November 30, 2007

If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it is that you can kill anyone.

I'm beginning to feel obsolete. I don't mean because of my readership of four. I mean, mostly, that I'm talking about three-year-old games when what I really want to talk about is CNET firing Gamespot editor-in-chief Jeff Gerstmann for his Kane & Lynch review -- a 6.0 that wasn't quite in harmony with the massive advertising dollars publisher Eidos sunk into the Gamespot front page.

This comes on the heels of Ubisoft apparently throwing a hissy fit over Eurogamer's Assassins' Creed 7 score, and withdrawing all advertising from the site. It's not wholly surprising that in the game industry this is how business is done. It's a little surprising that Eidos, whose one big hit long since descended into comic irrelevance, can still throw their weight around like they're the Corleone family. (Incidentally, my reasons to take less and less of an interest in Deus Ex 3 are piling up -- see previous entry.)

What really burns me up is that this is all over something so insignificant. Like Eidos gives a shit what Gerstmann says, they care about the number. And, by the way, so does everyone else. Review scores. What other industry has this absurd preoccupation with an arbitrary two digit number? Who among those deeming Gerstmann's firing long overdue for giving Twilight Princess an 8.8 (an 8.8? be still my heart!) can recall a single word from that review?

Writing in games (ostensibly the subject of this blog) is not a very popular field, but writing about games? Pissing in the wind. The whole system would run just as well were journalists replaced with random number generators. The content of reviews doesn't matter. All that matters to the wider gaming public is whether the review has a politically acceptable score and whether or not it asserts the superiority of any specific gaming console. Even a less reactionary commentator like Penny Arcade's Gabe is gaining a reputation as an anti-review advocate or something equally asinine. What a completely thankless profession.

I love games. I don't like this industry at all.

November 29, 2007

Myst versus Myst: why can't we have nice things?

Myst really ended with Riven (that's the second one.) Those two games told a complete story about the history of a civilisation. Then the rights get passed around to various developers and "The Further Adventures of Myst" are born.

Let's start with Myst 1, though. I promise I'm not about to take you through the entire series. After you spend innumerable hours wandering around the game trying to get a handle on things, you find your first clue. Two books in a library. Open them and on the first page there's a window from which a man, in real time, is talking to you (go with it.) The message is heavily distorted -- all you can make out is that you need to find missing pages to improve the quality of the signal. First of all, this is pretty cool. You have to assume bringing back the page will help you progress in this game that lacks any HUD or menu. You even have a choice about which book to get pages for. It's the only thing you can really do, appropriate since it's the only thing you know to do. If this game came out today we'd all be stroking our chins approvingly at this groundbreaking emergent narrative... in this game that came out 14 years ago and everyone played! Myst. So unappreciated.


The more pages you get the more you learn that the men -- brothers, Sirrus (megalomaniac) and Achenar (lunatic) -- are trapped in these books. You need to bring them the final page to release them, but there's only one final page. There's a third option, of course, but you have to discover it yourself instead of checking your journal and seeing "Sirrus and Achenar don't seem very trustworthy. Maybe I should look around the library before making my decision." Please.

The third option is to bring the page to the third book (surprise!), where Atrus, the father of Sirrus and Achenar, is trapped. He's actually the one who trapped them, because in case you hadn't figured it out (and this is by far the easiest thing in Myst to figure out) Sirrus and Achenar are evil, and they trapped him in turn. You free Atrus, you win, game over. But there's one more thing of note: after Atrus is released you're free to wander back through the library and you notice that where the Sirrus and Achenar books were, there's charred wood. Pretty chilling. That's the best moment in Myst, really. Come on, this game didn't deserve all that ire! Let me show you something that does.

Ubisoft's Myst IV: Revelation opens with a monologue by Atrus, which concludes thusly:

"I've often wondered if you thought I'd killed my sons when I burned up those two Books."

Not really, actually! In fact I knew you did, much like everyone who played the game and everyone who made the game, including you, Rand Miller, co-designer of Myst and Riven, who's speaking right now!

"But never once have I offered you the truth."

Oh, fuck off.


That's what Myst IV is. Sirrus and Achenar are back, with a vengeance. In Myst III Atrus and his wife gained a young daughter, Yeesha (?!) who is kidnapped at the beginning of this story following an explosion. Kidnapping? Explosions? What game is this? Myst is about arriving at the end of the story and very slowly piecing together what happened and then concluding it. Are you trying to make a Myst game into a thriller? What's wrong with you?

The "theme" of Myst IV is redemption, which basically means "a character is redeemed". It's a badly written, incredibly pedestrian game all around, really; ploddingly leading you from plot beat to plot beat ensuring you're fully comprehending this Screenwriting 101 high-stakes redemptive tear-jerker. You'd think poor writing wouldn't stand out in a Myst game since there's usually little of it, but Myst IV really piles it on. Too bad it doesn't have anything interesting to say. Unless you count the stupifying spiritual diversion -- seriously, watch this to experience an absolute gaming nadir. What a horror show.



Anyway, in this completely conventional and obvious game, we are stunned learn that Achenar isn't actually evil, despite every appearance to the contrary in Myst. Reinvented in Myst IV as the well-meaning, noble retard, Achenar works tirelessly to defeat Sirrus and rescue Yeesha, toward his grand redemption.

What's the best way to "redeem" a character? By "best" of course I mean easiest to write and over the fastest. Achenar sacrifices himself to save Yeesha, and she sobs over his dead body. It'd all be so very sad if it wasn't so very cloying. What just happened? Ubisoft switched out Myst's chilling, subtle death for total melodramatic banality. Thanks a lot. Next time keep your revelations to yourself. Did I mention Peter Gabriel shows up playing a spirit guide? Myst IV was actually better reviewed than Myst has proven to be. You reviewers are a soft touch.

November 26, 2007

Deus Ex 3 (2009)

Oh, wow, there's really going to be a third Deus Ex. I don't know how I feel about that. Well, actually I know exactly how I feel about it: at first I was completely wary but then this teaser made me giggle like a little girl (one part of it specifically.)

I'm coming back round to wary though. It's being developed by Eidos's new Montreal studio, which means, probably, no Warren Spector, no Harvey Smith. Eidos probably doesn't even know everyone who'll be working on this yet. Sheldon Pacotti might. I would love it if they brought back Chris Todd (who wrote all the unvoiced text -- datacubes, books, etc -- in the first game.) What are those guys doing these days anyway.

If this was a Deus Ex "reboot", or even if largely ignored the story of the last two games I'd be happy. It's hard to make a good Deus Ex game, it's impossible to make a good Deus Ex game that follows this convoluted continuity. Let's see something (mostly) new.

And how often have story-heavy franchises switched creative teams and not screwed it up? I'd say Knights of the Old Republic II and Curse of Monkey Island. Even Curse has a caveat since, while it was quality, it wasn't quite in sync with the previous two games. LucasArts pushed their luck by bringing in another creative team for the next Monkey Island game. Whoops.

I'm going to give Eidos the benefit of the doubt for now, though I probably shouldn't. I would love for this to be good.

BioShock, Again

This is spoiler country.


I'm not part of the BioShock backlash. I think that's a spectacularly uninteresting place to be. What I find interesting about the reaction to BioShock is that everyone who likes the game is so secure in their appreciation of it that they have no trouble admitting its flaws. There's no hyper-defensive fan contingent denying that major problems with the game exist. And indeed they do. Here are three of them.

1. No! No! No, no!

I don't like to throw around this word but the choice whether to harvest or rescue the little sisters is broken. It's hard to understand why this is the case because it's such a fundamentally simple and classic philosophical debate. You can make the rational, self-interested choice to gain as much resources as you can from this one interaction. Or you can sacrifice/minimise your short-term reward in favour of long-term benefit. This is how it's presented to you and it's basic political philosophy. It's realism versus idealism. You'll get less Adam for rescuing the little sisters but there's the promise of a greater reward down the line. That could be the "good" ending. Or it could be the difference whether the little sisters or Tenenbaum help you with Fontaine or not.

What it can't be is what it is. "Long-term benefit" does not mean frequent gifts that not only make up your Adam deficit but also give you the supremely powerful "Hypnotize Big Daddy" plasmid which you can't get otherwise. The whole dichotomy is useless now. No sacrifice is made with the liberal option and there is no rational, objective reason to harvest the little sisters. The fundamentally irrational choice almost immediately becomes more rational than the rational choice.

It's an absurd situation. Choosing whether or not to kill Sander Cohen is a more interesting dilemma and the game spends no time on that one. I think everyone killed him though. I didn't.


2. A slave obeys

After the magnificent Andrew Ryan scene, BioShock slips. It's partly because, in a sense, that scene was the end of the story. It's the end of a story about objectivism and self-interest but, less theoretically, it's the end of a story about freedom of choice. We've been under Atlas's spell the whole game but now, after we bust free of his mind control, what's any different? Now we're doing what Tenenbaum tells us to do. This would be fine if the game appeared more aware of this irony. But post-Ryan we don't hear anything more about men versus slaves or anything about the player character at all other than "I hope you won't hurt the girls." That one scene embodied all the grandiose and fully attainable pretensions the game had and from that point on, it's all rather more straightforward. Unfortunately, BioShock failed to deliver on the implications made explicit in that scene and in the game prior.

There's an argument to make for this. Ken Levine's point is about the general lack of player agency in video games, but covering himself with the mind control element to legitimise it within the game's fiction. And in Ryan's ideology you don't need to be brainwashed to be a slave. It makes sense that the player is still ultimately a slave, because that's the point Levine's made. But without the mind control device it isn't legitimate anymore.

There's an argument there. But the game doesn't make it. After the Ryan scene BioShock shows no interest in engaging the player in a dialogue on this subject. The scene becomes a neat reveal and an incisive piece of meta-gaming commentary instead of the cornerstone of a greater game. During that Ryan scene we all assumed BioShock was about to become that game.

3. I chose Rapture.

After Ryan, the game is about different things. As of the endgame, BioShock is more a story about Little Sisters and uncomplicated avarice than objectivism or philosophy. Fontaine's final form is a nod to what the game used to be about but that's it. The (good) ending is a great conclusion for the little sisters and for your character (apart from it projecting desires onto the player character for the first time: wrong game to do this in)... but it's not a good conclusion for BioShock. What's neglected in this ending?


This whole city and everything it represents! A microcosm of society, chaos and order, objectivism and nihilism, and, oh yeah, a massive art deco city under the sea! Neglecting Rapture here really puts a point how BioShock fails to realise the city throughout. Rapture is a great setting for a shooter: great architecture decorated with enemies and ammo machines and audio diaries. I don't believe that anyone ever lived here, and not for lack of trying on my part. That's why I was ultimately content to waste so much time dicking around in the service of Sander Cohen, because it was an intriguing new facet of Rapture. BioShock opened presenting you with this amazing location and I wanted to know what about it. More than that I wanted to know what happens to it. We don't find out, but not in a "BioShock 2!" way. We don't find out in a "you were a good/bad person, the end." way.

The end admits that Rapture wasn't important. It was an illusion. So what was BioShock really about? I honestly don't know.

November 23, 2007

Off-Topic

I took off all those numbers because I was starting to hate them. I didn't like the idea that someone would visit my blog and immediately realise I'd only been doing this for a few weeks. Now it should take at least ten seconds to figure that out.

If there's anything else about this blog you want me to change you might as well let me know now. Please understand that I may not be able to personally respond to the flood of comments, but my assistant will be keeping track. Your feedback is important to me.

Coming up very soon on this blog: more BioShock; ICO; something about types of game storytelling; an adventure game, finally; and BioWare's new RPG epic -- Jade Empire! Watch out academia.

November 22, 2007

Jak II (2003)

I'm going to give you some credit for once. I'm assuming that you're aware of how different Jak & Daxter was from the rest of the franchise; in gameplay but especially in tone. Let's just leave it at this picture:


I don't think I can leave it at that picture. I need to elaborate. I'm very sorry, but I like talking so much. Here's how Jak & Daxter differs from the rest of the series. That game was a decent, inoffensive, light-fantasy, sub-Zelda 3D platformer which exhibited a cloyingly 1995-hip sensibility. That's a recognised genre by the way. Jak & Daxter's the only game that qualifies, though, maybe it's too specific.

Jak II... frankly, let's forget about the rest of the series. It's the third paragraph already and it's the first time I've mentioned the subject of this post. Jak II is a frustrating, testosterone-laden, plot-heavy apocalyptic-future GTA-clone/platformer/action game. Interestingly, Daxter, the absolute worst character in Jak & Daxter becomes the one character in Jak II who's tolerable. (Back to awful for Jak 3, though!)

I'm actually not as indignant about this attitude adjustment as I was when the exact same thing happened with Prince of Persia a year later. Because this was absurd.

How do you even begin to construct a continuity between these two games? Naughty Dog manages it with the most audacious cop-out I have ever seen. The end of Jak 1 has Jak, Daxter and their elfin fantasy pals activating an ancient stargate device and they stare into it in wonder. That's it. Jak II begins at exactly that point -- Jak and Daxter fall into the stargate and out onto the streets of a dark broken city under a military junta. Jak is captured, tortured by the game's villain, Praxis, and experimented upon for two years until he turns into this guy:

Daxter helps him escape and Jak breaks and free and shrieks "RRARRRGH I'M GOING TO KILL PRAXIS". Did I mention that Jak never talked in the first game? I guess he never had anything as interesting to say as "RRARRRGH I'M GOING TO KILL PRAXIS". Imagine if Half-Life 3 began this way:

"Gordon, I'm so glad you're alive!"
"RRR, LET'S BUST SOME HEADS"

Jak II is utterly insane in a very special way. What I've just described occurs in the first two minutes of the game. Then they break out the guns. In Jak & Daxter you killed monsters by jumping on their heads. Naughty Dog wastes absolutely no time in destroying the coherence of this series. How did they think they'd get away with it? Obviously, they did. But the disconnect here is staggering.

After thoroughly repudiating the first game what's left is some epic trilogy garbage that's very "dark and edgy" with every connotation those quotation marks imply. There's a lot of nonsense about time travel, resistance fighters, oracles, adolescent sex appeal and this total moron:

Jak is comically off-putting in this game. Selfish, moronic and hyper-aggressive, this fantasy hero is a carjacking thug on a quest for blood. The whole story is presented so earnestly and then Jak walks in and sneers about how tough he is. He's a high school bully hiding his cracking voice. I don't know this idiot is able to navigate the complex-if-super-generic plot of the game. I don't know how this idiot is able to dress himself.

Jak, like everyone else in the game save Daxter, is so incredibly serious about this tale of prophecy and rebellion that it's embarrassing when it's not hilarious. It's a bad story. It's bad dialogue. They're bad characters.

But I'm not complaining. The whole monstrosity is so indescribably stupid that I actually sort of love it. I connected with these dumb characters more than those in any middle-of-the-road narrative-driven game. I didn't like them. I didn't care what happened to them. But they -- the whole thing, really -- were so magnificently stupid and angry and juvenile that I was engaged. I never got past bemusement with this game. Maybe if I had then I'd be ready to dismiss it. But I never stopped marveling at it, and it never stopped entertaining me (however indirectly.) Jak II evoked legitimate enthusiasm in me. I would much rather watch this terrible character do stupid things than I would an average character do acceptable things.

To this day I'm not sure if I like this game. I don't believe I do. But I can't hate it.

November 17, 2007

BioShock (2007)

Welcome to the general, spoiler-free BioShock post. The next one will be full of spoilers and cover the topics that everyone's talked about already. I hope you like reading about Objectivism!


BioShock, Part One

BioShock is a great game. Here's what's wrong with it.

Sorry to be so glib. But look how quickly I did that! Some blogs take paragraphs to choke out that disclaimer.

To be fair, what I'm about to discuss isn't an issue exclusive to BioShock, but it's something the game does quite frequently. The player has one goal for the majority of the game: get to this guy. That's driving the plot. And for all you've read about the game's philosophical undertones, it's a shooter. It's fast paced. Which is why there's no bigger buzzkill than this:

"He's right through that door! Go! Go!"
"The door's locked. You'll need to find a way to open it! Begorrah!"

Three hours later:

"It's open! What are you waiting for? He's right through that door! Go! Go!"

What happened in those three hours? I visited a new part of Rapture, I shot some splicers, I listened to some diaries, ooh, new plasmid. Much like the rest of the game except the plot was on hold. I might as well have been in a coma. Can I get back to the real game now? Thanks. Please don't do that again -- oh, you did it again.

Okay, in one sense, it doesn't matter. You're progressing from one level to the next as normal: no reason why Fort Frolic is any different from the Medical Pavilion. Clearly, though, it's a lesser part of the story. The writing in BioShock, by design, occupies such a high echelon in gaming: players are supposed to be into the story, it's not there as an excuse for them to shoot things. So if you're into it, and you can't wait to find Andrew Ryan, when this Sander Cohen douche says "I locked the door, come do something for me," maybe, maybe, he's not commanding your full enthusiasm. I understand that this is a video game, the levels are set in stone: I need to go to Fort Frolic. But the reasons the game gives me are ridiculous. I'm going there to remove the obstacle that you arbitrarily threw in my way. The story has not changed once I get past it.

"Well, if all the game was was chasing Andrew Ryan, then the game itself would only be three hours. No one would buy it." I don't know who I'm imitating there. But the story doesn't have to operate in such a transparently stop-start fashion. Why not rewire the narrative so traversing Fort Frolic is progress and not a chore? The way it's framed, I'm not enjoying it as much as I otherwise could be. The only way the player can really enjoy and take their time with these diversions is if they accept that this is an unavoidable part of the game and you need to spend three hours here before resuming the story. But how is that not unsatisfying?

Like I said, this problem extends past BioShock, but it's almost a Ken Levine staple. System Shock 2: I need to get to Deck 4 to meet someone, and to do that I need to active the elevators but to do that I need to flush out the radiation in the area and to do that I need to use the fluid control computer and because the fluid control computer is locked I need to go to Cargo Bay B to find the unlocking code and Cargo Bay B is locked so I need to go to Cargo Bay A to find the key to Cargo Bay B and STOP IT. You're padding the story and it's frustrating.

Steve wrote a post about why games should be shorter and I sort of disagreed with him at the time ("at the time", like it wasn't a couple of days ago.) I don't feel too strongly about whether a game is 6 or 60 hours, so long as it's the right length. What this BioShock post has prompted me to note is that "the story" and "the game" are such separate concerns. BioShock the story and BioShock the game aren't fully in sync. I'm not sure whether it's the story that needed to be longer or the game that needed to be shorter, but one of them should have acquiesced.

To be continued... after I write a post about Knights of the Old Republic that's completely unrelated to BioShock. Spot the metaphor.

November 16, 2007

Insubstantial Invective

Let's get this out of the way. This is an empty, reactionary post and hopefully it's the worst one I'll ever write. I'm sorry for that. That's why this post will be followed by another, real post faster than usual.

Assassin's Creed hasn't been doing very well lately. A while back, Eurogamer accurately observed that "[n]ot since Prince of Persia: Sands of Time has the publisher seemingly had so much riding on one particular product." So, then, that wave of "7" reviews is not good news, because in the idiotic, reductionist game review parlance of our times, a "7" means "highly disappointing."

Well, hey, reviews are reviews. Let's wait until people really play the game and then we'll see if it's IGN or GameSpot who are vindicated. And when people did play the game, the reports were pretty good. Pretty pretty good. That's when I, like many others, decided to give it a shot. After all, I'm practically made of money.

I don't know why this next part happened. Maybe because I can't have nice things. I checked out the game on IMDb. (Don't worry, this is where the obnoxiously leading narrative thankfully ends.)

Come on. They're even the first names?

I'm not going to belabour this point, but the recent Prince of Persia "trilogy" is one of my biggest gaming heartbreaks. I suppose in retrospect it was sort of predictable: replacing virtually the entire Sands of Time creative team to rush a sequel out within a year, and swapping out Jordan Mechner (effusive praise regarding Jordan Mechner is scheduled way down the line) for two "professional Hollywood screenwriters" who don't have any professional Hollywood screenwriting credits. And it was these two guys, in case I'm being too oblique. (I wish I could say that this patronising narrative is about to thankfully end, but... it's not.)

So we all know how that went.






Charming. And yet, it was three years ago, and I am over it. I am over being frustrated that these power-hacks cannot write for shit; that they are far too preoccupied with superficialities -- Prince of Persia must be an epic trilogy! What's an epic trilogy? It turns out it's amateur plot twists, ham-fisted dramatic arcs, misogyny, one-dimensional characters and the most adolescent notions of sex and violence possible.

I think I might even be okay all that if it didn't take this story so seriously. Imagine Pirates of the Carribean told with the gravitas of The Godfather and the violence of Blade II, with none of the quality, humour or modesty of any of those.

Apparently I'm not over it. Because finding out that these guys are writing Assassin's Creed? I have lost all interest in picking this up. I'm not kidding, and it's sad that this is the case. How hard can it be to ignore the writing in a video game? Especially a game this pretty.

But I can't do it. I loathe these guys' work that much. It's that invasive. I hate that with all the relatively high-profile talent Ubisoft threw at launching this new IP -- Jade Raymond! Kristen Bell! Patrice Desilets! -- they are so uninterested in the actual writing that they said "Let's hand this one over to the Warrior Within dudes, they can start a franchise."

Hey, I just noticed this startlingly attractive girl, who, okay, I can kind of tell: she's a little empty and repetitive and the PS3 version has framerate issues, but still hot. Oh, wait, she's a furry. I just can't do it.

The morning before I found all this out I read Tom Chick's post about the game, which for a professional game reviewer, had an unusually large amount of vitriol reserved for the writing. It struck me as interesting at the time but now it makes a depressingly large amount of sense.

Since this blog exists, you can tell I care a lot about writing, and since nobody reads it, you can tell no one else does. But I honestly didn't think I cared about it this much. To pass on a novel or a film because of the writer is understandable. But writing occupies such a place of irrelevancy in games, it's absurdity, even to me. I didn't expect the visceral reaction I had seeing those names. I'm so sad right now.

Sorry, Ubisoft. Sorry, Patrice. Apparently there actually was one guy that your choice of writers would really bother. I can't blame you for playing those odds.

Next: back to normal.

November 12, 2007

Love Story

At last, a post about the exciting game "Love Story".


Gordon Freeman and Alyx Vance may be the closest thing video gaming has to a "will they or won't they". On the face of it, there's really no reason to think that these two characters (and in reference to Gordon, I use the word 'character' very broadly) would ever get together. Yet the subject is advanced at least a little with each Half-Life installment. As much as I love Half-Life and Valve, and would trust them to pull off most things, I'm really wary about this prospect. Especially given how much attention Valve lavish upon Alyx, it's very hard to buy that anyone would have any feelings for Gordon Freeman whatsoever beyond "thanks for continuously saving me."

Think about the Half-Life fiction solely on its own terms for a second: has the character Gordon Freeman actually never spoken once? Or is this an abstract area we're not supposed to think about too much, like Half-Life only has to abide by the rules of its own Calvin & Hobbes-like reality?

Honestly, I think I'd be concerned even if Gordon had the depth of Charles Foster Kane. For the most part, love stories in games are handled really badly. My main criticism -- and I'll be criticising a lot -- is of love stories in RPGs, or, to use the RPG vernacular, "romance quests". Which sounds almost as stupid as "Police Quest", but at least Sierra has the excuse of being all about branding. (1)


It's an RPG convention but I still find it weird where "romancing" a character is akin to an Xbox Live achievement, a box you have to tick off, just another part of constructing the ultimate character. "Congratulations, you have successfully romanced Jaheira." What is that? BioWare's a good example, given they write the same romances in every game they do. Maybe it's too much to ask to make one of these very linearly-progressing relationship a story, or build it around the real story, rather than having it be this perfunctory sidequest (2) that's only there to distract you from saving the world for two hours and to satisfy RPG fans for whom "romance quests" are apparently a requirement. If you take them away it irritates players (3) but who really cared about them in the first place?

They're even in Morrowind, which isn't a game I would normally associate with emotion. Unfortunately in Morrowind the only available object of your affections is a cat, and maybe it makes me a little bigoted to physically recoil at the thought of chivalrously seducing a literal catwoman, but then I'm not an RPG fan. I might note that these quests are usually just a little archaic -- she might like a gift! Get her a gift! You're halfway there. These games are not only set in fantasy worlds but also within the confines of idealised 1950s morality. (4)

Yikes.


This is one reason why I really like the work of Chris Avellone, who's very conscious of these separate schools of thought. In Planescape: Torment and Knights of the Old Republic II you'll note the "romances" are intentionally stilted, incomplete and a little tragic. Not only is it more realistic, it's more interesting. And beyond the existing "quests" in Knights of the Old Republic II, there's the character of Mira, who's the third and last hot woman in your party. Not only do you get to hit on her, instead of arbitrarily being confined to the repressed matriarch of the group, but you get unconditionally turned down. It's almost as if Mira had an actual personality.

I'm not saying every game has to be a Façade (as if anyone played
Façade for the relationship drama.) (5) However, I do think relationship stories work the best when they're a restricted part of the narrative and not an optional diversion -- but this doesn't mean they still can't suck. There are probably more examples of this than of the romance sidequest model, and most of them aren't very good. For the sake of brevity I'm going to ignore the romantic arcs that are outright shit (Fahrenheit, Final Fantasy X) or totally banal -- like in the ending cutscene the heroine kisses the hero and they're both looking a bit embarrassed, ha ha, I'm gonna miss these morons. (Ratchet & Clank, Jak & Daxter.)


What I just said about Chris Avellone remains largely true here: the emotionally fulfilling games are typically the ones where the characters don't get together. Who was honestly satisfied to see Guybrush Threepwood marry Elaine at the end of The Curse of Monkey Island? Maybe it was the abbreviated ending, but it didn't exactly feel like a pay-off seven years in the making. My guess is the players who this did satisfy are the same players who feel a game with an unrequited love is somehow lacking in "closure", whatever that is, and therefore a sequel is necessary to "wrap up the loose ends". I'd name some games that do "get it" but I'd be automatically spoiling them (6) and, four posts in, I'm trying to appeal to a broader demographic. Please take my word for it that these games exist. You've probably played a few of them.

This is probably true of fiction in general, so I can't pretend it has anything to do with agency or sandbox gameplay. Sorry. Heartbreak is, dramatically, more satisfying. Surprisingly, I can think of quite a few really good games that realise this. I say surprisingly because games are generally so far behind other forms of writing in every respect. For the moment, at least, I'm actually very pleased with this medium I complain about so much.


(1) There's going to be a post about
Police Quest some time later, unless I forget about it. I wouldn't be the first person to forget about Police Quest.
(2) Yes, Bastila in
Knights of the Old Republic may qualify as an exception, but Carth, in the same game, does not.
(3) Further reading: "the internet".
(4) So, two fantasy worlds.
(5)
Façade anecdote: Ernest Adams used a Façade transcript I did in a lecture he gave at GDC called "A New Vision for Interactive Stories". Without my permission. Ernest better get ready for a new lawsuit.
(6) Note that I don't care about spoiling, say,
Fahrenheit.

November 7, 2007

Deus Ex: Invisible War (2003)

I'm going to begin this entry with two words: "Harvey Smith". What does that mean to you? To me, it means there's a chance Harvey Smith will find this post and respond to it, since he responded to Steve Gaynor's casual diss of Invisible War, and -- breaking news -- Steve only played the demo.


Deus Ex is one of my favourite games of all time. I said that last entry with Fallout, but this time I actually mean it; I'm not just trying to lend myself credibility. Like most Deus Ex fans, I hold the rather boring opinion that Invisible War is, in a lot of ways, a total misfire. And yet, I think it is highly underrated. I'm not going to go into why it's not as good as Deus Ex because you can go anywhere for that. Here are some things I do want to talk about.

Invisible War doesn't operate on the same scale as Deus Ex. It's about half as long, but much tighter in structure. Far from the dense, sprawling semi-epic that was its predecessor, Invisible War is more like a stripped-down action/thriller that takes place over one day. When Invisible War really works, it's when it embraces this new format.

This isn't necessarily to suggest that Invisible War is only successful when it's as far away as possible from Deus Ex. Invisible War does a great job of -- spoiler alert! -- gradually phasing in characters from the original, culminating in the return of Deus Ex hero JC Denton, which is by far the most interesting reuse of a character in video game history, excluding the games I haven't played or have forgotten about. JC's return may not be all that great in the traditional video game sense, in that you and JC don't instantly team up and shoot the shit out of government agents side by side, in typical video game pleasure principle fashion. After being mythologized throughout Deus Ex and most of Invisible War, JC Denton is positioned here not as a villain, but, disappointingly, a high-minded schemer who wants to use your character, Alex, just as much as everyone else. Invisible War delivers a sobering lesson about hero worship.

It's a bold move that deserves so much more credit than it has ever received. By no means am I implying that subverting expectations like this is automatically a great choice. I mention it because the only critical point I've ever seen about this plot development is that it isn't what players immediately wanted, therefore it stunk.


Let me get away from Invisible War apologia for a minute and return to Invisible War-as-action/thriller. Invisible War contains one of my favourite levels ever: the return to the Arcology in Cairo, the penultimate stage in the game. This multi-story building has been overrun by militia, and your Die Hard-esque infiltration of the building isn't even the good part. The actual fighting's almost irrelevant. What matters is the ultimate goal of the mission, which I'm arbitrarily choosing not to spoil. But every faction who's played a part in the game is invested in the outcome, and have agents on site to ensure a favourable result. Everyone's in the same place for the first time. As you walk through this very uneasy armistice, everyone waits on you to make what is not an easy decision. Finally, you feel that your decisions matter; that a sword is hanging over your head. I did just slam the design paradigm of having the player always be the most powerful, important character in the game except for FINAL BOSS, but there's really something to be said for finally being the center of attention.

The level is a brilliant convergence of basically every major element in the game. It's a hard act to follow, and, indeed, even this game can't do it. While your big choice (memorable because it reintroduces a major Deus Ex character) is ultimately disappointing since it subsequently proves to have little consequence, numerous little choices start to pile up, and these do matter. It's the level where (almost) everything pays off before the later denouement.


Your buddy Leo Jankowski, for instance, is in real trouble, and his life is in your hands. Another character kidnaps your on-again/off-again ally Klara Sparks and threatens to execute her if you don't make the big choice his way. You can try and save Klara, but that means having to fight one of your former employers, Donna Morgan, who, unlike her employers, hasn't ever done anything to fuck you up; whose only crime is loyalty. Invisible War is not so different from Deus Ex in that the emotional depth is understated, and for the most part whatever meaning the character has is what you project upon them. But you give a little, you get a little.

Because of the tenor of this whole mission, it has my favourite line in the entire game. One faction sends you to the epicentre of the conflict, where you make your big decision. Once you make this decision, the ceasefire will break and the factions you shut out will be really pissed. One faction in particular occupies the hangar where you make your decision, and to help them you have to give some blood for... something, I don't even remember, I played the game four years ago. This hangar's swarming with soldiers and robots ready to turn hostile at a moment's notice, and you open the door and this middle-aged genial doctor solemnly walks up and asks you for your blood. You have two possible responses. You'll only need one.


"Go to hell" is the best line in the game. Lowbrow? Yes. But this is Invisible War at its best: nowhere near as philosophical or as deep as the first game but as a streamlined action/thriller, it's the tops.

This might be more praise than Invisible War has ever received in one place, so let's put a halt to that right now. All of the magic of this level is undone by the next, which attempts to maintain this engaging dynamic instead of building on it, rendering your big decision totally meaningless. And then the ending sucks. After winning an uninspired boss fight, the game cuts immediately to one of four outsourced cutscenes that narrate in the vaguest possible philosophical terms about what basically the world was then like. No follow-up on you or any of the characters you're interested in. It's over in twenty seconds and then it cuts to the credits -- which you have to click through?! Go to hell.

But we'll always have Cairo.

(Harvey Smith.)


So in my blogging history, I've praised Deus Ex: Invisible War and contradicted Fallout? What a contrarian. Next up: so you thought you knew what the rules of this blog were, huh? Wait until I completely subvert them! The blog so far has all been a training exercise for level 19.