Monday, March 29, 2010

The Delightful Absurdity of Just Cause 2

Most video games are absurd. The problem is, few games acknowledge that they are absurd. Just Cause 2 not only acknowledges its absurdity, but embraces it wholly. Self-aware absurdity is present on all levels, from grappling hook to the insane writing ("I am happier than a man after colonic irrigation" is an actual quote). And this aware absurdity makes Just Cause 2 far more enjoyable that a whole raft of self-serious games that refuse to acknowledge they are equally absurd.

Sparky Clarkson recently discussed camp in games, which I couldn't help but think about in regards to Just Cause 2. But I'm honestly not sure if it's really appropriate to call JC2 "camp." It seems that intentionally crafting something campy is undesirable. Susan Sontag's canonical Notes on "Camp" essay posits, "The pure examples of Camp are unintentional; they are dead serious." and "Probably, intending to be campy is always harmful." Below I'll touch more on why I find this claim problematic, but sufficed to say, I'm nearly certain JC2 was built with full awareness of its tone.

What then is Just Cause 2, if not camp? I'm content calling it simply "delightfully absurd." Whether or not this possesses sufficient overlap with camp sensibilities to call JC2 campy is at the reader's discretion. A pair of qualities that make Just Cause 2 and similar games distinct in this way- they must have solid mechanics and they must eschew self-seriousness without descending into overt parody.

The first of these is the most important and where games differ most from campy forms of other media (Clarkson touches on this a bit as well). We tolerate games with solid mechanics but a poor story far more than the reverse, e.g. see the relative disappearance of adventure games. An absurd film rarely fails on a functional level. The fundamentals of filmmaking are well established, so technical flaws that severely impact the viewing experience are rare, even in low-budget titles. Games, however, are interactive things that must be used by people. Even big-budget games from successful studios possess flaws that can dramatically impact their usability. To delight in the absurdity of a game, playing it must still be enjoyable. Absurdity can exist at the aesthetic level, and perhaps in a game's dynamics, but not in its mechanics.

Just Cause 2 very much succeeds in this regard. The core of the game is moving through this sprawling, rich environment and doing so is a joy. The vehicles are diverse and control well. But more importantly, you can "stunt jump" and anchor yourself on the roof of any vehicle, in motion or not. From here you can leap onto other vehicles, deploy your parachute or simply fire upon other vehicles.

And of course, there is the grappling hook. It affords so many amazingly absurd possibilities, both in terms of movement and combat, I almost don't know where to begin. You can tether an enemy to a tank of compressed fuel, shoot the tank and watch it and your foe careen madly about. Just as easily, you can tether a piece of broken metal to the back of your vehicle and swing it about like a terrible wrecking ball. The grappling hook's uses abound and all are phenomenal.

The gunplay is nothing special (and god damn, I am constantly running out of ammo), but it is certainly competent and sufficient for these purposes. Similarly, the AI is nothing special and have very few barks, but they do that is required. Regardless of other themes and presentation, moment-to-moment, Just Cause 2 is a pleasure to play.

Second, these delightfully absurd games are not self-serious, but they cannot be overt parody either. If there's any single offense game creators are guilty of, it's taking our space marines way, way too seriously. Gears of War is a solid, innovation game on a mechanical level. But no amount of "Mad World" can make homoerotic 'roid-ridden gruff men with buzzcuts and guns made out of chainsaws into something to take seriously. Yet the entire tone of the game, and its creators' presentation, leads to exactly that. For every studio that produces a game that can be taken as seriously as its tone, there are at least a half-dozen that cannot.

(That I feel humour is an important companion of drama and the two existing side by side has many interesting applications is a post for another day. But it does make me glad I work on the projects that I do.)

So, delightfully absurd games cannot be self-serious. This is where I take issue with some of Sontag's primary camp sensibilities. If camp cannot be created intentionally, that makes all camp take on a derisive, mocking tone. We may appreciate something for being campy, but only because its creator failed to produce anything legitimately good. That kind of camp feels like scoffing, telling someone 'You made something awful, but we were able to find it likable anyway." I'm just not sure I'm really comfortable with that. I find those works, both in games and otherwise, that embrace their absurdity so much more enjoyable.

E.g., there are countless 80s slasher flicks (usually appended with Part 3 or simply a VI) that are campy, but were created seriously. Sam Raimi's Evil Dead films, however, were created knowing full well that they were absurd. Rather than descend into parody, they embraced their absurdity and ran with it. So while Friday the 13th, Part VIII can be enjoyed irreverently with some beer and friends, Evil Dead is legitimately a fantastic set of films. So too with absurd games.

But the absurd is not parody. Parody in games rarely, if ever, works. Parody games like Matt Hazard and Pyst (starring John Goodman, remember that?) seem to fall down because they try for easy, mocking parody. I think that acerbic tone doesn't hold for long. The player's input makes them complicit to the actions being mocked, in a way. Parody of this tenor seems to say, "Hey, isn't that thing you're doing stupid?" Even if the mechanical interactions are enjoyable (which often they are not, as many seem to think parody games simply means making a bad one), there still is an overture of derision directed at the player. We can enjoy the parody in campy films because we are wholly outside of the experience. The player is never wholly outside the game and thus, I'm a bit skeptical of all but the most nuanced and intelligent parody in games being successful.

Just Cause 2 again succeeds here. From the atrocious dialog to the bizarre mishmash of cultures that inhabit the island of Panau, it's clear the game is not taking itself serious. But it's not doing so in an excessively comical fashion. It creates an absurd universe, but then allows the player to act completely consistently within that universe.

In fact, by creating a structure where the player's likely goals are to destroy things and perform insane stunts (which seems to be the modus operandi of anyone playing a sandbox action game), there are significant aesthetic advantages. It avoids the narrative disharmony of a GTA 4 where how the player behaves and how the protagonist behaves are wildly opposed, which I discussed briefly at the end of this post. It also avoids the unsettling overtones of insurgence that Red Faction: Guerrilla possessed (it's a Sparky Clarkson linkfest today!).

A great many games are unintentionally absurd, but few have embraced their absurdity and truly exploited it. Titles before Just Cause 2 have certainly done this (Serious Sam and Crackdown, I'd say), but I've never played a game that has done it better. It's a contrast against ridiculous melodrama that few truly take seriously. But it never compromises its playability in doing so.

It's the result of Avalanche Studios asking "What happens if we turn everything up to 11 and add a grappling hook?" And I couldn't ask for anything more.

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Blogger Quinn said...

I knew I'd made a wise purchase when I realized how the story missions work. In GTA IV I had to slog through hours of story before the game would begrudgingly open up the sandbox world and let me blow stuff up. Just Cause 2 won't let me do the story missions until I've crashed around the sandbox and blown stuff up enough. Avalanche gets it right.

April 1, 2010 at 3:08 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

Absolutely. While I think the story in GTA4 is actually pretty good, it's completely at odds with the gameplay. And not just players jackassing around; most of the achievements are for performing moments of great jackassery.

At least the story in Just Cause 2 is consistent with the gameplay. I think the next step is figuring out how to do that with a story that isn't totally insane.

April 3, 2010 at 9:48 AM  
Blogger Kirk Hamilton said...

Dude! Thanks for recommending this game - the demo hadn't totally won me over, but I found a cheap copy and decided to go for it based largely on your recommendation.

I'm happy to report that after having a couple of hours to really get my head around the controls, I am having a freaking blast. Jeez, the freedom and joy of motion in this game...

While I haven't had time to really think it out, I also agree that it's a strong example of videogame camp - I'm not sure if you saw it, but Thomas Cross wrote a cool post about that, too.

Maybe it's the constant NPC encounters, or the incredibly realized world, but I keep drawing comparisons between Just Cause 2 and Far Cry 2. Which is ridiculous, I know, since they're such wholly different games... but I must say that while I enjoy Just Cause 2's campiness, I personally don't find it quite as engrossing or enjoyable as the bleak dourness of Far Cry 2.

But then again, as you point out, that sense of camp does dovetail consistently with Rico's off-the-chain abilities. I couldn't imagine base-jumping off of a mountain and grappling onto a fighter jet in Far Cry 2.

So yeah, the question is - how can we merge the two sensibilities? It's an area where game writing and game design overlap, which is usually where things get interesting.

April 17, 2010 at 3:16 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Kirk Heh, I told you :D I think Just Cause 2 is definitely the best camp game we've ever had. Yeah, I saw Tom's post and it's definitely spot on. It's kind of sad really that we're so used to self-serious games, a lot of folks can't seem to recognize when a game isn't trying to be serious.

Far Cry 2 was definitely more engaging for me too. Just Cause 2 is the equivalent of a popcorn movie, but a really good one. Still, I think I'm actually getting oversaturated a bit and need to step away for a little bit. But even though I've logged something like 25 hours, I know I'll be coming back.

How you make some that plays like JC2 with the thematics of FC2, I don't really know. It's difficult, especially with the "player as unstoppable tempest of death" genie out of the bottle. It's a hard problem for sure and I really don't see the Grand Theft Auto route leading to a good solution.

April 17, 2010 at 7:30 PM  
Blogger Kirk Hamilton said...

Yeah, on a fundamental level, it's hard to make a character feel grounded in a world where he is literally anything but.

If I'd had the ability to grapple-parachute all over Leboa-Sako, I wouldn't have felt as immersed in the world or the story of FC2. Particularly since the "story" of that game was so open and ephemeral during much of the experience that if I hadn't been tied to the ground so firmly, it might've floated away entirely.

There's this question I ask sometimes with camp/bad-it's-good - "Would it have been better if it had been actually good?"

Clearly, there wasn't the money or time to invest in GTA-level cutscenes, writing, or voice-acting for Just Cause 2, so instead they decided, "Screw it, let's just be campy as hell." It worked, and the game is fun.

But I'm trying to look at why even when viewed as camp, for some reason the writing still doesn't entirely get a free pass from me - there's more there, I gotta think about it some. I'm pretty sure that No One Lives Forever is involved. Maybe I'll write a post. :)

April 18, 2010 at 8:57 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Kirk Hmmm ... I'm not sure camp can be anything but bad (even if it's consciously bad). No One Lives Forever feels more like homage, albeit light-hearted homage, than straight-up camp.

I'll be curious if you put something down about it. It's an interesting thing to think about, especially given that that the number of unintentionally poorly written games exceeds those poorly written on purpose.

April 18, 2010 at 2:16 PM  
Blogger Kirk Hamilton said...

Oh, right - I was looking at NOLF more as a game that offers more substance and character than JC2 but also remains crazy enough that JC2's ridiculous gameplay would feel consistent with the rest of its world.

Plus I'll take any excuse to complain/dream about getting another NOLF game - listening to so much spy music brought some of it to the surface. :)

April 18, 2010 at 11:07 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Kirk Ah, gotcha. That totally makes sense. It's not necessarily the case that having a totally insane world like JC2 means having crap writing, as NOLF demonstrates so well. Completely agree.

April 19, 2010 at 8:57 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Kirk And that Monolith continues to eject FEAR games when they could do another NOLF or Shogo makes me sad indeed.

April 19, 2010 at 8:57 AM  

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