Games are Art, and that means criticism.

Recently, Halo 4‘s lead developer mentioned that games, and the gaming community, have a serious issue with sexism. The comments on the article… were awful. There were the ones that instantly proved her right (one person said that the fact that Halo 4 was made by “whiny, sensitive women” who cared about this issue had convinced them not to buy it), but the ones that really stood out for us were the ones that called talking about sexism in gaming a “pointless crusade,” said that raising the issue was an “ego trip,” and saying that because gaming was full of misogyny trying to change it was a waste of time. These comments, and these complaints, go way beyond the issue at hand to one of the biggest problems with gamer culture: an instantly defensive attitude towards any kinds of critical discussions. Not just to negative criticism, but to the very idea that we should be looking at games intellectually and through critical lenses. This isn’t just ignorant– this is hurting the very medium that gamers claim to love.
Because if you don’t want a critical discussion, you don’t really believe that games are art.

“Trying to actually discuss relevant issues? Big risk. But the priiiiiiiize… is being taken seriously by critics outside gaming.”

Gamers act like children about social issues. This is a more specific part of what we’re talking about, but it’s where we wanted to start because of this article and other problems the past several months in the gaming community. Look at this article, in which a lot of issues with race and gender in major games are examined. You might notice something, which is that it’s not a very great article. Jacob in Mass Effect, for example,  is the most well-rounded and professional member of your entire crew, and the fact that he has daddy issues (like everyone else in the game) and moves 6 months on after your brief fling ends and you’re under house arrest and he’s living half a galaxy away aren’t issues of bigotry on the part of the designers. Similarly, Gay Tony in GTA IV? Fantastic character and one of the most rounded and human gay characters in gaming.

Do you see what we did there, fellow gamers? How we actually responded to the issues raised in the article that we disagreed with, and didn’t think that any discussion of social issues was an attack on our personal clubhouse? That’s how grown-ups who like a medium act about criticism. You don’t say, as virtually the entire comments section did, that “feminists don’t know anything about games” or “games are just catering to their market” or “but tits are nice to look at” and “all that matters is that the game is fun.” If you truly believe that games are art and should be treated as such, you have to accept that all art gets looked at through critical lenses. Imagine if an art critic said that Gauguin’s work is sexist or racist and people who love art, who spend a few hundred dollars a month on paintings and art books and going to museums, said “clearly you don’t like paintings” and “who cares about that, I just love the pretty colors.” The only reason that games could get a blanket immunity to criticism on social issues is if we said “well, they’re just toys for adolescent virgins, so who cares?” If you want games to be art, you have to accept that they’re going to be treated like every other form of art. (And if you, say, respond to the very idea of a feminist look at games with ranting and death threats, then congratulations– you understand the medium as much, and approach these issues with the same tact, as Jack Thompson).

And speaking of Gauguin, yes, the man is absolutely sexist and racist– he abandoned his wife to go have sex with women in Tahiti while

“Ugh, just another complaint by a watercolor fanboy whose parents were too poor to buy him oil paintings as a kid. Grow up and stop loving babby painters.”

fetishizing their culture and doing a lot of talking about the noble savage. You know what else he was? One of the greatest painters of the 19th century. And that’s because acknowledging criticism doesn’t mean art is bad. This is part of the problem– gamers have a hard time hearing “there are some problems with this game” as anything but “this game is awful.” You’ll see this manifested in whining about review scores– “this game deserves a 100 instead of a 98, clearly if you think it’s a masterpiece but not perfect you’re an idiot” –but it also shows up in other discussions. There’s a thread running through gaming that any attack on any aspect of a game you love is a personal attack. It’s why console fanboyism exists, and why gamers treat other people’s opinions as invalid– “I love Resident Evil 6 so it’s an objectively good game, and any critic who didn’t enjoy it has to be deliberately lying.” Criticism, both in terms of quality and critical interpretations, is meant to be a part of discussion, not the be-all and end-all of “is this game bad or not?”

What criticism isn’t meant to be is a venue for people who love art to try and control discussion of it. Let’s compare two similar works in different mediums. Blue Velvet is a fantastic movie– aggressive, innovative, and unique, taking viewers to dark place and trying to challenge how we interact with film. Heavy Rain was a game with a lot of the same ideas and approaches, loved by a lot of critics, scored by the… same composer (okay, “similar” might have been a little too kind). And we love Blue Velvet. We’d put it in the same category as Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver, or The Seventh Seal. It’s safe to say that we love it as much as the people who think that Heavy Rain is the best game ever love it.

“I’ll send you a love letter. You know what a love letter is? It’s a 6.5 out of fucking 10. You get a love letter from me, your Metacritic average is fucked forever.

And, if you love Blue Velvet, you know Roger Ebert’s review of it. The one where he just didn’t seem to get the movie– where the balance of comedy and horror, the sexual menace, and the feeling of unease and disgust never worked for him. The review where he gave the best film of the ’80s one star. And do you know how we feel about that, as people who love film and love Blue Velvet? We acknowledge his points, state our disagreements, have a laugh that it didn’t work for him. David Lynch joked about it and then made Twin Peaks. In the long run, we love the review– it raises questions, and the discussions it provoked (both among other critics and between Ebert and Siskel, who loved it) have enriched peoples’ understanding of the film.

Heavy Rain, though, had a very different relationship with critics. David Cage, who wants so badly to make gaming’s Blue Velvet that he hired Angelo Badalamenti to compose the soundtrack, called its critics– who gave it a 6.5, vastly better than Ebert’s Deuce-Bigalow-level-score –“children” who were “just barely intelligent” and were simply resistant to the revolutionary work he had created. He then did the worst thing anyone can do in regards to game criticism: he points out the Metacritic average and says that because these reviews are so far below the average, they don’t count. That because a person’s opinion is different from the majority that opinion shouldn’t be treated as valid. When Cage responded like this– to a handful of critics who said his game was mediocre-to-decent and not a masterpiece –it wasn’t just a tantrum that he wasn’t being universally adored, it was making a public statement that he believed popularity and selling lots of copies mattered more to him than making art.

And the fan’s response to this prima donna behavior was to carry it further. To say that everyone who doesn’t like Heavy Rain is a shill for Microsoft deliberately trying to sabotage a PS3 game. They say that the scores should be exempted from Metacritic averages because they’re obviously the product of biased hacks. They say that any critic who lets their “personal biases” determine how much they enjoy playing something– who lets their opinions shape their opinion piece –should be fired. This is unique to gaming, and it’s not just about reviews. This is how gamers react to critical discussions. And it’s awful. Games are never going to be able to grow and develop if you attack the very idea of critical disagreement. If minority opinions are treated as irrelevant. If the individual perspective of critics is treated as a bad thing. If game developers rely on Metacritic averages to defend their art. That’s not how art lovers defend art, that’s how P.R. executives defend products.

And then they fall back on the single worst defense of a game ever when people raise the issue of plot. Whether you like the game’s story or not,

“You are looking at a man who– you are looking at a man who has zero lives left.”

it’s an objective fact that there are problems. There are narrative contradictions, elements and ideas that are quickly dropped, stilted dialogue, and a plot twist that relies on lying to the player. These don’t have to be dealbreakers. It’s perfectly fine to say that they’re not major issues, just as you can say that a movie has a bad script but is really fun and visually stunning. What’s not fine is to say “well it’s better than Halo‘s story.” And what’s absolutely unacceptable is to say, as many did (and as Cage’s promise to “make a game with a story as good as a Hollywood movie” implied) “it’s just a game, so lower your standards.” These are the same arguments that pop up in response to any negative review or complaint about games that anyone makes anywhere, and they’re insulting to the medium. If you think games are art, respect them by actually holding them accountable. Don’t just say “well, not every game can have a story as good as Taxi Driver.” When Paul Schrader wrote Taxi Driver, he wasn’t content to say that no movie could measure up to Crime and Punishment– instead he tried to write a film that could. You see this every time a game’s story is criticized or examined– the notion that as long as the game’s fun, all of these issues can be disregarded. The idea that writing, art design, characters, plot, or social awareness are just optional add-ons is something unique to games, and it arises out of the same defensive attitude as our previous examples. When someone raises the fact that a game has narrative problems, you’re not a little kid trying to defend your hobby to your parents anymore– you’re someone who claims to be passionate about an art form who should be willing to engage in an actual discussion. When Roger Ebert said that games weren’t art, the gaming community exploded with rage– only, every time the issue of a game’s artistic failings is raised, for many of the people that were apoplectic at Ebert’s claim to fall back on saying that it doesn’t matter as long as the game is fun.

Gamers have gotten so used to, for years, accepting mediocre writing that they see it as standard. But the achievements of gaming can only matter if they’re looked at in context and treated as examples. The fact that Bioshock and No More Heroes can say great things about gaming and tell powerful stories isn’t just a neat little bonus– it’s every bit as big of an achievement as making a game that’s incredibly fun or has the best graphics ever. If you believe games are art, you have to treat them as every other critic of every other medium does. You have to hold them accountable for their failings. You have to recognize that other people have different opinions and priorities. You have to accept that games should be for everyone, not just straight white men. You have to discuss them and look at every aspect of them. Saying that the only thing that matters is how much fun you have is only true when it comes to toys for children.

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Why Indie Games Need To Lighten Up

“Can their be misery loftier than mine? No doubt. Formerly. But now? My father? My mother? My… dog? Oh I am willing to believe they suffer as much as such creatures can suffer. But does that mean their sufferings equal mine? No doubt.”

–Samuel Beckett, Endgame

We’ve been talking, this month, of things in indie and art games that we love. But now we’re going to talk about something that frustrates us: a general trend in storytelling and narrative towards big-picture, misery-porn, thematic stories. It was inevitable we’d get here; one of us is an indie game developer and the other a writer and literary critic. The huge number of indie games that want, not to tell us a story or to put us in a particular mood, but to tell us a Big Idea about life. We live in an incredible age for games as art and the potential to communicate new ideas with them is greater than it ever has been– one of the best indie games (if not one of the best games) of the past few years was Bastion, which created a wholly unique fantasy setting and told a pretty powerful story about war and humanity that made the player an active participant in it. And yet a huge number of designers seem to think that the highest goal of their art is to deliver a truism about the nature of life. Lots of artists in lots of mediums think talking about Death or Relationships or other capital-letter Platonic concepts gives their work additional weight. But it’s especially frustrating in games, which should by their very nature be the farthest from the artist sitting down and talking to us about broad, impersonal concepts.

How EA Published a Better Story About Love and Death than Jason Rohrer

Truly a powerful moment of complex emotion.

You knew this one would come up. Passage is one of the ultimate “games-as-art” arguments, proof that games can talk about the big concepts, a game that has reportedly brought people to tears and which the creator says is an artistic statement on mortality. And, well, we think it’s kind of crap. Here’s how it goes: you walk right for five minutes, slowly aging. You can either hunt for treasure or pick up a wife, which increases your score. As you move forward, the compressed area ahead of you slowly decreases. Eventually your wife dies, then you die.

The game is about the inevitability of death, the trade-off of freedom and wealth for happiness and stability that comes through a committed relationship, and the pain of loss. How do we know this? Because that’s all the game is about. (Not to mention that the ultimate moral– outliving a loved one hurts, and eventually we all fade away– is the same as the Epic of Gilgamesh’s, making it literally the oldest observation in the history of human art). Because the gameplay’s boring, the characters are nonexistent, the art is grating, the gameplay can be done without thinking. The only amount of meaningful player interaction is the thought and effort required to understand the obvious symbolism.

Replaying Dragon Age: Origins lately (SPOILERS AHEAD), it was surprising how good a job Bioware (a company infamous for a “tell-don’t-

Alistair struggles with some manner of basic concept.

show”) approach managed to make the player’s involvement in the story a part of gameplay. Whereas most games with dialogue systems and player choice usually have that as an addition to the core gameplay, DA:O manages to make that as central as its RPG elements– building good relationships with your teammates and making sure they trust you has as big of consequences as leveling them up correctly and equipping them right. And in the game’s climax, depending on your choices, there can be a pretty powerful and tragic moment.

Alistair is the first of your allies that you meet and, unless you make a deeply questionable choice near the end, will be with you for the entire game. If you want, you can pursue a relationship with him (like in Passage, this is completely optional, although Passage doesn’t have deeply cheesy sex scenes). Along the way, you can help him grow as a person and become braver and more mature. And then comes a revelation near the final mission: either you ask something of Alistair that goes completely against his moral code, or one of you will have to sacrifice themselves to defeat the enemy and save your homeland. And, if you’ve done all these things– made friends with Alistair, started a relationship with him, helped him become a more heroic person, and let him stay true to his ideals– the game suddenly takes your choices away. Alistair approaches you at the climax of the game and says he loves you and will never, ever let you die. And so one of the game’s main characters sacrifices himself as a direct consequence of choices you made in your relationship with him. In a game where being friends and doing right by other characters has so far guaranteed their survival, the game reminds you that part of being in love means watching the person you love die, and it’s a sickening gut-punch.

Dragon Age works where Passage doesn’t because of specificity– it’s a story, not an allegory. Because Passage tries to be so broad, so universal, and puts its lesson above all else it feels cold and obvious. By wanting to make a point and express an idea more than telling a story or being fun to play, it ends up feeling empty and didactic. Dragon Age’s story is all manner of cliche and hokey, but it actually has characters to get invested in and real conflicts, and Alistair’s possible death is a result of gameplay choices the player made, rather than how far right they walked. In terms of both narrative and games, these are advantages.

Seriousness is the Death of Art

Game designers want to be taken seriously as artists, and that’s understandable. This is especially true of indie designers, who have both incredible freedom and strong financial limitations that encourage finding some manner of unique style or theme. But great art doesn’t have to as serious as so many game designers want it to be.

Cute, cartoony, and colorful. The only time you’ll see that in this entry.

One of our favorite indie games– one of our favorite games of 2011, to be honest –was  Bastion, and it’s a fantastic work of art. It’s lush and beautiful, well-written, combines story and gameplay almost seamlessly, has fantastic music, and raises some really serious questions about war, society, and responsibility. The creeping dread as you go through it and gradually realize that the civilization you’re trying to rebuild was in fact cruel and oppressive is a beautiful example of making the player and their exploration a major facet of the story. It’s also really, really fun— combining varied hack-n-slash gameplay, RPG elements, clever and dynamic level design, and a creative and original fantasy world. You don’t just walk away from it thinking “man, war and the cycle of revenge sure is brutal,” you also think “oh man remember that time I fought a giant sandworm-gator using a pike and a pair of revolvers? That was awesome!” It had genuine emotional moments and it earned them through being a fun game.

That issue– earning an emotional payoff –is where a lot of the serious indie/art games fall down. Limbo was an unrelentingly oppressive black-and-white experience that made you feel hopeless by pitting the world against you, making you struggle to survive, and having a general tone of decay and entropy reflected in the crumbling, barren level design. The Graveyard  is a black-and-white game with a sense of despair because the old lady you play as might die and old ladies dying is sad. Loved may well raise some points about free will in a relationship and the need to be an individual, but those points would seem a lot more meaningful if it didn’t express them through finicky platforming in an uninteresting level with no story or characters– think of how Portal felt like a portrait of an abusive mother-child relationship, and used its puzzles as a way to create conflict between you and GladOS and give you a sense of struggling against her.

The general issue seems to be that “fun” is the opposite of “serious” and that serious art about serious things has to be serious. There’s something to this– if Mario suddenly stopped, turned to the camera, and lectured us about the evils of monarchical rule it would be jarring –but the purpose of a game is to be played. Of our three core principles, agency and satisfaction both require the game to give the players choices and to be fun, and so many art games either ignore the first in favor of making sure their message comes through, or the second to make sure they stay artistic. In the worst case, they’re so serious and so obsessed with having a big bold idea that they go past “unfun” and just become ugly.

Edmund is the worst case. It won contests and praise for putting the player in an uncomfortable place and exploring mature topics, but once you

Maybe if this is the level of tact you’re capable of using you should try a less sensitive topic.

get past the description “the game where you play as a rapist” there’s not much of a game there. Some platforming (because big Mario-hops over bottomless pits is thematically appropriate in a bleak game about sexual assault) and a couple rape minigames– wait, what? The combat consists of beating a woman and then pressing X repeatedly to rape her, and that’s the core gameplay. This is an extreme case, but it’s symptomatic of the problem that art and indie developers have– Paul Greasely was so focused on making a game that was dark, serious, and explored real-life issues that he thought marrying the button-press-satisfaction mechanics of platformer combat to the act of rape was a bad idea.  It doesn’t raise any serious questions, it doesn’t flesh out the female characters more than “they are there so you can play as a rapist,” and it doesn’t have any real reason to exist besides its creator’s original mission statement: “I want to make a game where you play as a rapist.” The general shallowness turns it, basically, into a gritty noir version of Custer’s Revenge. It’s the ultimate case of what we’re looking at: a fixation on being serious, dark, and meaningful, to the point where that’s the only purpose the game has.

Rape itself shouldn’t be fun, but it’s possible to talk about sexual violence in a game and still have the game be worthwhile. In No More Heroes, it’s pretty clear that Travis on some level is a sadist who gets a sexual thrill out of murder. When Travis Touchdown kills people and his phallic sword grows more and more erect, it says something about our culture’s issues with sex and violence because he’s a fleshed-out character whose dysfunctions grow from his pop-culture addiction. And the game has context that offers to flesh out these issues– it’s a game about how modern culture and geek culture combine sex and violence, how the escapist nature of violent media is scary, and how living a life defined by pop culture makes you dead to humanity. Edmund is a game about rape– not its effects, not the societal causes of it,not why people do it, just the act itself. Edmund doesn’t say anything besides “rape sure is ugly” because fleshing out characters, putting in human elements, or adding personality to the game would have made it less grim and serious.

Is There A Solution?

Yes, and it’s an obvious one. If you ever take a creative writing course, one of the first things any good teacher will tell you is to put ideas and themes on the back burner. Focus on making the language sound right. Write good characters with complex emotions. Have an interesting plot that grabs the reader. While the greatest books marry theme and story, and while philosophers made great books out of great ideas, a well-written work of fiction with an interesting plot beats one that has big ideas but nothing else every time.

Games are fiction, and they need to follow the same rules. They don’t have to be fun all the time, but they have to be more than a vehicle for the big idea.

In Praise of the Games that Ruined Shooters

It is, at times, hard to find a temperate voice in gaming. The gaming press has a reputation for being adulatory and terrified of actively criticizing the industry that buys their adds and gives them their stories– best embodied by the infamous Kane and Lynch scandal — whereas  there’s a pretty strong feeling among a lot of gamers outside the absolute mainstream that the medium is dying and nothing will ever be good again (We’d give you a link for that one, but just Google “modern gaming sucks” for a wall of identical complaints).

And, especially in the field of shooters, there are two games in particular that this second camp likes to hold up as the harbingers of the apocalypse, games that took the sacred medium of gaming away from us true gamers and delivered it to the corporate-run, fratboy masses of people who could never beat a Mega Man title and are strangling the lifeblood from this industry. Modern Warfare and Halo. These are the games that turned every shooter into either over-testosteroned space marines or a faceless goon shooting a parade of foreigners through his iron-sights in a brown/gray world.

And we’re going to tell you why those games are fantastic.

Halo

The fact that Halo inspired the Gears of War series alone is reason enough to be wary of it, but the impact it had on shooters can’t be denied– it made Space Marines a go-to template beyond even what Doom had been able to do, turned multiplayer into a standard requirement for shooters, firmly cemented the console as the home of popular shooters, and put a stake through the heart of the old Half-Life style FPS (except Valve’s own games and the decidedly retro BioShock).

Halo also made a lot of its own elements a part of the standard shooter through its success: limited weapon space, a dedicated grenade button, semi-regenerating health, a melee attack button instead of a melee weapon, vehicle sections. These had all been in other games, but it’s pretty rare to find a post-Halo shooter that does incorporate at least half of them, and usually all of them.

Halo’s strong sense of design communicates to the player that these enemies are the worst and should be hated.

But, taken as it was and not as the Game to Rule All Games, the first Halo was pretty damn good. It was bright and colorful with vivid and energetic art design (a trend the series kept up even in its later, weaker installments), and that alone sets it above the brown-green-gray sea of a lot of modern shooters. The enemy design in particular is fantastic: all of the enemies pop out from the landscape, and it’s easy to tell at a glance what kind of threat they pose, how scared you should be, and what tactics are best against them. They all utilize very different tactics when fighting the player, which helps to vary the gameplay greatly. Each type of enemy feels as if they occupy their own distinct role in the Covenant Military. Halo also had absolutely gorgeous level and world design: the environments you fought in felt ancient and awesome, and the game puts the player in a diverse array of natural environments and interesting settings. Playing the game today, one of the biggest surprises is how well it’s aged visually compared to so many other games from 2001: put it alongside Grand Theft Auto III or Black and White and Halo doesn’t simply look graphically better: it looks more alive, more vivid, and still has a real sense of originality and excitement to its worlds.

Halo also did some things very, very right as far as gameplay is concerned. The biggest one of these was a sense of balance: whereas the basic norm in shooters was to give the player increasingly more powerful guns as they go along (best shown in the genius Doom Comic), Halo was one of the shooters to push towards making all weapons relatively equal. Sure, the pistol was infamously overpowered and the rocket launcher was still a rocket launcher, but the player’s choice of weapons essentially boiled down to what they’d be facing and how they played (this is one of the things that made its multiplayer so popular– it did away with the situation where one player gets the Golden Gun and is able to dominate the entire game). And since the grenades and the melee attack each have their own buttons, they become a valuable part of combat scenarios and expand the options given to the player. This balanced set of weapons extended to the enemy encounters: fighting a stronger enemy (a cloaked Elite, an Elite with a sword, a Hunter) didn’t require the player to grab a bigger better gun, it required them to act quickly and use a different strategy. These ideas may not sound too impressive, but considering that before Halo the biggest and most influential shooter was the original Half-Life (which, for all its greatness, was guilty of perpetuating a lot of these problems) they represent some pretty major steps forward for the genre.

There is no surer sign of a good time than “Captain Keyes is here.”

And now we do what most critics (who don’t work for the industry) wouldn’t be caught dead doing: praising Halo‘s story.  Whereas the later Halo games seemed to labor under the pretensions that a) they were telling a sweeping sci-fi epic and b) the player actually cared about the aliens’ motivations and politics, the first game’s story is a masterpiece of economy. The writing in it is fairly sharp and does a good job of  putting the player in the world, but it never overreaches. It doesn’t need to explain why aliens hate humans or what their culture is (and does a pretty good job through incidental dialogue, the environment, and its sense of design of giving you that information anyway), nor does it burden you with millenia of galactic history. What plot developments it has, it handles very well, like the introduction of the Flood. Whereas the later games veered closer and closer to space opera, the first Halo feels like a simple space adventure from the soldier’s point of view, consistently likeable characters, and hints at a bigger picture.  Although we’ll be the first to admit that Halo 3‘s plot is stupid and self-involved, we need more games who take the first Halo‘s approach to storytelling: enough story to give a sense of tension, but never, ever expecting us to be amazed by it or letting it get in the way of the actual game.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

Modern Warfare’s cultural presence is essentially a bigger version of Halo‘s: even more successful, even more reviled (to the point that, while researching this article, we found Halo fans worrying that Halo 4 would be a bad game by imitating Modern Warfare). It came out the same year as  the “trilogy” part of the “five-game trilogy, followed by another trilogy” of Halo ended, and basically transformed the world of shooters. Even we’re guilty of complaining about this in our last article, and it’s a valid complaint– Modern Warfare’s astronomical success, paired with Activision’s… let’s just say “evil”, basically led to half the shooters of the past five years resembling it.

But, even more than Halo, the game deserved success (and Infinity Ward didn’t deserve their infamous treatment by Activision). It was

This is one of many, many levels that will make you feel guilty for playing it.

one of the best games of 2007  (and it had to compete with Bioshock, Portal, Mass Effect, and Super Mario Galaxy), and stands as one of the only successful anti-war video games ever made. Whereas the MW series since then has gotten ever more jingoistic, foreigner-hating, and morally questionable, the first game is absolutely full of moments that encapsulate how unsettling and wrong war and our modern approach to it is. There’s the famous “Aftermath” level, where a character you’ve been controlling half the game dies of radiation poisoning and the game only briefly highlights his name on a scrolling list of the thousands of casualties, there’s “Death From Above,” where you control an American aircraft gunner and the main characters (a British SAS division) and their conflict are reduced to tiny blips that your character is audibly bored with as you blanket an entire village with fire, and even the game’s opening credits are a chilling and evocative look at geopolitics. Whereas Modern Warfare 3 feels like an unironic Team America game, the series’ first installment is one of the only games about war that manages to be fun to play, but make war and the nationalism that accompanies it look pretty awful.

Captain Price: candidate for most badass moustache in video games

And, like Halo, we have to judge it by the era it came out in rather than by its sequels and imitators. When it came out, the idea of a war game grounded in modern, realistic conflict was still fairly new, and the gameplay elements we’ve come to hate were part of that. Playing the game when it first came out, we weren’t yet sick of fighting in bleak Middle-Eastern cities and gray Russian bases. The very fact that a good game was talking about American action in the Middle East and making the player feel like a real, on-the-ground soldier was refreshing and felt like a bold step forward (instead of just being yet another Nazi shooting gallery). And, without those objections, the intense chaos of the combat and the fact that it always feels as though you’re getting through just by the skin of your teeth is something truly praiseworthy. The game also does a great job of immersing you in its military setting. The first few missions feel like they’re teaching you how to move and fight as a squad (though some of the later missions throw these tactics out the window), and the game gives you Captain Price, a commanding officer who’s a great character and someone actually worth following. The game can feel exhausting at times, but its frantic and confusing combat is both thrilling and an important aspect of its story and themes. It accomplishes a rare thing: it’s an incredibly fun game that also feels like a relief when you finally turn it off, and it does a fantastic job of always, always making the player feel like they’re seconds from death.

In the end, we have to judge these games by their own standards. If they hadn’t been behemoths of the industry, if we hadn’t had to live with their legacy, would it be so easy to hate them? And if every shooter nowadays looks like Halo or Modern Warfare, is it really fair to blame them?