The Undying Allure of Gaming’s All-story

In the rush to assess Battlefield: Hardline’s depiction of police in our modern state, little has been done to examine the game on its own terms — as a video game among other video games. That’s not exactly a surprise, but it’s a bit disappointing. For whatever damage Hardline’s nonsense take on police work may, or may not (probably will not) cause, I fear it’s the overlying narrative that’s far more damaging to this medium.

What follows are spoilers for the end of Battlefield: Hardline’s campaign and Dead Space 3…

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In the final missions of Battlefield: Hardline’s campaign, it’s revealed that in the three years protagonist Nick Mendoza spends in jail, his former Captain has risen from head of Miami Vice to the creator of a private police force called “Preferred Outcomes”. Imagine an at-home version of Kevin Spacey’s private military from Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and you have a good idea of the aspirations. What begins as a simple revenge story quickly turns into a one-man mission to save the free world. Over the course of ten missions you go from detective work, to Fast & Furious-style ragtag robberies, to a Far Cry-style invasion of a madman’s private island.

If you were thinking that a cop story would keep its stakes a few degrees below “protagonist is the savior of everything”, you’d be wrong.

I can’t begin to know what was going on at Visceral Games to inspire this 11th hour plot twist. I suspect it’s the same Kool-Aid that had them turn Dead Space 3’s Isaac Clarke into the savior of humanity, up against Necromorphs who had become a universe-ending, moon-sized god-villain. I suspect — and this is only an outsider’s educated guess — that this decision is natural when developing high-stakes, big-budget, triple-A games or franchises over the course of years. When a video game is your entire world, and your career depends on the success of this creation, I can only imagine those high stakes creep their way into the final game.

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Somewhere along the way, a creation so world-shatteringly important to its creators must demand a plot with world-shattering importance. Why put so much of your heart and soul into a pedestrian story when you can make something that puts the player in the ultimate role of heroism? Why make a game for an audience when you can make a game for the whole world? Why save a few lives when you can save the entire universe?

Or maybe it’s just the appeal of that all-story where one person rises up against impossible odds to save literally everything. I wouldn’t be surprised if nearly every game dev has had one of these chosen-one-saves-everything stories cooking in their head since childhood — I know I do. But in an industry where there is no bottleneck on “awesome-epic-shit-exploding-with-Space-Jesus-swooping-in-just-in-time,” it’s the more subtle stuff that gains novelty.

It’s not like Visceral was hard-up for ideas either. They themselves cited a ton of cop shows as inspiration. Yet I don’t remember the part in The Wire where McNulty uncovers a drug empire that threatens the entire country. I don’t think the CSI team ever fought their way through a megalomaniac’s grand island compound either. Despite that, these shows managed to air week-after-week entertaining audiences throughout.

Ever since finishing Mass Effect 2, I’ve wanted a “Tales from Mass Effect”, where the player revisits that universe as a cop or smuggler, taking on a series of cases or jobs without universe-shattering stakes. The episodic storytelling of ME2, with its series of recruitment and loyalty missions, felt intimate in a way that the rest of the series couldn’t achieve. It suggested a deeper world, with human problems and threats that went beyond the apocalyptic variety.

Yet it’s hard to imagine any triple-A series going in a more subdued direction if Battlefield: Hardline couldn’t even refrain. And you can look to any number of indie games for smaller, more intimate stories, so maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree. Or maybe the braver thing isn’t making intimate stories because that’s all you can afford, but choosing to make them even when you have the budget for something far more epic.

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