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Geek Culture
This is The End

Graeme Virtue | 27 May 2008 12:00
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Perhaps some of these titles have their revisionist cheerleaders, but toggling between the 100-percent saves enshrined in my bashed-up PS2 memory cards, I struggle to remember anything that was particularly enjoyable about completing them apart from mounting their heads on my metaphorical den wall. Playing through them became a strangely comforting routine; instead of, say, going to the gym for a couple of hours after work every night, I'd go through similarly repetitive maneuvers in front of the TV, advancing through kilometers of steel-clad corridors, locating countless numbers of electronic keycards and squeezing off so many rounds of ammunition that I should really have tinnitus.

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The way I played these and other barely notable PS2 titles, they all turned into survival/horror games. More often than not, the further into the game I progressed, the greater the sense of isolation. Halfway through, having navigated sloppy, gruelling or just plain boring game design (including at least one sewer level), you start to feel very alone. Surely no other sane player would have continued this far. It's an unnerving experience. Further still, the loneliness becomes even more oppressive - clearly the playtesters were never involved in this part of the process. If they had been, the game would have to be better, right? You have been abandoned in a game world that doesn't bother to make sense, held together with little more than recycled design assets and arbitrary, invisible walls. It's way scarier than Silent Hill.

Two games in particular have come to symbolize the pointlessness of my completionist's impulse. Tropical insurrection simulator Just Cause was apparently a sun-baked treat on the Xbox 360 and PC, vividly evoking a banana republic as it cheerfully dove headlong into civil war. But on my PS2, the game world wheezed, juddered and occasionally stopped altogether. Even just exploring the sprawling archipelago of San Esperito took patience and toilsome effort. But to successfully unlock the network of 48 safehouses necessary to complete the game, the player was required to perform certain tasks, such as attacking enemy-occupied settlements and, rather quaintly, raising a rebellion flag. Then you had to do it again. And again. And again. Viva la repetition!

There are encampments in San Esperito I must have liberated, literally, with my eyes closed, muscle memory alone guiding my jeep through the same three roadblocks toward the town flagpole. Eventually, after hours of play, I managed to overthrow the evil government and turn the whole map green. And that's exactly when I stopped playing, never to go back. I could tick off liberating an entire country from my to-do list, but for a conquering hero of the revolution, I only felt aggrieved and glad it was over. Don't cry for me, San Esperito.

To be fair, there were odd moments of stylized stuntman pleasure to be had in Just Cause, flashes of the emergent gameplay that Grand Theft Auto has raised to an artform. But the game that has come to symbolize the Pavlovian nature of my addiction had no room for improvised action riffing, instead remaining as linear and lumpen as a novel by Mario Puzo.

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