Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A Country for Old Men

Our action heroes are getting older. It’s not just prematurely-aged Solid Snake in the latest Metal Gear Solid installment. In the world of cinema, we’ve got the recent examples of Harrison Ford and Sylvester Stallone reprising their old roles in Indiana Jones 4 and the 2008 Rambo movie respectively. Both actors are in their sixties, and just so happened to take on these physically demanding, masculine roles within the same year.

Yeah, I know this is a gaming blog. But I’m referring to a general cultural trend, of which MGS4 is just one example. To a lesser extent, videogame protagonists like GTA4’s Nikko Bellic or even DMC4’s slightly-aged Dante showcase the fact that heroes don’t have to be in the throes of teenage angst and hormone-driven self discovery to kick serious ass. They can have mileage, a few lines on their faces, some gray hair—though in Dante’s case, who could tell?

(Side note: Notice all the fours? What the hell is with that? That’s not even counting Call of Duty).

These characters are a far cry from senile Don Quixote de la Mancha. They may groan, their bones might ache, and maybe they’re not as spry as they were in their prime. But they still manage to save the world, or their own little slice of it. If our heroes (and villains) are getting older, maybe it’s because the world is, too.

I’m not talking about absolute chronology, like the fact (well, the theory) that at 13.73 ± 0.12 billion years of age, the universe isn’t exactly a spring chicken. I’m talking about the median age of the world population, which according to a 2004 UN study was 23.9 years back in 1950, 26.8 years in 2000, and is projected to reach 37.8 years in 2050. Medical, technological, and nutritional advances mean that human beings are living longer across the globe.

On a videogame-specific level, the industry and the people involved have started aging, too. Videogames, when you compare the medium to film or literature, are still in their infancy. The first home console, the Magnavox Odyssey, was released in 1972. Many of us started playing games only shortly (in the grand scheme of things) thereafter, on the Atari 5200, TurboGrfx-16, and Sega Genesis of the 1980s.

But now we’re not kids anymore. Me, for example. I started videogames with a Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt bundle for the NES in 1989. I was 8. Now I’m a few months from 27, which is distressingly close to 30. From there, 40’s going to arrive faster than I care to think about. I’m still young, but as time goes by I think more and more about aging—the physical, emotional, and social consequences of passing years. You could say I’m heading for an early midlife crisis.

But seeing protagonists like these gives me hope that as we age, the idea of older men as obsolete and less capable is becoming a thing of the past. And lest you think I’m sexist (or maybe this’ll just confirm it), let’s not forget the age-defying treatment Kojima (44) gives his women characters. Big Mama/EVA still rides a motorcycle like a stuntwoman in MGS4, and I’ve heard more than one guy mention that a half-century doesn’t stop her from being dangerously hot. Personally, EVA’s not my taste. But MGS3’s The Joy? I’d let her CQC me any time, if you know what I mean.

Monday, June 16, 2008

I'll Cry When I'm Done Killing

In my last post, I wrote that several recent critically acclaimed games have been set in the Middle East. Among these is Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, touted for its photorealism and its perfection of the FPS gameplay formula.

Now it's time for a confession. I'm not a fan of first-person shooters. Like most twenty-something guys with any interest in videogames whatsoever, I poured an insane number of hours into Doom and Duke Nukem as a kid back in the Nineties. But since then? With the notable exceptions of Bioshock, Portal, and a brief
Half-Life 2 stint aborted by boredom, my FPS consumption has been zero. Counter-Strike? Didn't care. Halo? No interest whatsoever.

But I was hooked on Call of Duty 4 a few weeks ago. Activision's announcement last month of record profits due in large part to CoD4 sales exceeding one billion dollars makes it clear I wasn't the only one.

So what is it that makes the game so damn successful?

It can't just be franchise loyalty. I'm proof enough of that. Gameplay, maybe? Among critics and consumers, the general consensus seems to be that CoD4 failed to innovate substantially on FPS mechanics; instead, it took the route of perfecting what the franchise already does well. But the repetitive "shoot the bad guys, duck behind cover, reload" style of gameplay is what usually turns me off to FPS. There has to be more to the game than that; otherwise my eyes start to glaze over, and I wander off to something else.

For me, the attraction to Call of Duty was personal.

I originally meant to write Virtuality Continuum’s first post when I played CoD4 in May. But I struggled at the time with sharing a very private story—not mine, but my cousin's. Sgt. Luis ''Tito" Rosa-Valentin is a bona fide career soldier, the kind of guy behind the first-person HUD in real life. On April 21, 2008, two days before his birthday, my cousin was patrolling a dusty, dangerous road east of Baghdad's Sadr City. His unit got in a firefight. A roadside bomb detonated.

A short time later, my phone rang. My mother was sobbing on the other end of the line. She told me that Luis had been severely injured, and no one was sure whether he'd survive. He'd lost one arm and both legs in the IED explosion.

I was devastated. After crying off and on for a few gut-seizing hours, I felt numb.

Then, inexplicably, I remembered that my roommate had a copy of Call of Duty 4 that I'd never felt any interest in before. I started up my Xbox 360, and for the next two days I obsessively, single-mindedly gunned my way through swaths of martyrdom-bent virtual hadjis. My forearms ached from clenching the controller too tightly, and I found my teeth gritted, eyes fixed on the screen.

Each time I mangled an enemy's body with carbine fire or squeezed off a shot with a scavenged Dragunov—sniping through an enemy's brain in an ultra-graphic burst of gore—I got a rush. When I failed to grab a nearby grenade in time, and my proxy soldier self hit the ground as the frag exploded and the screen turned red, I felt sick. I thought: "It's that fast. One second you're alive. The next second, something explodes and you're not."

As I played, I noticed little details in CoD4's story. Like how fictional villain Khaled Al-Asad's evasion of US and British forces mirrored hunts for numerous political or terrorist figures—Hussein, al-Zarqawi, al-Masri, bin Laden. How the murder of Yasir Al-Fulani near the game's beginning evokes the climate of kidnappings and assassinations so prevalent in America's current war in Iraq. How a Middle Eastern terrorist group's acquisition of nuclear warheads from a rebel Russian faction during the story suggests very real anxieties about Russia covertly supplying nuclear materials to Iran.

These anxieties, transposed onto a fictional conflict in an unnamed Middle Eastern nation, result in an intense gaming experience. Call of Duty 4 tapped into our national insecurities, providing gamers a safe way (if only indirectly) to fight back. That's why I think this game has been so successful.

I was fighting back too. Not from some watered-down, digitalized version of patriotism. I was inflicting retribution on the people and the ideas that had hurt Luis, working through my grief and my rage. It wasn't the real thing; I don't think I could survive twenty-four hours of patrolling the physical, flesh-and-blood Baghdad. But Call of Duty 4 was as close as I could get. By the time I'd reached the end, I felt a visceral sense of relief and satisfaction. And part of me thought: "This one's for you, buddy. Hooah."

Nearly two months after sustaining his injuries, Sgt. Rosa-Valentin is alive and continuing to recover at an astronomical rate, an unflappable force of positivity and perseverance. You can read some of his story here, in an article by his hometown Laurel Gazette.

: The June 17, 2008 edition of the New York Times includes an op-ed piece by Bob Herbert on Luis and buddy Joshua Hubbell. The piece is online here.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Real Virtuality

Producer and director Hideo Kojima has advocated realism in Konami's acclaimed Metal Gear Solid titles since the series' inception in 1998. During an early IGN interview, Kojima asserted that "if the player isn't tricked into believing that the world is real, then there's no point in making the game." The original game's development team studied the tactics of a California SWAT team for insight on creating MGS's military and tactical gameplay elements. And the series' premise is heavily based on elements pulled straight from American history and groundbreaking scientific advances—the Cold War, the original Persian Gulf conflict of the 1990's, the Human Genome Project, gene therapy. MGS presented players with a cinematic vision of a world made so engrossing because of its sheer believability: even it's more far-fetched science fiction elements become plausible, in context.

In Konami's latest offering, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, series protagonist Solid Snake is cast into a warzone one last time. Like several other wildly-successful games with military themes (Activision's Call of Duty 4 comes to mind), the protagonist finds himself once again in the Middle East—where exposition in the original MGS game revealed Snake had begun his military career as a young soldier. The setting, deliberately or not, is a striking representation of the Afghan and Iraqi wars America is currently waging, occupying our country's national psyche.

But MGS4's conflict has moved beyond America and reached an omnipresent scale, a nonstop World War that propels the global war economy on which civilization's stability hinges.
Battlefronts are populated by mercenaries (referred to as PMC's), disposable soldiers who are statistics, valuable commodities to the governments and corporations who employ them. Guns of the Patriots highlights the tragically impersonal nature of warfare, and the trauma it inflicts on the human mind and body.

If the MGS titles presented these issues in a moralizing, heavy-handed way, the commentary would lose its impact. But the motivations and the decisions made by the series' protagonists and antagonists are complex and often ambiguous, dealing with questions of idealism versus reality and often the choice between the lesser of two evils. As writer and director, Kojima strives to create characters that are as realistic as the rest of his meticulously-rendered dystopian world. In a decision unprecedented in series history, MGS4 goes so far as to use four real actresses and models to provide the character models, voice acting, and motion acting for the plot's unsettling villains, the Beauty and the Beast Corps, giving living human faces to this unit of lovely monsters.

What's most fascinating about Guns of the Patriots is that it presents a reality that's only marginally separate from our own. It's a vision of a future so grounded in our actual past and present that you can see how something like it could conceivably come about one day, like connecting points A, B, and C, to eventually reach Z. And by watching characters—who for the past ten years have seemed virtually real to an entire generation of gamers—cope with the price of war, its consequences start to feel surprisingly visceral and immediate.

There are some of us who have seen the horrors of war, either firsthand on the battlefield or in hospitals occupied by US veterans struggling to heal their injured bodies and minds. MGS4 seems tame, glossy entertainment by comparison. It's just a game, after all, though during one particular scene the character of EVA makes a disconcerting comparison between the distant, (arguably) desensitizing violence of videogames and military training.

But throughout the Metal Gear Solid series, Kojima has never hesitated to deliver messages about the philosophy and repercussions of war through the mouths of his characters. In MGS4, he leaves us with a warning in the words of Naomi Hunter, the doctor whose past actions weigh heavily on her conscience: a plea that the sins of the present generation stop with them, that those sins not be allowed to pass on to the next. It's the implicit hope that Guns of the Patriots' present doesn't become our generation's future.