Perhaps because of the way games are made, marketed and reported, technical imperfections will always cloud the industry's collective judgement. Is it 1080p? Is it 60fps? How many people does the online mode support? Above interrogations into narrative, artistry and politics, these questions are prioritised – that a game is technically efficient, and a viable "product", often feels more important than whether it's saying or doing or trying anything.
And that's a shame, because it means previous-console-gen games like Homefront, Kane & Lynch: Dead Men, Haze and Murdered: Soul Suspect – games which, given a chance, could have counterbalanced the industry's oft-bemoaned stagnancy – get left at the wayside. None of them are technically perfect – some of them are very technically bad. But they each have a narrative, visual or creative flair that deserved more attention. There's something to each of these games which, had players, critics and game-makers latched onto and nurtured it, could have been the progenitor to a much more interesting mainstream.
Take Homefront. It has a short campaign and mechanically is very plain, insofar as you aim, shoot and take cover, so I can understand why it got pilloried on the grounds of not being a quality "product". I can also see why narratively it was an easy write-off. The John Milius-penned, America-under-occupation story smacks of paranoid Republicanism, and the scene where you and your comrades hide from Korean troops by jumping into a mass grave is hysterical and overwrought – it's exactly the kind of ridiculous try-hard hyperbole that games like Hotline Miami and The Walking Dead are rightly pulled up on. But there are several details in Homefront that I think are really captivating, a handful of moments that I wish had been learned from and co-opted by more games.
The fact that, rather than a fictional fast-food restaurant, you wind up in a gunfight at a White Castle lends Homefront a tiny, but important amount of gravitas – it makes what could be absurd melodrama into something a little more relatable. Then there's this short scene where a homeless kid walks over to you and your friends to ask for some food. You all say no, and push him away, and he goes back and lies down on the pile of bin bags he's been sleeping on. It's a great moment not because it's bleak and miserable (I'm actually exhausted at how games, like Tomb Raider, confuse dreary world design and characters' suffering with narrative sophistication) but because it lends a slight nuance to the people you're playing as. They're not perfect.
And finally there's the shootout in the suburban house, where constantly in the background you've the sound of a baby, upstairs, screaming and crying. It's tense, it's frightening and again it gives just that slight element of humanity to an otherwise traditional video game trope. It makes the violence just that bit more nasty and urgent.
The same goes for Kane & Lynch, albeit in a slightly different way. The writers on the original 2007 game and its 2010 sequel, Dog Days, did such a great job of making the two characters not anti-heroes in the "badass", admirable sense – they're losers, degenerates, grubby little men. In the first game Kane is constantly berated by his fellow criminals for skipping out on a job that happened several years ago, for leaving a lot of his friends to die. Typically, at the end of the game, you'd find out he didn't do it, and he's not a bad guy after all. But no: Kane really did run out on his pals – he is treacherous and selfish. And so the violence you commit in that game feels markedly less glorious. It always feels like you're killing and criminalising not for any grand or cool purpose, like in GTA, but just because you're horrible guy. 2012's Spec Ops: The Line takes all the credit for satirising and de-legitimising videogame violence, but Kane & Lynch was – is – a lot subtler about it. It's one of the few games, ever, where what the player does matches the personality of their character.
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And speaking of Spec Ops, Haze, thematically, pre-dates it by four years. Spec Ops scrutinises players' susceptibility to received information, and their willingness to commit violence in games just because they're told. Haze has you play a soldier who is force-fed hallucinogens by his superiors in order to keep him obedient. The drugs also stop him from being able to see things like blood, wounds and dead bodies – just as video games often sanitise violence, so do the drugs in Haze. It's a game where you're manipulated into following orders, and where your willingness to commit violence is characterised as ugly and misled. But like Kane & Lynch: Dead Men, because Haze had some bugs and technical shortcomings, it was overlooked. What could have been a real flag in the ground at the start of a new console generation was petulantly thrown aside, along with its developer Free Radical.
Which brings me to Murdered: Soul Suspect, a game I played recently, and the one that inspired this entire article. Its stealth sections are ridiculous, and like every other game in the history of man it doesn't get the investigation mechanics quite, but there's no other mainstream game that so perfectly balances funny, scary, serious and sad. Murdered is a consummate lesson in tone. It never spills over into melodrama; it never devolves into parody – it wears all of its conceits absolutely on its sleeve, and sticks to them.
Perhaps more than any other game mentioned in this article, I love Murdered. It's bright, it's honest and it's filled with stark and amusing little moments. But it didn't sell very well and its makers, Airtight, got closed down, and that's an enormous, enormous shame. Why? Primarily because a lot of people who worked on Murdered lost their jobs. But also because whatever ideas it had are going to end up lost in time. For the foreseeable future, nobody is going to risk making anything even resembling Murdered, for fear of suffering the same financial backfire, and its lessons will go unlearned.
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And that's the drop. Shooters are the way they are because nobody showed up for Haze, or Homefront, or Kane & Lynch – nobody went to bat for what made those games important, and now we're stuck with Call of Duty. When priorities and tastes shift away from notions of technological efficiency, consumer satisfaction and "product quality", that's when the original, more intelligent and frankly better games might rise to the surface.
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