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I like surprises. They're the spice of life when my games implement them, yet after seven console generations, I've felt all too often that I've experienced too many of them. As this year brings us into the eighth console generation, story-telling will need them more than ever. So I ask myself, "What shocks me anymore?" Quite a lot if you read on.
This question came up in particular this weekend thanks to a bit of home-cinema with The Prestige and Unknown this weekend. Both are incredible films I'd recommend to any suspense junkie, but more importantly, their equal sense for shocking twists inspired my latest thought of, "How do games do that to me?" Shock value is a complex thing that probably has no single factor, but a variety of ones that combine together to create something I find the most personal. Here are a few.
Note: This blog's intention is to not contain spoilers. I will dance around definite plot elements as much as possible, but if any are too close for comfort, please let me know. They will be "dealt" with.
Normally I like feeling that I'm in control of a game, but having the rug pulled out from under me's a separate thrill that I'm always happy to experience. While plenty of games are just as well made and thrilling with a clear story for you to travel, others are just as engaging in what they can fool you with along the way. Whether they're as undeveloped as Haytham Kenway or as random as Darth Vader's lazy back-stabbing, I like shock value of when a game is deliberately trying to trick me. Much of the time it's personal, namely betrayal. Any number of RPGs, JRPGs among them, leave you with friendships turned upside down. It always hurts the hardest when people you thought you've loved end it all for power or revenge. Heavy Rain's betrayal of players' initial perceptions are even more brutal, revealing that you've been playing the killer all this time and maybe he/she was of the four you liked the most. Others like Portal's are rarer, humorous exceptions. After hours of exhausting your nogg'in jumping into the brain-teasing oblivion that is Aperture's maze of puzzles, well, let's just say that all does not end in showers of rainbows and puppies. Better, it has you doing the seemingly impossible to escape by the game's end and it's all the more clever for it. Glados, this mouth is still waiting for cake to enter it. You monster.
Unraveling the Mystery:
Simply put, I love a good mystery. Conspiracy-flavored lore's brought me into more video-game stories then I would admit and I love the bitter-sweet dilemmas that keep me up at night. Uncovering layer after layer of a deep Da Vinci Code style plot is a complexity that I wish more games have taken and many of them that have provide the twists that somehow make my head-spin in a way I crave. The entire Metal Gear Solid franchise virtually exists as one big rubix cube hand-crafted by a smirking Hideo Kojima. Yet the challenge of piecing together its tangled web of military/industrial complexes, clones, giant robots, and card-board box stealth is what moves me about the series' dedication to keep its fans guessing. I may never have found a gold mine's worth of plausibility in a Professor Layton case, but the footwork of finding every clue and chatting up every stranger to get to its heart makes my puzzles seem worth it, even if just to see its great ridiculousness unfold. The allure of Assassin's Creed's lore remains my most cherished, ya know, back when the series kinda made sense. I unlocked every trophy and pawed at every apple-laced painting in II and Brotherhood to find the Truth. Up until that point, the series' perfected balance of fantasy and reality made its revelations feel frighteningly real and it drove me to find a reason into its universe. Incessant Miles family whining and a stale story formula since then may have watered its impact down and even more puzzling present day segments may bring that to a crescendo, but I admire what shock I took away from Assassin's Creed has done.
Jaw-Dropping Screen Presence
Many games can impress psychologically, and some visually, and some do both. A game's screen-presence is vital to taking you into a situation with a shocking sense of immersion and that's what some of the best games made have done. Uncharted's action set pieces leave an indelible impression on you with their continuous amounts of unfolding chaos. Nothing stays predictable for long as the plane under you rips apart or as you send the very train your riding on careening to an adrenaline inducing plummet. Naught Dog's only continued that kind of no-holds barred panic in with the Last of Us as its monsters leap out from literally any direction to hunt you down and maim you quickly and brutally. The world around you's as beautiful as it is vicious providing a stunning artistic contrast that's saddening and ironic at the same time. Shadow of the Colossus remains a niche title and a divisive one if you've seen any of the Shadow of the Colossus opinions floating around on the site, but it invokes a power all its own. Its world is bleak and flat while its bosses are alarmingly large. Their sheer size and the evolving strategies you'll implement to conquering them sets the scene with a very strong presence about them. Doing wonders like that is something that keeps my playing all the way to a game's end.
Questioning my Beliefs:
Some games shock value might derive from a sophisticated style all their own that gamers are all too familiar with this generation. Games intend to frighten with violence and terror for sure, but what about when they touch upon the culturally taboo? Telltale's The Walking Dead most certainly tugged heartstrings with the shock that endangered children can have on players and Infamous also had us constantly question how often we wanted to protect the weakest of us or preserve the strong. Games with a morality like Mass Effect and others speak to our conscience in exhaustive ways that make us question our gaming, and even life, habits. The Last of Us most famously has us witnessing uncompromising sacrifices for humanity that make us cringe every second and wonder if we could go as far. That's shocking enough on its own. Players can easily take into account the brilliant writing of Kevin Levine in recent years for even bolder examples. More and more it seems that games are much more strongly touching upon something more controversial that connects themselves with both players and society. Racism, sexism, nationalism, religion, and any other ism you could think of was wrapped up in either Columbia or Rapture. After we came out, we all wondered: Is this what our world was, is now, or headed to?
Toying with My Emotions:
That nature of questioning belief easily takes me to the most telling aspect of gaming shock-value, that of emotion. Don't let me make the mistake of thinking I don't appreciate happy, silly games. I like amassing goodies and making friends and buying shirts for talking cats. I'm doing so right now in fact on my 3DS all summer long. Nevertheless, I like to mix the light with the dark to tell me I still have the guts to broaden my imaginations. Emotional connections have deepened games' story-telling in ways I cannot imagine and hope to continue. The tragedy at the heart of Unwound Future brought the kiddy fun of Professor Layton to a new level that gave the good professor Hershel Layton a depth we don't see of most E games and it's my favorite for it. Nearly any (old) Final Fantasy is burdened with an insurmountable amount of character farewells that just nearly brought me to burly man-tears. Apart from its techno-speak and kick-but stealth action, Metal Gear Solid breaks up the action through touching feeling. Each of its bosses is marred with a kind of loss in the way Snake is, and Big Boss's final moments with the The Boss is ever so heart-breaking in its sentimental nature just as his words with Solid Snake are. In that way I walk away not from having played those games so much as having had an emotional experience. That lies with me more than anything.
Shock 'Till ya Drop:
With all of those memories, maybe this generation has shocked me quite a bit. If all that's been thrown at us, then next-gen may have its shoes to fill so to speak. What's shocked you the most in a game? Thanks in advance for reading and throw any blogging suggestions you have my way. There's more questions to be asked.
Up Next on the Inquisitive Blogger: Am I Blinded by Nostalgia?