Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Byte: You are dead


That's a message that you get to see a lot whenever you play ARMA: Cold War Assault - the game previously known as Operation Flashpoint.

I've written quite extensively about Operation Flashpoint before, not least a review of the Xbox port of the game that was released way back in 2005 (itself over four years after the original PC release) but thanks to Bohemia Interactive re-releasing it as a standalone game in the last week or so (and me being on holiday with quite a bit of time to kill) I've been getting reacquainted with it. Sadly, ARMA: Cold War Assault is missing the rather splendid Red Hammer add-on campaign (though it does include Resistance), but even after a good ten years (and more) since the original release, at £3.49 on Steam, it's still terrific value for money.

Considering that the game is now over ten years old, it still stands up rather well. Thanks to its scale, it was never exactly what you'd call a looker, even back in 2001 - like another long-standing favourite of mine that I'm replaying again (Deus Ex) - the graphics and the animation were always on the rather shoddy side, but it's not as much of a barrier to playing the game as you might think. This is war, after all: it's supposed to be dull, muddy and ugly...

What makes the game special is its sheer brutality. This isn't a military-themed FPS like Call of Duty that mollycoddles you with regenerating health and ammo that you can collect faster than you can fire it... oh no. Operation Flashpoint (sorry, Bohemia, I can't get used to the new name) will make you wait ten or fifteen minutes for you to get into the action and kill you DEAD-DEAD-DEAD before you've even fired a shot if you let your attention wander for even half a second. Oh, and then, just to add insult to injury, the miserly save game allowance will make you replay the majority of the level, not the single encounter you just stuffed up.

But you know what? The game's all the better for it. I think every single 12 year old who plays Call of Duty: Black Ops (just because they think Call Of Duty is the BEST GAME EVAR because it's the most widely hyped) should be strapped to a chair and be made to play Operation Flashpoint without breaks for at least twelve hours. They should do this for two reasons.

1) So that they release that real life and real combat with firearms doesn't have a quicksave or checkpoint system, and

2) So that they get some understanding that war isn't the exciting, glamorous, thrill-ride all the other FPS games they've played makes them think it is.

Most videogames try to empower the player - sometimes to ludicrous degrees. Take COD4, for example - where you can recover from bullet wounds simply by hiding behind a door or under a table for a few seconds. Operation Flashpoint doesn't do this. Not by a long shot. It makes the player acutely aware of their vulnerability and mortality - and furthermore, it follows through on the consequences of making a mistake in a way that's almost unthinkable in games published today. There's no quicksave or quickload, so instead of only losing a few minutes of progress, you might have to replay half an hour or more of a level (depending on when you used your one precious save per mission, or when the auto-retry save point is set). So when you factor in the variability of the AI and the fact that the outcomes of each individual enemy contact can have vastly different outcomes for your squad, depending on the casualties you incur at key points of the mission, a ten minute mission might take you over an hour to complete, after all the retries, during which you learn the correct tactics to use and how to approach an objective properly according to the terrain. This is no linear, corridor shooter: there are so many variables in play that even with the same initial conditions at the start of a mission and any subsequent replays, there's no real way of predicting what will happen.

I can't imagine many 12 year old COD-kiddies being able to stick it out for even a handful of missions. But they should be made to play it - if only to realise that true success has to be worked for and takes skill, persistence and not an inconsiderable amount of luck. What worries me about the "achievements" ethic of modern videogame design is that success only really requires persistence - you put in the time, you get the unlocks and then even people who are more inherently skilled than you (but don't have as much time to play the game) don't stand a chance because they don't have the unlocks that kill everyone on the map without the chance of fighting back. The vast majority of modern game design (especially in multiplayer) rewards sheer bloody-minded persistence over skill, which is why you'll never see me playing COD4 online, but might find me knocking about on an Unreal Tournament 2004 server.

I often wonder about the social messages videogames give our young folk - whether intentionally or not. In my (I suppose rather quaint and old-fashioned) view, anything that sends a message of consequence-free failure and gives reward for simply sticking with something rather than actually trying to get better at it, is not something that should be applauded or encouraged. Though to be fair, I don't think it's just videogames that do this- I think the vast majority of our entertainment media (be it film, games or TV) does the public a massive disservice by assuming that because people have greater choice now, things need to be more instantly engaging, otherwise people will simply switch off or turn over to do something else. All this does is breed a generation with pathetically short attention spans and creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. There's no real reason to assume that teenagers twenty years ago (such as myself) are so different from teenagers from today. I just think that people are just more likely to reach for an excuse these days. Lord knows that if some of the kids I taught put half the effort into doing their work that they did for finding excuses for their lack of effort and poor behaviour, they wouldn't need to make excuses, because they'd be too busy to be bored.

This is why I think all these COD-kiddies, used to easy success and reward and no consequence failure, would be better people if they had to sit down to play something like Operation Flashpoint for a day. Our failures - what they cost us, and how we rebound from them - tell us about the kind of person we are. One thing that I think has been lost in modern society is that sometimes it's okay to fail - that we will learn more from a hard-fought failure than an easy win. People are so petrified of failure these days that the producers of mainstream entertainment (not to mention our providers of mass news media) are afraid to challenge people on every level - from their preconceptions and beliefs to what they might find interesting and entertaining. My fear is that if we (as a society and civilization) lose the ability to challenge ourselves in meaningful ways, humanity will stagnate and regress into tribalism and extremism - and over the past decade or two I've seen some signs that this is already happening, with the rise of religious extremism and the rise of the fear of anyone being seen to do anything that might be construed as being offensive to anyone (I don't just mean political correctness, but that's a large part of it).

Real life, for the vast majority of people, isn't a high-tech, lightning-paced, glamorous rollercoaster of easy success and cheap thrills. Instead, it's dull, difficult, mundane and packed with more failures and defeats than victories. Life inevitably has more losers than winners, but that's not to say that failure can't be rewarding, especially if it teaches you something. And that's the moral of Operation Flashpoint in a nutshell for me. It's hard - by goodness, it's hard - but all those failures and learning experiences help make the rare victories all the sweeter.



[clicks RETRY]

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Bark: Culture vs. Anti-culture

It's been a little over a week since the start of the England Riots, and still the aftermath rumbles on with "Big Broken Society" Dave and Milidum spouting all sorts of rubbish about "moral collapse" and "knee-jerk gimmicks".

One thing that caught my eyes and ears was the Newsnight discussion with David Starkey - if you only caught the out of context condemnation of Starkey's "the whites have become black" line, I recommend you watch the entire debate.

While some have described the comment as racist, I'm not so sure - at least, I don't think Starkey meant it as derogatory to black people. I would actually agree with Starkey in the sense that in some echelons of our society, "white" (in other words, traditionally British) culture is being supplanted by "black" gangsta culture, imported over from America and the Carribean. I use the term culture rather loosely here.

I think the mistake that was made in the debate on Newsnight was to try and label one culture as being inherently "right" and the other "wrong" (the implication being that Starkey thought that "black" culture was wrong - again, I'm not sure this is the case - there's plenty of room for the possibility that both cultures are rubbish), rather than try to understand why this shift has happened.

Milidum put it down to the "me first" culture and talked a lot "responsibility" and "inequality" without really saying anything we didn't already know twenty years ago. Society has always contained inequality, and if anything, the gap between top and bottom has been getting wider since Thatcher came to power in 1979 and 13 years of Labour government didn't do a damn thing to address it effectively. The poorest sections of society have historically always been largely ignored by the political system, mainly because there's not enough votes in it. Instead, the Labour government threw them bones in the form of benefits and tax credits, hoping it would paper over the cracks.

Unfortunately, they forgot one key psychological aspect of the human psyche: something that has not been earned has no value. So the poor and the forgotten were given enough money to scrape together a TV, a Blackberry or iPhone and internet access, but weren't made to get off their arses for it. With this wonderful technology, paid for by the state, they got fed a diet of TV, films, games and internet sites glorifying violence and materialism - they saw a better life in a bigger TV screen, and the internet allowed them (with the help of Twitter and Blackberry Messenger) to run rings around the government and the police for a few days - a whole country shaken to its core by a few thousand immoral, self-centred thugs with just enough brain power to be trouble.

I think it's telling that the majority of the looters went for TVs and consumer electronics, rather than jewelry. It tells you what's valued by society when silicon is more prized than gold (Whoever said money can't buy happiness clearly hadn't heard of flat-screen plasma TVs).

"How did this happen?" ask the social commentators and politicians - I can only throw in my two pence - there's no reason why my theory should be any more correct or wrong than that of the "experts". It doesn't do any good labelling parts of our society "broken" or "sick" and then beating them with a big stick (such as the proposals to remove whole families from social housing and stop their benefits if a family member was part of the looting) - how does that create a more equitable society?

People in so-called sink estates look up to the pimps, drug dealers and gangsters because they have everything that the media in our society tells them is desireable - money, drugs, guns, cars, women, power. By comparison, people in real authority (politicians, police, teachers, doctors - the people who should be real role models for our society) are made to look weak and ineffectual by the news media and the government falls over backwards to not offend anyone rather than show authority.

"British" culture has become so anodyne and uninspiring that it shouldn't be any wonder that the people who need the most help and direction in our society look to people willing to provide them with a vision - even if it is destructive, amoral and anti-social. I can tell I'm getting old and increasingly intolerant, because I can't help feeling some sort of nostalgia for my formative years under Thatcher - a lot of what she did was short-sighted, socially devisive and destructive, but you know that there's no way in hell she'd put up with shit like this...

This weekend I visited Chartwell, Winston Churchill's house in Kent. Now he was a leader - a unifier - exactly the kind of person we need now. Instead, what have we got? A man who couldn't unify a couple of magnets and a man who couldn't inspire his way out of a wet paper bag. Maker preserve us...