Sunday, October 16, 2011

Videogames in Crysis

I normally wear headphones when playing videogames. I like to tell myself that it's more immersive and gives a better sense for a game's soundscape, and that's true, but I secretly wear them for another reason. Dialogue in games is often atrocious, and I wear headphones to avoid the embarrassment of inflicting it upon innocent bystanders. Crysis is definitely a headphones game, but somehow bad dialogue is only the tip of the large block of ice mostly submerged in water.

I waited five years to play Crysis. First released in 2007, Crysis was a visual showpiece for owners of high-end PCs. It is still used as a technical benchmark -- a crucial test of any PC's gaming prowess. Its creators, a German outfit called Crytek, had no plans of bringing Crysis to either Microsoft or Sony's new games consoles, feeling it beyond the limits of both the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3. Since I had only a crappy laptop back in 2007, I was not at the time enjoying the immaculately rendered jungle or explosively interactive scenery of Crysis.

This exclusivity of Crysis, out of no less than technical necessity, has been a feather in the cap of PC gaming since its release. However, with flagging sales and rampant piracy, traditional PC gaming has been a frightening business prospect of late. Despite aging technology, publishers are increasingly turning their attention to the more lucrative console audience. In 2009, much to the chagrin of many PC gamers, it was announced that Crysis 2 would be coming to both the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. In a sudden turnaround, Crytek had resolved to do the seemingly impossible and bring the visual spectacle of Crysis 2 to the consoles.

Fast-forward to March 2011 and I still didn't have a PC that would run Crysis. While its sequel had just been released for the Xbox 360, I wasn't interested. I knew that Crysis 2 picked up where the original left off and wanted do things in the proper order. Thankfully, I didn't have wait long. Emboldened by their success, Crytek had already started rebuilding Crysis for the consoles, and earlier this month, Crysis was released to the console masses for download at a budget price. I snapped it up right away.

There is a scene about three quarters into the story where Major Strickland, up until then just a useful voice on the other end of a radio, is killed by the enormous alien thing pictured on the right. The soldier in the left of the shot is preparing to fire a rocket launcher; the red line is from the targeting laser. It won't even cause a scratch. The whatever-it-is is actually immune to such puny weapons, and the only recourse available is retreat. The player controlled character, known only by the moniker Nomad, must fend off the converging alien forces with a handful of marines, led by Major Strickland, while awaiting aerial extraction. The aircraft eventually arrives and Nomad climbs aboard alongside other survivors, but it is overloaded and someone is going to have to stay behind.

A brief note on consistency: there are six seats in the back of the aircraft and six passengers already aboard. While it strains credulity to suggest the aircraft would be designed to carry no more than six passangers, that the same vehicles can be seen transporting full-size tanks earlier in the story might charitably be described as an oversight.

In any case, Strickland valiantly decides to stay behind. With the giant alien spider thing approaching in the background, he commands Nomad and the other survivors to leave immediately, because "this bastard belongs to me." When Nomad asks what the Major intends, perhaps questioning the wisdom of an unarmed man going toe-to-toe with an apparently invincible walking tank, Strickland retorts "I'm a marine, son, I'll walk on water if I have to," and then strolls off. He is promptly killed by the alien daddy longlegs to the sound of poignant music and Nomad's anguished cry of "Stricklaaaaand!" as the aircraft pulls away.

What was I supposed to feel? I didn't understand Nomad's reaction. It didn't even dawn on me that this was the same Major that Nomad had previously been in contact with until Strickland was already on his way to an heroic death. The scene was a confusing and contrived mess. Earlier scenes, including a hostage rescue, and a confrontation with a North Korean general left me with a similar feeling of emotional dissonance.

The motivations and goals of characters regularly appear to have been assigned by a crapshoot. The cliches are layered on so thick and haphazardly that it sometimes feels like they have been quoted out of context. Early in the story, one of Nomad's squadmates codenamed Psycho exclaims, "we're dropping like flies here!" in reference to two of their five man squad dying in separate incidents. It is as though everything Crytek knows about humanity was cribbed from daytime soap operas and Steven Seagal movies, and somehow even that went over their heads.

Perhaps I can better communicate the unsettling weirdness of Crysis by drawing your attention to the picture on the left. Marvel at it for a moment. Why is God-Jesus wielding a cross like a magic wand? Are those flowers on the front of the box? What does this product have to do with a young man being heartbroken? Is that a jetpack on his back? God-Jesus's utter and impenetrable weirdness brings into question everything you thought you knew about market research. My best guess is that God-Jesus is some kind of robotic cross between a genie and cupid, but how this thing came to be is beyond feeble tools such as reason to explain. The individual elements of Crysis's narrative, like God-Jesus, are familiar, cliched, and understood. There is a brokenheart, flowers, a toy robot, etcetera, but they are all thrown together in such a way that makes them suddenly confounding.

A scene late in the story introduces Admiral Morrison, an amalgamation of every stupid military commander in Hollywood history and a field of corny. He is the kind of man who just doesn't have the patience for any plan longer than a sentence and that doesn't include nuking them sonsabitches. He dismisses the pleas of a scientist to reconsider his actions because, he says, "I'm not gonna sit around and hypothesize while the safety of our planet is at stake." We've seen his character in dozens of movies. He is not an altogether bad guy, but he is an obstacle in the way of the good guys. When he is inevitably fired or killed, it isn't exactly celebrated, but there is a sense of relief.

Of course, Morrison's gung-ho tactics only wind up making the enemy stronger and eventually contribute to his own demise. His egotism and ignorance endanger everyone he was supposedly trying to help; even just before the end he is ordering soldiers to certain death out of a stubborn refusal to admit defeat. Morrison's death must feel like he is getting his comeuppance, right? But this is Crysis -- Morrison's death makes about as much sense as God-Jesus's boxart. Nomad finds Morrison just as he's attacked by an alien and falls to the ground. Once the alien is dispatched, cue poignant music as Morrison, in his final words, implores Nomad, "you have to save these people. Get out on deck ... go!" I was stupefied by the emotional discord.

Defenders of Crysis might point out that I am taking it all too seriously. The story is just a pretext to put the player in a supersuit and run around on a tropical island blowing up communists, both North Korean and extra-terrestrial. Crysis is like a parody of Independence Day or War of the Worlds. One character even remarks that he feels like he's in a comic book; it's a clear wink and nudge by Crytek, as though to say "don't expect too much from the story here, folks!"

Thing is, I didn't expect much from the story, but Crysis doesn't even competently handle basic Hollywood tropes. The idea that because a game doesn't take itself too seriously that its story is absolved of all criticism seems fundamentally wrong to me. Just as there are good and bad stories which take themselves seriously, there are also good and bad stories that don't. Crysis has an embarrassingly bad story regardless of how seriously it is taken.

Perhaps the worst thing about Crysis's story is just how seriously Crytek seem to have taken it. Where it might be a thinly veiled excuse for some good ol' over-the-top action, the game is regularly interrupted for the sake of its story. In the picture here we can see our old friend alien spider-tank in the distance; on the right of the shot is a tank with anti-aircraft guns. During this encounter I had Nomad unload an unreasonable amount of firepower on the approaching monster, including most of the ammunition in the pictured tank. I sensibly concluded that my opponent was invincible to Nomad's measly arsenal. Later in the story a second of these walking behemoths is confronted on an aircraft carrier and, this time, has to be destroyed. Having learned my lesson from the previous encounter, I assumed that it too would be immune to my weapons and began searching for some alternative. After dying and restarting a couple of times, I discovered that I had been all wrong. There was no special strategy needed; Crytek had just made the thing invincible during our first encounter. Why? Because the story demanded it.

Games are largely about rules. The consistency of these rules is important for creating an immersive and satisfying world; they are what make skill and strategy possible in the first place. Crytek undermined the integrity of Crysis's rules so that Major Strickland would die in the prescribed manner. In order to make that scene happen, Crytek had to make sure the alien daddy longlegs was there to fulfill its role.-- that's why it was invincible. There was another story where Nomad destroyed the alien spider and something else happened to Strickland; this was a story that respected the game's rules and emerged from the collaboration of player and game designer. Crytek was determined to not let that story happen, and for what? A ridiculous death scene in a story that nobody is supposed to take seriously.

This was neither the first nor the last time that Crytek interfered with the rules or arbitrarily forced some action on Nomad for the sake of its story. Another incident sees Nomad blindsided by a North Korean soldier, knocked unconscious, and captured. This event is completely out of the player's control and absolutely stupid. Prior to this, Nomad had just confronted and defeated many of these soldiers. Nomad's suit, called a Nano Suit, is previously used to protect and cure Nomad of far more serious injuries than a rifle-butt in the head. The whole sequence is frustrating and the important story event that it sets up just isn't worth it.

Perhaps this is a good point to reveal that I like Crysis. Despite everything I've written, I want to play Crysis 2. In 2007, Crysis scored an impressive 92 on the review aggregation website Metacrtitic, and it's 2011 Xbox 360 incarnation has so far earned itself a respectable 82. What do so many people, including me, see in this game? Why does it come so highly recommended?

Part of Crysis's appeal is, no doubt, its visual spectacle. Gamers are suckers for whizz-bang graphical flourishes. Compromises were made to fit Crysis into the Xbox 360's more restrictive hardware, but it speaks to Crytek's technical and artistic achievement that it sometimes looks better than the PC original. Although  I am more resistant than some to the seductive power of computer generated eye-candy, I know it can dampen even my critical faculties. Crysis's tropical paradise is vibrant with life and brims with possibilities. Like a beautiful woman, it lulls gamers into overlooking its flaws and instead focus on its glorious coconuts.

But where Crysis really succeeds is in a kind of anecdotal storytelling that emerges from the creative interaction between player and designer. This kind of storytelling might be unique to games: it doesn't have an author as such. A designer can facilitate events and coax the player down particular paths, but she cannot precisely determine what happens. A lot of good game design just involves creating worlds with a high propensity for interesting things to happen in them.

Amsterdam is a popular tourist destination. I have never been, but I know people who have. One of the reasons people go to Amsterdam, besides that reason, is for its famous propensity to make great anecdotes. Slap-bang in the middle of Europe and yet somewhat alien in its laws and customs; it's compact and diverse but also a place you can be anonymous. People come back from Amsterdam with stories and anecdotes to share, e.g. "remember that time Jim accidently got high after eating that innocent looking cake" or whatever. Places like Amsterdam make good stories happen, without the need for an author, and people go there to experience it firsthand.

Writing about when Crysis succeeds may inevitably lead to a kind of travel writing. I experienced moments and events that were every bit as engaging and satisfying as a well written novel, and they can be described with hardly a mention of Crysis's plot or cast.

One memorable sequence has Nomad tasked with descending into a pit mine swarming with North Korean soldiers and armaments. After surveying the opposition from on high, I had Nomad jump into a nearby Humvee-like vehicle. My plan was to drive down the outermost road, come a stop at some distance from the enemy, and use a mounted gun to spray them with bullets from afar. Shortly after beginning my descent, an armoured vehicle started pounding the road with explosive shells. In a panic, I hit the accelerator hoping to keep ahead of the explosions, but the curve of the pit mine was bringing the vehicles onto a collision course. A machine gun opened fire and Nomad was suddenly an easy target. Then I spotted a road to the side rising along the edge of the mine. It was a dead end, but if I veered off at the last moment, then I might be able to launch the vehicle through the air and land somewhere closer to my destination. I didn't seem to have much choice.

The vehicle landed with a crash and was badly damaged, but I had succeeded in what felt like a crazy gambit. Although I had bypassed the armoured vehicles, the place was still swarming with soldiers. I'll end the story here for the sake of brevity, but the events that followed were no less exciting or enthralling.

Another standout moment occurred in an old graveyard nestled in a swampy hole of the jungle. Nomad was there awaiting aerial extraction, but the pilot claimed there was movement on the ground and refused to land. Nomad had to deal with the hostiles first, but all I could see was an empty graveyard. The North Korean soldiers are loud and stupid. When they see Nomad, they'll kindly inform you before opening fire. Then someone suddenly started shooting. There was no noise other than the gunshots and I couldn't pinpoint my assailant's location. Peaking out from behind a gravestone, I spotted an almost transparent shimmering figure slowly approaching. I realised immediately that these soldiers were either ghosts or wearing Nano Suits -- I had not faced this enemy before.

I didn't know if Nomad had been spotted and was unsure how to proceed; my doubt was quickly replaced by panic when a live grenade landed a couple of feet away. I jumped out of cover and immediately came under fire while running from the imminent explosion. With nearby gravestones reduced to rubble, I fired back and, by more luck than skill, barely survived the encounter. Before I had a chance to collect myself, another of these soldiers opened fire from somewhere else and I dived Nomad back into cover again.

Between the oppressive vegetation, eerie graveyard, failing sunlight, and unknown enemy, I was genuinely frightened as Nomad crouched behind a low wall. But then realising how well this sit-and-wait tactic had worked the last time, I flicked the switch in my brain from prey to predator. It was liberating and I was suddenly stalking my opponents in much the way I imagined they had just been stalking me. The area was then cleared of hostiles and Nomad extracted.

While these moments were exhilarating and full of drama, they were also very personal. Some gamers who play what is ostensibly the "same" part of Crysis will have very different experiences. Crysis comes recommended by so many gamers because it is good at creating these kind of authorless stories. When analysing a book or movie, we are constantly trying to interpret the meaning embedded by the author or director. There is scant place for that kind of analysis in game like Crysis; what matters here are the emerging events and what they mean to the gamer themselves.

Crysis is everything that is wrong with videogames. Its core story is hackneyed and handled incompetently. The dialogue is so bad that I considered casting my headphones aside in favour of the "mute" button. But Crysis is also a lot of what is right about videogames. I find myself wondering how powerful Crysis might be if its superb potential for creating compelling moments could be married to a genuinely well-written and interesting story. Perhaps these two types of storytelling are inevitably at loggerheads. But while games like Crysis can achieve both critical and commercial success, I imagine that the incentive to achieve this marriage can only be dulled.

Non-gamers seem to look at games and only see the first half of this article; the second half is inaccessible and invisible. It can be difficult to understand how a loved-one or friend can be immersed in something as patently moronic as Crysis; if the first half of this article was all there was to it, then I would be worried for their sanity. However, Crysis is not as stupid as it seems; it is a good videogame; hopefully this article helps to explain how that could possibly be true. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm just going to go back to playing Crysis.


  1. You make some good points but some points are terrible. The dialogue in Crysis isn't THAT bad. Sure it's not the best but there are plenty of worse games. You obviously didn't pay much attention during the game as you meet Strickland after you call in the airstrike on the ship.The comment about the VTOL was by far the worst. Just because a vehicle only has 6 seats doesn't mean it can't handle something like a tank. When Nomad was blindsided it was just that; every other time he had the element of surprise and being able to fight back against the Korean suits. Lastly, the console versions don't look better in any way that I've seen than the PC.

  2. RTHKI,

    You're right, the article is a mixed bag. I wrote it immediately after finishing Crysis, and so my feelings about it were closer to the surface. This article was a bit of a practice run; I was trying to figure out how I wanted to write on this blog. I think the my subsequent articles on Read Dead Redemption and Metro 2033 are much better.

    I'll try to address some of your other comments in turn:

    (1) The dialogue in Crysis is that bad. That some other games are worse does not make me feel more lenient toward Crysis, but rather just more critical of videogames in general. I would be embarrassed to have anyone stand behind me while playing Crysis, and its dialogue is a large part of that. A lot of this article just reports how I felt while playing the game. The characters were so off-key and the dialogue so discordant, that I experienced a sense of emotional dissonance. It doesn't even fall into so-bad-its-good territory. Perhaps you did not feel the same when playing Crysis, and that's fine, but I suspect many gamers just ignore awful writing -- in a way they wouldn't for a movie or television show -- because it's only a game. I don't accept that excuse anymore.

    (2) I didn't remember meeting Strickland after calling in the airstrike, but I think you're right. That said, I am not inattentive in games. That I didn't remember meeting Strickland probably says something in itself, and it would hardly change what I wrote anyway.

    (3) My point about the VTOL was that it, supposedly, couldn't carry more than six passengers. That's why Strickland has to stay behind and the VTOL has difficulty taking-off. Maybe I missed something else, but it seems absurd to suggest the VTOL would be limited to merely six passengers, and earlier in the game we see them transporting tanks.

    (4) I was often surprised by enemy attacks. Half the time, that's how you discover there are enemies around. But more to the point, there is no way a rifle butt to the head should have taken out Nomad while wearing that Nano Suit, never mind incapacitate him for several minutes. I was blindsided by explosions that too less time to recover from than that. I also would draw attention to the absurd fight that follows with General Kyong. He seems to have the best Nano Suit in the whole world, since not only is he nearly immune to bullets, but he can also turn entirely invisible. Aren't the Korean Nano Suits meant to be cheap knock-offs? It's a stupid boss fight, not just narratively, but also just basic gameplay. Rather than being a test of everything the player has learned about fighting Nano Suit opponents, it just arbitrarily changes the rules to make the fight harder.

    (5) I studied several online comparisons between the PC and console versions, including an in-depth analysis by Digital Foundry at Eurogamer. I did not make those comments without doing my homework. There are a few situations where the console version is demonstrably superior to the PC original, and, arguably benefits from an other small aesthetic changes. There is no doubt that the definitive version is the PC version, but its victory is not quite across the board.

  3. Crysis's dialog is Shakespeare compared to Singularity's. Oh god, it hurts just thinking about it. That game sucked in general, though. Except for the remote-controlled exploding bullets.