Perspective & The Potential Of Rainbow 6: Patriots

By James Hawkins in Unraveling Yarns
Wednesday, November 9, 2011 at 2:00 pm
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I'd argue that video games rely on perspective to convey a story more than any other narrative medium. As we follow our protagionists, we are tethered by perspective so that we can only witness the things that directly happen to us. Sometimes we move between characters to fill out a sequence of events. Others, we're given a few different angles to view a singular situation.

But the stories we experience really never capitalize on the potential of perspective as a device in a video game saga. As we cycle between characters, the personas that motivate our objectives are usually more or less uniform. For instance, its easy to imagine a story where an elite soldier from the US is trying to infiltrate the same compound as a Russian mercenary, and we get to see it from both angles. We shoot things, creep, escape, all the same, though our characters may serve different masters. Things of that kind are found in first-person shooters all the time. The problem is that those perspectives have very little differentiation besides location, and while they can serve for some intriguing gameplay variations, the actual degree to which they innovate and improve storytelling is only a tiny increment.

Part of this is due to the nature of how video games function as human-digital interactive experiences. Because we're the ones driving the ship, it can be difficult to shift from one perspective to another because, while the characters change, we remain the same in reality.

I think that can evolve, though. And I think that Rainbow 6: Patriots could be championing that sort of evolution - if the lord is willing and the concept footage is true.

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Not all video games need rotating perspectives to become more fully-realized stories, but certain genres are suffering immensely from a pretty crushing lack of narrative nuance. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the first-person shooter genre has bottle-necked -- we either have fantastical tales like BioShock, Singularity, and Fallout 3, or we have realism simulators like BattlefieldCall of Duty, and Medal of Honor. The former exhibits illustrious imagination because the universes are built from original ideas. The latter is entrenched in exploiting the subjectivities within the United States' new found fear of terrorism. 

The world, for most of the century, has been fascinated with the US-Middle East crisis. And, unfortunately for the developers that build video games on that keystone, it just isn't compelling when told through a singular dimension. (I say "unfortunately" knowing full well that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is now the highest selling anything of all time ever. Even still, that fact doesn't make its story anything near as complex and well-told as BioShock, for instance.)

The Rainbow Six: Vegas franchise suffered from this a bit. The games' stories revolved around:

1. A terrorist threat
2. A group of skilled combatants
3. A betrayal
4. An assault/potential assault on the West/United States

Just like every other realistic first-person shooter made in the last ten years. And despite the literary weight that those facets bring to a story, they have bankrolled every major video game publisher out there two and three times over already, and the arcs of the franchises have positioned themselves to continue to follow the same formula.

This is where the perspective aspect comes in. Conflict interrupts the lives of many people that it touches, and there are fertile soils to be tilled when it comes to storytelling. Real, human stories. Why not tell the story of someone who doesn't hold a gun? Or an unwitting everyman who becomes a proponent in the larger scale unfolding of chaos? Something that finally takes us out of the sooty boots of military personnel overcoming impossible odds. That's been documented. And their documentation is becoming trite at this point because their virtual battlefield successes resound with nothing. Only this ethereal, meta "America" that exists somewhere in the background. Probably far off. Maybe not at all.

Which brings me, finally, to Rainbow 6: Patriots. The concept video that leaked late last week offers a pretty fresh outlook at the first-person shooter formula. Take a look at it here.

What I noticed first was that it begins like Heavy Rain. The plodding Quick-time Events play contrary to the clip of normal shooters, but veering into new directions is the only way to reinvent. 

We will take on the role of a civilian thrust into a horrible terrorist plot for at least some portion of the game, if these early concepts stay in place. Before the conflict arrives, we see his life at its most intimate moments. We're drawn to things that are immediately evocative -- his loving wife, a birthday, an upper-middle class (aka mythic/untouchable) suburban lifestyle. And the abruptness with which this life is interrupted could, with some more fleshing out, give us a very real emotional connection with our then-main character. If we see even more perspectives, and we see how military response hurts oftentimes as it helps, we could be seeing a pretty monumental shift in what has become the status quo.

We'll be unthreading balaclavas with bullets in the end, and that's fine. But as we explore the implications of a terrorist attack, the tough decisions that police officers must face, and the resonating impact on the civilians, the vengeance we carry to the enemy has a new, powerful weight. Where's the drama in stopping a heart if you don't know what made it beat in the first place?

If you look at the spectrum of video game narratives, you have these two game types filling out each extreme. Heady cinematic stories, like Heavy Rain, are niche because they have very little action and require a lot of patience to get through. Military sims are just the opposite. They ignite, pan-flash, and end. Nothing is really derived from their tales. It is a mixture of these two that could, as I am speculating, save the Rainbow 6 franchise from slipping into the mold. And maybe, possibly, the larger genre.

The only key now is to make us actually give a shit.

Unraveling Yarns is a weekly column that explores video games as narrative delivery devices. James Hawkins and Rich Shivener rotate week-to-week to discuss their opinions on some of gaming's most challenging and nuanced stories from all generations. Follow James on Twitter @JamesHawk1ns. Follow Rich on Twitter @RichShiv.

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