Sunday, March 23, 2008

Guns, Germs, and Steel: Ethics and Genre Shift

I was a big graphic adventure fan back in the day, and it never fails to bother me when I read that the genre is dead. It is more or less dead, of course, at least in its undiluted form, but then, graphic adventures are so filmic that much videogame theory practically defines them out of the category of "games." But this post isn't about graphic adventures, so much as their immediate descendant, the "survival horror" genre.

Inaugurated by Resident Evil, or Alone in the Dark if you're like that, survival horror basically jury-rigged some very basic action mechanics into the graphic adventure, a genre stressing narrativity (in the sense of both storyline as well as evocative architecture and aesthetics), observation, and basic logic. Assuming we take Resident Evil as the starting point, and I feel we would have good reason to do so--it's a choice between Milla Jovovich and Tara Reid, after all--we see a fairly simplistic graphic adventure combined with a pretty crappy action game. The puzzles are mostly pure item-swapping, and the action...well, you point and fire until it the bad guys hit the ground. The Director's Cut (and the sequels) go one further by actually aiming the gun for you, eliminating the time-consuming "point" part of the process. So what made the game compelling? In "Hands-On Horror," Tanya Krzywinska suggests that horror-themed games (including but not limited to survival horror) derive their appeal from the tension between control and lack of control, and that this binary between free will and determinism, active gameplay and cut-scene, manifests at narrative and ludic levels. It's a wonderful idea, with implications far beyond the specific genre/milieu on which she was writing, but this post isn't about that either.

Rather, this is about what players are called upon to do in Resident Evil. The puzzles are simple, relying more on having the right item than any real thought process. The combat is simple, relying more on having enough ammunition (and the right weapon) than any particular combat strategy. So where's the player's main role? What takes up the majority of their time and energy?
  1. The player must acquire items to open doors and generally move along.
  2. To acquire items, the player must search rooms.
  3. To search rooms, the player must either avoid or kill zombies (and other assorted baddies).
  4. To kill zombies, one must fire bullets, gradually exhausting their supply.
  5. To acquire new bullets, the player must search rooms. See step 3.
So, in short, the "trick" to Resident Evil is primarily ammo conservation: making your shots count, and knowing when to run and when to fight. There's enough ammo in the game even in the initial release to take out pretty much everything in the mansion, but knowing where the ammo is comes down to being able to having successfully cleared the right rooms. In small rooms without much likelihood of ambient ammunition (which would be a great name for a rock band), it might be more efficient to simply run through it, avoiding the monsters, especially if your ammo supply is low and might be higher in the near future. Don't get trigger happy, don't get sloppy, and kill only what you need to. These directives comprise the ethics of Resident Evil, the lessons the designers intend you to learn, the things you have to do to play effectively and "in character." (It's possible that the sequels, with their post-game ratings, encourage more bloodlust, but I'm focusing on the first one for now.)

Onimusha, upon its release, was described not inaccurately as Resident Evil with swords. It's not a trivial distinction; if the protagonist's main weapon is a sword, ammo conservation goes out the window as a play mechanic. So, the ethics change from "pick your shots" to "kill everything you see." Kills reward the player with more than short-term safety in Onimusha, providing health, magic, weapon upgrades, and...keys. The most important items in Resident Evil, the ones that most directly allow you to progress the story and win the game, are sometimes earned in Onimusha not by judicious study of the environment, but from the simple acquisition of kills. At a narrative level, it's worth noting that the bad guys in Onimusha are conscious, evil beings rather than animals and braindead victims of a pharmaceutical accident. The argument for leaving a demon alive and going about your day is weaker than a similar argument would be for a zombie who used to be a lab tech. The Resident Evil hybrid of action and graphic adventure is tweaked in favor of action.

Devil May Cry continues the demon theme, as well as the "kill everything that moves" ethic, but adds a new element: style. One of the determinants of how many red orbs the player receives, and therefore how quickly and effectively the player can upgrade their character, is their ability to rack up style ratings against their numerous and creepy opponents. These style ratings necessitate keeping a constant stream of damage going for as long as possible, and thus discourages powerful, disjointed hit-and-run tactics in favor of fluid, aesthetically pleasing sword combos and juggling--the kind of thing we used to see in fighting games, back when fighting games mattered. The ethics in Onimusha demand that you kill things, but only Devil May Cry requires you to look cool while you're doing it. The puzzles are even simpler than in Onimusha, and the combat is much more frequent and requires more thought. The "action with a touch of graphic adventure" formula of Onimusha now becomes a straight out action game, with elements of fighting games starting to trickle in.

God of War, though born of a different developer, further articulates the nascent fighting game elements of Devil May Cry. The style rating is replaced with a more traditional (and precise) combo system, and the easy blocking and rolling allows skilled players to string together ridiculously long combos to rack up red orbs for (wait for it) weapon and skill upgrades. Moreover, God of War actually brings back the "fatality" concept from Mortal Kombat, giving most enemies a specific, cinematic death, accessed by button/analog combinations irrelevant to normal gameplay, that allows players either to maximize red orb earnings or refill health or magic. It's perhaps not coincidental that among God of War's imitators was Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks, a spinoff that reenacts the Mortal Kombat II storyline in a way that actually makes some narrative sense.

So, in these titles, we see a genre shift from graphic adventure through hack-and-slash action to a new adventure/fighting game hybrid, accomplished through minor shifts in gameplay ethics.

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