Total eclipse of the heart. That's the phrase I was left with following last night's demo of Battlefield 4 — a game in which the player shoots hundreds of faceless people — that developers are labeling "more human."
The decadent presentation took place in a downtown San Francisco movie theater, a not-so-subtle hint at the cinematic aspirations of the franchise. The intentions were logical, but the venue inadvertently did a disservice to the first-person shooter. Never before have I been more aware how few people die in films — or maybe I should say, how many people we kill in video games.
For 17 minutes, scene after scene, the audience was privy to gameplay featuring a band of four soldiers overcoming the odds, unloading hundreds of rounds into their enemies. There was a rifle and a shotgun, both deafeningly loud. At one point, the character drove a car. At another, he used a turret. In an orgiastic display of violence, he called in a helicopter airstrike, exterminating what may as well have been the enemy's intramural softball team.
There was a lot going on, though nothing that resembles humanity, the topic the developers were eager to discuss following the demo. "Human, dramatic and believable" is the supposed M.O, not only of Battlefield 4, but the future of the franchise. I can't say I saw any of that. Maybe they'll show more at a future demo. Perhaps it's in the multiplayer.
GDC is an annual detox for an industry that is trying to lower its dependence on repetitious, thoughtless and violent franchises
I did see a loud and ugly scene sequence in a sinking car. It bookended the demo. We open in darkness, hearing the tacky as it is tragic song "Total Eclipse of the Heart" by Bonnie Tyler. This song's often used in horror movies, a cheeky warning that an axe murder's about to rise out of the back seat and cut off the driver's head.
The following scene had about as much grace. A character says something to the effect of "I don't want to die to this song." Lights up and we see four men trapped in the sinking vehicle. Their sergeant is trapped; he's dead weight.
It's a delicate sequence, literally, because these four human bricks are trapped in a glass globe suspended by water pressure that will gradually crush them. But that first line's played as a joke and the song ironic. Despite the fragile setting, the men scream — scream! — and curse and growl and everything a human wouldn't do if they thought a single decibel was the only barrier between them and their mortality.
The developers say the game has more human involvement, and I guess we saw that when the hero was asked to shoot out the glass. Later in the demo, he "pressed F" to cut off the same Sergeant's leg. But truly, these were just moments of violence, the crudest in a long line of the same. Profoundly cynical in nature, the mission's conclusion reveals that the deaths of the sergeant and the dozens if not hundreds of opponents were for nothing.
What we've seen of Battlefield 4 isn't new, emotional or even provocative
That the demo was presented across from the Game Developers Conference only highlighted its flaws. GDC is an annual detox for an industry that is trying — or should be trying — to lower its dependence on repetitious, thoughtless and violent franchises. Everyone from AAA CEOs to basement indie developers converge for one week to consider the potential of this meeting, to draw up a playbook for widespread improvement. Even a major publisher like Sony used this week's conference as an excuse to host an indie games party, announcing that it was funding another crop of creative and unusual titles. Here, it seems, the majority of people want to move forward. To be better.
There's the rub: What we've seen of Battlefield 4 isn't new, emotional or even provocative. It's just a shooter, and the shooting — the core of the game — hasn't changed. Rifle. Shotgun. Turret. Press E to surrender control of a would-be emotionally affecting moment. Kill. Kill. Kill.
Battlefield 4's one of the most visually impressive games I've seen to date and an ode to calculated, lifeless technology that totally eclipses its heart.