Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Dark Souls II: The Death of a Dream

The recent announcement of preorder bonus items for Dark Souls II disturbs me on multiple levels. Superficially, I'm concerned that certain players will gain an unfair advantage (which they essentially bought) by wielding these weapons, undermining the "achievement through perseverance" ethic that defines the Souls series. But more deeply, I'm troubled by what the bonus says is happening to the series.

I won't beat around the bush, but state straight-out what I mean. The Souls series seems to be being stripped of it's grassroots character. Instead, it is being transformed into a market-driven commodity that is more concerned with profit than it is with the integrity of its game world.

This shift from fan-base to corporate-base has been presaged by several announcements leading up to the preorder bonus. First, the maker's (From Software) partnership with the conglomerate Namco-Bandai for the sequel was ominous. Then, the director's mention of increased "accessibility" set off bells warning of corporate meddling. Many were later assuaged when journalists started reporting that the game was still difficult. But shortly after this, a bombshell hit when From revealed that Dark Souls II would feature voice-chat and mechanisms for facilitating co-op with friends, both changes in design which seemed to go against the core aesthetic of isolation that defined the earlier games.

The preorder bonus is thus just the most recent indication of the series losing its soul. More specifically, it is one of many signs pointing to the intrusion of for-profit ideologies into the very core of the game where once they did not exist.

In Dark Souls, for example, there was the Drake Sword. Though it could be acquired early in the game and would give players a distinct advantage, it was an in-game item only. It could only be acquired through gameplay, either discovering oneself or learning about it through others. The pre-order items are of another class. They are purchased by the player before the game even begins, not played for. The fact that you can also find the items in game (as From has stated) doesn't change this.

The difference is this: the Drake Sword was not COMMODIFIED. The preorder bonus items are commodified. The Drake Sword was a special item whose acquisition was completely bounded and contained within the artistic unity of the game and the free community of players that grew up around it. The preorder bonus comes from a system of values external to the game world and its community, a space governed by capital, i.e., private ownership, profit, and marketing, which the game community has little to no direct control over.

The contrast here between pure in-game items and pre-release DLC is of course one that has been the subject of much debate. For the Souls series in particular, however, it poses a special threat to one of its defining attributes: its community-led distribution. The Souls series has one of the most active communities in gaming history. Its success has largely been driven by a fan base motivated by personal passions rather than profit. The preorder bonus betokens a turning point in which that collective, community-based ownership of the series' past is being subordinated to the private aims of its corporate future.

The signs of this sea change are written all over the wall. Many of the game's most prolific and established community members have already been co-opted. Epic Name Bro, one the biggest voices in the community, has been officially silenced due to his paid work on a forthcoming strategy guide. Another major contributor known for his lore videos, VaatiVidya, after being invited by Namco-Bandai to try out a preview demo of the game, is now effectively doing PR videos for the company in which he dismisses legitimate concerns about the questionable changes to the series and tells fans to go preorder the game now! Other prominent community members have been invited to special preview events that subtly pressure them to talk up the game afterwards. Whereas once these people were free to express themselves as individuals within the community, they are now in part owned by and serve the corporate interests taking charge of the game.

It's sad that this is happening. Some might say it was inevitable. The Souls series could be said to be victim of its own success. The pure, genuine love of fans that propelled Demons' Souls and Dark Souls to Game of the Year status has come to the attention of capital and it is working hard to convert that affection into cash. We all know how it will end. The people that see Dark Souls II as a way to make money will never understand what made the game such a hit without their big advertising budgets and market research. They'll simply cannibalize the good-will of the fans until nothing is left but a hollow husk.

So begins the death of a dream in which art triumphs over greed. It was certainly nice while it lasted.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Metal Gear Solid Peace Walker Makes No Sense!

I just finished Metal Gear Solid Peace Walker on PS3 and I have to say that the game has left me completely baffled (and frankly concerned) about the narrative future of the series.

The premise and motives behind the game's story simply make no sense. I say this fully aware of the fact that Metal Gear games always border on the absurd and wacky. But no matter how crazy the other games were, at the very least, they were intelligible, even if they required a great suspension of disbelief. Peace Walker is something different. It defies comprehension.

OK, on the most basic level, the story of Peace Walker goes something like this: Big Boss, after completing a mission that forced him to kill his former mentor, has become disillusioned with Cold War politics and the nation-state system. Out of this disillusionment, he founds an organization called MSF (Militaires San Frontieres) and its headquarters, an offshore facility dubbed Mother Base. The latter operates as a kind of haven for disaffected soldiers and mercenaries searching (I guess) for like-minded amoralists to hang out with.

In the game, Big Boss gets involved in a series of operations in Central American (in the mid 70s). The KGB and a new secret organization, Cipher, are involved in the development of a fully automated nuclear deterrence robot that is supposed to be necessary for detente because mere humans don't have the courage/evilness within them to annihilate the planet. Thus they need a machine to do it for them. Classic Metal Gear hijinks ensue, people are double and triple crossed. By the end, Big Boss has stopped at least three nuclear strikes against the United States from happening and acquired his very own Metal Gear prototype, Metal Gear Zeke.

Now none of this is that difficult to follow, at least when it's laid out. It's when you probe deeper into the matter that things become much less clear.

For instance, what exactly is MSF?  According to Big Boss and others, it's an organization without nationality, without a philosophy, without ideology. This is confusing on a number of levels. First off, it is a contradiction in terms. An organization, to quote Merriam-Webster, is "a company, business, club, etc., that is formed for a particular purpose." MSF, following Big Boss's definition, lacks such a purpose (this is what an ideology or philosophy would be). So MSF is an organization with no organizing principle.

Some might object that MSF does have a purpose. Big Boss says (more than once) that they fight for themselves now. OK, fine, but that's not a organizational principle. That's not a code that an organization can function by. That's willy-nilly saying do whatever the hell you want. Good luck running an organization with that notion!

There are a lot of other issues that hang on this lack of direction. Why are the mercenaries willing to serve MSF? What's in it for them? Big Boss talks a lot about the "freedom" that MSF provides, but never defines concretely what that freedom actually entails. The freedom to do what? Follow Big Boss's orders? Are these guys getting paid? I'm not even going to get into the absurd manner in which you recruit these people.

How does MSF fund itself? Does it take contracts? If so, doesn't that compromise its free-wheeling philosophy of no philosophies. Wouldn't that make MSF nothing more than a tax shelter for hired killers? If not, if they do discriminate between clients for moral reasons, how would they do that? Wouldn't that require a philosophy of some sort, i.e., a belief system or, yes, an i-d-e-o-l-o-g-y.

The biggest problems, however, involve Big Boss's motivations. What is he after exactly in this game? Why does he get entangled in the plots taking place in Central America? Again, there is a lot of talk of freedom (always in the abstract, never concrete), distrust of nation-state politics, and peace. But I don't see how a rogue military organization is supposed to help this situation. Are they supposed to act as a counter-force to the super-powers? Are they going to police the world and impose a new global order? But wouldn't such things simply replicate the authoritarian structures of power that Big Boss opposes? I don't see what Big Boss could be thinking here. What's more, Big Boss doesn't seem to know either. He just repeats the same platitudes again and again.

I suspect Big Boss's lack of clarity stems form the inherent lack of sense in the concept of MSF. This really does trouble me, mainly for what it bodes for the future. The next Metal Gear game (Ground Zeroes) follows shortly after the events of Peace Walker. As a result, I don't see how it will avoid getting bogged down in the same nonsensical premise that undermines the narrative of its immediate predecessor. That would be bad. Peace Walker was originally a PSP game. As such, I can see being a little forgiving about its production values in terms of scripting. But it is canon and its ideas and events can't simply be pushed aside in the next game. My worry is that Ground Zeroes (and the Phantom Pain after it), won't be able to put the pieces back together, so to speak, and Peace Walker's nonsense will infect the future games and make them stupid at best, nigh incomprehensible at worst.

But what do you think? Were you able to make more sense of MSF and Big Boss's motivations? Do you see ways that they could be made more intelligible in Ground Zeroes and The Phantom Pain? Post your thoughts in the comments section below.