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January 15, 2021
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On Mad Max — The Game

by Nick Halme on 09/15/15 02:56:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


[Cross-posted from my blog]

The original Mad Max trilogy was several things at once. It was a product of the 80's. It was a source of Australian pride and the progenitor of an entire genre of Mad Maxian post-apocalypse films. It was the ironic melding of the director’s ideals — environmentalism and vegetarianism — and the fetishization of cars and carnage; the horror of the latter underlining the veracity of the former.

Mad Max: Fury Road is, while similar in some respects, a wholly different beast. Its production was rooted in the visual tool of storyboarding, not a script. In fact the script transcribed in hindsight contains less than 1,000 lines of dialogue, many of which are composed of just a couple words. Charlize Theron was cast for her history as a dancer; Tom Hardy for his ability to emote without speaking. It really is balletic, and drives home Marshall McLuhan’s aphorism “The medium is the message”. There is a plot, but in a sort of postmodern way it is matter-of-fact, geographical. The focus is on story — how the events which compose the plot are actually enacted — and it does it the best way a film can: visually.

A common mistake we make is to identify language — and therefore meaning — with speech, or its younger sibling, text. It’s probable given the evidence that the capacity for language arose several times in the course of human evolution, failing to catch on during each swell until it finally did. During this time we retained the ability — thanks to the position of our larynx, which we share with deer and apes — to produce all the requisite sounds required for speech. In fact we hunted and organized, were social, long before we could consistently speak to one another.

Communication is not speech; speech is just one facet of communication. We communicate with our eyes, our gait, our stature, what we wear — even our smell. Speech is explicit, but it is one part of the puzzle.

Fury Road understands this in a way that only a film can. It is finite in a definite way, condensing its action into one continuous segment. No matter the viewer’s ability, its duration is fixed at exactly 120 minutes. The audience is allowed to infer story from the environment, as we do in our own lives.

Mad Max the videogame has absolutely none of these advantages to begin with — if only because the medium of games is so different. But, I will argue, design plays a large hand in this loss of feeling and spirit.

Where Fury Road provokes a constant feeling of in media res, the game is doomed to perpetuating a feeling of mundanity. The world is begrudgingly constant and becomes increasingly normal, regular. It is the ultimate irony that “world building” here undermines the sense of place that the film established.

As an aside, it has been claimed by the game’s developers, and by fans and reviewers, that the game, if it borrows at all from the film, does so sparingly. However, from the cinematography of the opening credits and the opening chase scene to the existence of War Boys and Gas Town, references to “black-fingers” (rather close to “black-thumbs”), etc — it is clear that at some point the game’s developers decided to give the game a stronger dose of the film’s atmosphere. For better or worse there is an uncomfortable dichotomy between the car-battling masculine hero of the 80's and the vibrant, original, graphic novel-inspired feel of the film. It is a little bit of both, and not quite either. I’m sure there is a story here for a games journalist to uncover or for a developer to unfurl, but none of that should concern us here, looking at the finished product.

The strangest thing to swallow with the game is just how it is built. I find this a confounding part of all so-called “open world” games. You have before you a sprawling, populated game space. Yet, you have a linear story with branching fetch-quests, forever ancillary.

It is as if the majority of developers are afraid of the complications of constructing an open world which relies on its being an open world to function and provide gameplay. Emergent gameplay is considered so questionable — and is a dangerous unknown when considering time spent prototyping interacting systems, user paths, ease of use — that the roaming you can engage in is always set in stone. You are not really exploring; you are given rote diversions in the guise of real exploration. The game, like nearly all other open world games, fights against its own open world design and struggles at every turn to put you back on the linear path so that you may experience the “story”.

A fundamental hiccup here is that a game’s story is not just its plot; it heavily involves, indeed actually depends upon, the agency of the player. A game world without a player is just a picture of a playground; the player’s attendance is required to make it an actual playground. It really is frustrating — as an industry we are growing up in so many ways, but for some reason or another, we can either not conceptually wrap our heads around what an open world game is or business decisions and conservative behaviour influenced by financial limitations prevents us from doing much more than grafting linear game storytelling conventions into a large but delineated physical space. Again, Mad Max is not alone in this category and is not especially guilty for failing to do anything new — but by colouring inside the lines it has squandered an opportunity to show other developers how an open world is done.

For that matter, with action and circumstance this prolonged, it might have made much more sense casting the protagonist as a War Boy fighting for a warlord, and rising up the ranks to warlord himself, catching fleeting glimpses of the legendary Road Warrior. The reality is that it is not the nature of videogames as “AAA” product to experiment in this way.

But my main gripe is really the facility for “mechanism” in this game — game mechanics. I am a big fan of the “onion theory” of game design popularized by Dan Cook. As a chain of dependency you start from the center with your core game mechanics — your core loops — and you work outward with meta-mechanics like progress (levels) and story (context, drive). Mad Max has opted to grow a very, very large onion with a tiny center. In what can only feel like an attempt to expose game variables in order to provide meta-mechanics to extend (or bloat, depending on your disposition) play-time.

Now, I don’t especially mind that this bloat is here from a mechanics perspective — even though it could do with a visit from Occam’s Razor. And if Fury Road did not exist, I might not take issue at all. But here’s the rub — the film did such an excellent job at immersing the audience, it is embarrassing that the game seemingly goes out of its way to pull you out of the world you inhabit as a player. You do not play as Max, you play as Max’s omniscient puppet master, crafting Max and manipulating him on his journey through a world you are constantly reminded is false. In the world of the game, Max is just another car to upgrade.

Mad Max focuses on usability and player instruction before immersion. Games are always worried about losing players first and foremost, as they fall away from the critical path like so many Lemmings within a fabled ten minute time period after first engaging. This paranoia fosters a design ethos that ensures as many people as possible have a mediocre roller coaster ride at the expense of anything too “out there”. It’s no slight on the creative power of the development team — I’m sure many great ideas were cut like so much fat, in an effort to sculpt an acceptable product.

The world of Mad Max is, subsequently, deflated of any feeling of trepidation or sun-scarred desolation. Quite apart from the film’s depiction of quasi-religious zealotry and oppression, the game offers up predictable post-apocalyptic scenery and robotic people. Where the film offers extreme but “tasteful” violence, the game at times appears infantile in its focus on the hardships of the wasteland (Max eats dog food and maggots) and the violence of endless combats (boots in faces, stabbing of necks). The film sends the viewer careening through a colourful desert full of marauders and freaks; the game presents a strangely boring depiction of that same world, viewed at a standstill instead of at a reckless 250 mph.

One might imagine, walking home from the film on their way to play the videogame, a quick world full of chases, interesting characters, explosions, flipping cars and spraying sand, colourful flares and chrome spray cans, masked men with weaponized hedge-clippers and road-sign shields. And Mad Max has many of these things. Unfortunately in all its conventional professionalism, it fails to make any of it feel special and alive. It is in many ways a workshop on how to create a high quality blockbuster title, but it is also a lesson: Doing everything by the book — no matter how high the standards — can be less than adequate when you are making a game. We are not measuring technical capability or usability in games, even though they matter — as players, we measure something more subjective: Our enjoyment.

At a more fundamental level, core mechanics were always going to be something this game would struggle with. Fury Road is able to both feature vehicles and violence and to not be about vehicles and violence at all; in the videogame medium it is a necessity that a game featuring driving and fighting be defined entirely by those actions. There must be a way that players interact with the world and, in an open world game, this must become regular and normal. The fleeting scenes of action in the film give way to a continuous experience which can last several days or weeks or months for the player interacting with the game. Game mechanics like this are often naked and exposed for the purposes of player understanding; a malaise a film audience rarely encounters.

When a game loses its sense of immersion the rather strange conventions of games become too apparent. The try-and-fail-until-you-succeed nature of mission design becomes what you are engaged in, rather than your actually being Mad Max. Whether it is fiddling to find the right contextual spot for a ladder-climb animation or repeatedly collecting bizarre symbolic scrap pieces as currency (Max must have a strong back, what with all that collecting), all of these things are at once legitimate game mechanics and moments where players can become painfully aware that they are simply controlling an animation rig running a skeleton around a rendered simulation with a camera tied to its back.

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