We ran reviews of two high-profile games this week. The first was Destiny, the new multiplayer first-person shooter thing from Bungie, the creators of Halo. Our critic, Ryan Smith, found some thrills among its mélange of sci-fi clichés but didn’t think they held up to the extended play the game is hoping you’ll invest. Armin Tamzarian felt similarly and put together a nice little metaphor:
Destiny is basically a Disneyland ride of a shooter. It’s impeccably curated and designed, but hollow if you look closely at the things the ride is taking you past. If you enjoy it the first time and go back through, you’ll find it exactly the same. This is not a living, breathing universe; it’s a tourist attraction. And that’s okay. I’ve had a real blast in the past week playing through various missions with friends, messing around with my gear, and staring longingly at useless ships I can’t afford, like a kid who wants Mickey Mouse ears in an overpriced gift shop. Like that kid, eventually it’ll all prove too much for me, and I’ll get sleepy and want to go home, and those ears will probably be discarded on the floor of the car. But it’s good fun while it lasts.
Ryan was also critical of Destiny’s storytelling—or lack thereof, as it were. When talking about Bungie’s past work, Ryan made it clear that he preferred the characterizations in Halo 4, which was developed at a different studio, to anything the series had brought prior. QoheletTzadak felt the same way and elaborated:
All it took to fix Halo was something remarkably basic, and it’s amazing it took anyone 10 years to figure it out: Give the main character a voice, a point of view, and agency (it doesn’t even have to be anything dramatic!), and expand on the series’ one key relationship. Why does this soldier guy do stuff? Well, he’s an emotionally stunted human superweapon, manipulated and exploited since early childhood by the military, navigating feelings he doesn’t really understand for a girl who’s essentially a voice in his head. There’s the germ of a compelling story in there for someone whose understanding of story work is deeper than, “But what if we made the jeep physics really bouncy?”
What’s weird is that Bungie took a stab at creating a player character with a voice and an actual arc with the Arbiter, and it was the best part of Halo 2, but they completely discarded it. I assume it was due to player backlash. Then there was Reach, which seemed to be a response to the criticism that Halo focused entirely on a nearly mute lead character with no traits to speak of. The result was a team of nearly mute lead characters, some of whom had accents. So much wasted potential. That game could have been a legitimately compelling story of collective sacrifice in the face of insurmountable odds if they had just given two shits about creating three-dimensional characters. Or even two-dimensional ones.
I’m tired of games telling me I can’t empathize with a character who has a defined point of view, or even a personality at all. If I’m controlling someone’s actions, I’m going to identify with them on some level whether I want to or not.
And TheLastMariachi offered both a suggestion for a “blank slate” character done right (the hero in question starts as a mostly blank slate, at least) and an observation regarding a tidy coincidence with Halo’s Master Chief:
It’s like you said, trying to create a compelling story with a blank slate main character is like pushing a boulder uphill. I’d argue Mass Effect pulled it off successfully, but only because BioWare went out of its way to make Shepard customizable in many ways while exercising control in others. They let you work with the appearance and gender options however you want, and then having a preset list of backstories and classes to mix and match from so they can dictate at least part of the narrative—not to mention fully voicing said character so they’re not some silent protagonist letting everyone do the talking for them. It wasn’t perfect, but they gradually got better at it, and it definitely showed in Mass Effect 3.
I think it’s funny that you mentioned how Master Chief was essentially a kidnapped child forced into a role as a killing machine and wasn’t allowed to express emotion or feeling. In a meta-sense, that’s exactly what Bungie did with him: use him as this iconic but ultimately flat character that they could slap on a cover and exploit while ignoring the pain and emotional turmoil that would have revealed some depth below the armor.
The other big game we reviewed this week was The Sims 4, which was appraised by Samantha Nelson. Unsurprisingly, the comments were filled with some great Sims stories. Ghosts of Princes in Towers talked about using the game as a self-motivational tool:
I don’t play the game often, but when I do, I play it as a sort of way to motivate self-improvement in real life. So I tend to make a Sim, set him to “Loner” so I don’t have to deal with socializing, and then just try to make him awesome at painting and cooking and all that stuff. I find something very motivating about seeing a distillation of the learning process.
But as soon as I start getting my Sim really cool, he dies. One time it was because I was making a sculpture and he caught on fire while welding. Another time I was just in my backyard playing chess or something, and he got hit by a meteor.
And snazzlenuts shared a harrowing tale of Sim betrayal:
This reminds me of what my roommate did to my Sims 2 character in college. We created ourselves and were roommates in a modest two-bedroom house. I eventually struck up a relationship with a lovely Sim lady down the road (we bonded by talking about dolphins, apparently) and I eventually moved in with her. One day, I went to my various science labs (in real life) and my roommate took the opportunity to steal my character’s special lady friend, build a shed in our backyard equipped with an oven, and had me go inside to cook. He removed the door, the oven caught on fire (my cooking skills in the game were that of the average college student), and I burned to death. I come back from a full day of classes to see my love interest making out with my roommate next to my grave. Y’know what? I probably deserved it, somehow.
Man, that’s rough.
And with that, another Gameological week comes to a close. Thanks for reading and commenting. We’ll see you all next week!