This post originally appeared on Matt Weise's blog Outside Your Heaven.
I just played Starbreeze Studios' Chronicles of Riddick for the first time in several years, and I was struck--yet again--by how good the game is. In general I dislike "macho" games, so when one cuts right through my disdain for testosterone-fueled bravado I sit up and take notice. The only game in recent memory to have this effect on me was last year's underrated Bionic Commando, which I found genuinely thrilling, nuanced, and superbly designed in spite of its meat-head protagonist. One might imagine it's the sheer polish and professionalism of these games that makes me gladly overlook their juvenile swagger. But if that were the case I'd also like God of War, Halo, Gears of War, Call of Duty, and just about every other AAA game that features men unironically kicking ass. Such games tend to bore me, so why does Riddick make being a bald asshole in a wife-beater seem interesting?
Some of it is undoubtedly Vin Diesel's voice performance, which is so humorless and dead-pan it easily qualifies as camp. Camp alone, though, doesn't save a game for me. Mad World was similarly campy yet bored me to death in the first hour, probably because it was about nothing but smacking people around. Starbreeze's Riddick, however, is about a hell of a lot more than that. It is a surprisingly subtle game that combines stealth, shooting, boxing, and conversation more elegantly than most other 3D games I can think of--easily better than Deus Ex, which is one of the more historically famous examples of such genre-bending. (Although, to be clear, when I say "better" here I mean it strictly in a usability sense, not in the sense that Riddick in any way approaches Deus Ex's ethically complex narrative universe.)
This is perhaps the big difference between a game like Riddick and many other "macho" games. The obvious production quality of most of them is in service of game design goals I have no real interest in, goals that seem to grow out of their macho attitudes. God of War is a brawler, and Gears of War and Call of Duty are both shooters, which we might include under some uber-genre of "Men Breaking Shit". No matter how good these games are all their quality is squarely aimed at trying to make punching, shooting, and eviscerating people more fun... as if there weren't enough of this in games already.
I was at GDC the year God of War 3 premiered at the Sony keynote, and I remember--to my astonishment--the audience going bonkers when Kratos ripped a griffin in half in mid-air. The same thing happened at E3 a few years earlier, at a presentation when duel-wielding in Halo 2 was revealed. People just went nuts. It's not so much that gamers like this sort of thing, but that so much time, effort, and money goes into advancing it. Should I be impressed that ripping off heads is more fun now than it's ever been? Am I supposed to believe this is some sort of important frontier in game design that we need to direct millions and millions of dollars toward?
I don't see how such things advance the medium. They seem to advance only their own genres, which are both static and narrow in the experiences they are hell-bent on providing (again). What lessons, for example, could a developer trying to make a narrative game aimed at senior citizens learn from God of War? Games that have more eclectic design goals--even if they involve men breaking shit--tend to be more useful to the ongoing advancement of game design. Riddick might be about male rage, but it's also an experiment in the complexities of immersive role-playing, of what it means to "feel" like a certain kind of person in a certain kind of situation. An experiment of this sort feels more potentially useful to me than figuring out yet another way to skin a hydra. Starbreeze's game remains one of the better examples of how developers can combine elements from various familiar genres to create a game that doesn't seem to be dictated by genre logic but by fictional logic--the logic of story, character, and world.
Viewed in parts Riddick's various game systems are obviously ripped-off several famous games--including Punch-Out (for puzzle-like boxing), Thief (for light-based stealth), Deus-Ex (for conversation and choice), and Half-Life (for non-cinematic narrative devices)--but viewed as a whole none of its influences feel derivative since they are all so artfully combined. Take for example the brilliant tutorial sequence, where Riddick escapes captivity and blasts his way to freedom so you can learn the basic game mechanics. Most games come up with with lame reasons as to why you are stripped of all your badass abilities after the first 20 minutes, but Starbreeze's choice to structure this as a daydream--a pathetic fantasy you are having before you go to prison--was a small stroke of genius. The contrast between the agency felt in Riddick's fantasy and the brutal lack thereof in the following credit sequence, in which the player (in handcuffs) is only allowed to move the camera as they are marched into prison, is quite effective, and shows a synthesis of familiar conventions into a cleverly expressive whole. The "on rails" opening is of course lifted from Half-Life, but it's actually much better than Half-Life, because here it is more than a formal experiment in delivering narrative information. It is being used to illustrate a point about freedom and agency, of fantasy versus reality, that eases the player smoothly into the challenging "prison" of Starbreeze's game design.
I could go on about the various unoriginal game conventions Riddick expertly bends to its will, a will that seems to have little in mind besides making you feel like you are Vin Diesel. That I don't particularly want to be Vin Diesel is mitigated by the fact that this game makes you feel like Vin Diesel so well it is hard to play the game without wondering why more games don't achieve a similar level of protagonist-player fusion. Batman: Arkham Asylum is one of the few games in recent memory to really follow Starbreeze's example, ripping off other games left and right but arranging their familiar elements in such a way so that they cease to feel like "parts" of other games and instead blend into a sharp procedural portrait of an iconic protagonist.
I guess my ideological view of game design is that we should be spending our time exploring how to shatter genre, not reinforce it... but we don't have to start from scratch if we want to create a particular effect. Lots of individual game conventions have been experimented with in literally thousands of games over the past few decades, and lots of them create specific effects rather well. It's is a shame, then, that so many of them have become arbitrarily grouped together in the prisons we call "genres" when they can be mixed and matched to achieve cohesive, expressive effects. Developers should not be thinking "lets make an RPG" so much as "lets make a game that makes you feel like a knight"... or a firefighter, or a grieving parent, or a professor, or anything really. Most of all developers should be aware that they have a massive palette of design tools to achieve these things, not just those arbitrarily bound together by formula.
An artful combination of the right game conventions--even familiar ones--will achieve their own expressive coherence, a sum much greater than their respective parts. It would be nice if there were more games that did this well. Then I might not have to settle for one starring Vin Diesel.