stray dogs, or: my only verb is kill

(now posted on actionbutton.net w/out attribution because apparently I hate my real name)

So.

First there was Kane & Lynch:Dead Men, and the marketing was a little better than the game itself, the ideas cited by the creators more compelling than what they did with them, though here and there–through the dodgy aiming and tedious field-resuscitations–there was the glimmer of something compelling in whole.

Then came Dog Days which, in its fifth month of release, can be purchased for less than twenty American dollars in these United States, a reflection of its rapid descent from the good graces of a public primed by similar maybe-better-than-the game marketing, and a mixed critical reception.

But I love Dog Days, and for a time, while I was still in the middle of it, couldn’t articulate why. It’s ugly, visually and thematically. It’s simple. On the later levels, and higher difficulty settings, the fragility of your avatar often renders it tedious, but I kept playing. I beat it, in fact, after picking it up just to try it out, when I was stuck on a particularly obnoxious bit of Dead Men. Intending a brief jog, I was sucked into a marathon, beating it in two sittings before I polished off the final chapters of its precursor, and by the time I was done I knew why.

It is about the dogs, those dogs, at the end. You know the ones. Yahtzee sure as fuck knows them, but he doesn’t get them, doesn’t see that what he glibly dismissed as an artifact of sloppy design is just a pointed middle-finger to his expectations, and those of an entire subculture of media-consumers.

Much as I love the dogs, I owe my ability to articulate the appeal of the game, to myself, to Nathan Drake.

In the course of the two Uncharted games, I’ve probably simulated the killing of over two-thousand digital approximations of men. This is, to use an oft-abused term, epic; it is some biblical shit: Drake kills heaps upon heaps of men, not with the jawbone of an ass, but with an arsenal of modern firearms. This is convention: videogames must have challenges (or at least the appearance of them)to pass inspection as modern big budget action vehicles, and it’s become rote to challenge the player with ever more elaborate murder scenarios.

As games have evolved, so has their storytelling, after a fashion: the ability to render people and environments that look more like the real thing has driven the attempt to make these act more like the real thing, or at least the fictional approximations the player may be acclimated to. Uncharted wants to be a fun matinee adventure serial, Indiana Jones in a henley shirt seeking ancient treasure in the less maintained corners of the modern world. Drake is a roguish anti-hero, out for the loot and himself, who also has the heart of gold necessary to, finally, be driven to do the right thing for others, the world. Or that seems to be an intention, and the developers succeed in that intention.

In cut scenes.

Between cut scenes, Drake is dropped into a third-person shooter with all its attendant tropes, causing the oft-commented upon rift between character as scripted and character in the hands of the player See also: CJ in GTA: San Andreas; but the dichotomy in Uncharted is much more pronounced: you don’t have to kill innocent people on the streets of San Andreas, collecting their spinning stacks of cash to the accompaniment of CJ’s “Pay a nigga!” You must kill Uncharted’s latest batch of shirtless minorities in order to earn the peace that will allow you to scale the next vine. This you do, and continue to do, in the pursuit of treasure and escalated stakes, without finally throwing up your hands and doing what the roguish everyman reasonably should: just go home. At the end of Uncharted 2, the Final Bossman asks Drake “How many people have you killed, just today?”

Well, Bossman, my stats indicate kills in excess of one-thousand men just to reach the point where I self-righteously refuse to shoot you in the head, once the cut scene has begun and my finger on the right trigger effects nothing.

Huh.

Kane and Lynch takes the shooter format and drops into it two characters whose logic doesn’t evaporate the moment the player takes control.

Kane and Lynch are terrible people: a pair of mercenary, sociopathic crooks in the autumn of their lives who team up after the less-than-fulfilling events of the first game to make a little money by escorting some guns to Africa. Of course, everything goes terribly wrong from the get-go, Lynch’s small-time-tough aside escalating into the accidental murder of a woman, an act shrugged off by our self-absorbed duo until it comes back to bite them in the ass something fierce.

Then they kill about half of China on their way to hijacking a plane.

Games have a history of dealing with their over-the-top violence by similarly inflating plot and character, embracing and even parodying the cheerful, outsized fascism of the action movies from which much of them sprang. They give you caricatures, encouraging you to not take the violence any more seriously than the rest of the presentation: it’s all in good fun, your Duke Nukems say, just relax and appreciate the joke.

Kane and Lynch are not a joke. Even if they weren’t paunchy middle-aged men making questionable hair decisions, they’d still be ugly, because what they do is ugly, and what they do is something the average player has done thousands of times before in different contexts: they kill. Then they go on their way, and kill again.

And again.

And again.

Kane–relegated to sidekick status in Dog Days after his spotlight role in Dead Men–labels the arms deal his genre-standard “one last job”, which will allow him to go on and have a normal life with his daughter. Later, he admits that he hasn’t spoken to his daughter since the events of Dead Men, implying that his vision of a Normal Life is just a hope, a dream that the weight of his past will almost inevitably deny him. Lynch talks about having a “normal life” with his girlfriend in Shanghai, but this normal life is funded by his continuing criminal activities, and though there’s no mention of the psychological problems upon which much of Dead Men’s plot turned, the weight of his past is still with him. In both games they seem to want to be “normal” people with “normal” lives, but their instincts and characters betray them. Anyway, their previous lives don’t leave them with many options.

Together, they have one emotion: rage. Lynch gets to despair a while, when his girlfriend is killed for what he has done, but he shows no remorse for the murder of the woman that instigates all of this, or for any of the police and soldiers he guns down in his attempt to flee the country and the consequences of his actions.

It is the convention of sequels to take the original game and pile on more: more features more environmental variety, more polygons squeezed out of the latest revision of engine X. Dog days defies these conventions. The action is stripped down to its most basic form: you have a gun, you have cover. Get behind cover, or die. Press the fire button to blind fire, or the aim button to pop out, do what it says on the label, and actually hit something. Sometime, there are explosive canisters, but lugging them is awkward and they’re thin on the ground, so you move forward, you take cover, you shoot. Your cover erodes, or proves otherwise ineffectual, and you move. You shoot again.

Repeat.

Gone: grenades, controllable squads, the mechanic of resuscitating the members of those squads, they doing the same for you.

You fight through narrow city streets, construction yards, warehouses, office buildings,an airport: a procession of standard vidcon backdrops presented through the lens of a grainy, blown-out, shaking camera manned by an invisible operator, a move that is narratively incoherent but still works, by virtue of its coherency with the rest of the game: it is ugly, and  the jarring camera work (when you run, it struggles to keep up with you, lurching violently with the invisible cameraman’s stride) and the use of COPS-style pixelization to obscure nudity and some of the more gruesome violence (shoot someone in the face, and a mass of obscuring pixels instantly blooms thereupon) lend a seamy, pornographic quality to the action, making uncomfortable what might have been rote and, unlike in some other games, the discomfort is coherent with the characters and their story, such as it is.

Dog Days’ is not an aesthetic I usually enjoy. When used in films, it seems self-conscious, and antithetical to its apparent purpose: by making me aware of the camera I am more aware of the fiction, rather than inspired to play along with the document’s ostensible veracity. The technique is so visible that I find myself thinking of a half-dozen other techniques that could convey the same impression, have a similar effect, without being so showy, so ostentatious, so nausea inducing; but in Dog Days it works. There’s no camera-man and no in-game reasoning to justify one, but by aping the aesthetic of cheap internet video Dog Days invokes the frame of the real world: it places the actions of the character in the context of reality, and the weight these actions would have in reality. It takes the horrible, relentless violence of a shooter and reminds us just how horrific it would be were we to actually experience it.

So: you move forward, you kill, again and again, and half the time your survival seems a matter of luck, especially in the beginning, when your weapons seem to spit bullets everywhere but where you’re aiming. It is a nightmare, a grueling slog through the space of violent narrative convenience, and then it ends, with the dogs, a ten-second cut scene, then black.

The dogs, of course. You’ve killed a thousand men, from open-shirted street punks to soldiers in body armor. You’ve knocked helicopters out of the sky, infiltrated an airport, and are almost home free, then the dogs: the last thing you see, the last thing you fight, the Final Boss that plagues Yahtzee so. The Big Bad whose name has been thrown around all day long is murdered unceremoniously in a cut scene, but they give you the dogs: a pair of mindless, straight-charging animals. Hear the bark, snap off some quick shots, and it’s over, the perfect anticlimax to the perfect game about the fucking dysfunction of video games, about the only two characters that aren’t grimdark meatshield soldiers to ever make sense in the context of the vidcon bullshit we’re so acclimated to: “grit” not as window-dressing to juvenile power-fantasy but as texture for the hideously broken lives that mesh cleanly with the straight-up shooter. (On these here internets, I read a comment complaining that K and L were “pathetic wannabe badasses”. Welcome to the point, friend!) “Real” anti-heroes, as people have said, not just a smirk and a shrug and “shave and a haircut!” when their bullet destroys some eastern-European mercenary’s face, but he is a good guy, and let’s watch now as he does the right thing.

No. Here: a man shoots a dog, the last obstacle between him and dubious freedom. He rushes up the steps, into an airplane, brandishing a gun; the door closes, the plane takes off, the camera drops the ground, then black. Credits. In reading about the (fantastic) endings to Dead Men, I often encountered the criticism that they were too short, too brief, too little reward after the long day’s journey into sketchy aiming. It’s difficult not to see the end of Dog Days as a reaction to this, and it’s of a piece with the game’s anti-convention approach to sequels: giving the people less, where others would give them more. Closure? The game is over, the “story” is done, there’s no one left to kill. Wake up. Go home.

The market says: I want, and most companies produce games tailored to these wants.

Dog Days says: fuck you, this is what you want, look at what you want, asshole.

I suppose it’s understandable that many people wouldn’t want to listen.

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~ by ironcupshrug on 01/18/2011.

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