How Just Cause 4 taps into the restless spirit of mid-budget gaming
Just Cause 4 has been described online as a ‘double-A’ game, generally in tones of furtive appreciation. It’s worth pondering what exactly that term has meant and means today. On the one hand, it’s a very shaky commercial label derived from the better-known ‘triple-A’ (which was itself reportedly coined by marketing teams at gaming conventions), referring to a scale of production somewhere south of Grand Theft Auto V but rather north of Spelunky. It evokes, moreover, a period leading up to the midnoughties, when the high street remained a force to be reckoned with, retail games weren’t quite as expensive to make or distribute, and there was more room for more adventurous experiences from smaller teams. As time went by, or so the legend goes, the market became increasingly divided between the top subset of retail releases that could actually turn a profit, and a swelling horde of tiny independent teams who sold their work over the internet. Hence the demise of mid-tier publishers like Midway, creator of such outwardly shoddy but strangely worthwhile fare as Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy and Stranglehold.
According to this extremely fast-and-loose gloss of videogame-industry history, ‘double-A’ is well behind us, and yet its spectre persists. Perhaps that’s because the label today applies more to an ethos than an event. It clings on not because it has any real foundation as a historical term, but because it has come to embody a set of values, retrospectively imposed by players and developers who miss the likes of Psi-Ops. It is a specific personality of game, constructed according to an idea of what gaming can be that is a touch more experimental and forgiving than today’s big-money blockbuster culture will allow.
Such games are not to be judged purely on their production values and design elegance, much as they might often try for the same narratives, themes, styles and degrees of completeness as, say, an Uncharted or Battlefield. They are permitted to be eccentric, breakable, sold as much on the strength of their scrapes, waywardness and lack of overall unity as for how nice their guns feel to fire, or the impeccability of their scripting. They have something of the flair of the arthouse, but they are nonetheless marketed as entertainment. They are often compared to B-movies in being works of half-knowing excess, and much as with B-movies, the odd ideas they may harbour often find a wider reach for not being taken that seriously.
Viewing Just Cause 4 through this lens – as we begin to in our discussion of the physics and AI at the end of our review – threatens to save it from its own frustrations, or at least, to show them in a new, kindlier light. The game doesn’t announce itself as a ‘double-A’ work – the term is too nebulous to be directly invoked, and in any case, cult film directors rarely announce that they’re actually trying to make a cult film – but its writing nonetheless invites the association. The threadbare script may be not worth your time, but it is also well aware of the fact, and thus unafraid of wasting it: many of the cutscenes consist of pointlessly drawnout situation gags, with Rodriguez playing straight foil to some overacted goof till the conversation belatedly gets round to an objective.
In that atmosphere, some of the game’s technical flaws start to feel like they have a place, if not a purpose. The sight of a running man absent-mindedly shoving an entire fragment of radar tower ahead of him is no longer cause for a refund, but part of the same absurd carnival as the act of tethering cows to helicopters. The ability to turn your weapons on bases you’ve conquered, wrecking your hapless allies for points which can be spent to further the war effort, comes to feel boisterous rather than contradictory. There is the sense of a team laughing at itself, at its own failures, even as it sets out to deliver another monument of blockbuster entertainment, garnished with all the usual talk of revolutionary game engines and never-before-seen features.
If the spirit of the double-A game still lives, then what’s the use of it? Perhaps it can serve as a way of breaking the ice of an enthusiast culture that has become utterly polarised, with ‘triple-A’ at one end and ‘indie’ at the other. As regards how they are discussed online, the two are separate realms, never to meet halfway. We might look to indie gaming for experiences motivated by more than a desire for profit, but in branding these games as such we also sideline them, placing them beyond the remit of so-called mainstream audiences and thus, limiting their relevance. The label comes to reflect the priority of a marketing machine that wants to regard Call Of Duty or Fortnite as the centre and games like Far: Lone Sails or Owlboy as the periphery. By contrast, games badged as ‘triple-A’ are reduced to a formulaic notion of excellence that trades in content and polish.
These are deep-seated structural problems, of course, rather than some trivial question of category, but if how we categorise things is part of the problem it can be part of the solution, too. ‘Double-A’ today is a term with healing applications, in as much as it offers to bridge the gap between mega-blockbuster and niche indie. It refers to self-declared ‘mainstream’ games that seek their share of the limelight alongside the industry’s juggernauts, but which refuse to be held to the same, deadening standards.
‘Double-A’ as a term offers to bridge the gap between megablockbuster and niche indie