Villian’s Exposition: Command and Conquer, Act on Instinct

Very few people today will deny that the original C&C was an amazing game. In addition to a fairly realistic physics engine, an intriguing plot that actually bordered on the believable and an interface that streamlined play, Command & Conquer was also one of the first games to standardize the use of live-action cut scenes – usually for mission briefings. Prior to C&C, the third installment of the Wing Commander series was the only successful game to incorporate what, at the time, seemed like a minor point, even if it did make the games that much more awesome.

Today, the mission briefings for C&C seem a bit hammed-up, and certainly nothing to write home about. With the exception of Kane’s murder of Seth in one of the later Brotherhood missions, about the only “action” in them is when the screen would cut to CGI explosions. For the most part, you had an actor either standing in the open or sitting at a desk.

Not, I should say, anything that qualifies as award-winning acting.

However, the inclusion of these live-action FMV sequences was more than just a nice bonus and a way to show off new advances in hardware and software development. It was both of those, of course, but that’s not all that it was. Instead, both C&C and Wing Commander were at the very crest of a trend in gaming that was gaining momentum as a result of those advances. Despite the fact that the game centered around a global terrorist organization that could confront the UN on an equal footing; despite the fact that everything hinged upon the presence of an alien substance that leeched minerals out of the earth; despite even the fact that Bialystock is the setting for a major battle in the future of the Earth (they didn’t forget Poland), that trend was realism.

Today “realism” doesn’t even seem like a trend, or a goal to be striven for. It’s something that every game boasts, every physics engine tries to manage, and every gamer demands. If your racecar drifts too easily, or your shotgun doesn’t cause enough recoil, somebody should have worked harder on the coding. If the running back can break a full-on tackle, or you can hear laser cannons firing in space, it “detracts from the gameplay.” The idea that games should be as realistic as possible – given the constraints of the setting and story – is so ingrained, most people who weren’t playing games more than a decade ago don’t even realize that it’s not integral to good games.

To be fair, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Beyond increasing the ability to fully immerse oneself in a game, some kinds of realism make things more exciting because you can identify better with what’s going on. Chances are you’ll never find yourself shooting at G-men trying to cover up a massive conspiracy, but you can appreciate how distinguishing between weapons that do and don’t make a noise can make a game experience more rewarding.

However, there are limits to how realistic a game can be, even today. Twelve years ago, these limits were even more glaring, where graphics processing wasn’t good enough to distinguish between a piece of terrain and your trooper, sometimes, and CPUs weren’t fast enough to handle all of the calculations that go into a semi-realistic physics engine.

How, then, was the game of yesteryear supposed to draw in players? How was it supposed to immerse them in the world of the game, by creating a gaming experience with which they could relate? The answer, Westwood Studios discovered, was designing things as realistically as possible and then presenting the players with someone or something that speaks to them directly – another person.

To be fair, there were games prior to C&C that invoked the much-vaunted FMV live-action sequence. Mad Dog McCree was one of several games for the Sega CD (alas, poor Vay, I knew thee well…) that were mostly FMV and even allowed the player to interact with the actors on-screen in limited ways (usually these involved killing someone, not killing someone, or dying). However, these games didn’t have much staying power; they were often cheesy, ran on unpopular platforms (and required the power of said platforms to perform effectively) and were incredibly short (due to storage limitations, a fact that was partially circumvented by making them preposterously difficult).

C&C, however, included a physics engine that, while not perfect, still pretty accurately simulated the effects of incoming fire. It gave players a world where things were just different enough that the plot was plausible. It presented players with units that were either copies or drew heavily from vehicles and weapons found in real arsenals around the world. Finally, even though it played in a fairly detached view (you’re sitting at 10,000 feet commanding units, for the most part), it actually presented the players with people for whom they were supposed to be working. The mentats in Dune 2 filled this role to an extent, but you can only get so attached to a character who is shown to be talking by looping five mostly identical frames of animation – and without any sort of plot-altering changes.

And, as Command & Conquer showed, it was hugely popular. Emperor: The Battle for Dune, Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun, Command & Conquer: Red Alert 1 and 2… All not only continued the trend of live-action briefings and cut-scenes, but even dedicated significant budget to hiring well-known actors to play roles. Barry Corbin, James Earl Jones, Ivan Allen, Billy Dee Williams, and Patrick Bauchau all played major roles in C&C games, and given how much better the games have progressively sold, chances are that things will only go up from here.

So what, then, does this all mean? Well, it means that innovation doesn’t need to come in gameplay alone. It means that atmosphere plays a major role in all games, not just RPGs. It means that while Command & Conquer wasn’t the dawning of a new era, Westwood was smart enough to see which way the winds were blowing in both the gaming market and software and hardware development – and more impressive still, was able to capitalize on the future with the technology of the present.

So for once, I won’t end on a note telling you to better appreciate old games. If I do that much more, I’m going to have to change the name of this column to “El Retro.” No, this time I’m going to recommend you look ahead. Look at what we have now, look at what the games coming out this very day are like – and see if you can do as good a job guessing what will be popular in a decade.

Get back to me then, and let me know if you got it right.