Acknowledging the media itself is nothing new in videogames; classic examples include Metal Gear Solid’s very knowing nudges at the player by taking the controllers and menu screens into the game proper – for instance, faking a “game over” screen during a fight in Metal Gear Solid 2. But Free Radical’s Haze is taking this a lot further; not with throwaway jokes, but by genuinely providing a commentary on the actual gameplay.
I wasn’t too interested in Haze initially: it’s a “jungle-shooter” for the Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and the PC. You’re a private mercenary in the near future. It’s edgy because there’s drugs in it. But since Free Radical’s making it, I knew there was more, and after Penny Arcade’s enthusiastic we-can’t-tell-you-yet-but-we-love-it commentary on the story stuff, I was very eager to learn more. This month’s Edge (oh look: a Free Radical interview) finally spilled the beans for us lazy internet scourers.
It looks like the basic idea is that your character is using a combat drug to keep the action videogamey. When the effects wear off, you can get a glimpse of what’s really going on – the sun is not shining, people spurt blood and scream in agony when shot, the dead bodies do not disappear, the damage you take is real… I’m mostly interested about this because it’s so contemporary: the world militaries use videogames for training, games are striving for ever more realistic violence and probably all sorts of reality “enhancing” technologies are already being tried out all over the technologically advanced world.
Add to that the fact the game tries its best to have you overdose on the combat drug and things get interesting. Moderate doses give you extraordinary powers, encouraging you to keep it up all the time and play very much gung-ho. Should you go over the line – and the enemy will try to make this happen by keeping up the pressure – you lose your distinction of friend versus foe.
Not content with just masquerading the action, Free Radical is also making roads into having you question your motives and obedience. Sure you’re killing rebels left and right, but what if the game actually gives you room to feel bad about it? The game’s internal tagline “wargame that became a game about war” sounds highly interesting. I know I’ve often questioned my actions in action games (Splinter Cell, I’m looking at you) and always felt that it was a missed chance when the game failed to give me room to investigate how I felt.
This could still end up a convoluted mess, but Free Radical’s saying that they’re foremost making a great game and that it’s okay if some people never get their “hidden agenda”, referencing Starship Troopers’ fate as an example of a similar situation. They happen to be just about the industry’s best storytellers, so I’m having faith.
Update 20 June 2007: Eurogamer has a good Free Radical interview up, too.