Notes on Titanfall 2

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1. Titanfall was very good. Considering it was made primarily by former Infinity Ward members, it very easily could’ve just been Call of Duty multiplayer but with giant robots. But it managed to be more than that. Respawn thought carefully about the game’s balance. They had to. The giant robots couldn’t just be an instant win. Counterintuitively, if the game was to be about how amazing these big robots were, there needed to be advantages to not being in a robot. The obvious way to deal with this was level design: doorways and building interiors that a titan can’t fit into. Each Titanfall map had a mixture of wide roads and open areas for the Titans and twisting corridors and rooftops for the nimble Pilots. Make it so the player has to leave the titan sometimes. Easy.

The less obvious approach: make not being in a titan feel really good. If the titans are giant, clunky, invincible machines, then the pilots have to be the opposite of that. This isn’t just the default Call of Duty first-person controller. You can auto-dash, wall-run, slide, double-jump. The repertoire of your character opens up Titanfall’s maps in exciting ways. When you are clomping around in your titan, pilots could be anywhere around you while you are stuck in your little area. Titanfall didn’t just make the robots feel good. It ensured the robots and the humans felt polemically different, each contrasting and accentuating the strengths of the other. 

Yet, Titanfall was only a multiplayer game. As a new studio built in the ashes of Infinity Ward amidst messy lawsuit proceedings, the developers abandoned any sort of single-player campaign. For many, this isn’t a problem. For many players of military shooters, the single-player campaign is this weird little afterthought to a primarily online and competitive experience. But I guess I’m from a different age of console game players. For me, the multiplayer is just some thing you muck around with after the story is over. A mixbag of mechanics and moments from the story. A ‘greatest hits’ remix. Of course, how games are designed these days is very much the former. The single-player campaign exists almost to train players in the abilities and elements that they will then use in multiplayer.

But I just don’t care about competitive multiplayer games, no matter how good they are. It’s simply not why I want to play videogames. There’s some obvious reasons here: the abusive language (though, on consoles hardly anyone actually seems to use a mic), Australia’s terrible internet speed, and of course my general lack of skill. But I also just dislike the rhythms or multiplayer games. The time spent in lobbies and queues and between games and waiting to respawn. The whole being dependent on other people. That’s not how I play videogames. When I sit down at night for an hour or so of games before I go to bed, I don’t want to spend half of that time waiting for other people (or waiting because of other people). The rhythms are wrong.

And yes, quite simply I am not good enough at most competitive shooters to enjoy them online. It feels like a fundamental flaw with competitive videogame design: for someone to win someone else has to lose, and that normally just feels frustrating and annoying. But you watch the videos of skilled, competent players playing Titanfall or Modern Warfare or Counter Strike and the way they move is incredible. The way they are so attuned to what their hands are doing. The twitching and the reflexes. The one-ness with the machine. It looks so satisfying. It is something I am regularly jealous of.

I loved the mechanics and the design of Titanfall. I loved how it felt and how it looked and how you moved. But it was multiplayer only, so I got bored and frustrated. I wasn’t good enough to reach that state of synapse zen between me and the bodies I moved through its world. I appreciated it for what it was, and accepted it was not something I would ever really commit to.

2. More than anything else, Titanfall 2’s campaign is easy. Not the boring sort of easy, but the slick, fluid sort of easy. At every moment, it is very clear what is expected of you, and you have the ability to just do it. And in doing it, you feel incredibly powerful. You feel like that really impressive Titanfall player you watched kill you in the replay, baffled by how fast they seemed to react. Titanfall 2’s single player campaign captures the feeling of being a really good Titanfall player. Separated from the superior skills of other players, every player can be the most-powerful entity in their own single-player campaign.

The entire philosophy behind what Titanfall 2 is trying to offer players is summed up in this trailer, that also serves as the game’s opening cinematic. Look at how freaking cool pilots are. Look at how they move. Look at how they respond. Look at how inventive they are. The fact they also have access to these giant mechwarrior robots is almost an afterthought. An ‘oh yeah, by the way…’. The central premise behind Titanfall 2 is that this character you embody is some sort of militarised gun-ninja. A lethal Batman in fastforward. The game’s greatest success is that every moment of the game perfectly realises this philosophy. The game feels like what this opening cinematic looks like. That’s it. That’s the feeling of Titanfall 2.

Titanfall 2 is easy because you’re character is incredibly skilled. Whereas most shooters rely on providing opportunities for the player to demonstrate how skilled they are, Titanfall 2 is more akin to a game like Assassin’s Creed in the way it streamlines actions that should be difficult because your character is so skilled. Wallrunning is easy. Double jumping is easy. Tricking enemies and re-appearing behind them is easy. Everything is easy because you are that character in that cinematic, so of course it is easy.

It lets me roleplay that spectacular professional multiplayer shooter performance I will never be able to actually achieve in a safe, crafted, single-player environment. And it is so incredibly satisfying.

3. The game could have just been a series of arenas where you move around with your different abilities and pick off enemies one by one. That would’ve sufficed, and it would’ve been very satisfying. But Titanfall 2 is unique among military shooters for its endless inventiveness if the sort of challenges you face. Most Call of Duty levels, if you stripped them down, would have you doing pretty much the same sort of thing: running down a corridor shooting. Despite what others say, this isn’t a problem. The treadmill of a well-crafted Call of Duty campaign is immensely satisfying to just do over and over again, like rewatching a silly action flick. But Titanfall 2, on the other hand, introduces new ideas nearly every level then discards them just as quick. I mentioned on Twitter that it is the Super Mario Galaxy of military shooters in the way that it feels like someone filled a whiteboard with brainstormed ideas, and then just shoved every single idea into the game.

But the game doesn’t feel messy or bloated or full of arbitrary stuff for the sake of it. Instead, each mission is carefully crafted around the single idea explored in that mission. Sometimes this is just ‘do lots of platforming’. Other times it is ‘you have a special bracelet that lets you warp through time for some reason’ or ‘stab a knife into this spaceship’s control panel and fly it around like it’s a flight stick I guess’. But it always works, and it never sticks around for so long to become some sort of convention. It’s introduced; you learn how to use it very quickly; you play with it for a while; you move on. There’s almost a Warioware-esque cycle of “oh god what is going on- oh it is over- oh god what is going on now?”

4. I imagine one of the greatest challenges of crafting a Titanfall campaign is figuring out how to incorporate the titans themselves. In multiplayer, where respawning is a thing, it’s easy: you get the titan as a reward for doing good, and then it eventually blows up and goes away but then you can spawn another one later. But in the storyworld of Titanfall, the pilot isn’t just driving any old robot. They have a direct connection with one specific titan. So that one titan is going to hang out with you for the whole game. How do you present that without just having the player sit in their giant robot for the whole game?

Cleverly, Titanfall 2’s campaign approaches the titan more as an idea than a mechanic. You don’t need to be able to drive your titan whenever you want. You need to feel like you are a pilot who has a titan they can depend on. Wisely, the campaign is setup in such a way that you regularly have to leave your titan behind for some reason or another. Or, instead of simply riding your titan, you follow them like a companion NPC through the terrain. Very much like D0g in Half-Life 2. Your titan becomes this kind of deus ex machina catch-all rather than just an invincible war machine with unlimited ammo for you to use whenever you want. Just like the opening cinematic, the times you do get to blast a bunch of enemies with your Titan feel like a crescendo of the level, rather than the core loop. That final ‘shit just hit the fan so leap through the fire and brimstone into the arms of your robot friend and then blast everything in sight’ before the fade to black.

5. Halo wanted you to feel like a cyborg supersoldier. One of the main ways it succeeded was having enemies that literally ran away from you, terrified. The little grunt enemies were easy to mop up and posed no real challenge. But it was the way they posed no challenge that made you feel so powerful. Not the ‘actually’ powerful of winning against an equal, but the experiential veneer of performing powerfulness.

Titanfall 2’s enemies work in a similar way. They regularly seem terrified of you and your abilities. Constantly remarking that they’ve lost visual, or shakily shouting out “Can anyone see him?”. On the time-warping stage (which truly must be my favourite stage of any game in a long time), as you phase in and out of the time period with the soldiers shooting at you, you catch snippets of their radio chatter. “There’s an intruder!” “Where is he?” “He seems to have some sort of advanced cloaking device?” “How did he do that?”. You can picture what this is like from their point-of-view. You almost are seeing yourself act in third-person. You see yourself in that opening cinematic. You imagine this character not just disappearing but just suddenly being somewhere else. You imagine what that must look like to these poor souls you are obliterating.

It’s a small detail, but one so important to amplify that experience the game is going for.

6. I’ve been tweeting a lot about how much I am enjoying Titanfall 2’s campaign. Truly, it is probably the most fun I’ve had in a shooter campaign since Wolfenstein: The New Order. But I’m bracing for the eventual response from someone who started playing the game because I said the campaign was good, where they tell me the story is actually terrible. I feel like by saying ‘the campaign is really good’, that people might be interpreting that as ‘the story is really good’.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about videogames and narrative. Or, rather, I’ve been increasingly thinking about how utterly disinterested I have become in thinking about games through the lens of narrative. It’s equal parts overdone and reductive. I’m not saying we need to return to a ludology mechanics-only sort of approach to videogames. Rather, I feel that with focuses on narrative we never got past the old story/game dichotomy. We just look at one bit instead of the other bit. I keep reading academic articles and theses and talking to students and bloggers where it seems if we aren’t talking about ‘mechanics’ then we must be talking about ‘narrative’. It’s just so reductive.

Videogames don’t have to tell stories. Videogames can tell stories, but they are not inherently better at doing this than books or films. They are just another way stories can be told. Years passed where we assumed that videogame stories were going to get ‘better’. And they did! But not in the triple-a space we were expecting them to get better. They got better when altgame and Twine creators started making games that in no way obeyed existing videogame conventions to instead tell their stories as the primary priority of their design.

Triple-a is still, for the overwhelming part, schlock. They are dumb action flicks. And that is absolutely fine. I am not waiting for big triple-a publishers to make more literary meaningful works, because I can get that from any number of altgame or twine creators (or, for that matter, books). From triple-a, I want my big spectacle and my mindless, good-feeling rhythms and superpowers. I don’t want triple-a to try to be ‘smart’ in some sort of big ideas literary way because they are never going to be. I want triple-a games that are sincere about what they are: dumb action flicks. I want triple-a games that embrace that full-heartedly and proudly. Not in some anti-intellectual sense, but in an earnest sense. Simply: this is what we are.

I will take this any day over the self-serious faux-intelligence of a game like Bioshock Infinite or Far Cry 3 that is trying to be ‘smart’ but, really, is just another shooter. Give me a shooter that accepts and is proud of the fact it is just another shooter.

Titanfall 2’s story is schlock. It is ‘not good’. Every character is ultimately forgettable. Each of the mercenaries is a cardboard cutout archetype with a different bad guy accent. The overall story is about some sort of timetravelling Halo-Forerunner technology being used to create a Star Wars-Death Star to wipe out the rebels. It’s not that the story is ‘bad’ but that it is all it has to be for Titanfall 2 to do what it wants to do, which is to put the player in situations where they can do some cool shit with their giant robot friend. The story, here, is thought about just enough to give context to your actions, and that is all it has to be. It does what it needs to do, then it gets out of the way.

So this particular note is a pre-emptive one, because I am sure some are conflating my praise of the campaign with praise of a particular story, and I find it interesting how we assume a single-player game with a story must be played, primarily, to experience that story. On the contrary, I am going to play Titanfall 2 over and over again because it feels really good. The schlocky story contributes to this really good feeling in the way it contextualises my moment-to-moment actions, but the story itself is not the point.

Increasingly, I feel liberated by not seeking good storytelling experiences in videogames. I can get that from the books I read. Videogames offer me something else.

7. All that said, the character of your titan, BT, stands out from the roster of forgettable characters. Respawn have gone with the entirely typical AI-that-doesn’t-understand-figurative-language approach, and managed to craft a robot companion that you are able to truly care about over the course of the game’s arbitrary events. There’s some great moments where BT jumps in and saves you, others where you save him. There are moments of banter and trust and that one corny time he gives you a thumbs up. By making BT a personified character that hangs around with you, rather than just a vehicle you occasionally use, the game is able to strengthen that sense that a pilot and a titan have this intimate, fundamental bond in a way just mechanics probably couldn’t.

Which, really, reflects the approach taken towards the whole game. The point of a shooter’s single-player campaign isn’t to be all-powerful but to feel all-powerful. Titanfall 2 doesn’t just take the mechanical skeleton of its multiplayer component and translate that into a series of single-player maps. Rather, it focuses on a central feel that the multiplayer modes reveal only to their best players. Lightning fast reflexes, amazing acrobatics, simply being better than everyone else. I am never going to get that in a competitive multiplayer shooter, but Titanfall 2’s single-player campaign lets me feel like that with a consistency and a rhythm and a novelty that should be commended.

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