Post Script

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

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