Just when I thought it was safe to play a video game, it turns out I actually have to watch a crappy movie first.
As I sat through the opening credits of Black, EA's new piece of glistening gun fetishism for X-Box and PlayStation 2, I couldn't help but wonder what's happening to the video game narrative.
Awful storytelling is nothing new to the medium, of course (All Your Base, after all, Are Belong To Us). But where there was once no style and no substance, the industry seems to be dripping with the former and still painfully lacking the latter.
I should make it clear that I think Black is an impressive piece of software. I could reload my AK-47 assault rifle for hours on end just to see the first-person view of my character's cocking motion. So Black succeeds where it most needs to: gameplay.
But to get to the killin', I had to wait through 10 minutes of Hollywood-esque exposition featuring a poorly-scripted protagonist, a hardly-scripted antagonist and a slew of overbearing film noir gropes (humming ceiling fans, clouds of cigarette smoke, etc.). But the worst part was the credits - a black screen ( get it?) of painful duration punctuated by title after title giving props to people that normally don't get mentioned until the end credits of a game, if at all. The music, it turns out, was performed by the Hollywood Studio Symphony Orchestra. Super, thanks.
I see nothing wrong with a video game opening like a film as long as the meat of the experience feels like one, too. But Black feels like any other first-person shooter with a paramilitary feel, with a few differences more devoted to gameplay, rightly, than artistry.
Maybe it wouldn't have bothered me so much if I hadn't just cursed Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood for similar transgressions just a week earlier. Like Black, it began with an exit interview of sorts in which a commander grilled a subordinate about activities that happed just recently. Why is this a new favorite narrative tool in video games? Is there market research that shows gamers want to play as someone whose fate has already been decided?
Why is the video game industry so scripting my virtual life?
There are genres in which a film feel works - survival horror seems a natural match. But if games like Black and Brothers in Arms are the cream of the FPS crop, it seems clear that we're not quite there yet.
I can't fault game designers for trying. But I wish EA would have saved its Hollywood money and spent it on even more breathtaking gun graphics and bullet-casing physics.
Black is, after all, weaponized pornography. And nobody rents porn for the plot.