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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.