April 15, 2013

One for the Rats

To begin with, you're always the underdog.

You are betrayed, set up, cast out, left for dead. You are called a thief, an assassin, a false prophet. All thanks to the forces of Evil, or, in more mundane cases, Some Dick. The only thing you can do - the only reason you even exist - is to put right what has gone wrong, save the world, and kill a million people who want to murder you. And you will succeed every time, because you are That Guy.

You are the best person. Relative to the rest of your world, you are stronger, faster, smarter, more independent and certainly more important. The world constantly rests on your shoulders and you never let it down. You are naturally proficient in hacking, lock picking, athletics, acrobatics and all forms of weaponry and combat. You can regenerate from any injury. You have supermodel good looks. You never need to worry about eating or sleeping or exercising or going to the bathroom. You are never sad. You can teleport, leap into the minds of others, bend time, see through walls and shoot rats from your fingers. And hell hath no fury like a man who shoots rats from his fingers scorned.

And yet...

And yet when I'm playing the role of Dishonored hero Corvo Attano, for instance, a guy who can do all of the above, I do none of it. Superhuman Corvo Attano, framed for the murder of his cool Empress girlfriend and thrown to the rats (literally, there's a Rat Plague), is going to clear his name and avenge her death, for sure, but he does not unleash hell with his time-bending powers and kill everyone standing in his way. My Corvo Attano lurks in dumpsters and hides from maids under dining room tables. He enters buildings by crawling in the window and waits in sewers while guard dogs sniff by. He eats things that he finds in abandoned, plague-ridden homes. He may even spy on a woman bathing through the keyhole of a door. He'll steal from people, read their diaries and eavesdrop on their conversations but won't kill them and in fact tries to avoid them entirely. He covers his face with a mask and if he is ever spotted, people jump and scream. This is my Corvo Attano: more rat than rat lord.

I have been this guy before. In Deus Ex, J.C. Denton can explode rockets with his mind but he lives in air vents, steals from ATMs and hacks into office workers' email while hiding under their desk. In Bioshock Infinite, Booker DeWitt commands the elements and can also shoot animals from his fingers, but his diet consists exclusively of hot dogs he finds in the trash. The nameless hero of System Shock 2 has psychic powers but most of the time, basically, he beats monkeys with a wrench. Garrett, the eponymous master Thief, can steal anything from anywhere, but if some medieval rent-a-cop spots him, he'll run away and hide in a closet. He also gets his clock cleaned by someone called the "Woodsy Lord" - which, come on.

In the vocabulary of Bioshock Infinite: constants and variables. All these guys are the same person, though the circumstances are always different: a man (and it pretty much is always a man) possessed of terrific, otherworldly powers, but who foregoes those powers to go through life in the slowest, least confrontational, least dignified way imaginable.

Corvo Attano, J.C. Denton, Adam Jensen, Booker and Jack from Bioshock - all these guys are Fox Mulder. Mulder, at once, has everything and nothing - and doesn't appreciate the things he has. He's got a cool job, a cool apartment, looks like David Duchovny circa 1995 and has Dana Scully as a friend, yet he has no social life, no love life, a porn addiction and an obsession with a ludicrous quest for the paranormal that will leave him unsatisfied and unfulfilled, much like The X-Files' audience.

I just think it's funny. I was born a loser, but you're one by choice.

On what do you base that astute assessment?

Experience. You should live a little. Treat yourself. God knows I would. If I were you.

Of course it doesn't have to be that way. All the games I've mentioned, and many, many others, present a clear and significant choice between an action and a stealth path. Corvo Attano can throw rats and hurricanes at people while he leaps over a brothel on a motorcycle, sure. All of these guys can, to varying degrees. The option to lose patience, let loose and become the kid from Looper is always there.

Yet I never do that. I'm the guy who will check every room, sneak past every guard, use the tranquilizer darts and pepper spray and find every audio diary and password. I'll go through every dumpster, attic and sewer to do it. I'll never touch a rocket launcher and if the alarm goes off once, I'll reload. In many ways, the game approves.

The characters of Deus Ex and Dishonored - the righteous, moral ones - will admonish their protagonist for killing any more than is necessary. The path of caution, investigation and exploration inevitably yields the greatest rewards: the cache of ammo and supplies tucked away in a corner, a hidden audio diary, some piece of lore - and, on a meta level, extra achievements and experience points. Face-to-face combat, too, can quickly spiral out of control - J.C. Denton is more or less a god, but two or three guys rushing him at once qualifies as an emergency. The grotesque menageries encountered in System Shock and Thief make any contact with enemies unappealing.

All these games have some mechanical incentive to play it slow and non-violent. Even beyond that, though, the quixotic, self-destructive path of Booker DeWitt, Garrett, Fox Mulder and These Guys feels thematically appropriate to the stories being told. What these games all have in common is that you are exploring a world in decline - and you are alone. Bioshock's underwater Rapture, when you get there, is already a world destroyed, and you are literally picking up the pieces, listening to the voices of people long since dead dictating autobiographies that they don't yet realise will turn out to be tragedies. Likewise, on the spaceships of System Shock, so bleak and so empty, the prospect of talking to even one person, to even one human soul, is hugely significant - and your enemies know this, and use it against you. In Bioshock Infinite, you witness, and cause, the death of an impossibly idealistic city in the sky. The cities of Deus Ex are gross, grimy and unhappy and every villainous motivation ever ascribed to the government is true. The homeless of Dishonored are eaten alive by rats.

The worlds are depressing. And so, ultimately, are these guys: the big heroes, the J.C. Dentons and Corvo Attanos. They save the world, every time, but their stories always seem to end in tragedy, or at least a bittersweet victory at a deeply personal cost. J.C. Denton, Adam Jensen and Bioshock's Jack are scientific creations, built for a specific, violent function, who manage to subvert their destiny but only into a kind of nihilist unmaking. Garrett's moment of triumph is saving a world that doesn't give a shit about him, and thus he is left huddling outside in the snow, his eye freshly ripped from its socket. Let's not even start with Booker DeWitt, arguably the worst human ever to star in a video game, if you exclude from the conversation the fact that all video game stars are mass murderers. And Corvo Attano, like a lot of these guys, has no voice, and cannot respond to overtures of romance and friendship. He can only communicate through violence. Being a rat is all he knows.

Objectively, they have it all, they have absolutely everything, and yet they end up with nothing. There's no final reward waiting for these guys. Even the player, who arguably cares about them more than anyone else, will promptly ditch them for somebody else. They are lonely.

Well, this sounds lame, but they have each other. These guys belong to a select fraternity. When I play Dishonored and Bioshock Infinite and I'm told for the first time that I need to find and enter a passcode, I think give me a break. The code - I never need to even check - is 0451, a Fahrenheit 451 reference included in System Shock in 1994 and which since found its way into almost every game made by the same group of people, or into the sequels to the games they created. 0451 has transcended its origin as a literary reference and become a kind of DNA marker; a signifier that all of the games which bear that mark belong to the same family: the stealth/action-but-really-stealth game about a ruined world and a lonely hero. In five years since I first wrote about 0451, the code's turned up in Bioshock 2, Bioshock Infinite, Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Dishonored. Its presence, at this point, is predictable but not unwelcome. It says that even though you're in a new place - Rapture, Columbia, whatever the city in Dishonored was called - and in a new body - Jack, Booker DeWitt, Adam Jensen, Corvo Attano - you have been here before. You have been this guy before. And you know how to do this.

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