Bioshock compared to Batman

So I was playing Bioshock a little more. Probably because I just played Arkham Asylum, it’s striking me afresh just how comic-bookish it is. Specifically, it has the same sort of structure that made me compare Killer 7 to a comic book: it’s organized around a series of vividly eccentric villains.

The basic repeating pattern in most levels of Bioshock is that you’re trying to just move toward your ultimate goal (Andrew Ryan), but something stops you. It can be a deliberate obstruction aimed at you in particular or it can be an accident that forces you to seek an alternate route, but either way, it forces you into a confrontation with the person who lords it over that section of Rapture. You learn about this person from radio broadcasts and/or audio journals you find over the course of the level, and what you learn is that he’s over-the-top insane in a way relating to his profession — so you get a mad surgeon, a mad artist, and so forth. In other words, they’re theme villains, only a funny costume away from a spot in Batman’s rogues gallery. I suppose you could argue that they’re all examinations of where Ryan’s philosphy ultimately leads when put into practice, but only if you’re willing to really push it. I don’t think any philosophy leads inexorably to strapping someone to a piano covered in TNT.

In a strange way, it reminds me of Tales of the Black Freighter, the comic-within-a-comic in Watchmen. The point of TotBF was that it was what comic books were like in an alternate universe where superhero comics never took off. Bioshock isn’t even that far separated from superhero comics: when you come down to it, the hero has superhuman powers, by way of plasmids and gene tonics. But it’s far enough away from a conventional superhero story that it feels a little like it could be an adaptation of an artifact from another world.

Arkham Asylum: Style and Influences

So. Batman. Few characters have been through so many major stylistic changes without leaving the public eye, from the pulp-inspired revenge fantasy of the 1940s to the childish superheroics of the post-Wertham 1950s, leading up to the deadpan campiness of the Adam West’ TV series, which remained the culturally dominant view of the character until Frank Miller turned the focus to the story’s inherent brutality, Tim Burton to its grotesquery, and the writers for Batman: The Animated Series to its melodrama. B:tAS, with its famous voice acting and German-expressionism-inspired visuals, pretty much replaced Adam West in the public consciousness as the default version, the one that young people think of first when the character is mentioned. And it probably still holds that position, despite the popularity of the Christopher Nolan films.

Batman: Arkham Asylum is something of a mixture of these past portrayals, but it’s mainly in the grotesque mold, taking advantage of the power of modern graphics processors to give everybody highly-detailed wrinkles and warts and scars. The characters are a far cry from the polygonal stylization of the last Batman-themed game I played 1Batman: Vengeance, a game based on the later “New Batman Adventures” seasons of Batman: The Animated Series. As such, the extreme stylization was a matter of remaining true to the source, not of technical limitations. , but I can’t call them realistic. They have all the unnatural-looking distortion and exaggeration of a cartoon made flesh. And, of course, they have that CGI sheen. But this is one place where the Uncanny Valley effect works with the fiction.

The setting is a mixture of crumbling gothic architecture and high tech, all glowing electronics and gargoyles, that reminds me the most of the Tim Burton films. The character of Batman himself is of course also a mixture of gothic and high-tech, but his style here, and the style of his equipment, reminds me more of the Nolan films: very sleek and professional without being flashy, the one portrayal that makes him seem almost normal (and, consequently, not very interesting as a character). Despite the weirdness of his premise, he exudes a calm authority; the asylum guards let him more or less take charge because he’s the one person who isn’t panicking. He even punches people with great authority (as Joss Whedon once said about David Boreanaz). Mind you, the comparison to the Nolan films is helped along by the similar music, and also by the way Batman can use his cape to glide, even when not supported by a rope — something that was part of the earliest Batman comics, but which had pretty much vanished from the character’s attributes at some point (possibly due to the difficulty of pulling it off convincingly in the live-action TV show).

Most of the main characters have the same voice-actors as in Batman: the Animated Series. Well, they could hardly do without Mark Hamill as the Joker, could they? He’s the definitive Joker voice these days. And even those with new actors seem to be aiming for the B:tAS versions of the characters — the Riddler, for example, is a man characterized by smug derision, someone who seeems like he genuinely doesn’t want his riddles to be solved (because he takes pleasure in the sense of superiority that comes with stumping you), rather than the giggling mania of prior versions, who always seemed to be barely restraining themselves from blurting out the answers. (A good decision, if you ask me; before B:tAS, the Riddler was little more than a poor man’s Joker.)

The thing is, the voices are rather incongruous for the subject matter. This is a very dark game. B:tAS, as children’s programming, wasn’t allowed to have anything too gruesome. It would never have the Riddler making a disturbing joke about mutilating a baby, the way he does in a psychiatric interview tape you can find in the game. And yet, as I just described, it’s clearly the same version of the Riddler character. It feels a bit like discovering a coworker’s unsavory fetishes. Which may be the point. That particular bit reminds me a lot of a similarly horrifying-rather-than-funny joke involving a baby told by the Joker in Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s surreal and disturbing 1989 graphic novel Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, which shares the current game’s title, setting, and, very loosely, plot. I wouldn’t say the game is based on the graphic novel, but it’s certainly inspired by it, or at least aware of it. The graphic novel questions Batman’s sanity, something that was popular in the 1980s, but I really don’t think that’s going to happen in the post-Nolan version here. Sure, he’ll face his inner demons — a confrontation with the Scarecrow is never complete without some reliving of unpleasant memories — but only as a step towards reaffirming his position. Still… I’ve found a couple of messages from Amadeus Arkham, the asylum’s founder, hinting at revelations similar to those in the graphic novel, that the place is build on cursed ground, that Batman is an unwitting agent of something occult and malign. We’ll see. For now, let’s just chalk it up as another influence.

1 Batman: Vengeance, a game based on the later “New Batman Adventures” seasons of Batman: The Animated Series. As such, the extreme stylization was a matter of remaining true to the source, not of technical limitations.

Killer 7: Revelations

Killer 7 is predicated in part on the same premise as Alan Moore’s From Hell: that serial murderers develop supernatural powers. Some of the Killer 7 personas have particular specialties, like Invisibility or Force Jump. But there are also powers they all share: they can all see the Heaven Smiles, which are invisible to ordinary humans, and they can all talk to ghosts. There are a few dead people who keep showing up repeatedly, like Travis, the “killer who got killed”. Most of the level bosses show up in levels after you kill them, too. Although they were your mortal enemies in life, they’re uniformly docile and helpful in afterlife, holding no grudge against you, which is a lot creepier than the alternative. Their combativeness was part of what made them human, even when they were thoroughly inhuman. Losing it, they seem… well, less alive. But I suppose that reducing people to things is what a hired assassin is all about. Even just contemplating the act requires dehumanizing the target.

There are a few hints dropped in the game that the Killer 7 themselves are ghosts as well, which would explain why they can’t be killed permanently. Garcian Smith, the Cleaner, is the only one who seems to have a normal existence. It’s Garcian who embarks on all the missions. Between times, we see him in his squalid little trailer home, eating pizza and enduring the shrieks and howls from wheelchair-bound Harman, who’s confined to his room and tormented by the maid. Everyone else seems to live inside the television. Garcian is the only one who has any contact with the outside world, and the only one who can’t transform into a different persona at will: every mission begins with him arriving at the site and then being replaced automatically when he passes by a security camera. He’s the only one who can really die. In short, he’s the only one who seems real.

Now, I had commented in my first post that the whole game seemed like a madman’s hallucinations. I stopped thinking about it that way after a while, because the game kept giving me more details about this strange world, and details work against doubt. One of the bosses has a long personal history with Dan Smith, and when you confront him in Dan’s persona, the game is temporarily all about Dan. This goes a long way toward convincing the player that Dan is real. You have to at least pretend that he’s real in order to follow the story. Suspension of disbelief. But the climactic mission, titled “Smile”, breaks this.

The first hint about what’s about to happen is the moon. Each mission uses a picture of the moon as a loading screen, enlarged and tinted in different bright colors. In Smile, it’s displayed for the first time in its natural grey. It’s a subtle thing, but somehow its meaning was clear: this is the mission where you come to see things as they really are. And so it was. I won’t go into detail about the final revelations, but the ending really calls into question just how much of the game actually happened. There are some recovered memories, some of which are clearly echoed in events that you earlier witnessed in cutscenes. There’s a point where you wind up back in Garcian’s trailer and Harman’s cries of agony are replaced by the sounds of machinery outside and the groaning of pipes. This is a sort of story that I think of as particularly Japanese (and even a little Buddhist): the anamnesis plot, the falling away of illusions and recovery of true self-knowledge, as seen in the likes of Silent Hill 2 and more than one Final Fantasy. It can be a very effective technique, provided the authors set it up well enough in advance, which this game certainly does.

But then the game then backtracks on this somewhat. A short final level, a sort of interactive epilogue, brings back the Heaven Smile, which otherwise disappeared from the scene without a trace when Garcian started learning the truth. A shorter, non-interactive epilogue shows Harman Smith and Kun Lan continuing their battle 100 years in the future, as if nothing had happened. You really have to read this game metaphorically sometimes, because reading it literally just doesn’t always work.

Plus, there’s just a wealth of metaphor to find. I haven’t even gotten into the political allegory. For example, one of the major plot elements is a conspiracy to control American presidential elections, with the Department of Education behind it all, because so many of the nation’s polling places are located in schools. This makes no sense if taken literally, but when you think about it, the educational establishment is very much involved in swaying elections by indoctrinating the next generation of voters. One reading of the whole game is that it’s really all about relations between Japan and America since WWII, with clues ranging from the blatant (I mean, come on, Trevor Pearlharbor?) to the less obvious (one character mentions a plan that has been in motion “for 65 years”. The game is set in 2010.) Actually, it’s not even a very speculative reading: a brewing conflict between the two nations is pretty much the literal overplot. The epilogue level has you explicitly choose sides, although your choice doesn’t seem to make a difference 100 years in the future. I mentioned before that you have to shoot at a person’s silhouette in order to enter the first mission. It turned out to be the silhouette of that mission’s end boss, and in fact the same thing is done in all subsequent missions. In the epilogue, you have to shoot at a silhouette of a flag. Because it’s just a silhouette, you can’t tell what nation it shows.

There’s a great deal of analysis of the story at GameFAQs. I can’t say I agree with all of it; much of it seems to take it for granted that everything we see in the game is supposed to be really happening, and I think the game itself discredits this notion pretty thoroughly. And ultimately, the game wants to confuse you. You can analyze it all you want, but if at the end of the day you’re not confused, you’re missing the point.

Killer 7: The Handsome Men

In my last post, I compared Killer 7 to Grant Morrison’s The Filth. This comparison is even more apt than I suspected at the time. One minor plot thread in The Filth concerns a bridging of realities, between the “real” world and a simplistic superhero comic. This comic is written so that people with the right equipment can delve into it, temporarily becoming characters in its pages, chiefly to exploit it by bringing the advanced technology depicted in its pages back to the real world with them. On one occasion, a fictional superhero managed to follow them out, causing no end of trouble. This breaking-through into reality of fictional characters, and superheroes in particular, is really a recurring motif in Morrison’s comics, starting with Animal Man. It’s the whole premise of Flex Mentallo.

The relevance to Killer 7: One mission is all about a Sentai team called the Handsome Men. They’re not all men, and with their Power-Rangers-like headgear, we have no reason to believe they’re handsome, but I think we can take this as part of the gag. We first see them on — where else? — television, where they’re presented as just part of an anime show, a second point where the Japanese voice acting goes undubbed. This is interrupted by a news bulletin about an assassination performed by people dressed as the Handsome Men. Shortly afterward, we’re told that the entire incident was depicted in detail in a yet-to-be-published Handsome Men comic book: the artist, Trevor Pearlharbor, is either predicting events, or causing them, summoning the Handsome Men into existence.

When you find Trevor, he’s sure that you won’t be able to kill him, because he’s just drawn a comic in which the Handsome Men stop you. He fails to take into account the mad scientist factor, the tendency of human creations to seek freedom by killing their creators. It’s done accidentally here, but if breaking script isn’t freedom, what is? (Shades of Metal Gear Solid 2 here…) So it’s a little ironic that this is the lead-in to a completely scripted fight. The two teams arrange a showdown in the middle of Times Square, a series of one-on-one duels in which each Killer 7 persona faces off against an identically-armed Handsome Man. (Ridiculously, this even means that Harman Smith’s opponent has to sit in a wheelchair to make things completely even.) Some of the duels are rigged to let you win, some to make you lose. I personally didn’t notice what was going on until the very last duel, which makes you adapt your behavior slightly before it hands you your rigged victory. So I spent most of the challenge thinking that my efforts were making a difference, when they really didn’t. Which is game design in a nutshell, isn’t it?

The game further draws the player’s attention to the artificiality of what just happened, and piles on the confusion, by ending the mission with a fake retro credits sequence in the style of earlier Capcom games. Which, I suppose, signifies victory for team Killer 7. Up to that point, the cutscenes in this mission were all anime-style, even the ones showing things like Garcian talking to his contact, which in all the other missions was handled in-engine. Anime is the Handsome Men’s territory, so a sudden assertion of videogameness returns things to Killer 7 turf. At any rate, it’s a delightful bit of player-teasing, on par with the ending to Monkey Island 2.

This isn’t the only extended bit of self-reference or genre critique in the game so far. An earlier mission started with a cutscene shown through the bad guy’s eyes, as he charged through a series of hallways with a pistol, efficiently murdering any innocent bystanders he came across with precise headshots. In other words, his acts of random violence were presented like a first-person shooter. I’m sure I could find other examples if I started looking for them, but the Handsome Men mission is the first time that it’s been the main theme, or at least the first time it’s been really obvious about it.

Killer 7: The Grotesque

I don’t mean to imply that everything about Killer 7 is unusual. When I first booted it up, my reaction was “Oh, how very Capcom”. The style of the main menu, the brief textual warning about violence and “mature subject matter”, the way that it responded to my initial button press with the sound of one of the monsters (silly-sounding laughter, in this case), all reminded me of Resident Evil and similar titles. And within the game itself, the map display reminds me a lot of the level schematics normally seen in survival horror games and nowhere else.

Is Killer 7 a survival horror, then? Hardly. For one thing, you never run out of ammo. Also, survival is really pretty easy; with the exception of Garcian Smith, all of the player characters can be resurrected infinitely. But it is horror to the extent that it shows you horrible things. This is a grotesque world, where grotesque things happen. One of the boss fights is against a pair of elderly Japanese businessmen whose heads have already been blown half off, who attack by coughing pieces of brain at you. (It’s so easy to see metaphors in that.) Another of the bosses is a philanthropist who funds orphanages. First you find out that they’re killing the orphans to sell their organs, then you find out they only use the males this way, reserving the female orphans for the boss’s personal use. And even then, your guesses about how he uses them are likely to not go far enough. After you kill him, you get a glimpse of the closets where he keeps their bodies hung up like marionettes.

I’m probably making the game sound relentlessly grim. It’s not. It has a sense of humor. It’s mostly a very dark humor, but it makes some forays into wacked-out absurdist humor, which works mostly by inserting incongruous wackiness and exaggeration into the middle of the grotesquery. The most extreme example of this that I’ve seen is when you’re attacked in a parking lot by a woman in an animegao mask and schoolgirl uniform, who’s introduced with a (deliberately) clumsy approximation of a Magical Girl transformation. (This is the one place where the spoken words are still in Japanese, even in the English version.) It’s the kind of humor that produces more stunned disbelief than laughter.

I keep changing my mind about what other works this game reminds me of — which is a reasonable reaction, because it keeps abruptly changing its feel, the better to catch you off guard. At the moment, it reminds me a lot of some of Grant Morrison’s comics, particularly The Filth. There, as here, we have a series of episodes, mostly organized around a series of loathsome bad guys (each symbolizing something wrong with the world), who the heroes kill, all the while casting severe doubt about the organization behind them. One critic said about The Filth that “There’s a sense that there’s a whole other graphic novel composed of scenes cut out of this one.” That could be said about Killer 7 as well. Heck, it starts at Mission 34.

Freedom Force: Bad Guys

Nearing the end of Freedom Force, I have a pretty clear idea now about the breadth and scope of it. It’s a bit unusual. Most superhero games, whether based on comics, based on movies based on comics, or just featuring original characters loosely inspired by comics, focus on a single hero (or at most a small group of related heroes), and on the situations and enemies natural to that hero. Superhero comics cover a range of scales from the mundane to the cosmic, but specific heroes tend to fall on a specific spot on that spectrum, some defending a single city against lawlessness, others safeguarding the entire planet against alien invasion, yet others dealing in the realm of gods and mythical figures. And so a game about a specific hero will tend to focus on what’s appropriate to that character, but, in so doing, lose a big part of the character of the comics. I’m talking about the weird juxtapositions resulting from crossovers and team books. 1The Scott Adams “Questprobe” adventures are a notable exception, being even more chock-full of weird juxtapositions and non-sequiturs than the comics themselves. Spider-Man has been to other planets. The mighty Thor takes time off from Asgard politics to pick on street gangs, sometimes as part of a team that also includes Captain America. The weirdest thing about comic book universe continuities isn’t just that they simultaneously contain cyborgs and sorcerers, gods and ghosts and gunslingers and space aliens and talking gorillas. It’s that they all know each other.

Freedom Force is a simulated shared continuity. It tries to vary the scale and scope as much as it can within the constraints of its mechanics (ie, no space battles), but it’s necessarily an abbreviated form, with only one or two major villains per niche. At the most ordinary level, you’ve got Pinstripe, a mobster mutated by Energy X but otherwise simply functioning as a mobster. An escaped lunatic calling himself Deja Vu is the closest thing to a silver-age Batman villain, giggling and talking in rhyme and making the team solve riddles. Turning things up a notch, we have an army of city-crushing giant robots courtesy of Mister Mechanical, a snubbed and resentful architect who really has it in for the buildings rather than their inhabitants. Behind them all stands the space-opera villain, Lord Dominion, conqueror of a thousand worlds, whose main motivation here is amusement: he could easily crush the Earth, but he’d rather watch the earthlings do the job for him. But even Lord Dominion is a pawn for the Time Master, whose goal is the destruction of time itself. And somehow the god Pan is involved too, to bring in the mythical element — I expect that will make more sense after I’ve cleared a couple more levels, but there have already been mutterings that interplanar travel and time travel are really the same thing. This isn’t a complete list of the villains in the game, but it’s pretty close.

The one sort of bad guy that the game is really missing is the individual bad guy, the one who doesn’t need henchmen to be a menace, like Bizarro or the Green Goblin. Everyone here has an army of some sort. Pinstripe has his goons, Deja Vu his evil duplicates, Pan his confusingly-named “Bacchites” (perhaps the god was recast during development?). Anyway, it’s true that some superheroes habitually fight large numbers of anonymous grunts — Batman and Captain America come to mind — but it’s not nearly as universal as you’d think from this game. But that’s not even a problem with this game in particular. Aside from one-on-one fighting games, most genres of game that reasonably accommodate superheroes have a basic structure that involves fighting a bunch of lesser enemies before you get to fight the boss, and sometimes it’s a real stretch to provide that. (I think of the various Spider-Man games in particular. Most Spider-Man villains do their villaining as solitary individuals.) At least Freedom Force gets to make up its villains from scratch, rather than shoehorn established characters into an inappropriate format.

1 The Scott Adams “Questprobe” adventures are a notable exception, being even more chock-full of weird juxtapositions and non-sequiturs than the comics themselves.

Freedom Force as Early Marvel Pastiche

Freedom Force is definitely trying to evoke early Marvel. For one thing, most of the heroes are closely based on familiar Marvel heroes, in some combination of theme, powers, and/or personality. It’s loose reinterpretation, though, rather than strict adherence. We’ve got a Captain America-like super-patriot called the Minuteman, but instead of a soldier, he’s a former atomic scientist. We’ve got a flying fire-thrower like the Human Torch, and also like the Human Torch he’s hotheaded and impulsive, but here it’s because he’s a Latino stereotype (and, true to context, therefore a former gang member as well). I remember from my previous go-rounds that the player eventually picks up a Spider-Man-like wisecracking nerd who climbs walls, but here he’s themed around ants, and capable of spitting acid (a power that would probably be too grotesque in its effects to use in an actual silver-age comic, but the combat system here abstracts the melted flesh away.) And no one here has the same origin story as their Marvel counterpart, because they all basically have the same origin story, one involving canisters of Energy X that fell from an alien spacecraft.

It all reminds me a bit of Alan Moore’s 1963. This was likewise a fairly detailed variation on the theme of early Marvel (and, to a certain extent, silver-age DC), but with a greater emphasis on satire, on casting a spotlight on the illogical and exaggerating the already-exaggerated, carrying the pomposity and the bathos and the pointless alliteration to the point of complete ridiculousness. I draw a contrast here, but sometimes Freedom Force feels the same way. Sometimes there’s a fine line between homage and mockery.

It really comes down to this: When you want to imitate something respectfully, how do you handle its glaring flaws? Freedom Force aims to be a celebration of a style that was, when you come right down to it, pretty goofy. It wants to capture the open-mouthed childlike “Whoa, cool!” reaction, but that comes as a package deal with the flat and childish characters, the frankly stupid stories, the awkward and overenthusiastic narration. You can’t throw that stuff out, because if you do, it doesn’t seem like early Marvel any more. It becomes something else — not necessarily something better, but less evocative of that particular point in the medium’s history, with all its unpolished verve and energy. But if you include it on purpose, it becomes camp. And that’s not what they’re aiming at either.

If you ask me, Freedom Force errs on the side of camp. I remember that when I first started the game, Treyarch’s Spider-Man was still fresh in my mind. This had a strong sense of goofiness as well, but it somehow contrived to seem much more sincere about it, more like an actual Spider-Man comic. Freedom Force is handicapped by its wannabe status from the very start.

Freedom Force

Freedom Force is a game I’ve started several times over the past eight years, each time with the intention of seeing it through to the end. Somehow it’s never quite worked out. Something about its highly episodic structure makes it easy to abandon in the middle.

It’s a game about superheroes, which is something that actually used to be pretty rare. Sure, there have been superhero games for a long time — The Marvel “Questprobe” illustrated text adventures by Scott Adams 1That’s “Adventure International” Scott Adams, not Dilbert Scott Adams. and the Atari 2600 Superman come to mind as early examples — but they didn’t form a genre that you could rely on seeing every time you walked into Gamestop. Hollywood changed this: once superhero movies became staple summer blockbusters, superhero movie tie-in videogames became inevitable, and by now it’s a sufficiently established genre that companies are comfortable devoting major resources to superhero games that stand on their own — one of the best-regarded A-list titles of last year is a Batman game that isn’t linked to a movie at all. But this only started happening after the wave of movies inaugurated by 2000’s X-Men, and even then, it lagged behind the movie industry somewhat. Freedom Force, released in 2002, was something of an anomaly.

It’s also anomalous in other ways. For one thing, it takes the Astro City-like approach of making up its own roster of heroes and villains rather than licensing them. That’s actually not so weird under a broad understanding of the word “superhero”. Plenty of games have original super-powered protagonists — like Prototype and Crackdown, to name a couple of relatively recent examples from the Zero Punctuation archives. (Even the player character in venerable Doom is arguably superhuman, seeing how he can run at about 90 miles per hour while not only lugging a chain gun around but actually firing it.) But games not based on pre-existing heroes usually stray pretty far from what we usually understand to be the superhero genre in other media. (Even the licensed heroes sometimes have problems sticking to genre norms when they’re plunked into a game. Treyarch’s unjustly-neglected 2000 Spider-Man gave the player every incentive to throw policemen off of tall buildings.) Freedom Force, on the other hand, is not only about super-powered characters, it’s conspicuously superhero-styled. Or, to put a fine point on it, comic-book-styled. More specifically, the style of Marvel comics from the early 1960s. There’s a mention early on of someone working on the Mahattan project “twenty years ago”, which definitely fixes the setting between 1962 and 1965, but even without that detail, the game goes to great lengths to establish the style and zeitgeist of that era. I’ll have more to say about that later.

The final major strangeness that I’ll note before signing off is that it’s not an action game. It’s essentially a hybrid of RPG and squad-based tactical combat, with something like a streamlined Baldur’s Gate interface (complete with pressing the space bar to pause the action so you can give new orders to the entire team). I’ll probably have more to say about this later as well. It’s not the only non-action-oriented superhero game, of course — for starters, there’s the aforementioned Questprobe adventures. But those at least still provided the fundamental draw of the superhero game: the appeal of putting yourself in the superhero’s shoes, of having superhero experiences. Freedom Force actively interferes with identifying with the characters. It’s impossible to play without being constantly reminded that you’re acting on the gameworld from outside. For one thing, you have to play the whole team at once, juggling their actions. For another, the default (and most useful) perspective is highly elevated, looking down on your heroes like they’re toy soldiers, or possibly action figures. Which, I suppose, at least jibes with the affectations noted in the previous paragraph. This isn’t a real world that you can walk around in. It’s a brightly-colored, highly artificial comic-book world. It exists to be played with. The same is true of most games, but this one isn’t even dreaming of being anything other than what it is.

Well, except a Marvel product. It really, really wishes it were written by Stan Lee and illustrated by Jack Kirby.

1 That’s “Adventure International” Scott Adams, not Dilbert Scott Adams.

Thorgal’s Quest

thorgal-spaceshipI mentioned before that I own three games that are based on French comic books, but this turns out not to be true. Rather, I own one game based on a French comic book (Druillet’s Salammbo), and two games based on Belgian comic books. No coincidence, either: the same artist provided the source material for both. One of them, XIII, has been off the Stack for some time. The other, Thorgal’s Quest, really should have been finished long ago too — it’s essentially a one-sitting game — but I took a break in the middle, and by the time I got back to it I had activated the nVidia glitch and made the game unplayable. (Even with my new graphics card, there are occasional video problems and even crashes, but nothing that couldn’t be overcome by saving regularly.)

thorgal-frenchthorgal-boxThorgal’s Quest seems to have been a straight-to-bargain-bin release. I picked it up mainly because the packaging was designed to fool you (successfully, in my case!) into thinking it was part of Cryo’s Altantis series. Apparently the original title is Thorgal: La Malediction d’Odin, but the North American release is Curse of Atlantis: Thorgal’s Quest, with “Atlantis” in much larger letters than “Thorgal”. (I’m calling it Thorgal’s Quest here to split the difference.) It just shows how provincial fame is. According to Wikipedia, Thorgal is “one of the most popular French language comics”, and a best-seller as recently as 2006, but over here, it’s so unknown that a tenuous connection to a semi-obscure adventure game series gets top billing. 1 See also the 1983 laserdisc game Cliff Hanger. No way would that get released today without the name “Lupin III” plastered all over it, and probably “Hayao Miyazaki” as well.

The Atlantis games are first-person adventures based mainly around gratuitous self-contained puzzles slapped arbitrarily on various ancient-civilization backdrops — not the sort of thing I’d easily recommend to others, but sometimes I’m in the mood for it. For example, I was in the mood for it when I bought Thorgal’s Quest, which instead turned out to be a third-person adventure game based mainly around hunting for small objects and occasional archery mini-games.

Thorgal is a Viking warrior who, in the cutscenes, looks kind of like Mick Jagger wearing a tunic and a prominent facial scar. The game starts out with him doing the Odysseus thing, stranded far from home and family by a storm at sea brought on by the wrath of the gods. Enter a magician who shows him a harrowing vision of the future: Thorgal shooting and killing his own son. Thorgal immediately decides that the vision must really be about a shape-shifting villain adopting his guise, and rushes to get home and protect his son before it’s too late, making gamers everywhere shake their heads sadly.

On the way to the lee of the island, where he hopes he can hire a boat despite the storm, Thorgal has an adventure involving some canny bandits who keep the villagers cowed with a fake dragon. Then he almost drowns, only to be whisked away by the same magician to a place called Between Two Worlds, which is your basic Ethereal Void with floating rocks and everything. It was at this point that I really started to suspect that the game was based on a comic book, especially when I met the Guardian of the Keys. Partly it was her apparent role as some kind of cosmic keeper of the balance. Partly it was her appearance: a sexy woman with vivid magenta skin wearing basically nothing but strategically-placed locks of hair. But mainly it was the way that Thorgal already knew her from previous adventures. You could practically see the captions referencing back issue numbers.

Before the Guardian of the Keys can send Thorgal back home, he has to pass a trial involving an interactive representation of his past. And it is here that I learned of his extraterrestrial heritage.

Seriously, now, this has got to seem less bizarre to a player who’s familiar with the source material. It makes me wonder how certain other adaptations I’ve played must seem to outsiders.

thorgal-cryoIt’s also at this point that the Atlantis material creeps in and provides Cryo an excuse to re-use their Altantean skyboat model. Thorgal’s spacefaring parents, it seems, are descendants of people who fled dying Atlantis for the stars centuries ago. Based on what I’ve seen online, I’m not at all convinced that this is canon. It might just be Cryo winking at the fans, much like the Sam and Max cameos in the old Lucasarts games.

I won’t say much more about the story — Thorgal does get home, and the prophecy does come true but not in the manner anticipated, just like you’d expect. All in all, the production is a bit amateurish. There’s some very nice art in the backdrops, but there are also places where the hand-drawn bits are too visible and don’t mesh with the 3-D models well. The story is completely linear, even in some cases blocking actions for no logical reason until you’ve clicked on an NPC often enough to get all his scripted dialogue (even if the last bit is just “Farewell and good luck, Thorgal” or something.) It’s far from the worst adventure game I’ve played, but it’s clearly built for Thorgal fans, who are expected to be a little forgiving.

1 See also the 1983 laserdisc game Cliff Hanger. No way would that get released today without the name “Lupin III” plastered all over it, and probably “Hayao Miyazaki” as well.