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July 17, 2007

Peanut Butter in my Chocolate. Again.

The Departed Trauma Center: Second Opinion

Elsewhere in this increasingly sporadic blog I've commented on how it can be interesting to mash together unusual elements in the hopes of finding new nuances or textures¹. But it can be equally uninteresting to add the same old elements to every experience. [Note: spoilers ahead.]

Case in point: The Departed, which I finally caught on DVD the other night. There are some really interesting performances here, and a terrifically bleak atmosphere of moral ambiguity. Everyone is in bed with everyone else; the first substantial character to die is also perhaps the most virtuous. Admittedly, some of the direction seems almost heavy-handed, particularly in the treatment of Matt Damon's character, who Scorcese seems to be at pains to paint as the worst of a bad bunch - he's the only character whose face gets roughed up, and at least the last quarter or so of his film time shows him with cuts and scrapes; furthermore, we never see him do anything that isn't underhanded, he's the least ambiguous character in the film². It's a great undercover story, with everyone undercover, even the ones you least expect to be.

But tacked onto this really interesting and ambiguous environment is a love interest angle, with Vera Farmiga in the center of it³. I like her and all, she's nice to look at and has very alluring eyes, but come on! Not every movie needs a love interest. I don't mean to say that her character has no place in this film whatsoever -- actually, I think it's kind of interesting that we see Dicaprio's inner turmoil reflected in a visit to a shrink4, and the economical laws of screenwriting almost guarantee that that character needs to play a double role in the film, but come on. It's like a recipe written by a committee -- "no matter what the chef says, our focus groups say that everything's better with butter, so add a stick to that saffron-mint lamb chop you've been working on". It's as if Griffin Mill had creative input on the project5.

I came away feeling that a very good movie could have been a half hour shorter, lost an unnecessary element, and become substantially better.

I felt exactly the same way playing Trauma Center: Second Edition recently. In fact, I had to put the game down and haven't picked it up again, except to demonstrate for friends and family some of the more interesting uses of the Wii-mote I've seen.

I was really enjoying this game, essentially a fun update to Operation, the wacky doctor game, except that instead of merely steady hands, you also needed to remember procedures and work pretty quickly to get the best scores for each surgery, and the nunchuck and wii-mote interface which feels really slick and nice. Plus, there was a little side story going on, reminiscent of cheap "nurse and doctor romance" paperbacks of the 1950s, about a young doctor (ostensibly the player) who was trying to learn the ropes as a surgeon. There was also a parallel storyline involving a doctor who seemed to be living life a little bit like a fugitive -- I don't really recall the details of that, because I hadn't gotten much into that storyline yet.

So, here I am, thoroughly enjoying this environment, when all of a sudden, I begin to see signs of something unnecessary intruding. First, it's that the main character is apparently the descendant of Asclepius, the Greek demigod of medicine. That made me a little nervous... but it allowed for the ability to add bullet-time, and it's hard to swing a dead cat around videogames these days without having some sort of bullet-time. So, I tried to chalk it up to some sort of special focus that the character had, and tried to leave it at that. But it was nagging at me.

Another operation or two down the line had me facing a young girl who had tried to kill herself -- a fairly simple case, mostly involving suturing lacerations, if I recall correctly. But the storyline took a weird turn here -- after we spend a little time with her in a cutscene, we can tell she was depressed and feels pretty bad now about what she must have put her parents through. Suddenly, she's back in the O.R., where her lacerations are showing up again suddenly and spontaneously. Back in we go.

That's where I had to put the game down; I had been enjoying this reasonably logical surgery game with a side-story with perhaps some romance and soap opera elements when suddenly and spontaneously magic appeared. Here I am, no longer a struggling young doctor, but instead the direct descendant of a demigod, fighting the physical manifestations of Guilt6. Was this really necessary?

It's not that I was looking for realism -- after all, there's a sort of magical cleaning/healing antibiotic solution that helps promote blood-clotting or something. But the unrealistic elements were in service of gameplay -- the sheets of tissue-healing stuff you'd put over an internal incision was simply a step on the way back from having cut out a tumor and needing to patch that hole (and could be sufficiently general purpose to serve this role in multiple surgeries, rather than a specific device which might clutter the interface). I was enjoying building up my skills along the lines of what a real surgeon might be called to do -- first simple, external procedures involving removing broken glass, then more involved internal issues like broken bones, then tumors, maybe building up to things like transplants and other really complex real-world examples, while enjoying the story of Derek learning how to be a Real Grown-Up Doctor™ and maybe falling in love with a nurse or this other doctor character. Instead, I got magic. Instead of a courageous and interesting fiction, which I agree with Tadhg Kelly is important, I got something out of the Hardcore Gamers Focus Test Playbook -- when in doubt, add some magic to the mix.

I'm not all "holier than thou" about it -- after all, I did spend the first seven years of my career making Star Wars games, and the number of times we'd wave our hands over some bit of magic and say, "It's Star Wars" is not small (and LucasArts employed someone just to be on top of such canon and "extended universe" fiction issues). But we were making Star Wars games for Star Wars fans -- not growing the gaming market, as Nintendo purports to be doing with the Wii and DS. My mother enjoyed our brief time playing Trauma Center: Second Opinion together, even trash-talking my suturing skills (she's an Adult Nurse Practitioner), but had she been playing it alone and not skipping past all the fiction, as I was doing, I suspect she would have gotten to the magic and been a little let down, as I was.

Designers, feel free to take chances -- you don't have to fall back on the Playbook. It may not always work, but please, give it a shot, because sometimes it will, and the games will be more interesting for that.

¹Indeed, this was part of the charming description of cooking presented in Ratatouille, which I finally saw this weekend with the boys. It was a great little movie, and one I'd highly recommend, but not the subject of today's chat. (back)

² It's almost cute how he is surprised and bothered by the fact that Nicholson's character has been feeding information to the "feebs" for years. (back)

³ And there's another bit of directorial heavy-handedness for you: while we see Leonardo Dicaprio's character romancing Farmiga, we see very little of that with Matt Damon. In fact, Dicaprio gets the love scene with her, and Damon's bed scene with her is considerably less romantic, where he basically says, "If this isn't good, you'll need to go, because I'm Irish and I'll stick with it even if it's bad." (back)

4 One almost wonders if there's more to that story, that maybe there was something having to do with his mother or his estranged uncle that ended up on the cutting floor or was part of the formative years of his character. Dicaprio's performance is splendid enough to make you believe there might be.(back)

5Bonus points to those playing our home game if you knew who Griffin Mill was without checking, and keep in mind, we're using the honor system. I had an unfair advantage, I just watched that again last year. (back)

6To be fair, Gamefaqs indicates that apparently this "Guilt" turns out to be some sort of terrorist-created virus -- but to me, that's not a lot different, and maybe even a little worse since it's inconsistent with the Asclepius angle. It's still magic. (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at July 17, 2007 08:16 AM


I would definitely recommand you watch "Infernal Affairs", the movie "The Departed" if an adaptation of. Much more ambiguity in the characters, much less cheap romance.
Also, I didn't remember who Griffin was and I love this movie!

Posted by: Stephane at July 17, 2007 04:38 PM

Seeing as you warned of spoilers...

I've got little to add aside from "I wholeheartedly agree about the needless introduction of a super-virus/parasite/whatever" in Trauma Center. (I played it on DS, but believe it's the same game with added surgeries.)

It was at that point that I sighed heavily and decided to trudge on through a less-enjoyable-but-not-bad game. Later in the game the player must use his surgical skills to disarm a bomb, which was a very creative way to vary the gameplay, but without completely disrupting believability. Of course I guess it's partly my fault for not expecting something like super-parasites in a video game...

(And I also didn't remember who Griffin Mill was.)

Posted by: Jeffool at July 21, 2007 07:20 AM