After finally getting round to playing the underwhelming Hitman: Absolution, I realised that whilst being disappointingly shallow, it does at least provide us with a glimpse into the secret world of making triple-A blockbusters. Like Agent 47 himself, the game manages to blend in perfectly with the crowd, doing absolutely nothing that might cause it to stand out. However, its strict adherence to the “How To Make Money” formula (written by Infinity Ward) does allow us to dissect exactly what goes into your typical big-budget behemoth.
So you want to run with the big dogs? Here’s what you need:
1) Lots and lots of bloom. (Also seen in: Fable, Battlefield 3 etc.)
This is the number one graphical rule. The Daddy. The golden secret that lies at the heart of modern, big-budget visuals: motherlovin’ BLOOM! It’s the graphical effect du jour, whereby any area of bright light will leach into it’s surroundings as though every lamp in town is made out of lightsabers. You can guarantee that if it isn’t yet a-bloody-nother 8- or 16-bit game, then it’s going to be absolutely drenched in bloom. Hitman: Absolution hits you with it repeatedly, like a giant glass bong around a policemans head. It’s supposed to be used to recreate an artifact of real-world movie cameras, thus intensifying the games cinematic feel. Instead, its ardent over-application makes the game world look like Agent 47’s just dropped a tab of acid before every scene – THE COLOURS ARE SO INTENSE MAAAAAAN I THINK THE LIGHT IS TALKING TO ME *garrottes twenty people and hides in a bin*.
Hitman isn’t even the worst offender; Battlefield 3 has possibly the most chronic case of the bloomsies I’ve ever seen. The first time I stepped from the inside of a building onto the street I thought God and all his Heavenly host had descended onto the battlefield, such was the blinding intensity of the light. Every time you move from a dark to a light area it’s like watching a nuclear bomb test six feet from your face. Cinematic, indeed.
2) Quick Time Events and pre-baked animations (Also seen in: Every damn game since 2003)
Enough has been said about the QTE that I won’t dwell on it here – I’ll just say that all of you who put it in your games (and you know who you are!) should be very, very ashamed of yourselves. No, what I’m concerned with, and what is much more insidious in my book, is the pre-baked kill animation. You know, the kind of extravagant kill sequence that looks flashy the first time you see it but which quickly becomes meaningless through familiarity. Game developers realised that actually making a decent physics engine and combining it with clever AI was too much work, and they could cut corners by pre-defining a gory execution move and then have you simply press a button to initialise it. This, of course, is to help us feel we actually have some input towards playing the
interactive movie game. We don’t though. Not at all. Instead, we just meander from one location to the next, sneak slowly up to the guy inexplicably staring away from us at a brick wall with a big “GARROTTE THIS” sign pointing at his neck, and then hit ‘X’ to launch what effectively is the next cut-scene. Essentially, we get to play the boring parts and then the computer takes over for the bits that might actually be fun, all the while patting us on the head saying “Well done little buddy! You killed the bad guys! You’re so good at this!” whilst dripfeeding us Achievements in an effort to keep us hooked to this hopelessly Pavlovian system of reward, turning us into nothing but carrier pigeons pecking away at a button to receive our carefully measured doses of grain. GOOD LITTLE PIGEONS!
3) A silent protagonist (Also seen in: Halo, Half-Life etc.)
Ah, the silent protagonist – the last refuge of the lazy writer. This particular trope has become horribly endemic in videogames despairingly trying to recreate what made Half-Life so great (here’s a hint: It wasn’t Gordon Freeman, you dummies.) This means that first-person shooters especially have given birth to a whole generation of mute psychopaths, gunning down swathes of humanity, blood-stained and tight-lipped amidst the screams of the dying. The whole excus- ahem, I mean idea – revolves around the theory that it allows you to project your own identity onto the character. This is just plain stupid, and is one of the many wrong-headed ideas that plague videogame writing. Firstly, can you imagine a book where you were left to imagine the personalities of all the characters? It would be pretty bloody boring staring at a bunch of blank pages, wouldn’t it? And secondly, generally we are playing a videogame for entertainment. It’s escapism. The last thing I want to do is to project my own feeble personality onto the game. If I could stand to be around myself I would be outside in the sunshine, carefree and joyous, laughing and socialising with all the other normal people – not cooped up in my darkened room playing Shoot All The People 6.
4) X-ray vision (Also seen in: Deus Ex, Batman etc.)
Developer 1:”Hmmm, people seem to struggle with some of the stealth sections…”
Developer 2: “Struggle!? What do you mean struggle!?”
Developer 1: “Well, you know, they die sometimes, or have to restart from a checkpoint. Sneaking into an enemy base is tricky, you know. That’s the whole point of a base, really. It’s supposed to be a place where it’s difficult to get killed.”
Developer 2: “But if it’s slightly difficult WON’T PEOPLE GET ANNOYED!”
Developer 1: “Well, maybe. But aren’t all games supposed to be about overcoming challenges through skill and creativity?”
Developer 2: “THAT’S DUMB! Let’s give the players X-RAY VISION INSTEAD!”
Developer 1: “Wait but won’t that make the game insanely easy and thus pointless?”
….Developer 1 gets fired. Developer 2 makes a million bucks.
5) Target painting (Also seen in: Fallout, Red Dead Redemption etc.)
Dammit, Fallout, you’ve got a lot to answer for with your VATS system. Now it seems, in the continuing effort to remove any last vestige of interactivity and challenge in gaming, target-painting is the new bullet-time. Target-painting is where time freezes in the middle of a gunfight, and the player is able to pre-select a whole bunch of targets. Upon resumption of ‘gameplay’ (and what an ironic term that’s becoming), your avatar proceeds to mow down said targets with machine-like precision. It’s meant to convey a sense of prowess in your character. However, my argument is you can do that in a cut-scene. What I want is to feel like I’m the one with prowess. Me, the player, not my onscreen avatar. Merely selecting targets from what might as well be a drop-down list makes me feel like a data-entry clerk, not a bloody gunslinger.