Delayed Responsibility

I Shouldn't Be Gaming Right Now… But I Am!

Impressions: Just Cause 2 and the Unserious Game

Posted by deckard47 on April 12, 2010

My name is Bolo Santosi…

It’s not actually, which is good for you, otherwise you’d have to listen to me discuss island revolutions using an alarming number of double entendres and nonsensically sexual language.

Just Cause 2 is what I thought everyone in this industry had been waiting for. It’s a fleeter, less self-serious open world game than Red Faction: Guerrilla, and it’s more exuberantly destructive, beautiful, and full of possibilities than every other open-world game (though RF:G beats JC2 out in terms of destructibility). This isn’t to say that Guerrilla (or any game) should be free from critique as regards its failings and narrative aspirations. Guerrilla obviously drew heavily from two narratives (the general American discourse surrounding insurgency, and the Mars of the Red Mars books) to build its own sub-par story. It should not be forgotten that it took these two complicated topics and ran roughshod over them, destroying most nuance and meaning in the process. This is not what happened in Just Cause 2, mostly because Just Cause 2 doesn’t give a shit about anything, unless it’s exploding in mid-air.

People keep on asking when we’ll get our B game, a game that competently entertains you but self-consciously provides you with a hilarious, wretched story. This is such a game. In reviews, I keep on reading about how the game’s story is nothing to write home about, how the voice acting is terrible and the plot is utterly nonsensical. People love the game (even if it gets a little old after a while), but they can’t help but put on their story-critic hats and look askance at Rico and his husky, cackling cohorts.

I cannot understand how these reviewers and writers could call for a good game that knowingly flaunts and plays with narrative genre (action adventure in this case) conventions and then reject those aspects of Just Cause 2. This is the same industry that tolerates God of War‘s offensive lack of humor, its lack of self-awareness and irony. Like all games, God of War is unable to escape from the vicious cycle of self-reference and intra-industry “inspiration” that plagues all games. It can’t see its way toward interesting, out-of-the-way inspirations beyond  action games, 300, and simplistic Disney treatments of different cultures’ tales and traditions (though I’d totally play a Hercules game made by a good game company).

In a world where Kratos (and his hilariously stupid whitewashing of “Greece”) can be taken at all seriously, how can a character and world so obviously, knowingly, and winkingly stolen from 80’s action movies be seen as an attempt at gravity and “deep” meaning?  This isn’t Bad Company 2, which suggests that you take its tired narrative at all seriously just as you laugh at its levity and insincerity. It’s also not Modern Warfare 2, a game obsessed with its own insipid narrative and grandiose take on serious issues.

I’ve no doubt that Just Cause 2 could have concerned itself with neo-colonialism and imperialism as practiced by the United States government and the CIA in numerous countries around the world. There’s a lot of history, and a lot of fiction surrounding the actual and conceptual meeting point between oppressed peoples, oppressive governments, and destructive US meddling and US-funded violence. It didn’t it doesn’t even try to do this. As Trent Polack pointed out (on Twitter!), one bit of dialogue from Bolo Santosi reads like this: “Now you have the limo, Scorpion. That symbol of Western degeneration. Pick up the whore, Miss Stacey.” Avalanche Studios couldn’t care less about “Western degeneration” (and really, what exactly the hell does she mean? Is she talking about the gross consumption endorsed and required by American Capitalism? Who knows!?), they care about throwing as many ludicrous clichés, horrible accents, offensive caricatures (though the game apparently has only a vague understanding of what country or culture it’s mocking/representing…), and B-movie references as they can into one game.

Movies that are “so bad they’re good,” or movies that competently and entertainingly present stupid or tired plots are quite popular. People seem to want the same thing in games, but they also want readers, writers, and gamers to take games more seriously. We’re tired of listening to that kind of person, who keeps on saying that “it’s just a game.” Let me fill you in on a secret: we can do both! It’s possible, when one is both mature and intelligent (and is possessed of a strong sense of the ironic, of humor), to appreciate games that are serious and well-intentioned, and games that do their best to be ironic and knowingly campy. We might want to try not confusing the one for the other, or at least admitting that one does not have to be the other, if we’re going to hold ourselves to such “high” standards. That’s part of the problem with Guerrilla. It doesn’t know how to leverage its potent literary and real-world inspirations, but it’s also much too serious and vapidly preachy to infuse its fiction with a healthy, necessary sense of irony. I mean, you’re a bald space dude who breaks things, has no personality, and is part of a “people’s” revolution. If you can’t make that story resonate (even if you do so by accident, possibly unintentionally, as Simon explains here in his “Proceduralizing Terror” piece), then you have to turn it into satire or knowing, winking (often annoyingly) smirking “commentary” on the story you are in the process of telling (see Rockstar’s misplaced, badly performed attempts at “satire” for a great example of this).

That’s what Just Cause 2 is. Everything, from Rico’s outrageous voice (everyone’s voice, really) to Rico’s methods of island “liberation” (destroying everything “owned” by the government, including water towers), is Avalanche Studios flippantly, uncaringly leveraging our shared memory of various kinds of violence and oppression in countries around the world. Of course, they’re making a game about a thing that actually (in whatever modulated sense) happens, so the text of Just cause 2 isn’t impervious to helpful, insightful readings. It’s telling that Rico frees the people of Panau by destroying everything around them, that he works with dangerous people whose good intentions (toward Panau) are dubious at best, and that no one asks him for this “help.” Again, to say this would be to give these characters some kind of depth or moral agency: they have none, every single one is a cardboard cutout of a 2-dimensional character, every one is as flat and boring as possible. This is a game that ends with Rico and his buddy partying with some ladies as the nukes (that Rico stopped from hitting Japan, Russia, America, and China) explode in the ocean near Panau. Rico then makes a joke about barbecue, or something… It’s a deeply stupid, outrageous ending to an equally stupid story.

Again, I’m not excusing how dumb this story is. I’m simply saying that to critique the game for not being serious is one (legitimate) thing. Critiquing it for that same crime and claiming that it was trying to be serious is a massive error on the part of any writer. That’s not what this game is trying to do: don’t attack a game based on sins it hasn’t committed. Just Cause 2 is so cheekily, joyously nonchalant in its trivialization of so many things, it’s a shame so many people are unhappy with its “failure” to tell a good story. It’s a very fun game marred by some very bad balance and design decisions (mostly focused in the “why won’t you let me have some damn fun” area), and deliberately tells an incoherent, willfully ignorant tale of US-funded terrorism. Let’s not treat it like something it isn’t, and forget that “deliberately” in that last sentence.

[PS: The real crime here is that there are no pictures of Bolo Santosi up on the internet. What the hell internet?]

5 Responses to “Impressions: Just Cause 2 and the Unserious Game”

  1. Bowl of Snakes said

    It’s like going into a dive bar and complaining about the wine collection.

    Of course, merging an engaging story with open world gameplay while keeping the silly destructable playground intact is a lofty goal, but this game succeeds at what it tries to do.

  2. […] Jun Chen wrote to me to say that he thinks “Square Enix is laughing at us, [and] that Just Cause 2 is actually a smart game posing as a dumb one”, see what you think. And on the subject of Just Cause 2 – Tom Cross writes about the game also, suggesting that, “Just Cause 2 is what I thought everyone in this industry had been waiting for”, i.e. a big, dumb, explosive video game. […]

  3. jamie mallin said

    love the article, a lot of very valid points, but there are a lot more games coming out now that are just “fun”, completely unrealistic but utterly brilliant to play, such as Bayonetta, Dantes Inferno and AvP. and its a trend i personally want to see continue

  4. deckard47 said

    Well, I’ve never played Dante’s Inferno or Bayonetta (because I hated the look of the settings), but they are supposed to be fun to play. Obviously, no matter how bad-good a game is, if the setting is utter bullshit (to me), I probably won’t play it. As always, what is a fun to play, horrible/fun to watch game is debatable.

    Still, I’d say that AvP doesn’t fall into this category. It was boring, the aliens and predators weren’t fun to play, and the human campaign was so incredibly bad. That campaign, the “human wanders around a base and fights aliens” has been done so much better by so many different games and movies. Maybe that was the problem. They looked at this narrative that has (since Aliens) been rewritten in so many different ways, and they couldn’t think of anything good to write. I’d say that at least part of your game has to be really fun to fall into the aforementioned category. The best thing about AvP was that I could uninstall it.

  5. […] The Unserious Game […]

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