Bit Player: Over The Top
Over the past few years, a new marketing buzzphrase has taken hold in the world of gaming: "Over The Top." Those three words contain a plethora of implications—this game is going to be raunchy and violent, unrealistic and unserious. It will inspire joy in your inner sixteen year-old and chagrin when your significant other enters the room. And just maybe, it will even be controversial. And so publishers, developers and spokespeople have started to make a big to-do about a game's over-the-topness. "We have identified the limit of taste," they seem to be saying, "and we have purposefully surpassed it."
Google any recently released game along with the phrase "over-the-top" and you'll find all manner of previews, interviews and reviews containing the phrase. Since I've played a good number of these games, I've started to wonder about what's really going on. Why has this phrase risen to prominence these past few years? What does it even mean? Where is this fabled "top", and how does one get over it?
Looking back, I believe that it may have all started with Saints Row 2. Volition's open-world crime game was originally slated to be released at around the same time as Grand Theft Auto IV, but I'm guessing that someone finally took an honest look at the behemoth they going up against and said, "Guys, we need to recalculate our plan of attack here."So Saints Row 2 was delayed and Volition spent a few months adding a slew of ridiculous side activities to the core game—streaking in a Borat-style unithong, throwing innocent civilians in front of trains, car-surfing, base jumping, spraying sewage on houses—all in an effort to set it apart from the competition. And it worked; the final product was a surprisingly fun, goofy alternative to the seriousness of GTA IV. But at the same time, it never felt entirely convincing. There was something about the ad campaign, which explicitly poked fun at GTA IV's relative realism, or the frequency with which a Volition spokesperson would describe the game as "Over The Top" that made me wonder: was this a real creative vision I was seeing, or the end result of a reactive marketing strategy?
2010's action extravaganza Bayonetta was about as over-the-top as a game can get, and it was also my favorite game of the year. The very first level drops players onto a giant clock-face as it plunges impossibly through space, then throws a few crazy-looking enemies their way and says "go!" It gets more ridiculous from there—missile-surfing, S&M torture-killing, motorcycle-kung fu and giant windsurfing hair-spiders are de rigueur. But despite the game's constant, screaming ridiculousness, I never felt as though Bayonetta was pushing the envelope just for the sake of it. The strength of lead designer Hideki Kamiya's vision shone through in every fantastical setting, every risqué finishing move, every overblown boss fight and every awesomely terrible one-liner. I loved every minute of it.
Which brings us to Bulletstorm. I played the soon-to-be-released "over-the-top action experience" at a San Francisco review event a couple of weeks ago. I only had a limited amount of time at the event, so I worked my way through a bunch of rounds of multiplayer as well as the first couple of hours of the single-player campaign. Based on what I saw, I have to say that the amount of attention surrounding Bulletstorm feels entirely disproportionate to the game itself. Countless blogs, gaming websites, and even Fox News columnists have gathered to discuss, decry and defend this game, yet as I played it I was struck by how ordinary it was.
In both single- and multiplayer, I spent most of my time running about with a whip in one hand and a gun in the other, blowing up red barrels and kicking dudes into environmental hazards. My character said "dick" a whole lot, sometimes hilariously ("Son of a dick!") and sometimes eye-rollingly ("You scared the dick off me!"). I took the gunner's chair on a giant spaceship, I aimed down my iron-sights with the left trigger, I manned a machine-gun turret, I pressed 'A' to climb over obstacles, and I did an on-rails vehicle segment. It was well-crafted and enjoyable enough, but if there was a top, I felt pretty firmly under it.
Bulletstorm has drawn heat for its "skillshot" system, which rewards players for creatively killing their enemies. But even that design element doesn't feel particularly excessive or revolutionary. The 2009 Wii game MadWorld used a very similar system, though that game's environmental kills lacked variety and quickly became routine and boring. Moreover, games have long rewarded players for killing enemies with headshots, and well-designed, critically respected games like Half Life 2, Left 4 Dead and Dead Rising award a wide variety of achievements for creative enemy disposal.
Of course, most of the media attention surrounding Bulletstorm has been not on the skillshot system itself but on the names of various skillshots, winking monikers like "Double Penetration" (two players shoot an enemy at once), "Gang Bang" (detonate an enemy in a group of other enemies), and "Rear Entry" (shoot an enemy in, well, the rear). When I first heard those names, I couldn't help but groan—it seemed pretty clear that People Can Fly had simply grafted some provocative language onto a fairly derivative scoring system with the hope that it would attract controversy and media attention.
But when I spoke with Bulletstorm's producer Tanya Jessen, her view was clear-eyed and practical. "There's this quote that Cliff [Bleszinski, Creative Director at Epic Games] said years ago," she told me, "and it rings true in this case: 'I only use violence when it suits my gameplay needs.'" In other words, since Bulletstorm gives points based on creatively dispatching enemies, its violence is merited by its gameplay systems.
That is true to a point, but what of those oh-so-provocative skillshot names? I've learned that when a developer or spokesperson is about to try to sell me a half-truth, they preface it with some variation of "What I can say is " So when I asked Tanya about the gameplay necessity of calling a special move "Double Penetration", she responded thusly: "What I can say is, the intent was humor. We didn't want a game that took itself too seriously."
A fair enough response, though it felt a bit like she was skirting the issue. I asked her if she had played Bayonetta. "I played a bit, yeah," she said. "Based on what I played, I really enjoyed it. I loved the fact that the developer was taking risks; it was so over the top."
But why must absurdity be such a risk? Videogames have long been absurd, profane and ridiculous—let's not forget that our medium's most famous mascot is a fireball-throwing, mushroom-eating Italian plumber who fights to rescue a princess from a massive, fanged tortoise. As I watch an increasing number of developers loudly and publicly embrace the ridiculousness of their games, I wonder whether they're missing the point a bit. Games like Bulletstorm and Saints Row 2 are perfectly enjoyable, but there is a self-consciousness about their ridiculousness that feels calculated and disingenuous. They have neither the charmingly matter-of-fact looniness of Super Mario Bros nor the balls-out madness of Bayonetta, and they suffer as a result.
The line between cynical bad taste and joyfully absurd creativity is a fine one. I suppose when it comes right down to it, there is only one thing that will consistently take me over the top. It isn't toilet humor, blood and guts, dick jokes or curse words; it's imagination.