Immortal Defense: Story

The story of Immortal Defense is told through the monologues that introduce each level. At the beginning, these serve as mission briefings, but this function drops off over the course of the game. The story and the gameplay are pretty much separate, as in most games, but few games make a virtue of it the way ID does. If you’re pushing on through the levels regardless of what you’re told is happening in the world, well, the player character is doing the same. Like you, he’s isolated from the in-fiction consequences of his actions. We’re going to be pushing deep into spoiler territory here.

At the beginning of the game, the player character, Subject K, has his mind catapulted into the psychedelic cosmic realm of Pathspace to defeat an imminent alien invasion. The game has six chapters; the invasion by the Bavakh armada is defeated at the end of chapter 1. There’s still no known way to get your mind back into your body at that point, which leaves K isolated from humanity. There’s mention of years passing between levels, time that you’re not aware of. K’s daughter, unborn at the time that he started the mission, grows up and has a daughter of her own. And how do they relate to K? There’s talk of how you’re a hero, a legend. Your alien Pathspace mentor, Pul Wat Aa, is actually worshiped as a god by his people, and it’s not hard to see that down the road. But there’s one thing they never openly acknowledge: they also regard you as a weapon. A weapon that has to be cajoled and manipulated, but still, a highly effective weapon, and one that it would be a waste not to use. And everyone, on multiple sides, wants to use you: for a while, most of the mission briefings seem to be of the form “Why did you do X? Y is more important!” By chapter 5, the granddaughter is asking K to destroy incoming vessels that haven’t been identified yet, just in case they turn out to be hostile. They naturally turn out to be a peaceful scientific expedition by your allies. Even after you learn this, you keep on destroying further expeditions from the same source. The question is raised: why do you keep on doing this?

For the player, the answer is a combination of “because that’s how you advance the plot” and “because there’s nothing else to do”. For K, it’s a bit more complicated, but probably includes the latter. At the end of chapter 2, Aa betrays you and your planet is destroyed, leaving you as a defender with nothing to defend. This begins the revenge-obsessed phase of the game, a phase that lasts for a very long time and involves a number of rash and counterproductive acts on K’s part, as he refuses to let war die down. But what else is there for him to do?

The destruction of your planet also raises a mystery: your body was on that planet. Without it, how is it that you remain in Pathspace? K’s disembodied mind is referred to on multiple occasions as a “ghost”, and that starts to seem literal here. The mystery is in fact quickly solved: a number of your people, including the granddaughter, escaped the destruction, and eventually return to bring new life to the planet through nanotechnology — the same nanotechnology that they’re using to keep themselves alive indefinitely. This gives you something to defend once more, but at the same time, it seems too good, too perfectly wish-fulfilling for K, who regrets never getting a chance to meet his daughter in person. And indeed it all turns out to be a delusion. This is the reason that K destroyed those science fleets: they threatened to discover the truth. But even once this is undeniable, the hallucination of the granddaughter (whose name we’ve never learned) intriguingly argues that the delusions of an immortal are more enduring than mere flesh, and therefore more real. And it’s hard to argue with that from K’s perspective. Everything else around him is going to spend the bulk of eternity dead no matter what he does, including his fellow Pathspace defenders who are still dependent on their physical bodies.

It all reminds me a bit of the second volume of Tezuka’s Phoenix, in which, about halfway through the story, one of the characters is granted immortality. Suddenly the story takes a step back, and all the human conflicts that drove it up to that point fade in importance, as years pass, and millions of years. Something similar happens here, with thousands of years passing between levels, and the old factions and alliances disappearing and being replaced with new things that you’re no longer even given a chance to keep track of. The only thing that remains constant is K’s tenacious and pointless defense of his dead world. By the end, he’s descended into full-bore Jack Torrance insanity, to the point that I have to wonder if the final levels, in which all the boss monsters of the past return in large quantities, are supposed to be “real” at all, or just more hallucinations. (You have to wonder when one of the last ships types introduced is called the “:P”.)

Patrick Dugan wrote of the ending:

“I love you grandpa” is a piece of text that haunted me, leaving me shaken with wonder and existential horror, for hours after I finished the game.

And while I was skeptical on reading that, I have to agree: seen in context, as the last word going into the final mission, it’s devastating. But it isn’t really the last word: at the end of every chapter, there’s a bonus round in a simulation run by Jamesh, the inventor of Pathspace technology, and the final chapter is no exception. Here at the end, his words are a return to rationality, a frank discussion of what you’ve done and his own role in making it possible. And that final step back is the really masterful touch. The author of this game has thought about what it all means, and he wants you to think about it too.

In the official FAQ, the author states:

I put [K’s obsession with goals] into gameplay terms by making the last campaign of the story a direct challenge to the player: the missions are getting harder, K is becoming obviously crazier and crazier, and the player understands that there’s no point in world of the game to what he’s doing. The player can “win” in a perfectly acceptable way by just ceasing to play in those final moments: he can set the game aside, never pick it up again, and that means that K has come to his senses and abandoned his efforts.

I have to say this is wrong-headed. From a player’s perspective, abandoning a pre-scripted story in mid-game doesn’t change what happens in the gameworld any more than stopping reading a novel before the ending changes what happens in the world it describes. Even losing a mission, which in theory could allow the Bavakh invasion to succeed, doesn’t seem like something that happens in the “real” story of the game. There are games where the sense of what really happens is flexible, but this isn’t one of them. But as the same FAQ says, “I’m still on the fence about this–which is why you can also achieve a certain kind of victory by finishing.”

Apparently there’s a seventh chapter, set in “Hellspace”, that only becomes available if you complete every mission with a 100% survival rate. I imagine I’ll try for that eventually, but I’ll be surprised if it adds anything significant to the story. Pleasantly surprised, but surprised.

4 Comments so far

  1. Malefact on 16 Jan 2010

    Great piece. Made me think back on my own fond memories of the game. It’s *definitely* worth trying for 100% to get the Hellspace chapter though (if needs be, just dial the difficulty right down); though I won’t spoil anything here.

    The latest version of the game also comes with a level maker, which has a few bonus pre-loaded campaigns, if you’ve still got the ID bug.

  2. Starmaker on 16 Jan 2010

    >From a player’s perspective, abandoning a pre-scripted story in mid-game doesn’t change what happens in the gameworld any more than stopping reading a novel before the ending changes what happens in the world it describes.

    It totally does. For $14.95 it’s *your* story. Make of it what you will. A role-playing game can have multiple endings – and, indeed, most of them do. Which of them is real? The one you made to happen, obviously – otherwise the game has no meaning, no purpose for player input. Now, which ending is real if you abandon the story mid-game? Yet another, an entirely different one that is probably not covered by the script. There are exceptions, though: the Nameless One (of Planescape fame) continues to wander the planes in the company of his immortal servants, and K vanishes if you decide that he does, stops influencing the world – and it’s only by interactions that we perceive existence.

    So you think level 90 happens in its entirety in K’s imagination. I think so, too. But the game does not say that. The fact that at least three of us (you, me and RinkuHero) agree on that interpretation does not make it the one holy truth for other players.

    And consider this. While Wynand authored the main scenario, The Last Inquisitor was written by RinkuHero. Now, Wynand is going to ignore the events of that story in Immortal Defense II (whenever it comes out), and Rinku regards it as something that’s also imagined by K. Given that I’m a crazy fangirl, every bit of delicious trivia is important – but I couldn’t care less plot-wise. TLI 1-4 is 100% real. Even if v1.2 comes out with footnotes and stuff, it won’t change anything about v1.1.

    (That being said, I’m interested in what you’ll make of TLI when you unlock it. Excellent review.)

    The Star Wars series has only three movies. Death Note (never watched, but my friend is a fan) ended with the main character marrying a hot girl and taking over the world. People are always arguing about character motivations – it’s unavoidable unless you pull a Dickens. User-generated content is the new trend, a small logical step. LOST is in its 187th season exactly because of it (personally, I hate that show, but that’s irrelevant). In fact, the ability to make perfect sense of what’s going on only occurs in fiction. UGC is more life-like.

    Thus, it may happen that you pay for the whole game (or the whole series) and only play/read/watch half of it before you’re unwilling to continue further. Just today, I’ve received and read the final issue of WoW: the comic. I was subscribed to the whole series, and there were times when I wanted to throw an issue out of the window. I’m happy with the way it ended, because a major character I hated most in all of WoW finally DIED! I did a barrel roll to celebrate the occasion, srsly. On the other hand, I never played Baldur’s Gate II, because the characters who got what they deserved in BG1 are alive and happy in BG2, which made me realize I can’t affect the story. I’ve paid for the product and I can’t use it. That sucks.

    So, if someone uninstalls Immortal Defense in sadness/disappointment/disgust, he misses on some of the game’s content. And, from a monetary point of view, that’s not good. Perhaps somewhere out there is a messageboard rant on how ID promotes mass murder or something and “why did I pay for this atrocity”. I wanted to quit at the end of Part 2. “It’s not my story, it’s K’s story, he’s insane and I have to stay in character” and “abandoning a pre-scripted story in mid-game doesn’t change what happens in the gameworld” (to quote you) were two of the arguments I used, along with “awesome writing”, “awesome visuals”, “awesome music”, “awesome gameplay” (not necessarily in that order). TLI is my redemption, my secret treasure – Rinku, you’re not taking it from me, you hear that? (How in the world didn’t I deserve a honorable mention?)

    TL;DR version: good review, make sure you post your thoughts when you win TLI-4.

  3. Patrick on 17 Jan 2010

    I strongly recommend you unlock the secret seventh chapter. What it does deserves a whole new article. It is the best ending I’ve seen in any game.

  4. Carl Muckenhoupt on 17 Jan 2010

    At this point, I’ve got 100% in every level except the last two. Rest assured, I will reach chapter 7, and I will post about it.

    To reply to Starmaker’s points: Obviously there’s no actual “what really happened” when we’re talking about fictional events, and there’s always room for varying interpretation, but to say that the story is whatever you want, with no limits, strikes me as insupportable, at least when applied to works in static media (such as Star Wars and Death Note). Sure, you can make up whatever ending you like, but the result will be a different story. If the author wrote one ending and you imagine a different one, the author’s ending is still the ending to the story the author wrote. If you insist that the second half of Death Note didn’t happen, you’re not really talking about Death Note any more, and if you say “I really liked the ending to Death Note because it was so happy for Light to get everything he wanted”, other Death Note fans will think you’re crazy. (Star Wars is an iffier proposition, because the prequel trilogy is clearly a separate entity from the original trilogy. I’m not saying there are no edge cases here.)

    So the question, then, is: to what extent is the story in a game under the author’s control, and to what extent under the player’s control? Starmaker takes the extreme view: “[I]t’s *your* story. Make of it what you will.” To me, it varies from game to game. Some games have highly linear stories; some provide plot branches; some are so simulation-based that you can’t even really describe them in terms of branching. This is the distinction I was trying to get at with the term “pre-scripted story”. If I have some degree of story-level agency, I feel like I’m making the story happen, and feel some responsibility for making sure that it comes out the way I want it to. If, as in Immortal Defense, the next plot event is always fixed and immutable, and all I can affect is whether I see it or not, then the story is static, even if the medium is interactive. In such games, I don’t feel like I’m making the story happen; I feel more like I’m revealing the story, piece by piece. And if I’m not making the story happen, neither can I make the story not happen.

    But from Starmaker’s objections, obviously not everyone feels the same. So, my mistake for saying “From a player’s perspective”: I cannot speak for all players. Not all gamers are the same, and not everyone has the same motivations. Starmaker seems to value the fantasy of being part of the story more than I do, to the point of considering it to be a waste when a sequel invalidates decisions made in the original game, an idea that wouldn’t have even occurred to me.

    Still, even if I were keen enough on putting myself into the story that I saw K’s noninteractive decisions as my own, or if the game supported some kind of plot variation on the basis of player actions, I’m not sure I’d regard quitting the game and not playing it again as an action that affects the story. If it were possible to continue interacting with the story-world without initiating the next mission, that would be a different matter; as I said in my notes on Penumbra: Requiem, there’s a definite sense of agency in initiating something unpleasant if you have the opportunity to put it off indefinitely. But to me, quitting is non-diegetic. It suspends the story, it doesn’t complete it. I recall a work of IF that actually required the player to quit it at the last moment to get the “good” ending. Even though it was a very meta work, the sort where the relationship between player and player character was part of the story, the idea of avoiding the ending by quitting the game didn’t occur to me, or to a lot of other players. We just assumed that the bad ending was the only one, until the secret came out on the message boards some time later. But apparently some people figured it out. Again, not all gamers are the same.

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