Thursday, July 28, 2011

Bad Game Writing: Homefront

Homefront is a by-the-numbers first person shooter. It's got a modern setting with a wide variety of weapons, the usual 2-weapon system, regenerating health, cover-based (non wall-hugging) firefight mechanics, slow-motion "quick-time" events, a stealth level, rail-shooter segments, and the almost obligatory helicopter/UAV mission. It clocks in at around 3-4 hours, so is horrendously short even by FPS standards, but it's a fairly enjoyable experience in terms of actual gameplay.  However, the game has one fairly severe and confronting deficiency: its writing.

Now, I know people don't play FPS games for the writing of their single player campaign, if they did, Modern Warfare 2 would have tanked horribly due to its incoherent plot and hideously sloppy attempts to evoke emotion. Any FPS with more depth than "aliens/zombies/Nazis invade" is normally a step ahead of the curve, even though the genre has had some movement towards meaningful and powerful narratives over the years. But there's some rather glaring problems with Homefront that warrant particular attention.

Let's deal with the elephant in the room straight away. Homefront comes across as a game steeped in racism, right from the opening where there's conflict in the middle east, and North Korea starts expanding and attempting to conquer the world. Now even putting the content aside, the delivery it what begins to grate on the player. As part of the opening sequence you see two parents executed in front of their child, who is then abandoned by the soldiers responsible to cry over the two corpses. This somewhat disturbing scene sets a precedent for the the content that continues throughout the game.  Civilians placed into mass graves, the mass bombing of suburban areas and a raft of equivalently distasteful scenarios make the game paint the North Korean soldiers as a combination of the most violent, bloodthirsty and heinous war criminals throughout history.

The point may have been to paint a stark and brutal reality, but the way in which it is carried out smacks of manifest racism on the part of the writers. The Korean soldiers are pretty much depicted as remorseless and emotionless killers as a single unit, bent on hunting, killing and otherwise doing anything to subjugate all of America. Simply put, it reeks of manifest racism to the degree that it's almost offensive to watch. Moreover, the game continually reminds you that you're fighting "the Koreans" just in case you had forgotten the name of this overwhelmingly evil nation responsible for all the atrocities committed during the game.

This depiction of mass murder is confronting in more ways than one

Furthermore, it seems that the writers realised how bad this looked as some stage, and so they introduce you to Hopper the "Korean" squad member. Aside from the fact that I didn't realise he was meant to be of Korean heritage until one the characters you meet is a racist jerk towards him, and that it's never really brought up again make it feel like this was shoe-horned in to combat the writing throughout the rest of the game.

Another moment of self-awareness is when the game sees you end up in a village of "survivalists", who are painted to be every bit as savage and brutal as the Korean enemies. This time it's a group of backwater hicks who are shooting unarmed Korean soldiers in cold blood, while the people traveling with you make comments about what terrible people they are. However, when the racial slurs coming from these "survivalists" feel as though they could quite easily come from the mouths of your squadmates, the sanctimonious "racism is bad" preaching they deliver feels fairly hypocritical, especially given two of these characters have gone into a "kill 'em all" rage in reaction to events that occurred previously in the game.

"Don't worry, we're not as bad as they are!"

Exacerbating the issues above is that Homefront's writing and voice acting don't really match the setting that they're trying to depict. For something that's played as a straight shooting, gritty representation of war, it comes across with some seriously ham-fisted delivery. The aforementioned mass graves scene starts off rather brutal, with the mechanical and cold reality of the scene hitting the player, but this is utterly destroyed when one of your teammates responds with utter rage. While this might be an understandable reaction for a person, the voice acting and their lines makes it feel overblown and overacted. The impact of the scene is not only lost, but is practically made to seem like an over-the-top action movie sequence, which almost turns the whole escapade into a terrible and poor-taste joke. Instead of feeling something disturbing as you would from visiting the killing fields in Cambodia, you're given a scene that inspires discomfort at how poorly it was managed.

As if this wasn't enough, the writers get self-referential at one point at started poking fun at themselves for the unimaginative ways in which the scenarios are forced to progress. At one point the other characters comment to the player that "that's the fifth thing you've survived falling off". If even the writers are making  then you know that your scenarios are a little contrived. This one, however, I can potentially give the writers a free pass for, if they weren't involved in the process from the start. In many games, the plot is developed as a bit of an afterthought, tacked on to string gameplay scenarios together. I'm not saying for certain that this is what happened in Homefront's case (though it could explain a few things), it's practically impossible for writers to fix problems inherent from a repetitive "Michael Bay explosions first" mindset to "cinematic set-pieces".

Yep, you fall off this bridge

The problem that when all these elements combine, you're left with an unpleasant mix of atmosphere in your mouth. The handful of references that suggest that the game is aware of what it is presenting are at odds with the overall package. Homefront appears to be playing all its drama straight, when it really comes across as though it should be at least part parody. You half expect there to be a Team America "OH HARRO!" homage performance from a token Korean leader at some point, but it never arrives.

The poor writing, self-righteous "sympathetic" characters and the presentation of the North Korean troops as brutal murderers all produce a game that can come across as fairly offensive. I doubt this was an intentional thing, and it almost feels as though there was a recognition part way through the development of how its content would be interpreted, and there were a few band-aid attempts to salvage the situation. Developers and writers really should be mindful of the impression that they will be conveying through their game, and in this case that impression is not a good one. Which is a bit of a pity really, because despite the shortcomings of its writing and the very short length, Homefront's single player campaign is actually a fairly fun experience. Unfortunately its reputation and the overall feel is tarnished by the manner in which it is delivered.

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