I'm willing to give even awful things a fair shake as long as they can provide a moment of complete absurdity. Wal-Mart did that for me once, so let us pause to remember. It was the spring of 1992 and company founder Sam Walton had just died. I was shopping in a Sam's Club, Walton's big warehouse chain, along with all the other pasty cart-pushers with our six-packs of canned ravioli and gallons of chocolate syrup. As we made our way through the aisles a recorded voice came on the PA system. "Attention Wal-Mart and Sam's Club Associates and Shoppers," it boomed. "One week ago today our founder, Sam Walton, died. We would like to take a moment of silence to remember him."
We all stopped pushing our carts and looked around awkwardly. Was it appropriate for us to keep shopping? Was walking around disrespectful? I stood there, boggling, unsure of what to do. The six-pack of canned ravioli in my hand got heavier and heavier. The tension rose. I think if in that moment someone had so much as snickered, we all would have burst out laughing to relieve the stress. Then the voice came back on, thanked us for our observance of their dead god, and we resumed shopping as usual.
I like to think Sam Walton would have hated this, because any minute that people in his stores weren't shopping was a minute wasted. Had he clawed his way out of the grave and staggered, Stubbs-like, toward the PA system, I imagine he would have said something like, "Buy some more crap ya lazy sunsabitches!" (Then he would have gone on about brains.)
That pleasing thought aside, I can only think of two things Wal-Mart has done for gaming. It made computer game boxes a lot smaller, which we can all be thankful for, and its successful distribution of budget hunting games gave us amazing titles like the new Cabela's Dangerous Hunts 6: Kill or Be Killed, the cover of which depicts hunters desperately brandishing their rifle stocks while being leapt upon by jaguars and bears. It looks like Frank Miller's Animal Crossing and I love it already, though I will surely never play it.
The truth is I don't shop at Wal-Mart, I don't live near a Wal-Mart, and I have nothing much to say about Wal-Mart and gaming. So let's dispense with this issue's theme for a couple pages and talk about something else. After all, I didn't get to be a contrarian by being agreeable.
I complain a lot in this column about what's wrong with games. Rather than complain this time, I'm going to tell you about a game I would like to play. This game doesn't exist. The technology exists, the audience exists, and thanks to services like Steam, the distribution exists. The only thing that doesn't exist is the will to make this sort of game, and that saddens me. But I'm going to close my eyes and hope for the best. It's a new year and maybe wishes will come true.
The game I want to play is called Embedded.
Here's the high concept pitch: It's KOTOR meets Call of Duty, but the only thing you shoot is a camera. You're a freelance journalist embedded with an American infantry unit in Iraq. You need to win over the soldiers, get the scoop and stay alive. Marketing bullet points include cinematic action, branching-tree conversations, relationship management and a very fun, very gamey photography feature. The game is released in serial chapters via Steam with cross-chapter saves and uses the Source engine for its facial expression capabilities.
The game is played from a first-person perspective. At the start you have a cheap digital camera. The first chapter is your orientation to life on the base and an introduction to the squad you'll be reporting on. Each soldier has a distinct personality, personal history and fluctuating opinions about his fellow troops - and you. From the start, they distrust you and only cooperate grudgingly. They're here to fight a war and keep each other alive, not baby-sit some reporter.