Where is everybody?

 

 

I recently went back to Sid Meier’s Pirates – fiver on Steam, absolute steal – and it struck me how long it had been since I’d played a game where one man’s personality was such a strong thread throughout the experience. From the grunting throat noises the characters make to compliment the subtitles right through to the faintly drunken-sounding yo-ho-hos as you’re setting the t’gallants and making for Havana, there’s a big friendly grin on the game’s face. It’s about as subtle as a custard flan to the face, but it’s there and it dares you to dislike it.


Big event games can’t often risk that sort of potentially polarising “characters” these days. Sure, there’s some wisecracking in the Battlefield: Bad Company titles, and you still feel the pervasive glow of Schafer when you run through Brutal Legend – not that it was particularly successful as a game, in my humble opinion – but by and large you have to look to smaller projects if you want something you’re going to connect with on a more emotional level. Plants vs Zombies for the iPhone makes me chuckle. Ben There Dan That likewise. The Void makes me feel uncertain, and frustrated, and more than a little unnerved. When the money’s not there, you can take bigger risks with the precept or the way the narrative is delivered.

Remember Winston Wolf? Just because you are a character, it doesn’t mean you have character. So while you get memorable cameos from certain figures in certain games – think Shale from Dragon Age or Quark in Ratchet and Clank – they can often feel tacked on. HK47 is little more than comic relief in KOTOR, for example. The game, as befits a 20-hour homage to the galaxy’s most po-faced religion, Jedism – is pretty low on wit, but I’ll always choose the robot over the Jedi as a party member. I must like being called “meatbag”.

Not that I’m only demanding yuks, you understand. I watched the third Indiana Jones film last night and found myself being irresistibly drawn back to Uncharted. Both releases are confident in who they are. That’s why they both never really put a foot wrong: clever people at Naughty Dog and Lucasfilm know exactly how to leaven action with humour. Uncharted is virtually a blockbuster cinema release in itself: Naughty Dog have taken all those lessons from 30-odd years of action movie and turned them into a video game. It works flawlessly. To an extent, I find, you watch it as much as play it. You take blockbuster preconceptions with you when you boot it up. You never feel too close to Drake because a) he’s a square-jawed action hero and you’re not, and b) you know he’ll win, get girl, save world.

I dream of a day when indie humour can make it back to the mainstream. Perhaps one day we’ll be able to free ourselves from the painful memories of Hideo Kojima’s poo-jokes and enjoy something… well, not something more grown-up, but something for grown-ups? And no, I don’t mean soft-focus elf-shagging, BioWare. I don’t know what I mean. But, like Sid Meier, I know it when I see it.

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