Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Black Ops II and The Unfinished Swan

Image from GiantBomb.com
I usually like to play a couple games concurrently. Being able to switch back and forth helps me think laterally about the games I play. Oftentimes I'll notice common design techniques or different ways to implement similar systems.

Of course, this habit also leads to some hilarious juxtapositions. Case in point: I spent last week alternating between Call of Duty: Black Ops II and The Unfinished Swan.

I've talked about "gaming whiplash" in the past and the transition between Black Ops II and The Unfinished Swan is a classic example. Shifting gears from a Tom Clancy-esque murder fest to what turned out to be a modern fairy tale was a bit bumpy. Thematically and aesthetically, it's hard to find two different games. For a good illustration, check out the trailers:

Call of Duty: Black Ops II

The Unfinished Swan

Both games are striking in their own ways and both do a good job establishing a tone. Black Ops II embraces a realistic art style that makes its constant bedlam even more stressful. Whether it's the campaign, multiplayer, or zombie mode, the game rewards twitch reflexes. As is the case in the game's plot, unseen threats are everywhere and even a moment's hesitation means failure. It's a shoot or be shot world where victory is as much about quick reflexes as it is strategy. My neck tenses up just thinking about it.

On the other hand, The Unfinished Swan largely avoids moment-to-moment pressure and instead challenges the you to discover and then master unfamiliar tools. You're dropped right into a completely blank world and left to experiment with how to fill it in. Devoid of any button prompts, quest markers, or specific objectives, you're left to both reveal and then make sense of the environment. Along the way, you experience a story about personal growth that mimics the way you enhance the world.

I didn't think about it at first, but your method of interacting with the world in Black Ops II and The Unfinished Swan is essentially the same: you shoot things from a first-person perspective. Of course, in the former game you're shooting people's faces with bullets, while in the latter you're lobbying paint balls at various targets in hopes of enlivening the world.

When it comes to categorizing games, I'm often biased towards perspective and mechanical classification: I'm much more apt to think of something as first-person shooter or a platformer than as a horror game or a political thriller. However, Black Ops II and The Unfinished Swan make a strong argument for taking into consideration themes, visuals, and narratives when comparing games to one another. You may play the games from the same perspective, but their core viewpoints are vastly different.

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