Chaos vs. Order: The Eternal Struggle

“You have destroyed so much– what is it exactly that you have created? Can you name even one thing? I thought not.”
–Wallace Breen, Half-Life 2

Video game plots have long been accused of being the run of the mill good vs. evil stories. And for the most part that’s true, even the best game plots often feature mostly black and white characters and or morality systems with purely good and evil options. But the real underlying conflict that most gameplay features is actually not good vs. evil, but the struggle between order and chaos. This is probably, in part, due to the element of agency in gaming– unlike other mediums, the core principle of the medium is about the player having freedom in a premade world.

So in this article, we’re going to shed some light on this never ending battle and show how some of your favorite games portray this eternal conflict.

The Player as an Agent of Chaos

Link may be the messiah, but keep him away from your house.

Link may be the messiah, but keep him away from your house.

This is really the underlying conflict in the majority of video games on the market. The player controlled character invades an area controlled by the enemy with carefully laid out obstacles, traps, puzzles, enemy formations, etc. Essentially a carefully set-up environment that the player character is meant to ride roughshod through (like that time you knocked over that block tower your little brother was building). Despite what the background story may say about how the villains are invading and disrupting the status-quo (also chaos vs. order), when you take over and start actually playing through the levels, you’re wreaking havoc on the carefully arranged battlements set up by the enemy. Even something as grotesque as the R-Type series’s Bydo Empire, a strange alien army composed of machines and deformed flesh, is still an organized group that spends time building and fortifying defenses that you need to penetrate/destroy. Even more mundane gameplay activities, like smashing pots and slicing up carefully groomed bushes for cash in the Zelda series, involve messing up or destroying some other character’s hard work.

Hire at your own risk!

Hire at your own risk!

Perhaps the game series that is the most honest about this perpetual conflict is the famous Grand Theft Auto series, which might be one of the reasons we like it so much. Obviously rampaging around the city fighting the cops makes you a force of chaos, but the story missions carry out this theme just as much, especially in IV. Niko Bellic is honestly just as dangerous to his employers as he is to everyone else in the city. At least 6 (more depending on some of the choices you make) mission givers are killed by Niko himself and several more are killed or brought down by the whirlwind of danger surrounding him. He not only disrupts the order of Liberty City, but disrupts the order of its criminal underworld as well. GTA: Vice City’s protagonist, Tommy Vercetti, takes a slightly different approach. Anyone who’s played the game knows that Vercetti deals out as much chaos as any other GTA protagonist, but during the second half of the story Tommy does begin to restore some order to the criminal empire he just decimated. After destroying Ricardo Diaz’s organization halfway through the game, Vercetti’s focus shifts toward building up his own organization, which causes a bit of a gameplay shift. He purchases businesses around the city and builds them up as branches of his own criminal empire. Even though the missions for the businesses usually involve wreaking havoc against someone else, you still have the sense that you’re building something, which makes Vice City a little bit more toward the middle on the order/chaos spectrum.

Bringing Order to Chaos

It's always satisfying to see your cities grow and evolve.

It’s always satisfying to see your cities grow and evolve.

This is the approach that most strategy games take, where your entire goal is to build your own army or settlement from resources that you collect. One of the best examples of a game in this category is the Civilization series, where you literally start off in an untamed wilderness and must build and progress your own society through the different periods of history. While you can choose to wage war against rival civilizations in order to win the game, you can also win via negotiation, science, art and other less chaotic methods, which places the Civilization games firmly on the order end of the spectrum. You even build your society’s values, transitioning from a chaotic tribe intent only on survival to a culture with a very focused and specific set of principles. Even further in the order category are titles like SimCity, the Tycoon games, and the strangely popular Euro Truck Simulator, where the entire goal of the game is to manage something in an orderly fashion, whether that be a city, an amusement park, a zoo, or any of the other kinds of businesses the Tycoon games feature. While these kinds of games certainly have a dedicated following, there aren’t nearly as many titles that focus on creating order. There are probably a number of reasons for this but perhaps the main one is simply that causing chaos is just more fun. Even in SimCity, causing natural disasters and watching buildings topple is very enjoyable, despite the fact that it’s supposed to be an event the player wants to avoid. Despite this, these kinds of games can provide a welcome change of pace and we may see some intresting twists on gameplay dealing with bringing order to chaos in years to come.

Surviving in a Chaotic World

Remnants of a normal life.

Remnants of a normal life.

Games that fit into this category don’t quite belong on the order to chaos spectrum like the games mentioned above do. Instead, the locations these games take place in are designed to be chaotic and the goal is to push through and survive in a harsh environment. Many survival horror games like Silent Hill 2 and the recent indie hit Lone Survivor fit into this category. While combat is technically an option in these games, the ability to inflict chaos back against your enemies is intentionally limited to make you feel all the more helpless. In Lone Survivor’s case, the game actually rewards you for not killing enemies, despite the fact they won’t hesitate to do you in. The game also encourages you to preserve what you can of your normal, more routine life, like eating regularly (and well), limiting your intake of pills, and even adopting a cat. The emphasis here is truly on surviving while surrounded by utter chaos and even making the most out of such a situation, instead of destroying or instituting order. You win by keeping yourself under control, not the world.

Not a typical day at Black Mesa.

Not a typical day at Black Mesa.

Of course, like how Vice City is a partial overlap between the above two categories, there are games in this category that overlap with one of the others too. The original Half-Life takes place, for the most part, in an incredibly hostile environment where Gordon Freeman cannot fight all of his foes directly (like that obnoxious tentacle monster). The game beginning like just another day working at Black Mesa even enhances the chaos that you feel after everything goes to hell. However, your ability to fight back against the Xen aliens and the resilient commandos (who are trying to cover-up the whole affair) is substantial enough to set it apart the survival horror titles listed above, as Gordon Freeman ends up causing a fair amount of chaos himself during the course of his adventure. The protagonist’s world is being destroyed, but he can’t rebuild– only fight back.

Our Favorites of this Generation

[Apologies for our recent absence. The two of us have been traveling, working, and fighting off illnesses for about a month straight now. But we’re back, we’re expanding and going deeper on out last topic, and we’re gonna try and keep posting regularly from now on.]

Which games are winner? Read on to find out.

Which games are winner? Read on to find out.

With the end of both 2012 and the nearing end of this video game generation (the seventh according to Wikipedia) with the release of the WiiU, we felt it would be appropriate for each of us to look back on the past several years and list our ten favorite games of this generation. Unsurprisingly though, since we think alike enough to write this blog, our top five choices of this generation were basically the same. So we’ll be listing those five first and providing our individual comments for them, and then we’ll diverge into our separate lists for the next five next week. We’re defining the beginning of this generation with the release of the Xbox 360 in 2005 so any game after this is eligible unless it’s a remake of an older game (no Ocarina of Time for the 3Ds or Resident Evil 4 for the Wii). Since this list can also double as some game recommendations, we’ll try to keep it spoiler free.

#6: Spec Ops: The Line

The Line was a real surprise for us– to the point where we’d already written most of this article by the time we played it (hence a top 6). There’s a lot to talk about, and a lot of it has been by other critics. But it’s probably the best mainstream game of 2012, and the best military shooter of all time.

The gameplay can be a little repetitive, but that’s the smallest complaint. It’s well-written, smart, creative, and boasts the best performance of Nolan North’s career.  Even the visuals, which few

Brown and gray don't have to be dull.

Brown and gray don’t have to be dull.

reviews mentioned, are praiseworthy. It’s one of the most beautiful games we’ve ever seen, and definitely the best-looking that doesn’t rely on a fantastical setting and a different world. The apocalyptic Dubai of the game is absolutely gorgeous: tragic, lush, and full of tiny visual details. The contrast between the opulent buildings and the ravaged landscape isn’t just “Destroyed Beauty,” it’s loaded with heavy, heavy symbolic weight.

And that’s The Line‘s greatest achievement: it’s a game where everything means something. It takes you to dark, dark moral territory, and it does so through more than just a well-written narrative. It tells its story through mechanics, and especially through the narrative tropes common to other war shooters. Whereas Modern Warfare gives you a gatling gun and a helicopter and lets you revel in it, The Line makes you feel guilty for the bloodthirst your power inspires. The player’s decision to keep playing until they “win” is cast as a psychotic hero complex, their attempts to make meaningful moral choices are swatted down because you don’t get to just decide you want to be a good person, and the game’s philosophy– encapsulated when the protagonist is told “you’re no savior. Your talents lie elsewhere” –is about as good a refutation of the idea of the “heroic action protagonist” as there ever has been. Other shooters would treat the death of civilians as a giant turning point. In The Line, it’s possible while trying to evacuate a refugee camp to see a shape running at you, panic, and realize you just shot an unarmed woman. It wears you down, makes you scared, and doesn’t just show evil–  it makes the player realize how evil happens.

The Line: Where Happiness Goes to Die!

The Line: Where Happiness Goes to Die!

It’s a game that has a real sense of morality and is making bold, unfriendly statements about both American foreign policy and about

contemporary games. It has enough power and enough intelligence to make you consider the way you play other games– both of us feel a lot less friendly towards military shooters after The Line made us  feel culpable for our actions. It’s a testament to the game’s power that it tries to be the Apocalypse Now of gaming and comes damn close to living up to that.

Best Moment: It’s hard to talk about without spoiling but there’s a moment right before the final level when things are very, very bad that not only pushes the player harder than any other game we’ve seen, but makes a very clear point about the way in which war leads to people doing terrible things.

#5: Hotline Miami

It's not about making those corpses. It's about walking back past them.

It’s not about making those corpses. It’s about walking back past them.

Hotline Miami is very much The Line‘s indie brother. It has brutal, realistic violence, a strong film influence (Nicolas Wending Refn’s Drive), and works to make the player feel guilt not just for narrative actions but for completing the core gameplay objectives. When a game directly asks you if “you enjoy hurting people” it’s pretty clear what it’s going for.

Hotline Miami deserves to be praised not just for exploring the issues of violence, escapism, and identity in games but also for, well, everything. It‘s visually stunning: a throbbing, pulsing fever dream of 80’s neon and blood that looks both incredibly cool and unsettling. But these visuals also work on a level that serves the narrative– the swirling, psychedelic look of the game lulls you into a psychotic trance, while watching an enemy try and pry your hand away before you jam a power drill into his ear does a damn fine job of pulling you out of it. At every step the game is pushing you towards violent acts and then making you feel terrible for them.

You owe it to yourself to go watch every trailer for this game.

You owe it to yourself to go watch every trailer for this game.

Despite all this, it’s also crazy, crazy fun. It’s easy to pick it up, play for half an hour, and have a blast. The gameplay is fast, frantic, and cool, while also doing something great with its ultra-hard difficulty: it’s the rare game where beating your enemies isn’t about strength, equipment, or inborn advantage but about quick thinking and strategy. The fact that your character is just as frail as the enemies, can’t outrun them, and has no superweapons both fleshes out the game’s story (the people you’re killing are just as human as you), but also makes the combat about as nerve-wracking and intense as we’ve ever seen (Jasper’s girlfriend loves the game, for instance, but can only play one level at a time or “it feels like I’m having three heart attacks at once”). Plus, you know, the soundtrack is one of the best game soundtracks ever made.

And the fact that it’s such a small-scale, personal project game is just icing on the cake. It was the best game of 2012– it’s one of our favorite games of all time –and it was made by two guys. In their spare time. With freaking Game Maker. Its success is a testament to some of the massive changes going on in gaming right now. And as people who have loved Cactus’s work for about five years now, it’s wonderful to see him make a masterpiece.

Best Moment: The fourth chapter, Tension. Specifically opening the door. If you’ve played it you know the door we’re talking about. Wait… no, the best moment is when one of us got featured in a trailer for the game (third quote).

#4: Portal 2

Portal 2 isn’t as daring as anything else on this list. It’s an expansion of the first game’s puzzle-shooter mechanics, it doesn’t make the player

You might say that the game is... looking pretty good. (VIDEO GAME COMEDY.)

You might say that the game is… looking pretty good. (VIDEO GAME COMEDY.)

question themselves or redefine what the medium is capable of. So why is it on this list?

Because it’s as close to perfect as any game has ever been. Do you want to know our complaint? Our one complaint? Some of thepuzzles in the middle section of the game have art design that makes it a little hard to see where you’re supposed to go next. Maybe 3 or 4 of them. That’s it. This game is so well-done that we can literally count every single problem we have with it in the span of about a minute. It doesn’t quite soar to the heights of the other games on this list, but it’s an absolute masterpiece nonetheless. It’s simple, refined, and near-flawless. It has four major characters (one of whom is a mute protagonist and one of whom is dead), and around a dozen different puzzle mechanics, and it manages to make one of the medium’s most compelling stories and an endlessly surprising game out of them. Whereas the first Portal was tight effective writing paired with a handful of puzzle elements, Portal 2 kept that simplicity and sparseness and transformed it into a beautiful, powerful efficiency of both narrative and design.

There's as much tragedy and pathos to this goofy mad scientist as most Oscar-winning films.

There’s as much tragedy and pathos to this goofy mad scientist as most Oscar-winning films.

Portal 2 is really the best representation of Valve’s strength as a director: it’s not just that they made a game which was imaginative, well-written, and fun. It’s that they did that and worked and worked making that game as good as it could possibly be. It’s about as meticulously crafted and focused on its artistic goals as any game in the history of the medium, and it applies that focus to gorgeous art direction (which is also expressive and great at telling a story), brilliant writing, and inventive mechanics. It may be Valve’s masterpiece (and if not, their best since Half-Life 2). It’s a simple story, with a few characters, but those characters are brilliantly written and the story’s emotionally engaging and consistently hilarious. The puzzles are intuitive and clever, and almost entirely on a just-about-perfect level of difficulty. If the last games on this list were Drive and Apocalypse Now, Portal 2 (the only game on this list with an E-10 rating, coincidentally) would be a film like Wall-E or Toy Story 3: less edgy, less auteur-ish, but just as revolutionary and every bit as great.

Best Moment: The game’s focus on rapid-fire wit over spectacle makes this tough, but it’s either the aftermath of the “fight” against GLaDOS that closes the first act or the slow, hilarious reveal of who and how crazy Cave Johnson was.

#3: No More Heroes: Desperate Struggle

Suda 51’s No More Heroes was a wonderful oddity: a game that actually used the Wii’s motion controls in a way that felt necessary, with excellent boss fights, funny writing, and a sharp satiric edge. Between that and the wonderful trailers, we were pretty excited for its release. We were expecting another fun cult hit that had cool ideas and some great moments.

GAMES ARE ART.

GAMES ARE ART.

What we got was one of the best games we’ve ever played, and one that established Suda as one of gaming’s most interesting artists. The series still has its faults, of course– the non-boss combat is usually functional but unimpressive, some levels go on far too long –but almost all of them were removed between the first and the second game. The first had fun and creative boss fights, the second makes them not only more fun through deeper combat but makes the bosses more rounded characters and has you fight a gundam, an anime nightmare, a supervillain, the White Male Power Structure, and an astronaut. The sequel improves in every way, from having great retro minigames in place of the first’s dull jobs, to a weirder and more postmodern tone (fellow game creators Shinji Mikami and Hideo Kojima get loving tributes, cult director Takashi Miike makes a bizarre cameo), to an overall richer and deeper story.

The story is Desperate Struggle’s biggest strength. Whereas the first mostly used protagonist Travis Touchdown as a punching bag, making points about escapism into games and nerd culture through him, the second really lets him come into his own as a protagonist. He’s still dumb

What makes the romance so good is how realistic it is.

What makes the romance so good is how realistic it is.

and self-absorbed, but he’s a complex character with real human depth and growth. The game still has a ton of satire in it (its main focuses being on our obsessions with sex and violence, mass-media culture, and the amoral nature of most action heroes), but it’s made stronger by having real characters we care about at the core. Travis Touchdown, in this game, is one of gaming’s most interesting heroes and one that couldn’t exist in any other medium.

What really makes the story special to us is that it’s real and human in a way that a lot of game stories aren’t. NMH:DS may throw spectacle and absurdity at the player nonstop, but Travis’s core arc is learning to value other people, become less dependent on pop culture to define himself, appreciate the real world, and develop a set of adult values in place of childish wish-fulfillment. It’s a story that’s fundamentally one of growing up, and resonates especially hard with people for whom video games, TV, and movies are a big part of life. The game may feature mech battles, ghosts, katana fights, and space lasers, but it’s fundamentally the story of what it is to be a young man who feels disconnected from his society and alone in the world. It’s one of the coolest and weirdest games ever, and one of the most heartfelt and nuanced ones too.

Best Moment: The fight against the third ranked assassin, an aging cosmonaut. The actual gameplay of the boss fight is really solid but it’s the atmosphere that pushes it over the top. Not to mention the touching cutscene afterwards.

#2: Grand Theft Auto IV

Grand Theft Auto IV finally accomplished something that no other crime sandbox game had been able to do: creating a narrative and world in

"We can pick the game, Niko Bellic. But we cannot change the rules. "

“We can pick the game, Niko Bellic. But we cannot change the rules. “

which the game mechanics felt natural and realistic. It’s hard to understate how massive of an achievement this is. When playing as Rico Rodriguez, The Boss, Tommy Vercetti, or any other sandbox hero you feel like, well, a kid in a sandbox; the world is fun to interact with and the toys are awesome, but you never feel like a real part of it. GTA IV is one of the only sandboxes to escape this.

It did this, in part, with incredible writing and narrative. Niko Bellic should be taught in college courses as the perfect example of how to create a game protagonist. He’s interesting, complex, sympathetic, and– most importantly –every aspect of who he is, from his traumatic past to his status as an immigrant outsider, is tailored to fit the game. Every action the player can do as Niko feels like a natural result of who he is. Even the mechanics of the game reflect this: Niko trudges from place to place, fights with cold, mechanical precision, and generally feels like an unlovable killing machine. The game is able to give the players an extraordinary amount of freedom, but Niko’s character is so perfectly crafted that you’ll feel immersed even while biking off skyscrapers and starting battle royales between cab drivers.

Liberty City, meanwhile, is the gold standard of what a sandbox world can be. It’s not as pretty as Far Cry 3 or as full of games as Saints Row 2,

The strip clubs are depressing and not fun. Told you it was realistic.

The strip clubs are depressing and not fun. Told you it was realistic.

but it feels alive unlike just about any other game. Every neighborhood has its own demographics and unique feel, there’s a sense of unique personality to a lot of the pedestrians, and it actually feels like a real, living world– which makes the chaos  so much more rewarding. Getting drunk and starting a fistfight in central park is as enjoyable in this game as blowing up a city block is in Saint’s Row, just because having that real and organic a world makes disrupting it so much more fun.

Finally, the game just has an incredible story. It’s well-written and full of great characters, and it walks a delicate line between goofy satire and serious social commentary. It has hilarious fake right-wing talk radio, sure, but it also says a lot about what America is and how cruel it can be. For every hilarious moment like Brucie talking about his lack of “funny balls,” there’s a haunting one like Niko’s discussion of how he became who he is. It’s dark, funny, and moving, and it works because the world and the mechanics immerse the player so deeply in what it is to be a man like Niko Bellic in a grim and cynical America.

Best Moment: The game’s absolute gut-punch of an ending– either one –which drives home how unattainable the “American Dream” truly is for people like Niko. Either that or the amazing bank heist mission.

#1: Bioshock

The game's dialogue could be nothing but fart noises and visuals like this would still make it a masterpiece.

The game’s dialogue could be nothing but fart noises and visuals like this would still make it a masterpiece.

Don’t act surprised. You knew it was going to be Bioshock. We could write this entire blog by doing one entry a week on some facet of this game and keep busy for years.

Bioshock is beautifully-designed, visually-stunning, and packed with so many creative ideas that it’s hard to go ten minutes without seeing something new and cool. The city of Rapture is one of the best settings in game history. It’s one of a handful of games to set its sights on really big ideas– to grapple with one of the twentieth century’s major philosophers –and really succeed. The gameplay, while kind of simple, gives the player some extraordinary freedom in terms of the tools at their disposal and how to use them. But the gameplay’s not why we’ve replayed the game at least twice a year since it came out.

Bioshock is a success on virtually every aesthetic front. The art design is absolutely stunning, both in terms of raw visual beauty and in terms of serving the narrative– a ton of the game’s story and tone comes through details of setting and visual elements. The characters are all distinct individuals with their own strong personalities and narrative arcs, who also serve to illustrate the world and give human faces to its philosophical conflicts. The music’s amazing, the sound design is unimpeachable, and the game’s grasp of tone is so flawless that it can be laugh-out-loud funny and incredibly creepy at the same time.

Oh man, remember this?

Oh man, remember this?

But what makes Bioshock truly special is that it’s a game in many ways about the potential of gaming. Its closest analogue– no hyperbole intended –is Citizen Kane. Like Kane, Bioshock uses the very mechanics of its medium as a central part of its story, and in doing so proves what that medium is really capable of. It’s ambitious, creative, and so deeply in love with everything games can do that its love is infectious. And just as a Citizen Kane book would be laughable, Bioshock provides a narrative experience that is entirely dependent on the interactivity, choice, and immersion that games provide. Bioshock is a great game, yes. But even more than that, it’s quite possibly the best argument ever for why video games are an important, even necessary, medium for art and storytelling. It’s our favorite game of the past six years, not just because of how good it is on its own but because its very existence is an inspiration as to what the medium can be at its best.

Best Moment: Don’t even play. You know what it is. Man. Chooses. Etc. Possibly the most famous scene of the entire generation. A scene that basically changed gaming forever, when the core principles of game narrative were fundamentally challenged.