rfg5.jpg['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly scheduled GameSetWatch opinion column by Tom Cross focusing game narratives and the ways that play, gaming, and narrative mix. This week, Tom relishes employing highly inappropriate destructive powers in Red Faction: Guerrilla and Just Cause 2.]

Video games of the first and third-person action variant put a lot of effort into their environments. They live and die by how a player negotiates her way through, grapples with, and comes to comprehend and enjoy those environments. A game that works its story, main character, and method of environment traversal into a cohesive, fun, and interesting whole is a game that will succeed, a game that will cross genre lines and earn fans in ever echelon of games design and criticism.

Games that manage this particular balancing act are few and far between. It doesn’t matter if you blame ludo-narrative dissonance, inaccurate and mismatched controls and inputs, or bad level design and narrative design: most players can sense the cracks underneath the smooth surface of a new game. Often, we can see these faults from a gameplay video.

That’s because, at the most basic level, environment interaction and avatar control are things we’ve unconsciously trained ourselves to look out for. We can identify bad eggs and misfires at a distance. It’s why Dark Void had so many people leery of its arrival long before gameplay was on the table: the gunplay just looks wrong, as does most of the narrative, acting, and writing.

Some games try to away with some really awkward and ill-advised story and gameplay decisions by dint of their impressive recreations of player space and existence. Mirror’s Edge is the controversial and divisive title that it is because of the fidelity and verve with which it recreates the sense of running, of fast, breathless body movements.

In fact, this replica of real-life movement was so convincing that when other things in the game didn’t work within the confines of the world and the narrative (why exactly did Faith have to fight so much?), gamers latched onto those mistakes. Even a game like Mirror’s Edge can’t make it on its convincing world negotiation and interaction alone. Mirror’s Edge’s bad writing and worse combat were incredibly distracting. It’s hard to enjoy DICE’s beautiful world when a moron in your ear won’t shut up about “Blues.”

e3-expo-mass-effect-2-0021255738500.jpgGames that create interesting, properly interactive worlds are special. Games don’t even have to be incredibly “interactive” to convince gamers that this world is exactly the kind of world that the player’s avatar would move through, in this kind of story and this kind of game.

Many is the game that that forgets this rule and takes one kind of story and world and plugs the worst possibly matched gameplay and interface into that world. I love Mass Effect 2, and I like the direction Bioware is taking their third person shooting, but the world Commander Sheppard moves through isn’t an epic, highly fluctuating one (as the world of Sheppard’s words and deeds certainly is). Instead, ME 2’s world is dead, a beautiful clutch of austere worlds and rooms, each less believable than the last.

In contrast, a game like Bioshock (which, in its actual mechanics, is rather simple) knows exactly how to blend moment-to-moment player choice, as interactive as they need to be (for combat, and for exploration) game spaces, and a story and artistic bent that are hostile, strange, and entrancing. Every encounter in Bioshock is a thing that happens to the player, even as the player reacts to each situation; each encounter is also an experience, something that wouldn’t be the way it was unless everything that happened in the encounter happened just so.

In Mass Effect 2, aside from who kills who and who buys what, gameplay is entirely uninteresting and static. It’s only when the characters open their mouths that exciting things happen, that stories can be told, that the player can make her mark upon the world in interesting, meaningful ways.

Both of these games contain worlds that (in Bioshock’s case) do their best to imitate a semi-real world (especially where tactics and plasmid-world interactions are concerned), and then get out of the way of the gameplay. It’s a neat trick, but one’s medium for gameplay experiences is not the world so much as what one does in it. I can shoot bots, Splicers, and Big Daddies, but I do it in an unmoving, solid world (below the surface, that is). Red Faction: Guerilla attempts to create gameplay experiences out of how you change the world, how it responds, and what the ultimate shape of the world is once you’ve acted.

rfg1.jpgOf course, the effect only goes so far: you can’t destroy the ground itself in RF: G, and you can’t destroy certain bits of certain buildings. Even so, RF: G does something rather unique for a video game, in that it charges players with thinking through and around and over and under problems, not just through them. In Bioshock, as I look at a room and consider my tactics, I’m trying to map out a path using my guns and plasmids. I’m trying to anticipate my enemy’s actions, and how I’ll be able to use the environment to my advantage. RF: G asks me to think about how I can change the very terms of the encounter, the structure of the world, to suit my needs.

At first, the game pits you against a military force powerful enough to handily destroy you. You can spend much of your time destroying anything you want, but if you get to excitable, too explosive, the long of the arm will make an attempt on your life. When this happens, it’s best to beat a hasty retreat, and stash yourself in a rebel safe house, losing your alert rating. This done, you can assault another base, bunker, bridge, or guard outpost.

The game encourages you to think like the demolitions expert-turned terrorist that you are. You can launch a regular assault on an armored convoy, but a few makeshift roadblocks and several large proximity mines (backed up by careful rocket blasts) are always best. If you give away your position too soon, you risk the enemy blasting through your roadblock and escaping. I can’t stress this enough: the game makes you feel like a (somewhat overpowered) rebel. You’re always less well equipped than the enemy (they always have more ammo), you’re allies are fewer and weaker than the enemy’s, and your missions are best won through surprise attacks and clever, pinpoint use of ordinance.

While the game’s overpowered melee weapons make indoor combat slightly ludicrous (ever way folds like a cardboard before your sledgehammer), buildings also prove to be the game’s most interesting gameplay and combat “questions.” When confronted by a large structure, the answer to the problem “how do I attack” is never simple.  As mason, you are encouraged (and rewarded) for doing things that your enemies can do (but do badly), only faster and more accurately. A fortified location is the perfect target for a truck laden with remote mines, while enemies a floor above or below you are easily harried and dispatched by a wall-blasting rocket or disintegrating gun.

die_hard_070626_ms.jpgPlaying this game again, I’m reminded of “Nakatomi Space,” an excellent article at the BLDGBLOG that examines the radical architecturally centric tactics used by John McClane to defeat Alan Rickman and the rest of the villains in Die Hard. The author is especially taken with this “New York cop on his Christmas vacation, moves through a Los Angeles high-rise in basically every conceivable way but passing through its doors and hallways,” and with the Israeli military forces whose unorthodox methods of infiltration and assault he compares to McClane’s.

I think it rather fitting to borrow his newly created subtitle for Die Hard (“lessons in the inappropriate use of architecture”) and apply it to RF: G. Truly, the best parts of RF: G are those that come about because of carefully planned destruction and reappropriation of indoor and outdoor structures and architecture.

This isn’t just a fun way to move about the world: it’s the kind of movement and tactical decision-making that make sense for Alec Mason. It’s lucky that RF: G masters the language of creative destruction and environment traversal: aside from that, the game’s interface and avatar-use is pretty standard stuff. Alec Mason moves, jumps, and attacks with relative speed (and he responds to our inputs just as quickly), but his level of physical interaction with the world (when not augmented by weaponry) feels like a retreat from the rest of the game’s inspired destruction.

Even though Alec Mason can soak up an inordinate amount of damage and carries enough firepower to level a small town, to really take advantage of the game’s technology and Mason’s weapons, somewhat unorthodox thinking and tactics are required. This is what makes this game interesting and unique. The technology it employs to create this level of environmental freedom is no longer a gimmick, a tech achievement forgotten as fast as the game that boasted it.

It’s the kind of exciting, boundary-pushing freedom that Just Cause 2 promises. That game, like RF: G, is designed in such a way that players are encouraged at every turn to approach combat and environment interaction in interesting and possibly novel ways. It isn’t quite as unorthodox as RF: G: in Just Cause 2, the ability to manipulate and completely change the world is less important (and less possible) when compared to the ability to “go anywhere and do everything.” Likewise,  Just Cause 2 casts the player as a freedom fighter, a man whose weapons make a lot of noise, but whose tactics rely on unorthodox manipulation of the environment and of Rico’s enemy’s assets. Inappropriate use of a small republic’s architecture and arsenal, you might call it.

These games are not, of course, the first to push gamers to think in slightly unusual ways. But more and more, we’re learning that the right application of new technology (in these cases, relatively unrealistic, yet still powerful and versatile physics engines and destructible environments) can teach players to think like an action hero using highly  innovative, inappropriate methods.

[Tom Cross writes for Gamers' Temple and Popmatters, and blogs about games at Delayed Responsibility. You can contact him at romain47 at gmail dot com.]