Ah, my turn.
“Davis! Davis, he's – he's pinned down, the muton's got him pinned. Oh christ, Davis, just hold on!”
The quavering orders from command didn't help, but it's not like Davis had a choice. He hunkered down onto the earth beneath his feet. The suppression of plasma tore his cover in half. All he could do was get down as low as he could and stare at the dirt until it was all over.
“Fuck, goddammit. We need to, um, who has smoke grenade?”
“Flores? No, fuck, but I can definitely imagine a scenario where we're going to need all three of those medkits.”
“Vandermeer! Yes, thank christ almighty, get that smoke grenade on him, get him that cover, now.”
It fizzles and pops into a dense, purple cloud. Davis hears the hiss of the dissipating smoke all around him. He feels a little safer.
“ALIEN ACTIVITY, EVERYONE. HOLD ON TO YOUR TITS.”
The mutons push forward with a force of a thousand black belt-tier karate kicks to the sternum. They open fire, almost blindly, at Davis.
Davis looks up. He will live to see another day.
Here's the reality of it: I made a bad click in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the most ass-clenching game of 2012, and Davis overextended, triggering some mutons that wound up suppressing him. I made him hunker down, giving him that defensive bonus while cutting off line of sight. I tabbed through my soldiers until I got to the support with smoke grenade, giving Davis that extra defensive bonus. The result was some missed muton shots, leaving Davis unscathed once more.
But the magic of it was how much of the scenario turned into a scene of peril and suspense when filtered through someone completely involved in the game. There's little about XCOM that's actually literal; it's an abstraction of numbers and dice rolls where you can take as long as you want to figure out the most optimal solution, but the imagination bubbles.
You aren't just stacking up two assaults up a door – that's Ramirez and Tymon readying for a breach into a room they know they haven't cleared. A reaction shot isn't just a mechanic in the game – that's rookie Valdez on anxious patrol and then TOTALLY FREAKING OUT by the sectoid skirting around her line of sight, making her anxiously pull the trigger. And when sniper Grant is taking his reaction shot with the opportunist perk, that's a man with ice in his veins, for his tour of duty spans over two dozen missions and has an uncanny cool. Double Tap isn't just a final ability. Grant can take out two x-rays in a blink of an eye. Everyone looks up to him.
It's – it's that word – immersive, which makes a game like XCOM such a nice reminder against an industry that's so obsessed with the term. It's understandable and admirable, but incredible visuals and being very literal with the presentation of the world isn't the only way to pull this off.
Hotline Miami has a great understanding of this too. What you're seeing is a top-down perspective of your guy pushing through a door and seeing a little pixel fist knocking some other top-down guy off his feet and then clicking to smash his pixel face in. It's another abstraction, but the grittier details are being filled in with great precision by the player – Ryan Gosling's kicked that door down, rushed the Miami gangster before he had a chance to react and now he's feeling the steel of his own crowbar as Gosling smashes his face in. There's blood everywhere – on the curtains, the mirrors, the tiles. It's like he fed this guy a live grenade.
It's a bit of a demand, to be imaginative, especially when so many games aim for an explosive literalness that has come to define Uncharted and Call of Duty's greatest, most “immersive” moments, but it's an amazing part of the brain that's gone so underutilized. It's the internal narrative going on in the player that's most interesting – what he's thinking, what he's interpreting from the going-ons in the game – but obviously a lot of games just can't support this. Being in first-person is going to be inherently incompatible with abstractions. A tightly scripted video game has little room for the internal, player narrative to spring forth. A game like Dishonored must show very literally what the player is doing because of its perspective and it does so with some incredible results. It's perhaps a greater achievement than either XCOM or Hotline Miami because it lives up to what is being imagined, but the point is: