gamesVSlife: Epic isn’t everything
posted on 08.19.12 at 07:04 AM EDT by (@admeady)
Prepare to read the word "epic" an epic amount of times.

Epic is big. Epic is awesome. Epic lets us live the fantasy of the underdog, the tale of the fragile hero armed with good intentions and a big heart. It’s big, it’s powerful and it’s seemingly unstoppable. And if it’s epic, draws breath and happens to be incredibly ugly, it probably has to die.

But epic is detached. Epic is impersonal. Epic is epic – it’s something big for the sake of being big. What was once used to define and empower, epic has seemingly become a symbol of technological mastery, the ticking of a check box. That’s not to say I’m against all things epic, mind you – I’m simply against its misuse at the hands of developers who think bigger is always better.

Video games often confront us with epic. They insist it’s evil, they insist it’s indestructible – and they always insist that it must be killed. In fact, entire narratives are hinged on its apocalyptic tendencies. Somehow, though – just somehow – it can’t quite kill the lone protagonist, who, by comparison, may as well be armed with a water pistol and a pair of slippers.

In Mass Effect’s third, for example, Shepard’s bout of man-to-giant-mechanical-shell combat in instantly transforms the Reapers into a borderline farse – their power and reputation are sacrificed in the name of the valiant hero’s badassery. Those purple-shelled, red-eyed monsters are quickly reduced to puppy dogs covered in purple paint, armed with a laser pen and a sore throat.

BioWare’s child-like enthusiasm for elevating its heroes beyond the mantle of the average person stretches epic past breaking point. In a universe ostensibly dedicated to conveying a fantastical sense of realism, their insistence that Shepard must face something infinitely larger than his or herself – and win – obliterates the Reapers as a world-ending, all-consuming threat. Simply, they pushed epic too far.

Epic can be done right, though. Bungie’s intelligent use of sky boxes in Combat Evolved made Halo feel massive; they used epic to instill a sense of something greater. In the right context, epic is a story-teller.

Snake’s encounter with Rex in Metal Gear Solid isn’t “epic” because of its size or because it glorifies its grizzled hero – it’s epic because we watch Grey Fox sacrifice himself to save the world. We watch a human being fight the unbeatable – knowing this fact – and get totally crushed. The difference between the massive and the minute paints a powerful picture of sacrifice and redemption. It wasn’t just a modern day rendition of David and Goliath.

Epic needs a breather. Give the hero a quest that lets them fight on their own terms. When pitched against an antagonist of a similar size, we can relate to it. Each side is essentially restricted by the same worldly limitations. We know what they’re capable of, and they, what we’re capable of. It’s tense, it’s real. Epic, on the other hand, almost always parts ways with a pile of betrayed expectations.

In Star Wars, Luke versus Vader is a far more intense, far more “epic” conflict than its Death Star sequences because if it’s big, shoots green stuff and happens to destroy planets, it’s probably going to die.

gamesVSlife is a weekly column dedicated to video games, life, and how games relate to life. Feel free to leave your comments and stories below.

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  • zakou

    Such an Epic read, probably the most epic of the epicness on this epic site.

    • Adam Meadows

      Epic!

  • xMCXx

     Hm, it’s true that epic battles can also happen on a more miniature and personal level.
    It doesn’t have to be a 1 km big enemy, but that’s cool, too.

  • rockman29

    Do a comparison between the latest CS:GO trailer and the latest Medal of Honor: Warfighter trailer.

    Then everyone take a step back and think which one was more awesome. It’s pretty easy!

  • ruslik

    So true, thank you. I love epic things but when it’s done right. It was completely unbelievable when Kratos was able to kill the titan by cutting his fingernails, or when Nathan was always in a life threatening situation while always managing to survive seconds before the whole place collapses and his companions just walk by without any trouble. Shadow of the Colossus was great and beautiful and epic and all that, but I still loved Ico way more because his journey felt more personal more intimate. Maybe the challenges that he faced were not exactly epic in comparison to Wardens but his journey is the one that I’ll always remember….EPIC.

  • http://www.di.fm Spicy Chicken

    Another great post Adam! ^_^

    If I may (as per usual by now *cough*) offer a slight adjunct, I’d also say one thing sorely lacking on the console side of things is self-made epic moments. I was going to post about this in the open forum but reading your post I think it fits perfectly well here.

    Basically, console games have inherited so many negatives from PC gaming, including but not limited to… overzealous DRM, rushed development supplemented by patches, cheap-skate DLC etc. Yet consoles have NOT inherited the most awesome aspect of PC gaming, the one that, for me anyway, produces some of the most truly ‘epic’ moments in gaming, modding!!!

    On console, the only way to even come close to this is to physically modify your console, a practice fraught with physical danger to your machine not to mention all kinds of piracy related stigmatization in the gaming community.

    But on PC, it only requires the modification of some files and technical know-how which is mostly shared happily for free online (note I say mostly, it has become something of a mini industry in some circles).

    And here’s the thing, in some cases, it’s as simple as being able to drive the goddamn car on whatever goddamn track that I WANT. Having finished the game. Now if you’ll excuse the indulgence, going back to GRID again (I know, I know… >__<

    It has to be a feature built in that can be unlocked by finishing the game properly and completely. Sure, you can make it optional DLC, so the cheaters (so to speak) can pay for the privilege, that's fine, but have it be a part of the game proper as well!

    Now that, dear sirs, would be EPIC! :P