The reason most game narratives plod along differently from other forms of entertainment is because of how their structures developed. Game play was (and is) the reason for games after all, not stories. Interactivity. It's what makes them great but it's also because of that reason that games broke up the action by levels. Like Asteroids, Mario and Sonic. Some of it was to break up the action, other parts to ramp of the difficulty on an over arching plot that took hours and hours to work through. Even open world games have a variation of leveling by following the next highlighted marker on the map to advance the story. You might not be fighting a boss at the end but you are “leveling” by gaining new clothes, guns and what have you. If you take it far enough back, the idea of leveling comes from old role playing table top board games.
Television, on the other hand, works in episodes to tell a story. With “Hardline,” the breezy episodic nature is where the review of this title begins and ends. Never being one for “Battlefield” games, I picked this one specifically because I’m hungry for story driven games after finally finishing up Wolf Among Us, which was a game broken up in to bite sized episodes.
One of the things that “Wolf” showed me is that I can put down and come back to and be able to get right back into it. Games didn't have to be an all-consuming event. I think of Skyrim as the touchstone game for most people. When you’re playing it, that’s IT. It sits in your tray, never to be removed until it’s finished (or you are finished with it).
There have been episodic games before but what intensified this type of game for me was that I played Hardline at the same time I was finally getting to 2011’s LA Noire. Rockstar’s games fall mostly into the Skyrim territory of game. The GTA series and Red Dead Redemption being games that rarely left my tray for months on end but LA Noire is different in that it’s chopped up into different episodes. There is an overall narrative but there are twelve mini-dramas that play out that have beginning, middle and an end. You can even play the game in black and white to drive home the episodic nature.
Games broken up into episodes not doubt litter my game playing history and to be sure I’ve played more than a game at a time in the past but this is the first time I remember doing it so easily - like, how easy it is to watch a couple different shows in an evening. I’d go from being a modern day cop in Miami to playing a detective in 1940s Los Angeles (surreal moment when playing both LA now and LA 70 years ago) fairly effortlessly and able to follow along both stories. Hardline did became more of the “Hawaii 5-0” type show to Game of Thrones that LA Noire was, however. It got me wondering if I could consume two types of “Thrones” and still enjoy the experience (like the playground, volleyball on a string, GoT was the metal pole). This isn’t to say Hardline was forgettable. It’s not but the story is enough there to keep me coming back and not having to worry about details.
In another interesting confluence of events while playing LA Noire was reading up on reviews of the game as I was finishing it up and came across Tom Bissell’s incredible Grantland review [here] of the game. This led me to gathering up and reading everything of his I could get my hands on (which, funny enough, I’ve read and enjoyed before without knowing it was him). Turns out that Tom’s hands are all over Hardline as one of the writers. I’m not sure if I would have preferred knowing this before or after I played but it’s satisfying the way it happened.
As I worked my way through the first few episodes it felt similar to something like True Detective but as it marched on it became much more like a network drama. And that’s okay. Actually that’s perfect.
I mean, I did wonder - was I even a cop at the end arresting people in the middle of the desert after I was arrested? Why did copywriters misspell “Columbia” (Colombia) in the subtitles when the whole game as based around “Hot Shot” originating from there? The best way to sum up the writing in the game is ponder why a couple of the games main characters, who are millennials, talk about how it’s “like the 80s all over again,” (something I got past by thinking their experience of the 80s was GTA Vice City and thus contemplating what shapes history in games. Like, is there a Video Game history that new games should follow sort of like history in Star Wars?).
There are a handful of oddball game mechanics that might make veterans of games like Splinter Cell, which has similar gameplay, cringe (cuffing dudes privately always being an option, even in crowded badguy lairs) that I think exist as a 1st draft or template for future games. It’s a great start for the series and, like Bissell says, doesn’t reinvent the storytelling wheel.
Recently it seems game players and AAA game makers have to hit a homerun every release. It advances the medium quickly but also sets unreasonable expectations (and a lot of reason why smaller, more focused games are booming). I think what Hardline tells me is that not everything has to be a Wagyu Rib-Eye, sometimes a good hamburger is all that’s needed.
Hardline is a network TV show. It looks good, solid acting, fun to play, doesn’t consume the player and has some simple but different ways of approaching game narratives. I’ll take that.