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June 3, 2008

Filed under: gaming»design»structure

Purple Haze

It's a shame that Haze, the PS3's recent shooter, has gotten such poor reviews for bland design and inconsistent storytelling, because I think the basic concept deserves better. Let me first explain my impressions of that concept, since they apparently might be entirely unrelated to the finished product.

Haze (as I understood it) was supposed to be a meta-game commentary, in many ways. The story's fictional soldiers are dosed up on a drug that leads to some conspicuously game-ish effects--dead bodies simply vanish from the field, enemies are highlighted against the terrain, and their wounds and cries of pain are filtered out.

There's a potential here for what could honestly be a horrifying moment. We're used to games where the enemies just disappear once killed, which tends to nullify the impact of the action. Or where there's no real realistic visuals for the horrible wounds inflicted by weaponry, and the reaction to being shot is as simple as a flinch and a canned sound-bite.

Imagine a scene where the player suddenly stops being dosed, while teammates remain on the drug. They're still cheerily massacreing people left and right--but now you can hear the victims pleading for mercy, see the sickening effects when they're hit, and stumble over the mounds of dead lying around. It would be like watching a DVD of Commando, only to realize too late that you'd accidentally put Saving Private Ryan into the player instead.

Indeed, that scenario isn't just a commentary on video games. It remarks on how we treat violence in a variety of media. And I don't even think it's entirely a negative commentary, but it is thought-provoking and has room for subtlety. In this theoretical situation, fellow soldiers aren't monsters, they're just blissfully unaware of the consequences of their actions. They're gamers, in more ways than one. The point shouldn't be to turn on these former allies and kill them in revenge, but to open their eyes to the truth. Ultimately, the question is: when we discover that our actions might not be harmless, how will we react to that new ethical uncertainty?

Sadly, Haze doesn't seem to have taken that route. Instead it demonizes the drugged soldiers, and turns the game into just another shoot-em-up. Several reviews have commented that once the player character changes sides and can't use the performance-boosting chemical anymore, the game loses what little individuality it had--and what a loaded statement that could have been, when gamers found themselves wishing for the comfort of selective perception. In Wired this week, Chris Kohler has written about how these questions can surface (albeit in a limited and unintentional manner) in Ninja Gaiden 2. But Haze had a chance to address them directly, taking advantage of next-generation console power for a thoughtful and provocative message, and it blew it.

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