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.

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How Boring do Game Designers Think We Are?

Usually on Cardinal Virtual, we like to focus on things we like about games (Video Game Critics Who Are Angry being a fairly bloated genre). This week though, we’re doing something a little different and talking about a pet peeve both of us have with many modern games. It seems like so many of the AAA titles that come out these days feature personality-less husks of human beings who are about as dynamic as the color beige. (They’re almost always square-jawed, brown-haired, slightly-tanned white men too– confusing “everyman” for “statistically average.”) Most likely, this is done because of the false assumption that this is the only way to really immerse the player. Since game developers fear a non-relatable character will draw the player out of the experience, they often opt for the safe route and create a character who won’t offend anyone but is as dull as a stamp collector. Okay, these similes are getting old, so let’s dive into some examples of characters who need a bit of color in their personalities.

Chuck Greene: Boring.

Specimen 1: Desmond Miles (The Assassin’s Creed series)

If there was ever a physical manifestation of blandness, it would be this guy. So maybe Desmond isn’t the main character of any one Assassin’s Creed game, but he’s definitely the star of the overall series. You play as one of his ancestors for most of each installment (Altaïr in the first game and Ezio in the second and it’s spin-offs), and fortunately, these characters are much more interesting. Both Altaïr and Ezio start off as inexperienced and sloppy assassins (in Ezio’s case, he’s dragged into the profession through tragic circumstances) and gradually become more professional and competent as the game progresses (as the player’s skill increases) and at the end of their stories, come to the realization that they’re a part of a struggle much bigger than themselves. Neither of them are quite as strong as the characters we wrote about two weeks ago (well, maybe Ezio is), but they still manage to engage, making the game all the more fun.

But Desmond doesn’t have any of this going for him. Nothing about him seems to change over the course of the series. He never really sounds excited, or scared, or angry. He has a love interest (for most of the game so far) but you never feel any chemistry between them (nor does she do much to endear herself to the player), she’s the love interest simply because she’s there. Desmond doesn’t even need to work to improve his skills, as he just seems to magically acquire his assassin skills (that he barely needs to use anyway). There’s no real story or Hero’s Journey for Desmond– the 2-3 hours the player spends controlling him and not Ezio or Altaïr are the complete, real-time story of Desmond. It might not seem as though we’re really describing much about Desmond, but honestly, there really isn’t anything more worth saying. The idea of connecting a series of games that take place in different eras and countries by reliving the memories of assassin’s from said time frames is interesting, but the (thankfully) brief sections spent controlling Desmond don’t make us feel anymore immersed in the games, they just make us want to go back to playing as Ezio or Altaïr. In a series dominated by exciting, complex heroes, the central protagonist is as cookie-cutter Standard Protagonist as you could possibly get.

Desmond Miles: Boring.

Specimen 2: Gordon Freeman (The Half-Life series)

Half-Life 2 (and it’s episodes) create one of the most impressive worlds in any video game. The different areas are quite varied, the sound design is impeccable, and its home to enemies like the Striders, Headcrab Zombies, and Hunters. The games also feature a great cast of characters, from Alyx Vance to Dr. Breen to the mysterious  G-Man. Unfortunately, protagonist Gordon Freeman does not belong in the ranks of these great characters, and (along with the level Water Hazard) is one of the weakest aspects of his games. It says something that the game could be improved by changing the protagonist to Barney Calhoun.

Barney Calhoun: less boring, vastly more drunk.

Now some of you may be screaming at your computer screens that Gordon Freeman is a silent protagonist, but Freeman still fails as an engaging character even within this criteria. Good silent protagonists are still expressive. Link, in the 3D installments of The Legend of Zelda series expresses himself through his myriad of idle animations, facial expressions (especially in The Wind Waker), and just through his reactions to what other characters do, all of which contribute to his, admittedly basic, personality. Link does have the advantage of a third person perspective though, so let’s look at some FPS silent protagonists. Jack from BioShock mostly receives orders from people via radio and the mid-game twist heavily implies why he’s a mostly silent protagonist (he does speak in the intro). Fellow Valve hero Chell also doesn’t have many other characters to interact with in the first Portal, and in Portal 2 she equates saying apple with jumping. But even Chell is given personality by the other characters, who praise and condemn her stubbornness, ingenuity, and drive.

Gordon Freeman, on the other hand, has none of these excuses. He has only the bare minimum of animations, most of which cover firing his weapons. His silence is sometimes acknowledged by the other characters, but never in any meaningful way and his lack of any input in conversations, especially with Alyx, just makes him seem creepy and awkward. Going from Freeman’s backstory, he’s probably a smart guy, but aside from fighting, all we ever have him do is plug stuff in and solve the same seesaw puzzle over and over again. Whereas Chell is defined by her game’s story and characters, Gordon’s skillsets boil down to shooting, puzzling, and pushing buttons, and the other characters only treat him as an emotionless messiah/walking button-pusher. The player never has an idea what Gordon’s feeling or what makes him special. Basically, Gordon Freeman fails to impress in any way as a silent protagonist. Since he doesn’t actively hurt his games, he’s par for the course, but he’s one of the weakest elements in any Valve game.

Gordon Freeman: Boring.

Specimen 3: Every Faceless Soldier from Every Military Based Shooter

Where to begin with this one? These guys are probably the worst offenders of all considering the large percentage of the market these games take up. It seems that player-controlled soldiers, whether they’re fighting in Germany, the Middle East, or in space (we’re including sci-fi shooters with a military style) all have roughly the same personality. They’re all no-nonsense badasses who never flinch in the face of danger and often have a cool catch-phrase waiting for the end of every battle. Sometimes they may suffer a personal tragedy or develop a love interest, but these situations are rarely developed enough to cause the player any real emotion. More often then not, these soldiers just complete objectives, and if they’re silent protagonists, they mostly mirror Gordon Freeman in the character animations department (without the more original backstory Freeman has). COD 4: Modern Warfare gets a bit of a pass in this area. The game does such a good job of placing the player within the within a military setting that controlling a faceless soldier actually feels appropriate, and part of the game’s point– best made in the early squad-building missions and in the famous Aftermath level–is how faceless and unimportant soldiers really are.

In  Modern Warfare 2/Modern Warfare 3/Call of Duty/Battlefield/Medal of Honor/Killzone/Crysis, the heroes aren’t just silent protagonists or player ciphers. They’re not even characters. They’re just an outgrowth of the gun, a part of the weapon– they may as well be remote-controlled military drones. The problem here isn’t just that developers think we can’t identify with a complex character, it’s that they assume we don’t even want to.

Modern War FPS Heroes:

They are all SO

INCREDIBLY

BORING.