The Poetry of Kong: Lost on Duty

There’s a simple sort of poetry about Donkey Kong Country Returns that is rarely found in modern video games. It’s a resonant, age-old tale: the lumbering, broad-shouldered ape and his bite-sized sidekick on a long crusade for their stolen bananas — a story of retribution, of the essence of the vengeful thing we call human nature. It’s silent, practically wordless, and you play it at a breathless pace. The thing is brutal, a perpetual treadmill of death. It will break your soul and make you hurl the controller in rage.

Call of Duty: Black Ops is a different sort of beast. Gone are the solemn, lonely apes; we replace them with their evolutionary descendants. These monkeys don’t jump on people, they don’t throw barrels. They shoot guns. There is no poetry here; just explosions, gunshots, and bombastic soundtracks. Black Ops does not do subtlety. The game plays in short, intense bursts of frantic firefights, punctuated, of course, by hectic cutscenes and in-game events. There’s a story here, but it is lost somewhere in the proverbial buzzing of our ears. Black Ops is a spectacle, a wonderful achievement of cinematography and technology… but it isn’t a poem.

DKCR is lean, tempered. Each gameplay aspect is carefully chosen, masterfully tweaked, and each of these aspects melds together into something that is undeniably smooth and rhythmic; each gameplay aspect is a word. If you put them all together, all the words, all the game mechanics you get more than the sum of its parts: a poem.

DKCR plays with a delirious, frantic rhythm. The game’s control scheme is basic, but it’s anything but simple. There is little to no barrier for the uninitiated. There is no perk system. It’s just you and the level. The flow of the game, the panicked leaps from platform to platform, the desperate grasps for a vine, the pure destructive ecstasy of a rhinoceros — they all make up various parts of the delirious fun that is DKCR.

On the other hand, it’s easy to sing the praises of the Black Ops‘ super-charged approach to game and set-piece design. DKCR, though, has its own sort of spectacle. Whereas Black Ops may attempt to impress the player with huge explosions, a nuclear blast, DKCR does it with a massive tidal wave, a falling rampart, or a ravenous onslaught of bugs. Note the important difference: That helicopter falling from the sky, ablaze, surrounded by a deafening boom and a Bruckheimer-esque swell of ominous tones? It can’t kill you. That far off explosion, that jeep flipping over? It can’t kill you. Black Ops is a game of sound and fury, signifying nothing. DKCR, though, offers you relentless death with each memorable moment. The spectacle in DKCR is within the level design — not, as it is essentially in Black Ops, separate from it.

The art of gameplay is lost somewhere in Black Ops. Sure, the shooting feels nice and tight; there are enough guns to last a lifetime. The mechanics are great, but the game lacks synergy. DKCR has an electricity about it, a flow of sorts. Black Ops, on the other hand, is a rigid, choppy affair. DKCR is a poetic run for one’s life (or bananas), while Black Ops — a spectacle, no doubt — is something of a stumble from one ornate set-piece to the next. It has workable mechanics, certainly, but they don’t come together. They’re just words, no poetry.

That, then, is where the poetic nature of DKCR comes from: the synergy of the gameplay mechanics, level design, and the consequence of the level design on the game experience. This combination gives the game an undeniable flow and movement to it — one that Black Ops cannot match. There is not a dull moment in DKCR; no mindless slaughtering between memorable in-game events. Instead, the prevailing, smooth, simple controls of the game make for a great experience. The game does not tent-pole around ornaments of design, it does not let its meter or flow be defined or even inhibited by them. The bombastic, attention-grabbing gestures are part of the game, not an amusing meta-play going on around it.

An article in the latest EDGE magazine notes that modern FPS games are becoming more and more akin to light-gun games like Time Crisis and Virtua Cop. Nowhere is there more sterling of an example of this than in the recent Call of Duty entries. Players are shuttled from area to area, set piece to set piece, and expected to forgive the fact that their environments, in truth, are arbitrary. There is no poetry in that. Certainly, the mechanics of Black Ops are sound, but the gameplay is choppy and ugly — the rhythm is gone.

It would be foolish to talk about Black Ops without mentioning the multiplayer. However, it’s hard to compare multiplayer ‘Duty with single player ‘Kong. I will say this, though: I think that Black Ops‘ multiplayer is worlds above its single-player. The multiplayer, in its smooth death-frenzy, is some kind of strange, morbid poetry. Maybe a eulogy, I don’t know. It’s repetitive, sure, but it is engaging and intense. The drama that unfolds within a team deathmatch surpasses that of the campaign; the story in Black Ops might not get your brow sweating or your fingers cramping, but getting the last kill to win the game or secure a kill-streak reward will.

It’s easy, I know, to deride games like DKCR for their lack of story, their lack of presentation, and I can definitely agree there. As games hurl themselves towards the end-goal of being indistinguishable from what Hollywood churns out, they need to preserve what should always be the core of a good game: thoughtfully crafted, consequential gameplay. They have to deliver the same ease of play, while still retaining a sort of organic depth.

Moving forward, developers should look for ways to combine the precisely tuned gameplay of games like Donkey Kong Country Returns with the presentation and story of games like Black Ops. It is here that we can feel out the future of gaming. We lost something, though, in that mad chase of sales numbers, and as a result we receive shallow set-piece-crawl videogames. In these, we are reminded of what we lost, what made us all love games in the first place: poetry.


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Author: GamerNode Staff View all posts by

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