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We Need More Action Games Like Mad Max: Fury Road

Surprisingly few action games have the punch of the recently-released film. Kat examines why.

Analysis by Kat Bailey, .

Last night I sat down to watch one of the most entertaining action movies that I've seen in quite a long time — Mad Max: Fury Road, which was released last week and has since been recommended by basically everyone (it's currently enjoying a 98 percent rating over at Rotten Tomatoes).

Plenty has been said about George Miller's marvelous action film on other sites; but as I watched Max and Furiosa's desert escape unfold, my mind turned toward action games. Specifically, there has been only one action game recently that has excited me as much as Mad Max: Fury Road. This from a genre that is supposed to benefit from being more interactive, and thus more engaging and kinetic.

That one action game, in case you are wondering, is Bayonetta 2, which at times comes close to matching Fury Road's sheer energy. The battle atop a fighter jet that highlights the first level is a showstopper on its own. But Platinum is also in a class of its own when it comes to action games.

The truth is that a lot of action games today are handsomely designed, incredibly polished, and surprisingly rote. First-person shooters like Battlefield Hardline come immediately to mind (games that feature campaigns cut from much the same cloth as the traditional action game), but I was also surprised by how bored I ended up being by Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, which starts out promisingly but devolves as Talion becomes next to godlike.

Precious few have kept me glued to the screen in quite the same way as Mad Max: Fury Road. The reasons are worth examining.

Less is More

In writing about Fury Road, one blogger made a salient point about its pacing: "The film begins by jumping straight to the final act. This is the boxing movie where the first scene is round one of the climactic final fight. This is a Star Wars that opens with the assault on the Death Star. Mad Max respects the viewer’s time by starting the story as close to the end as possible. The film excises as much as it possibly could, leaving nothing but the lean bare essentials of the story it wants to tell."

Bayonetta 2 is still great.

In the tradition of directors like Alfonso Cuaron, Fury Road does its best to leverage the fact that films are a visual medium. It allows viewers to infer what is happening with its visual design, body language, and visual cues. There is almost no expository dialogue outside of a few lines about Furiosa's history.

You'd expect video games to take a similar approach given the interactive nature of the medium, but the genre is still heavily reliant on lengthy, non-interactive cutscenes. The Call of Duty series in particular styles itself as a blockbuster film as much as a game. That approach is echoed to varying extents in shooters and action games pretty much across the board, from The Last of Us to God of War.

A notable exception is Bioshock, which puts players in the shoes of the protagonist pretty much from the outset and leaves them there. It's tough to forget the moment you hit the water, swim toward a mysterious tower in the distance, and find a statue holding a banner inscribed with the legend, "No Gods or Kings. Only Man," which tells you almost everything you need to know about Rapture. Ken Levine's foibles as a designer merit their own separate, but he's always had a knack for using the visual medium of gaming to convey his ideas.

In the meantime, while Fury Road does everything in its power to minimize exposition, it maximizes its action scenes. Before we headed into the film, my partner gleefully called it "Chekov's everything" in reference to the old storytelling standby. Almost nothing is wasted in Fury Road, with everything from Max's V8 Interceptor to the guitar-playing herald fronting Immortan Joe's war party.

As such, Fury Road's action scenes are both tightly designed and visually interesting, ensuring that your attention never wanders even as explosions dominate the majority of the film's two-hour runtime. What's more, Fury Road makes phenomenal use of the fact that the majority of the action takes place in moving vehicles. Over the course of the film, both good guys and bad guys crawl in and out of windows, clamber over rooftops, and hang from side doors. You never know where a War Boy is going to pop up next.

Then there's the villain:

Immortan Joe is almost more important to Mad Max: Fury Road than the hero, from which the film derives its name. He is there from the beginning, eyes glaring out from behind a nightmarish skullfaced mask decorated with horse teeth, an aging warlord commanding a fanatically devoted cult. If Fury Road is in large part about women's liberation, then he is the perfect foil, screaming at one point toward one of his pregnant wives, "That's my child! My property!"

Immortan Joe's outsized impact on Fury Road makes me think of how rare it is that we get a really great villain in action games these days. Metal Gear Solid: Revengeance has an evil senator. DMC has Vergil, though he's mostly an ally throughout the course of the story. Arkham Aslyum has Batman's rogues gallery, but its boss fights are famously its weakest part. Bioshock, of course, has the taunting voice of Andrew Ryan and his haunting command, "Would you kindly?"

For as polished as action games are these days, it's tough to find a villain as memorable as Immortan Joe. And while a great game doesn't necessarily need a great villain to be successful, it rarely hurts.

Shiny and Chrome

Action games continue to be the bread-and-butter of the medium. Like summer action films, they continue to be the most reliable means by which to bring in a mainstream audience. Generally speaking, they are extremely polished and highly rated by reviewers. Some might argue that we're even in a kind of action game renaissance right now.

But there's also plenty about the genre that bugs me. While From Software and Platinum continue to push the envelope with their respective games, franchises like Assassin's Creed, Call of Duty, and Arkham have long since settled into rote design, preferring to avoid taking outsized risks that might hurt sales. With the bottom having fallen out of the middle-tier market over the past few years, the risk takers have all but vanished, Wolfenstein being a happy exception. The genre had a great run between 2005 and 2011; but since then, refinement has been the rule.

Watching Mad Max: Fury Road made me realize how rare it is these days that an action game or a shooter really makes my jaw drop. I can't think of anything off the top of my head that has quite the same mix of tight action setpieces, phenomenal art design, and memorable villains.

It is in many ways a reflection of what the action game genre can be at its best. Action games don't all need to be extended car chases, obviously, but I wouldn't mind seeing more like it.

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Comments 14

  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #1 SatelliteOfLove 3 years ago
    I should check this movie out (I've fallen off film-watching hard the last 5 years or so). I loved me some Alien and Mad Max movies.

    But there's also plenty about the genre that bugs me. While From Software and Platinum continue to push the envelope with their respective games, franchises like Assassin's Creed, Call of Duty, and Arkham have long since settled into rote design, preferring to avoid taking outsized risks that might hurt sales.

    Because while both groups of titles are built on Fear, one is from intimidating bosses and levels, and the other out of fear of failure (player, game maker, it matters not).

    This is near and dear to my heart as I'm knee-deep in Ys games atm, some action-ass action gaming par excellence.
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #2 VotesForCows 3 years ago
    Great article Kat!

    I think Platinum perfectly demonstrate the capacity for a user to control incredible action in a game. In particular, their use of risk/reward mechanics (parrying in Revengeance, dodging in Bayonetta) really make you feel invested in the action.

    Still, they don't hit the second aspect you mention - great villains. The only truly great video game villain I can think of is The Boss in MGS3. Her shadow hangs over the entire game, and that impact is matched by the beautiful final battle against her. Andrew Ryan is a great example too, particularly in how his "boss fight" subverts the traditional expectation of that experience.
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  • Avatar for gyp-casino #3 gyp-casino 3 years ago
    Mad Max is like a game without cut scenes, loading times, and inventory screens. It keeps you in the action.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #4 brionfoulke91 3 years ago
    Here's my take on it: action scenes in Mad Max are thrilling because there is a lot at stake for the characters. The key to excitement is risk.

    There is very little risk in most modern games. If you screw up, you will barely lose any of your real time. Without consequences there can't be excitement. Certain games like Bloodborne have realized this, and that's why they tend to be so beloved.

    You want an action game with pulse pounding excitement? Then infuse some RISK into the game design! Punish the player severely if they screw up and die. That's the only way to make games as exciting as Fury Road.
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  • Avatar for Kuni-Nino #5 Kuni-Nino 3 years ago
    I wouldn't call Immortan Joe a great villain. He doesn't really do much of anything. He looks awesome but nothing about him is really imposing. He is far away from someone like The Joker in TDK who was menacing (and oddly charming) and pushed the heroes to the brink and succeeded. Joe's intrigue comes from what he's supposed to represent and not much else. He's a Donald Sterling-type and time has rendered him feeble. I almost felt bad for the guy since I got the feeling that 20 years prior nobody would have dared defy him. Now the dude can't even walk outside without some sort of protective suit and mask. He's like a step away from being an invalid.

    As for action games, apart from Platinum's games, I can think of a few other games that do action well: Dragon's Dogma, Bulletstorm, and the new Tomb Raider. We usually get an extraordinary action game every year just like an extraordinary action movie. Last year we had The Raid 2 which sits mightily at the top of best action movies ever made. You think Mad Max has amazing set pieces? Go watch the Raid 2. So damn good. Too bad nobody saw it.
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  • Avatar for ericspratling56 #6 ericspratling56 3 years ago
    There really is very little like Fury Road in video games, but to be fair to video games, there's very little like Fury Road in ANY medium. So much beautifully stark imagery, creativity bursting at every seam, delirious fun with genuine emotional stakes, characterization that's sparse but not thin, etc.
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  • Avatar for ericspratling56 #7 ericspratling56 3 years ago
    Guys guys guys, I've got it:

    LEGO Mad Max: Fury Road
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  • Avatar for metalangel #8 metalangel 3 years ago
    Fury Road isn't so much a Mad Max film as it is giving people what they think a Mad Max film is. Fuel shortages and fascist cops are all but forgotten in the name of customized vehicles and driving across the desert wastes.

    I think the last game I played that had this relentless pace was Saint's Row 3. The opening robbery and then the bit with the cargo plane, it likewise just went for it and only slackened the speed later on so you could enjoy all the fun that was possible in the city.

    I do, however, think that this is why action games like CoD and Battlefield and CS:GO are so popular - it is pretty much gunfire and chaos, constantly.
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  • Avatar for christopherhughes97 #9 christopherhughes97 3 years ago
    @ericspratling56 Yeah, I think if we don't see many games measure up to Fury Road it might be only because that is setting an INCREDIBLY HIGH bar. Kat cited Platinum and From, who can measure up in this comparison only because they've literally made some of the best video games ever designed.
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  • Avatar for Ffordesoon #10 Ffordesoon 3 years ago
    @Kuni-Nino Actually, I'd argue that that's exactly why he's a great villain for the story that's being told. He's the classic abusive husband/father taken to science-fictional extremes: nightmarishly imposing, rules through fear and careful rationing of the things everyone in his "family" wants and needs, indoctrinates his "sons" with toxic ideas about what it means to be a "real man," views women as "breeders" and children as "property" - unless they're male, of course, in which case they'll be royalty. We can also see in the society he's founded what he values most, and they're all classic masculine fascinations - fast nitro-boosted cars with loud engines and chrome plating and bigass moster-truck wheels, dying while you're still young and virile in an epic explosion, heading off to war as a badass guitar solo plays behind you.

    And yet, as you mentioned, he's ultimately a flabby, sad, impotent little man who knows he's spewing bullshit. The mighty, invincible Immortan Joe is merely a set of intimidating affectations - a scary voice issuing forth from a scary mask, a breastplate that turns his dumpy flab into bulging muscles, a practiced alpha-male stride, a hair-metal mane, and even painted-on angry eyebrows. And yet, notice how quickly he drops the act the moment he realizes the Wives are gone and Furiosa has betrayed him. Notice how paranoid he acts in every single scene. Notice how terrified he is to face Furiosa in direct combat. Notice the mournful tune he chooses to play when we see him at rest, and that he is at rest exactly once.

    It's no coincidence that Furiosa ultimately defeats Immortan Joe by ripping off his scary mask. Behind all the tyranny and horror, every abuser is afraid of rejection. Abusers want to be loved, but they can't or don't want to do the work of earning that love, so they rig the game in their favor by inculcating a sense of utter powerlessness in their victims. They're needy, pitiable, absurd creatures who cloak themselves in scary armor to hide their pathetic nature. That's Immortan Joe, and that's why he's a great villain for the story Fury Road tells. At the end of the day, it's about abused women realizing their own agency and power and rising up against their abuser. In that kind of story, it's important to unmask the abuser and show how pathetic he really is.
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  • Avatar for KanaFronts #11 KanaFronts 2 years ago
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