From Now On, We All Walk Through Walls

Summertime and the research is easy. Which means I’ve been spending a lot of time in virtual places, namely the shattered New York of Crysis 2, the sandstorm blasted Dubai of Spec Ops: The Line, the sundrenched resort from hell of Bulletstorm... well, you get the point. Summertime. They’re similar games: AAA titles released in the past few years, shooters with ambitions, and of course the use of a major city as a playground for destruction. But even if I’m deep in distraction, I can’t turn my brain off, and if you’ll forgive me going a little Cyborgology/BLDGBLOG here, I’d like to talk about the ethics and aesthetics of ruined urbanity in contemporary video games.

I’m not using ethics according to its commonsense definitions, and I apologize in advance. By ethics, I mean a rather literal definition of ‘right action’; what can be done and what should be done in any given situation. Ethics in video games are rather constrained compared to the full set of moral possibilities in the physical world, but designers and players still have certain codes of conduct, or at least stereotypical patterns of action.

I’ve been playing shooters since shareware copies of Wolfenstein 3D and Doom up through pretty much every major title since then, and it’s completely uncontroversial that while the games have gotten better looking, the level design has gotten a lot simpler. It used to be that you could (and frequently would) get lost in levels, circling endlessly while looking for the keys to the exit. In modern shooters, there is only one path, and it comes with one-way doors to make sure you don’t get turned around.

(Image from Kotaku)

The graphical technology of these early games wasn’t particularly advanced. Enemies were crude sprites and level geometry limited to simple polygons and textures, but the level design was baroque. The environments of Doom and its generation was the dungeon: a maze of twisting corridors, locked doors, hazardous floors, bottomless pits, and wandering monsters. Some of the dungeons were industrial themed, other medieval or fantasy, but pretty much all FPS games were linked dungeons. Aesthetics was secondary to ethics. The Doom comic is practically Dadaist in its approach to the subject matter, but it makes a worthwhile point about the absurd omnipresence of radioactive waste in the demon-infested Mars base. The presence of toxic waste is irrelevant to the game. What matters is that there are floors that cannot be walked on.

The ethics of the dungeon are simple: Survive. The ethical course carries you through the level as fast as possible with a minimal expenditure of limited resources like health and ammo for the room clearing weaponry. Looming over the game was a fate worse than death (which after all merely required reloading); winding up in a situation where due to unwise play, further advancement was impossible.

From a design standpoint, the goal is therefore to create dungeons that reward smart play, noticing patterns, having a good instinct for layout, and creating games that can be learned. But there’s a fine line between making dungeons that are predictable and boring, or insanely punishing and frustrating. Nobody appreciates a good dungeon these days.

AAA shooter gameplay has converged to a single gameplay model; linear advancement along a corridor full of cover, with movement limited by the presence of enemies. Performing a moderately tricky hand-eye coordination task of matching wavering crosshairs with a small greyish-brown target on a brownish-grey background allows the player to advance to the next piece of cover. Taking too long to perform this task is punished with delay, either a few seconds crouching with a blurry red screen, or a few minutes restarting from the last checkpoint after ‘dying’. Beating the game mostly takes persistence.

As you can tell, there’s not much to this gameplay, but it sells and it’s a decent way to kill a few hours. The only thing that distinguishes AAA shooters these days is the spectacle. And this spectacle, more often than not, is of the destruction of cities? What ethics does this aesthetic imply?

I believe the destruction of cities is used to inculcate a sense of amorality, allowing players to experience the vicarious thrill of breaking ethical rules in a familiar location. The breakdown of the city is a visual representation of the breakdown in society that makes it acceptable, nay required, to machinegun endless hordes of enemies.

Spec Ops does this the best of the games in the introduction. It has been critically praised for the ethical complexities of its plot, and the slow descent into madness of its protagonist. The march through Dubai, buried by endless sandstorms and inhabited by half-mad mutineers and refugees, is a perfect match for the progress of the player towards the end. Geometry and gameplay become one and the same, in a shattered wonderland that makes us question our lust for violence

Crysis 2 does this far less adeptly. New York is infected with an alien biological weapon, leaving bodybags and blistered corpses strewn in offices and Subway tunnels. Creepy Private Military Contractors hunt you down for crimes that you didn’t commit. And the ground itself is broken by alien lithoships that lurk in Manhattan’s bedrock, lifting chunks of the city into the sky in anti-gravity fields. But where Spec Ops was laser focused on the psychology of the characters, Crysis 2 is all over the place. The ruined city does nothing more than make us feel discomforted and vaguely patriotic as it bombards us with post 9-11 schmaltz. Like summer blockbuster The Avengers, the game plays on our sentiments rather than make a statement.

Bulletstorm is the purest of the games, boisterous and relentless testosterone fueled parody of the genre. But Bulletstorm is at least honest, and has a few gameplay innovations. Your most powerful weapon is the environment itself. Guns are an inefficient way to lay waste to the various mutant gangs. Rather, enemies can be kicked into spikes, giant cactuses, electrified wires, exploding barrels, etc for bonus points with The Mighty Boot. The skillshot system inspires a more daring, and a deeper appreciation of the game’s environment compared to most shooters.

What’s the point? I’m a fan of good games, and I don’t want to inhabit dungeons or view senseless spectacles. The Call of Duty series’ Bruckheimer-esque world tour of destruction (New York, London, Berlin, Prague, Paris…) does its job of supporting a narrative of empty jingoism, but games with literary ambitions need to have an equally strong theory of space and destruction.

This is not just empty blabber. Real soldiers think about space and destruction all the time. I want to quote Israeli Paratrooper Brigade commander General Aviv Kokhavi, from one of my favorite papers, Weizman’s Lethal Theory.

“‘This space that you look at, this room that you look at, is nothing but your interpretation of it. Now, you can stretch the boundaries of your interpretation, but not in an unlimited fashion, after all it must be bound by physics, as it contains buildings and alleys. The question is: How do you interpret the alley? Do you interpret it as a place, like every architect and every town planner, to walk through, or do you interpret it as a place that is forbidden to walk through? This depends only on interpretation. We interpreted the alley as a place forbidden to walk through, and the door as a place forbidden to pass through, and the window as a place forbidden to look through, because a weapon awaits us in the alley, and a booby trap awaits us behind the doors. This is because the enemy interprets space in a traditional classical manner, and I do not want to obey this interpretation and fall into his traps. Not only do I not want to fall into his traps, I want to surprise him! This is the essence of war. I need to win. I need to emerge from an unexpected place. And this is what we tried to do.
This is why we opted for the methodology of moving through walls . . . Like a worm that eats its way forward, emerging at points and then disappearing. . . . I said to my troops, “Friends! This is not a matter of your choice! There is no other way of moving! If until now you were used to moving along roads and sidewalks, forget it! From now on we all walk through walls!”’

Some of the best contemporary games let us play with space. Portal makes puzzles fun again with addition of a single wormhole. Mirror’s Edge invites us to see rooftops as spaces for momentum and the flow of parkour. Bulletstorm is about aligning enemies and fatal terrain. Minecraft takes mastery of the dungeon to its logical conclusion, allowing adept players to construct their own labyrinths and monuments. Is it too much to ask our game designers to do something interesting with their virtual worlds, to let us walk through walls as well?