Thursday, February 3, 2011

Duty Calls: Kettle Ops

Thursday, February 3, 2011
As a part of a campaign to promote the upcoming People Can Fly/Epic game Bulletstorm, we get the following elaborate send-up of Call of Duty games, Duty Calls. I thought it was funny. But who's really the butt of the joke here?



It is not my nature to be peevish or small about this kind of thing, but there's a kind of mean-spirited angle to the parody here that actively courts it.
So here's a point by point dissection of the above from a developer's perspective very keenly interested in issues of FPS level design. (Also, just watch the video, don't bother downloading, lugubriously installing 768 megabytes for a 4 minute spoof on Call of Duty. There's a metatextual joke about the install size/gameplay time ratio in AAA games here, if only I could find it.)

  • @0:33 COD's leaden pre-mission voiceover cinematics are also there to disguise loading--once the level is loaded you press a key to jump right into the mission. It's interesting to point out that the Unreal Engine masquerading as COD, at least in this configuration, isn't able to manage the same; we get a second (albeit brief) loading screen after the pre-mission voiceover/satellite spoof. I think it's interesting that only by way of doing a direct parody does the engine beg this sort of comparison and here, fall short.
  • @0:36 Gunhaver tic: having the M4 have the wrong ammo count seems intentional, but it's only off by a little bit--what's the joke here? That we wish we had two more rounds for an in-game M4, or rather a single extra round past 30+1? That the Bulletstorm developers think it is silly to know how many rounds go into a STANAG magazine? 
  • Also, the BUIs (back-up iron sights) are folded down, giving the weapon no rear sight. The game gives no option to sight-up on the (missing) ironsights, another COD gameplay hallmark. Or is this not present in the parody because Bulletstorm also features ironsight aiming, like everyone else chasing COD's crown?
  • @0:38 The voiceover is consistently funny, to me--but what's the joke about sticking the objective in the player's face? Are we saying that Epic isn't as thoroughly guilty of technobabble comm traffic about MacGuffins in Gears of War, or more pointedly, that we will be free of this in Bulletstorm? The "Story and Characters" trailers seem to suggest otherwise. An easy joke to make but harder to follow through on--leading the player by the nose with objectives is de rigeur now; does Bulletstorm offer an alternative?
  • @0:52 nice gag about gated gameplay areas... but once again, who is this directed toward? All Gears of War levels are rigidly gated this way, and I find it hard to believe Bulletstorm is bucking this trend either.
  • @0:56/throughout: an excessively linear slalom of obstacles where enemies appear at random intervals. Again, if the developers of Bulletstorm are suggesting that their game is something other than a very pretty linear corridor slalom with spectacles or special scripting at interval, consider me elated.
  • @1:01 I laughed at every one of these leveling up messages. But here again--really? Are we taking a swipe at one of the most successful leveling mechanics for competitive multiplayer games? Not that it isn't worth very serious questions about, as well as a good bit of fun-poking... yet Epic is one of the leaders in this kind of thing. Gears of War 2 features multi-stage Achievements that you grind like any other experience point system, in order to unlock arbitrarily gated content.
  • @1:05 I also laughed at the "b-b-b-bloody screen (so real)" gag every time it came up... but again. I guess the joke here is that COD pretends to some kind realism that is undercut by a regenerative health mechanic. Little argument from me on that point... but from what I understand Bulletstorm will, like Gears of War, also feature a regenerative health mechanic? (In COD the effect only vignettes the screen--Gears of War sees fit to place a bloody COG emblem dead center of the screen.)
  • @1:12 The M4 is not fun to shoot. The gun is limited to semi-automatic fire at a glacial pace, with a tired "boring" intoning with every shot. How is that fair? COD is king because they have gotten certain details very, very right, and one of those is exquisitely responsive gun handling. People love to shoot these virtual guns, for hours on end. Bulletstorm can potentially get a lot of mileage out of its colorful set of outsized science fiction weaponry, but the 'negative campaigning' here so to speak seems deeply wrongheaded.
  • @1:31 "You have picked up a small meaningless stick. Congrats." Incisive for most shooter games but again, Epic's own headlining franchise is equally as cut down here. Intel briefcases in COD single player games are exactly the same as COG tags in Gears of War titles.
  • @1:40 a funny cutscene--but aside from the gag about the slow-mo, the same criticism also applies to Gears of War.
  • @2:40 Serpentine linear layouts are equally damning to all shooters.
  • @3:00 "you cannot shoot me because this a cutscene." Also equally damning to most shooters, and I defy Bulletstorm to do anything with their Story and Characters that is beyond this paradigm.
  • @3:28 A player-openable door? Gasp. Everyone knows your COD hero player character, no matter the era, is completely unable to open doors themselves--they can press a context key to plant breaching charges, but not use that same key to open a door. So I guess this is one of the first legitimate criticisms that applies only to COD here?

And that's all of it. Exhaustively nitpicky? Reading too much into all of it? Yes and yes. Even I was tired at the end of this, and surprised at how long of a list I had gathered so quickly. 
But a good parody is about nailing details right: people laugh at a very good impression of say a president or a movie star because he or she nails key elements; offhand mannerisms, vocal cadence. Looking past the wisdom of the stunt of releasing this as playable instead of as a youtube video in the first place, it's hard to see this as an effective send-up of COD when it is so slop. COD games make me very, very angry about certain design practices its developers espouse. Along with Halo, it's the biggest shooter out there. 

This parody seems more than a little backhanded to the fanbase you are no doubt attempting to market Bulletstorm to. "Hey Dicktit (or other such vulgar portmanteau favored by the game's protagonist), we think the game you love sucks! Buy our game instead!" 
Yet at the same time, attempting to have it both ways--vide the "Story and Characters" trailer again. (Or better yet, don't.) Bulletstorm has been very effective in marketing a loose and easy sense of humor, albeit a sophomoric one. Are we meant to deride COD for all its hoary tropes and then buy another Epic game of huge bros and (newly more modest) chicks in glowing armor on bloomed out exotic science fiction worlds and expect it to be this aware of how terrible shooters are now?

If this is some deeply coded message about how People Can Fly and/or Epic are renouncing their endless reliance on movie tropes, spectacle and extrinsic motivators strung through linear levels then I applaud them. 

More likely it is People Can Fly retrenching their position as purveyors of false nostalgia--shooters dumber than the games they claim to harken back to. By which I mean Doom still has more interesting and challenging level design than most shooters of the last ten years--but we always seem to come back to on-screen monster counts and player running speed instead.
If there is a retro backlash in the works for shooter design, let it be an appeal to that lost design craft, not to some wistful desire to mentally regress to the age we were when we played the shooters we loved so much.

I look forward to your comments on the topic in the comments below or in the gausswerks forum.

21 comments:

J. Shea said...

The hypocrisy is really the part that annoys me. If you want me to like your game based on the game itself, sure. Why would you attack all these things that are ALSO going to be in YOUR GAME?

It reminds me a lot of Ken Levine talking about Bioshock and how different things were going to be. I don't think I would have disliked Bioshock so much if it wasn't for that, because all the things he identified as being stagnant and cliche ended up working their way into the game anyways.

Anonymous said...

Most of the issues taken here boil down to "but Bulletstorm will probably do the same thing." Now, I haven't played the actual game, but no part of the Duty Calls video or website even mention Bulletstorm. To know that it is payed for by People Can Fly trips that little wire in one's brain, the same one that goes off when you hear about Microsoft funding a study on how open source costs more. The skeptic in us rejects it because we feel the hypocrisy of it all. But I feel that it was a conscious decision on their part not to draw any direct comparisons to their games in Duty Calls itself, because they knew that is not a position that would stand up. It's incisive parody of Call of Duty and the modern FPS in general, Bulletstorm included, BECAUSE it doesn't say "we're not going to have any of this garbage you just saw because we're cooler than that." Of course, the pessimistic spin on all of this is the ad men are relying on you to fill in that blank without having to say it themselves, so no promise about their game forgoing those tropes was ever broken.

0x336699 said...

That video was hilarious. You are humorless self-parodies, all of you.

I at first had trouble determining if the author's defensive, anal-retentive dissection was ironic or not, because the idea that someone would be genuinely insulted by such satire was too absurd to believe .

But the stone-faced commenters throwing around words like "hypocrisy" force me to face the truth: you are all ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

He says throughout the entire thing that he found it humorous. The issue is that at the same time as it's a "funny thing" it's also attacking existing shooters for doing specific things and suggesting that it does things differently.

Global Agenda did the same kind of campaign. It's writing checks that the game can't cash. It's not meant as "humor alone" because for purposes of humor its focused entirely on hating another game and the things it does while, again, suggesting that it represents a different concept. And it's clear by the other videos that Bulletstorm's design team does think their concepts are original and new despite all that overlap.

Is it funny? Sure. Is it an attempt at commentary on Call of Duty? Most definitely. Can it be both? Of course. They wouldn't set up that whole thing just to make you laugh - that's the job of a machinima, not an advertising campaign for a triple-A title.

necroid said...

I think it's supposed to be taken without too much or any analysis at all, it's basically a publicity move without any actual "we are here to change the face of gaming" message.

It might be childish but I enjoyed it because of this, gaming's gotten too serious recently.

Draco said...

Agreeing with the last paragraph of this. Serious Sam is the worst offender of that, throwing a load of enemies at you but every area is a huge room, you walk in and go to the other door but OH NO the door closed and now there's stuff to kill???

Also this blog post is funny right after some of us complained about people taking 'your mum hates this' too seriously, hehe.

0x336699 said...

"He says throughout the entire thing that he found it humorous."

This is very broad satire. The thing ends with two firework-spewing, U.S. flag festooned thumbs up. "America is dominate!" There's no subtlety here. Why zoom way in on the minutiae of loading screens, ammo counts and gunsights? Like I said: humorless.

"It's writing checks that the game can't cash."

It is a parody of Call of Duty. There are no claims about Bulletstorm to be found in the video. They are simply poking fun at the competition, not making promises. Claiming this video is equivalent to Microsoft's cost/benefit studies is absurd.

Jonas said...

It's not a stretch to assume that Bulletstorm will include many, if not all the tropes lampooned in this send-up. But it will likely do so tongue-in-cheek, regularly poking fun at them and probably blatantly having the central characters pointing them out. It's only a small and disguised step up from saying "This isn't a game!" in a videogame.

Also, for a different kind of parody, click my name.

plugav said...

I think this parody fits in perfectly with the rest of Bulletstorm's ad campaign - it's just the kind of rude joke to be made by people who use the word "dicktits" and expect to see flames when they shoot enemies in the butt.

And you know what the worst part is? It works! In the beginning, I was mostly offended, but at this point I expect the game to be a lot of fun (despite what I wrote about killing and fun in another comment yesterday).
Of course I attribute this partly to the recent Duke Nukem Forever trailer, which makes Bulletstorm look like Shakespeare in comparison. ;P

But back to the blog entry - I think you focus on Gears of War a bit too much. Bulletstorm isn't GoW. And, technically, GoW isn't an FPS (though one might argue if that's a valid point in this case).

As for the engine - sure, it's hardly as good as CoD's, it lacks a few features, but they can't really be expected to make their 4 minute parody a AAA release, can they?

And I don't think they wanted to say that shooting real guns in CoD isn't realistic and fun, just that having roughly the same set of guns and using them in roughly the same context in Modern Warfare, Modern Warfare 2, Black Ops, Medal of Honor, Bad Company, etc. is getting pretty old. That's also why you don't see as many Wold War II games any more.
It's not that you couldn't do anything interesting with modern weaponry (as opposed to what Bulletstorm creators might suggest), but hardly anyone seems to have tried and succeeded (the latest S.T.A.L.K.E.R. maybe?). They mostly go for the "USA is dominate" scenario, because it's a safe one - financially and otherwise.

My comment's getting all chaotic, but let me just finish off by mentioning the levelling system. This is the joke that I find odd coming from the makers of a game that intends to give you scores and achievements for nearly everything you do.
But it's still kind of funny if not very refined. ;)

Wolferey said...

"It is a parody of Call of Duty. There are no claims about Bulletstorm to be found in the video."

It all ties in to their ad campaign of "kill with skill", hence the bullet sound effects saying "boring", things going into ridiculous slow-motion, cut-scenes, poor AI etc.

How you all fail to get this connection is either funny in itself, or sad (partly on you, partly on advertisement fail)...

gauss said...

A quick note on that--the video omits from the playable version is that once you beat it, you're given an unskippable Bulletstorm trailer. The ties to Bulletstorm are perfectly explicit.

Anonymous said...

I know it's been said, but god damn, People can fly made Duty Calls, not Epic, so all the comparisons to Gears of War are retarded.

J. Shea said...

People Can Fly were responsible for making additional content for the PC version of Gears of War, which is why Epic bought them. They're not entirely divorced from it.

gauss said...

What J. Shea points out, but also it having to do with Epic sharing development credits on Bulletstorm. I'm not trying to retroactively suggest PCF's responsibility for GoW, simply Epic's. And with Epic codeveloping Bulletstorm--the logical connection should be clear?

grizfish said...

yeah People can fly made Bulletstorm and Duty Calls, but Epic and Dude Huge have clearly thrown their weight behind them. Just compare Gears with Bulletstorm-

both feature gruff jaded big'n'beefy white male protagonists running around in a straight line through rubble-strewn cities, packin all kinds of techno-baubles and fighting mutants, also with some craaaazy cutscenes between the action! and now featuring token white females too!

Painkiller wasn't exactly revolutionary in its look or setting, but now pcf have definitely changed that to match Epic. Given all that I think comparisons to Gears are perfectly justified.

and no one's arguing that duty calls wasn't funny or that any of the games in question aren't fun to play. The point is that the Duty Calls parody is colored by the fact that Epic and now pcf via Bulletsotrm are guilty of all the same shit. Yeah the details are different but not by much.

mat said...

Not a fan of studios talking shit about each other at all. It's been happening more often lately too. It's also very hypocritical when you look at some of EPIC's games. Not saying it's a bad thing, I love gears etc but, they are guilty of the same things.

bhlaab said...

Should have waited until Bulletstorm came out to write this. You're arguing mostly from a place of ignorance when it comes to hypocrisy. The Gears of War series has nothing to do with this parody, it's entirely about how Bulletstorm is different/better than the currently #1 FPS out there.

gauss said...

I would be the happiest dude on the planet to eat my words if Bulletstorm magically turns out to subvert the status quo along the major points established which I argue are hypocritical to be nailing COD for, but nothing at all points in that direction.

The Gears of War comparison I think is still quite cogent considering this is also an Epic production--though I suppose I could change all of the GoW comparisons to Painkiller references if need be? The differences are trivial, which is much of the point.

I feel like the parody is actually quite effective in pointing out the experiential poverty of modern shooters, but in ways that Bulletstorm shows any evidence of redressing, hence the blog post.

BrandFeelsGood said...

Doom had great level design, it evoked fear and wonder, exploration. Most modern level design feels boring in comparison, enclosed, and feels fake while looking real.

mortalhuman said...

It's true, man. It has completely missed the mark, these are like things people would say who only saw little bits and pieces. It's supposed to be funny I guess, it must be, so it is, a little, but it's still not at all classy or tasteful as even satire, it's just ignorant blahblah.

Kojiro said...

The "boring!" gun shots made me laugh, because I practically fell asleep trying to play Black Ops single player campaign.

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