One of the games I was hoping to see at E3 this year was Overstrike, the co-operative shooter from Insomniac Games first announced the year before. At the time, we still hadn’t seen anything from the actual game, just a cinematic announcement trailer that introduced us to its world and four main characters. Three months later, we now know that the reason Overstrike missed this year’s E3 was because it was in the middle of its metamorphosis into Fuse.
It’s not uncommon for a game to change during the development cycle–especially when it comes to the narrative trappings that are usually conceptualized second (or third. or fourth) to the core mechanics. What’s interesting about this case is that the narrative trappings were all that we knew about the game prior to Fuse’s formal announcement at PAX. To this end, the Fuse announcement trailer (and subsequent Kotaku interview with Insomniac CEO Ted Price) effectively erases what little we knew about Overstrike. Where Overstrike‘s launch trailer set up a color-saturated world anchored by big personalities, Fuse‘s destroys it in a wordless hail of monochromatic bullets and explosions.The desaturation of Fuse’s color palette comes with a change in the overall tone of its world. Kotaku reports that the humorous tone of Overstrike is supplanted by a “more grounded” voice. Likewise, the original cartoon-ish, “exaggerated look” is linked with a T-rating that would have limited the new Fuse’s “more hard-hitting” weapons. But why should the previous art direction and tone be thrown out with the rating? Violence in videogames is stylized by design; it seemed to me an inspired choice to embrace the medium rather than to stretch for photo-realism. What’s more is that outrageous violence and humor are not mutually exclusive in videogames, either; they’re usually intrinsically linked–if not in script, than in the social experience of playing games. What made Overstrike potentially interesting was that the site of its scripted humor was not necessarily the violence itself.
The decision to tone down the humor in Fuse–or at least in its press tour–may have been the result of cold feet on the part of publisher EA. After all, the last heavily stylized, (purportedly) humorous, and outrageously violent game EA published, Bulletstorm, underperformed in sales. However, the kind of humor that Overstrike boasted in its premier trailer differs from the “ironic” machismo of Bulletstorm–and from most humorous M-rated videogames. Where Bulletstorm’s humor was cruel and sophomoric to the point of complete nonsense, Overstrike‘s original demo used humor as a means for establishing character motivations and relationships.
In the case of Bulletstorm, its hostile sense of humor was one of the game’s USPs. Remember that trailer that was attached to the Xbox Live demo? The one that demanded the player’s hard-earned $59.99 (+tax in most states), and then called her “dicktits?” The insult is a bizarre mix of phallic and feminine signifiers meant to illicit a laugh through the shock of the (vaguely obscene) non-sequitur. In the actual game, the nonsensical verbal assault is turned on its characters, usually begetting or standing in for acts of violence. Bulletstorm firmly entrenches its humor into the act of violence itself. By contrast, Overstrike’s trailer employs humor through a combination sight gags and an inneundo-ladden narration by one of its characters.
In Overstrike, the innocuous descriptions–and occasional glowing praise–about each of Dalton’s team members are contrasted with the agent’s brutally effective tactics on the field. For example, when he says he’s “never seen her break protocol,” the audience sees the agent, Naya, stealthily neutralize a group of enemy soldiers. While the efficiency at which she takes down her enemies is exciting, the punchline isn’t the pain she inflicts; rather, it’s the way in which Dalton describes his team–downplaying their obvious violence. It serves the additional function of establishing the character’s relationship; specifically, it creates a sense of commitment to the team. I came away from the trailer thinking that Dalton and team work together on and off the field, as is evident in his desire to cover for each of them during a hostile debriefing. It was a clever (and much cooler) echo of the kind of humor that is found in the social experience of gaming–the successes and failings of teamwork. This is the kind of writing that I expect from Insomniac Games; it’s the kind of humor I would like to see the developer bring to a new audience outside the T-rating. I hope it still makes its way into the final build of Fuse–even if the game is “more grounded.”
There are still a lot of things to look forward to in Fuse. The ability to “LEAP” between different characters for optimal effectiveness sounds interesting. Additionally, as Fuse has retained the basic identities of the fours agents, it’s refreshing to see two female characters as part of the core line-up. Most shooters don’t provide players with the choice of a faceless female avatar, let alone two (two!) distinctive female characters. Considering these factors and Insomniac Games‘s track record, I’ll still probably play Fuse, but I’d also like to play Overstrike. Or hey, I’d see an Overstrike movie, too.