The Contrarian: Sam’s Choice

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.

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Your assignment in this chapter is to file three articles profiling one soldier apiece, articles you’re going to sell to their hometown newspapers. You can do the articles on any of the soldiers in the squad. As they go about their duties you find opportunities to ask them questions and get them to open up. If the situation is right, they will. If it’s the wrong time or the conversation goes poorly, their opinion of you drops. But as you persuade some of them, they may come into conflict with their fellow soldiers whose opinions of you haven’t changed yet. You need to find opportunities to get them alone where their buddies won’t razz them for talking with you.

Conversations don’t just improve your relationships. Successful dialogues unlock Sound Bites, which are moments when the soldier says something particularly interesting or revealing. Even soldiers who dislike you can supply sound bites, though they are likely to be colorful ones.

A thriving black market can supply you with cigarettes, magazines, videogames and other trinkets you can share with the soldiers to improve their opinion of you or just distract them so you can talk to someone else alone. You need to earn money to shop on the black market, though, and you can do that with the photography feature.

Starting with your default camera, you can take two kinds of pictures: Photo Ops and Opportunity Shots. A photo op is a situation the game stages for your benefit. It might be a group of soldiers playing poker on the hood of a jeep or a young Iraqi kid drinking Coca-Cola. The photo ops are scripted to happen in certain locations and times. At the beginning, you only get brief notice of an impending photo op and only when it’s close by. As you advance through the game your proximity radius and early notice of photo ops both improve, but they also become more challenging to pull off. They become little mini-games where you have to race through the base, solve a climbing puzzle to get the right perspective for the shot, or use your black-market trinkets to distract the guards who won’t let you through. Once you’re in the right place at the right time, you line up the shot with the viewfinder and snap the picture.

You can take opportunity shots at any time. We apply scores to elements in the game such as soldiers, vehicles, civilians, even particle effects, and then rate your photo on the basis of what elements are present in the viewfinder at the moment you snap a picture. Situations modify these scores. Six guys and a tank sitting in the base doesn’t make for a great photo, but six guys and a tank in a firefight is worth plenty of points. Since we’re using Source for the facial expressions, we know at any moment what emotions are on screen and so we can even apply scores to those – angry, cheerful or heartbroken soldiers are worth more. Over time you can buy better cameras and accessories on the black market so you can zoom, use dramatic depth of field, and get low-light shots. These accessories unlock even more photo ops that aren’t available to you otherwise.

As the first chapter unfolds, you go on a couple of missions with the squad. They’re initially pretty quiet, fruitless searches and desert patrols, but soon firefights erupt. These are great for opportunity shots and it’s even possible to improve your relationship with the troops while under fire. But these are also the dangerous portions of the game, as careless play can get you shot. You have the ability to draw attention by yelling, which you can do if you need help or if you want to warn the soldiers about something you can see. When you’re injured, you black out and wake up back at the base minus some money.

To finish the first chapter, you need to file those three stories. To file a story on a given soldier, you must have at least one sound bite relating to that soldier. The more sound bites you’ve collected, the more the story is worth. Depending on your relationship with the soldier, the story has a Spin: positive, neutral or negative. A story with a high positive or negative spin gets a payment multiplier. The spin, in turn, affects how the soldier reacts to the story after it’s published. You might have a great collection of sound bites from a soldier who really dislikes you, and with that negative-spin multiplier the story is worth big bucks. But filing that story is going to further poison your relationship and will have similar effects on soldiers who like the subject of your story, turning them against you as well.

You can earn bonuses on a story by sending photographs along with it. Each such photo, whether it’s from a photo op or an opportunity shot, must contain the soldier who is the subject of the story. You can always sell photos without a story if you need cash, but photos sold with a story are worth more. However, as soon as you sell one photo, other photos with a similar matrix of elements drop sharply in value. You can’t sell 16 photos of the same thing. In addition, the value of unsold photos decays over time because their newsworthiness diminishes.

Making these kinds of decisions is an important part of the game. If you need money to upgrade your camera, you can file a negative story for quick bucks – but you’ll then need to work harder to repair your reputation with the squad. A great photo is worth a lot, but if you haven’t been doing the legwork to get a story on soldier in the photo, you might want to sit on it for a while until you get some sound bites so that it’s worth even more. Selling other, lesser photos in the meantime may diminish the value of that great one – but so will sitting on it too long.

Once you’ve filed your third story, the first chapter initiates the climax. A militant suicide bomber gains access to the base and starts shouting threats and brandishing his explosives. The soldiers react and so do you. You can yell to warn people, access risky photo ops, and of course, try to stay alive when the bomb goes off. In the aftermath of swirling smoke and injuries, your actions can dramatically affect the soldiers’ opinion of you while also giving you opportunities to rack up material for a fourth and final story. In the heat of the moment, you demonstrate who you really are to everyone. The story you file can make you famous, but the real story is in the choices you make and the consequences that result.

Subsequent chapters build off the first. The aftermath of the suicide- bomber story is the first thing, as your newfound journalistic success gets you access to better media clients and equipment. The choices you made during the climax also set the stage for your relationships this time around, and a couple of new soldiers join up to replace ones lost. The bulk of the second chapter is a major offensive against a town overrun by militants, a combat-heavy and very cinematic sequence. You won’t be able to file stories during this sequence, so you need to do the best you can with the tools you’ve got. At the end of the chapter, you should have a lot of stories and photos to file.

Another chapter focuses on the Iraqi civilians. One soldier in the squad has befriended a local family and he introduces you to them. You learn their stories, working through guides you hire to translate your conversations. This ordinary family has been greatly affected by the war and the oldest son is considering joining the militants. Your interactions can affect his decision, and indeed the fate of the family at the end of the chapter is very much in your hands.

The most unusual chapter deals with your kidnapping by militants. Your hired car is stopped and seized and your guide and several other journalists are also taken hostage. While kidnapped, you converse with your fellow victims as well as with your captors. You also need to stay alive. Executions are scheduled at intervals and which one of you dies first depends on what your captors think of each of you. This hothouse atmosphere leads to challenging situations. Do you and the other abductees turn on each other when it’s time for another beheading, or do you stick together? Potentially, you can stave off death by manipulating the opinions of those around you so that someone else is chosen to die first – if that’s the way you want to play your character. There are multiple ways to escape, and it’s up to you to figure them out.

In every chapter, deep conversation trees give you the freedom to become the character you want. You frequently make trade-offs between integrity, expediency, success and even survival. The squad as a whole performs better or worse in combat depending on its internal relationships, which you can affect. As the game goes on, you become wound tighter and tighter into this group of soldiers who will either bond and thrive or fall apart disastrously.

So: Embedded is a game with moral and ethical choices, a dramatic setting, crunchy gameplay, character development, powerful dialogue and real excitement. Is there a place for this kind of game in the market? I sure think so. But the console generation that is now coming to a close brought us surprisingly little innovation, as publishers became locked into tighter and tighter game- design boxes.

Sam Walton understood. People like choice. The choice in our hobby right now is between run, gun, drive, fight or jump. That’s not enough. The use of a joystick or mouse to shoot people has become so refined there’s nothing left but a few more permutations of genre. You can already shoot people in space, in the old west, in a haunted house, in the jungle, in the desert. This direction is going nowhere. I’m not proposing that we do something radical, like throw it all aside and make an MMOG based on Rez. I’m just making a simple suggestion: Put all that high-powered technology and razor-sheen production value into a game that’s a few steps to the side of what we’re used to.

We can attenuate or we can innovate. I’m hoping for the latter.

John Tynes has been a game designer and writer for fifteen years, and is a columnist for The Stranger, X360 UK, and The Escapist. His most recent book is Wiser Children, a collection of his film criticism.

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