Saturday, September 20, 2008


I recently played the demo for Haze on PS3. It was laughable at its best, simply godawful most of the time. But this is not really about what the experience of the demo was, but rather what drew me to such a poorly reviewed title.

The story of Haze casts the player as a soldier in the employ of the Mantel multinational corporation. Fueled by the company's performance-enhancing drug "Nectar", the player character is sent on a mission to suppress belligerent rebel forces in some South American jungle. In gameplay terms, Nectar, once activated, aids player performance by making enemy targets glow bright orange against a gray background, thereby making them easier to target. Once killed, they no longer register as targets and thus conveniently fade from the Nectar vision.

This makes me think of other action games, where defeated foes blink out or otherwise disappear from the battlefield. No doubt a memory conserving necessity, this motif is rarely ever given a narrative explanation and is usually accepted by most gamers without a second thought. But what if something went wrong, and, all of sudden, the bodies of all those slain reappeared littered about the floor? I can only imagine that the sheer volume would be startling in a game like Contra, where enemies are gunned down by the thousands.

The protagonist of Haze faces this very scenario, leading to revulsion followed by defection upon the realization that Nectar is less an aid than a system of control, deliberately blinding Mantel's soldiers to the reality of the atrocities they are expected to commit. Of course, the protagonist is a proxy for the player, who has likely been gleefully mowing down moving, man-shaped targets for far longer. Can Haze snap the gamer out of his own Nectar high, that rush of momentary insanity that one surrenders to while partaking in simulated mass murder? No, of course not. Even within the game, the dynamic does not alter in any truly meaningful way. The player character does not stop killing. He just does so with greater awareness of the consequences. But I wonder if most gamers might not be already too far gone to notice even that would-be epiphany.

The gaming world exists according to its own often deranged set of rules, and, when immersed in that fiction, it is our real world instincts that fade away, becoming subservient to video game anti-reason, perhaps submerged in the back of the mind like a dream or a nightmare. So, when a game like Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, or possibly Haze, attempts to appeal to both senses, the player may lack proper perspective to appreciate the levels.

When, after a successful purge in the demo, one Nectar-powered soldier crudely declares, "We knocked those asses down like skittles!" it does not stick out as insane, but seems rather mundanely idiotic. Anybody who has spent time shooting other people online has no doubt heard far more distasteful remarks delivered with greater bloodlust. Such instances are annoying but expected. They are not regarded as insights into profoundly disturbed psyches. They're just games, after all, not reflections of who we are.

Okay, that's probably taking things too far. Video games tend to lack real feelings of consequence precisely because they are not real. That's usually the point. But I would argue that games have the potential to be a whole lot more real.

Perhaps Haze had some good ideas but was just too crappy a product to realize them effectively. This disappointing disparity between narrative potential and game playability is more or less unique to the medium, but relatively common within it, and, unfortunately, a title that is not at least competent in the latter receives very little credit for whatever it may offer in the former.


Czardoz said...

How about some discussion of how it feels to frag your buddies in the back, causing a leak in their Nectar pumps, until they disintegrate in a paroxysm of Nectar withdrawal/overload? What does that say about my real world perceptions?

Henry said...

What sort of absolute monster frags every last one of his friends? Especially after I had just revived you! Damn that jungle. We never should have been there.