” And nothing feels more artificial than being told after investing hundreds of hours into preening your characters in “Mass Effect” that they were all going to die for some reason you barely understood.
I don’t mean to fault games like “Mass Effect” for having sloppy endings. Many of the games that had the worst endings I could think of were also the best games that came out this year. But as games become more self-consciously cinematic, and as CGI inches ever closer to the uncanny valley, their so-called “ludonarrative dissonance” is only going to become all the more glaring in turn. With that in mind, I present for your consideration some of the silliest moments where story and gameplay butted heads in 2012.
I shouldn’t have to say this, but beware of massive spoilers if you haven’t played any of these games.
Spec Ops: The Line
The ending of “Spec Ops: The Line” shows that much of the trauma that Capt. Martin Walker experienced beforehand was in his own head. The choice to kill one person and save another was actually a moment of insanity, because they were both dead in the first place. It does a complete 180 for the player, forcing him or her to reflect on the false sense of agency and the deception of the game’s primary antagonist, who was also dead the whole time. Problem is, the entire game already performed a 180, forcing the player to experience many of the atrocities of war that so many other military shooters gloss over or ignore completely. “Spec Ops: The Line” is a beautiful story, but the final twist feels like an incomplete bit of horror flick escapism — admonishing the player in the game’s last moments by telling him or her that the main character is just a crazy person.
“Dishonored” made a bold attempt to wed story and gameplay with its “chaos meter” -- a play on the standard morality or karma-based systems used in other games that didn’t resort to telling players whether or not a particular action was “good” or “evil.” A high chaos rating, for instance, meant that the city of Dunwall became overrun with plague-bearing rats and political discord as the story progressed. For most of the game, the system worked well, and the last level of the game was subtly crafted to integrate the minutiae of these player choices in a stunning final act. But then the game rests with a bifurcated, picture-book ending that sums up the fate of the entire empire in a concise paragraph. There may be a few more choices than in the typical “good” or “evil” ending, but they all feel rushed.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 2
In a first for the titanic “Call of Duty” franchise, Treyarch included branching storylines in “Black Ops 2,” giving players the chance to determine whether or not certain characters lived or died and, most importantly, just how arch-villain Raul Menendez would meet his ultimate fate. For most of the game, these branching options work so seamlessly that “Black Ops 2” achieves a rare kind of artistic subtlety that most gamers wouldn’t associate with the most explosive and commercially driven entertainment product in the world. The game doesn’t immediately confront you with the fact that you are making a choice to save or abandon one character, for instance, which helps maintain the dramatic pace by not pulling you out of the moment to reflect on all the intricacies of a particular choice so blatantly. But once the credits start to unfold, all this subtlety gives way to “Call of Duty’s” trademark ridiculousness. Would you rather have Menendez burn himself to death while screaming atop his dead sister’s grave, or beat his own head into a bloody pulp with the TV screen in his prison cell? You decide!
Medal of Honor: Warfighter
“Medal of Honor” is no stranger to controversy, but the perverse sense of jingoistic fantasy in this game is frighteningly offensive. In one particularly overwrought sequence, two Army wives console each other with the thought that “It’s better to have them happy than have them safe,” which seems to imply that any sense of “honor” in the game comes more from the thrill of traveling to various war-torn parts of the world and shooting their inhabitants than any sense duty to one’s country. The ending of the game brings this misguided sense of patriotism to the fore, telling players in a series of title cards that yes, “real life super heroes exist,” and we choose to “share this life with them, because we would rather love an extraordinary man for a brief moment, than spend a lifetime with a man far more ordinary.” What makes these men “extraordinary,” exactly? The only answer that “Warfighter” can seem to muster is the fact that they die so soon. I wonder what all the “ordinary” people coding this final sequence thought of their own game telling them that they were, well, sort of cowardly and boring. Because the U.S. military didn’t take too kindly to “Medal of Honor: Warfighter” either.
Mass Effect 3
The “Mass Effect” trilogy is such a big, beautiful piece of work that it’s almost impossible to judge the merits of its story. Where so many game developers tried to put storytelling in the hands of the players in one way or another, Bioware actually succeeded. And all of this came to a powerful final act in 2012 with “Mass Effect 3.” I found myself tearing up many times for bug-eyed aliens that I didn’t realize I had become so close to in the years I’d spent working through “Mass Effect’s” intergalactic space opera as Commander Shepard. With so many complex and intertwining strands finally coming to a conclusion in “Mass Effect 3,” Bioware may have set itself an impossible task when it tried to come up with coherent ending. So, the company settled with ending the universe as its players knew it -- only differentiating between the separate "endings" by giving the explosions of the Mass Effect Relays a different color. But the artificiality of its original ending was what made it work. For all the prior games, players could step back and revise their choices to achieve the optimal desired outcome, disregarding the fact that “Mass Effect” was a war story, which made a certain degree of loss and tragedy inevitable. The original ending was a rude awakening, but it was also refreshing. The added content that Bioware made after caving in to the demands of its legion of fans, however, was a simple reminder that bold work like this can’t, and probably shouldn’t, try to please everybody.