DmC and the crossroad
DmC: Devil May Cry is a game trying to be two things at once. If I thought it was intentional, it’d be brilliant.
It’s a game that wants to criticize the young male power fantasy and the utter silly emptiness of it while at the same time reveling in the trappings. It wants to be an action film, it wants to be a drama of a war between demonic forces. It wants to create a strong and self-sufficient female lead while at the same time making her a damsel in distress for the protagonist to rescue. It wants maturity and then revels in exploitation, it wants depth and shallowness at once, it wants to be taken seriously and yet has a solid minute of characters yelling obscenities at one another louder and louder.
To say that it’s kind of all over the place even without touching upon the gameplay elements would be understating the matter. And if there’s a game that more perfectly encapsulates the state of gaming and gamer culture at the moment, I certainly can’t think of it.
Devil May Cry is one of those franchises with a tortured history to begin with, starting its life as Resident Evil 4 before being deemed too different from its predecessors and spun off into its own thing. The original series hit a fourth installment, then sat dormant for years before being rebooted at Capcom’s behest. Why? Hard to say; the developer, Ninja Theory, had chiefly been known for games that underperformed but received a fair bit of critical praise. Who could say?
The net effect was a reboot that fans hated immediately, taking the series in a different direction except not really. Sure, the continuity was reset… but if your familiarity with the series started and stopped with the first game, you could pretty much write the game’s plot down within moments. It’s filled with plot twists that aren’t, either because the characters have not substantially changed from their original incarnations or because the changes are so transparently obvious that you know what’s happening simply by experience. It wanted the history while trying to do something new. Two directions, no good answers.
And while it was released a bit over a year ago, it’s as indicative as anything of the rifts and struggles that gaming is dealing with right now.
Gaming is officially no longer a niche hobby. It was, at one point, and that led to it being associated with all of the other things that wind up in the wheelhouse of Lonely Nerdy Boys. The result is, well, the same kind of bullshit self-aggrandizing gatekeeping you see in any field that goes from the niche to the mainstream. Suddenly the activity that used to be restricted to only a handful of people is open to everyone and that makes the people who used to have this as their exclusive place to be very angry.
Much as they’ll deny it, this is the heart of the Gamergate nonsense – a bunch of people who were ostracized and chose to believe that it was due to their hobbies rather than their behavior. They built an identity around being gamers, never mind that said identity falls apart because all it means is that you were a customer of something that was being sold to you. It’s not an identity.
It’s not universal. My wife and I both grew up playing video games, and both of us grew up loving them and wanting to share them with others. It’s the difference between liking something because of the thing itself and liking it simply because you thought it made you part of an exclusive club – which it never did, really. You were always a gamer simply because you paid money to someone else, not because it was an innate part of who you are. But the idea of gamers as a distinct group is a part of the industry, has to be.
Yet gamers are dead. There is no overarching culture. This coalition of white kids wealthy enough to afford a console has been replaced with, well, everyone. The people still clinging to the term and fighting violently against the inclusion of other people in their space are fighting a tide of history that they will lose… except that the industry still sees them as a market. As a part of their existence.
DmC is trying to target them. It’s also trying to target people who have never played the series before. It’s a game of dualities, both in the thematic sense and the mechanical one. It wants to let you roam the open world, but at the same time it breaks itself into bite-sized missions that can easily be finished in a matter of fifteen-minute bursts. It wants to give you platforming challenges while the engine doesn’t quite support it. There’s plenty in the game to unlock via gameplay, but then there are more perks related strictly to DLC, like it’s not quite sure where all of the goodies should come from.
On the one hand, the plot is about Dante being the most kick-ass action hero ever. He’s rude, abrasive, and immature. At the same time, the plot wants to point out that he isn’t flawless, that he makes bad decisions and hurts other. He’s the ultimate lone wolf who walks into danger, but he’s also a vulnerable idiot that survives in no small part through sheer luck. Duality, heaven or hell, going both ways, ending up in neither place.
At the end, of course, he has to choose. He winds up on the side of the angels. That is, unsurprisingly, one of the points of the game, that freedom to choose isn’t in and of itself anything but the opportunity to go in different directions. You still have to go one way or the other, you cannot remain in the middle. Pick a side.
Gaming, as an industry, has yet to pick its path. Budgets inflate and resources are poured into making screamingly expensive triple-A games that have to sell millions of copies, while casual games that cost five dollars rock the market with sales numbers. Some developers stay stuck in the sclerotic notion that gaming is a straight white boy’s club, incurring righteous criticism by the huge number of people not fitting that narrow definition; meanwhile, the companies that break that mold run the risk of alienating an audience that they know and can market to effectively. Consoles become more all-encompassing, gaming on your computer becomes easier, your phone may well be a gaming device as much as any other console. Do you want a new smartphone or a new 3DS?
Even the way we think about how games work is changing. I never was able to get a copy of Xenoblade, but I shouldn’t even need to hunt for it. I don’t have to hunt for a copy of Theatrhythm Curtain Call; I can download it on my handheld at any time once I purchase it. There’s no reason to not expand downloads as an option, aside from the fact that it raises ugly concerns about privacy, piracy, copyright, and storage that have plagued gaming since it became possible to load a game into a modem and send it to someone else.
Caught in the middle.
Playing through DmC, you spend a great deal of your time swapping back and forth between your different modes, twisting back and forth from angel to demon to make use of different abilities and tricks. Some things can only be powered through by angelic weapons, others shrug off heavenly blows but fall victim to demonic attacks. Your demonic side lets you drag enemies to you, your angelic side lets you fly to them. Fly to an enemy, blast off its wings, then yank it back to you in midair to hack at your now-helpless foe. Pick your talents carefully.
And yet the most powerful scene in the game has been written about extensively and doesn’t involve any of Dante’s high-flying antics. Dante is in Limbo, unable to affect the real world, and his companion Kat is within a hair’s breadth of being arrested. There’s nothing he can do. He tells her to kneel on the ground, hands up, without resisting. The poster child through the entire game for resistance is suddenly pleading for someone not to resist, because he can’t help her, he can only watch.
It’s that moment of helplessness that informs much of the plot that comes after, that really speaks to who Dante is underneath everything and that ties into the final split between he and his brother. Ultimately, Vergil was protecting Kat as long as he could because she was useful, but Dante was doing so because it was the right thing to do. Because if the roles were reversed, she would have done the same for him.
That is the crossroads gaming finds itself at. Is gaming just for the few or is it for everyone? Do we want to have a hobby that’s welcoming or one that excludes? Is it better to have something that more people can enjoy, even if it means that sometimes you might not get exactly what you want?
I think the answers are honestly pretty obvious. In the end, you have to choose a side. You realize you’re caught between two points and you move to one. This is a game that is, in many ways, the last gasp of “what was” while working toward “what will be,” a game that’s at once shockingly backwards and stunningly progressive. Like its protagonist, like its plot, like its theme, like its industry.
Were this intentional, it’d be brilliant. Instead, it’s accidentally astute, tripping rather than walking into its goals even if it does so with an accidental style. It manages to provoke thought, but not in the ways it planned, manages to stimulate without hitting the notes that it meant to hit. A fairly straightforward brawler following the road set down by its predecessors or a remix and return to a different sort of stylish action?
This is our crossroads.
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