This was a pretty great year for games both big and small. From the huge hits like Bloodborne and Metal Gear Solid V to the small surprises like Her Story and The Music Machine, 2015 is bound to remembered as a banner year of gaming.
The one downside to all this excellence is that it’s easy to forget other games that are good — just not outright excellent. So I want to take this time to highlight a few 2015 games that seem to be quickly fading from the public consciousness: One that was genuinely great, one that was good but handicapped before release, and one that was kind of a mess but was a noble, optimistic, and good-hearted mess.
Dying Light has the misfortune of coming out in January, a month known for being the dumping ground of less than stellar entertainment. It’s also a zombie game, coming out at a time when people are tiring of zombies games. It’s developed by Techland, the team behind Dead Island, another zombie game that’s fun, but it wasn’t well-received critically. Indeed, there was a lot working against Dying Light upon release, but it surprised everyone by actually being pretty good game. Better games have come out over the past 12 months, but Dying Light remains the most pleasant surprise.
It succeeds, both narratively and with its gameplay, in breathing new life into the staid zombie story. Dying Light isn’t really about its zombies; it doesn’t care about their creation, outbreak, or destruction. The game is more concerned with a 90’s-esque mercenary-with-a-heart-of-gold story: You’re dropped into an isolated and hostile territory with a very specific mission, then you fall in with a group of survivors/ rebels/ natives and become more invested in their plight than in your original mission.
Dying Light is rather like Avatar, except Nature is most assuredly not on your side. The story is refreshingly indifferent towards the zombies, treats them not as the main threat, but as a kind of hostile wildlife.
We’ve seen plenty of zombie survival stories before, and Dying Light takes care not to repeat those same plot beats as part of its central narrative. Naturally, certain tropes raise their rotting heads to bite us, kill a close friend, or interrupt us at importune moments, but those tropes play out within the larger context of a foreign-based terrorist-hunt action story.
On the gameplay side, it introduces parkour to the zombie open-world formula, a combination so obvious and intuitive it’s a wonder no one else had thought to do it. This leads to a zombie game with a very different type of setting: Instead of cramping you into small spaces that would make the slow and dumb zombies more dangerous, Dying Light emphasizes spacious environments and verticality. We can even jump on top of a zombie in order to boost ourselves higher, meaning there’s always an escape, we’re never (or rarely) boxed in. That’s the point: Zombies are an obstacle, but not the antagonist.
Dying Light evolves the zombie game. Its narrative uses the monsters as set dressing in order to increase the types of stories that can be told around them, and its gameplay has you thinking about space and action and movement in ways few games do, and no other zombie games do.
Evolve had a rough release, coming out under a dark cloud of controversial pre-order offerings. It, too, was handicapped by negative perceptions before it even had a chance to prove itself. However, unlike the genuinely good Dying Light and the smarter-than-you-thought Hardline, when Evolve finally came out and made a case for itself, it turned out to be a fun though misguided multiplayer experience. I put it on this list because I think it’s misguided in a way that should be championed and admired, not forgotten. To put it simply: Evolve is too good for this world.
The multiplayer-only game tasks four Hunters with chasing down and killing one hulking Monster. Each Hunter has a specialized role and they have to work as a team to find the beast before it eats enough wildlife to evolve into a stronger form.
Those “specialized roles” are, in fact, very specialized, and therein lies the problem. Evolve is made with a clear sense of optimism, a belief that players are able and willing to put in the time and effort to learn the nuances of each given class. The harsh reality is that many players aren’t willing, and those that are got no help from the game itself.
The character roles aren’t intuitive. For example, one of the medic characters has a sniper rifle, a gun that’s considered very powerful in literally every other shooter game, but in Evolve the rifle is shockingly weak. Its primary function is not to do damage, like you’d expect, but rather it exists as a support weapon, creating weak points on the monster for others to shoot at. To use the gun effectively you have to have a deep understanding of the character and her equipment, but also a teammate who has that same knowledge. The game give you a brief explanation of your role the first time you select the medic, but then it shuts up to let you play.
Evolve has only itself to blame, but its heart is in the right place. It wants to encourage teamwork but not be oppressive with its instruction; it trusts in players to pick up that slack and teach themselves. It has a misguided optimism that clashea with the more cynical, self-serving designs of most multiplayer game, but that’s exactly why I have a soft spot for it.
If you’re a medic in Battlefield, you get points when your teammates use a health pack that you’ve set down. This encourages you drop more health packs, but more importantly, it encourages you to drop them near other players. Otherwise, if you get points for merely dropping a pack, you’ll have a medic sitting in a corner dropping packs for himself, boosting his points at the expense of his team. That’s essentially what Evolve does; it gives you points for simply using your specialized abilities, with no bonus for efficiency. It trusts the players to work together, that efficiency would come naturally, that’s its default behavior when playing on a team.
Yet Evolve is so dedicated to the idealization of teamwork that it doesn’t stop to think that no one wants to work on a team, or doesn’t realize just how many people will be incompetent teammates. It’s still a wildly fun game… in the right circumstances that are sadly infrequent. Evolve fails to catch on as a multiplayer game, but its failure shouldn’t be attributed to quality. It isn’t a bad game, it’s simply too optimistic and naive for our age of self-serving “teamwork”,
Battlefield: Hardline came out at the wrong time, too. It’s a traditionally military-focused shooter game that puts you in the role of a police officer, that just so happens to come out in the midst of a national discourse over the militarization of local police forces. On its face, it seems like it could be nothing but a tacit endorsement of such militarization, and upon release critics took it to task for its perceived indifference, exploitation, and ignorance.
However, I think the criticism of its political message overshadows its more thoughtful message about violence and gaming and our role in it all. Despite the accusations against it, Hardline has a clear understanding of how the role we play in a game shapes our expectations and perception of the violence we cause, and how in turn that violence shapes our perception of the role we play. It most certainly has a clearer understanding of this connection between “role” and “violence” than its peers does.
In short, other games cast you as a professional soldier, but then surround you with so much destruction that it reflects badly on your professionalism. A truly professional soldier wouldn’t destroy a building and enemy helicopter when they were supposed to remain unnoticed. That kind of violence makes us look incompetent. This is core paradox at the heart of most modern military shooters (the exception being Bad Company, since those games specifically cast us as supposedly incompetent soldiers — that’s the joke).
We do in fact play as a cop for the first half of Hardline, and as dedicated protector of the people we don’t actually cause any violence or destruction. That stuff still happens around us, such as bad guys crashing a truck through our front door, chasing us down a highway, or getting into a shootout in a mall (that’s under construction and thus devoid of civilians) while a hurricane makes landfall. We participate in the chaos, but we never cause it.
At the halfway point we’re framed for a crime and sent to prison. We quickly escape and join up with a bunch of colorful criminals to get revenge on the main bad guy. This is when we became a more active participant in the destruction. This is when we get to drive a tank and shoot helicopters out of the sky, flood an elevator shaft in a skyscraper to reach a secret penthouse, steal secret documents, and single-handedly storm enemy compounds like an ’80s action hero. It’s only after we’re stripped of the pretense of civic responsibility that we became the agents of chaos we normally are in such games.
I fear that in the rush to Battlefield: Hardline as promoting a political message, the critical community ignors its thoughtful take on video game violence. Many reviews took note of the “tank versus helicopter” scene and use that as evidence of the game’s tone deafness towards issues of police militarization, yet ignore the fact that the game purposefully strips you of that role before putting you into the tank.
Battlefield: Hardline understands that civic duty prevents us from causing violence, and as someone in that role we should work to limit destruction, not cause it. The fact that the game switches our role halfway through is a concession to the fact that players don’t actually want that kind of responsibility. We want to cause destruction, we want that active participation, so the game changes our relationship with the world in order to allow for that lack of responsibility. In doing so, it contrasts the two roles against each other, cop versus criminal, and the kind of action each engenders, defensive versus offensive.
The fact that Hardline understands that different roles engender different types of action proves it to be far more aware of its symbolism than its detractors would have you believe.