The Talos Principle 2

A couple months back, a sequel to The Talos Principle dropped quite unexpectedly, nine years after the original. I know I’m not the only one to be taken by surprise. I picked it up in the holiday sales, and have now 100%ed it. This is not nearly as difficult as it was in Talos 1. The main-line puzzles strike me as generally simpler than in the original, each based entirely around a single trick.

It manages this mainly by steadily expanding the set of puzzle elements, and it’s a little impressive how many of the new components sound like they’d make the puzzles utterly trivial. Teleporters! Extra bodies for you to control! Portable beam emitters! Universal activators that just switch anything on! But each has an important limitation, usually that it’s in some way bound by line-of-sight rules. This has really always the main factor making the familiar beam puzzles difficult, but it’s dressed up in a bunch of different ways now.

As for the optional harder puzzles, well, they’ve become more systematized. Each of the game’s twelve main puzzle-areas has two optional slightly-harder puzzle-chambers and two “star” challenges chosen from three types: a chase sequence where you pursue some particle effects around the map, a sort of riddle where you’re shown a map or other image and have to figure out what it depicts and what to do with it, and a sort where you have to somehow connect a beam from the puzzle chambers to a target outside them. All three types of star challenge involve searching the lands around the puzzle chambers, which can take a while, because the lands are almost unexplorably large this time around. With my stubborn insistence on completion, I might have spent more time running around looking for stuff than solving the real puzzles. Also, the last type, with the beam, is the only one that resembles the boundary-violating star puzzles from Talos 1, and while it plays some neat tricks with the idea, I think it loses a lot by being a set type, where you know more or less what you’re supposed to do. Specifically, it loses the sense of breaking the rules that was a big part of the game’s character, and in my opinion the most memorable thing about it. But I suppose the new stuff is supposed to be more approachable. Like the more actiony bits in an action-adventure, it gives you stuff to do when you’re fatigued from solving puzzles. Except I don’t think I ever was.

Even though the core puzzle-solving isn’t greatly changed from the original, I appreciate that the designers decided not to simply rehash the plot or setting. Where Talos 1 was explicitly set in a simulated environment, Talos 2 is supposed to be set in the physical world, where the robots awakened by the events of the previous game have formed a society. Like DROD: The City Beneath, there are biggish sequences where you just explore a puzzleless home town with NPCs wandering around. Some of the NPCs accompany you on your mission. You might think that they could help you in the puzzle chambers, and thereby enable complicated multiple-person puzzles like in Portal 2 or The Lost Vikings (something hinted at by the way NPCs help you along in the final few puzzles in Talos 1), but even when the game does provide puzzles of that sort, it doesn’t use your companions for them. (My uninformed speculation is that the designers initially provided companions with the intent that they be used in these puzzles, but changed their minds to justify line-of-sight rules.)

And, being set in the physical world, the existence of puzzle chambers suspiciously similar to the ones from the simulation is something of a mystery. Who made them, and why, and most particularly, how? These are the questions that drive the plot, and they’re all answered satisfactorily by the end. The ultimate revelations reminded me of Obsidian 1I realize references to obscure games I haven’t blogged about will be lost on most readers. I’m okay with that; I write this blog mainly to collect my own thoughts, and only secondarily to share them., one of my favorite 1990s Mystlikes, but with a stronger sense of motivation — I suppose making every single character an AI helps prevent lazy “rogue AI goes mad” plotting. And at any rate, the thing that sets it apart from Talos 1 isn’t the resolution, but the fact that there’s a mystery about it at all.

Mostly, though, the feel of the thing is different from Talos 1 because it’s not dominated by a sense of loss and decay. (Possibly as a reaction to this, it also has less of the gratuitous silly stuff, or maybe the larger spaces just lessen its density.) The robots — who call themselves “humans”, on the basis that they’re the progeny of and successors to the original biological ones — are building a home for themselves, a society, a future. And in the background of the story is an endless debate over what kind of future they want to build.

This takes the place of the “What is human?” philosophizing of the first game. Even Straton of Stageira, the fictional Greek philosopher who formulated the Talos principle, is dragooned into weighing in, extending his principle to apply not just to people but to the polis. And look, the philosophy in Talos 1 was pretty bloodless and abstract, especially compared to the global tragedy underneath it; it’s fundamentally a definitional argument, and thus only of interest because of how those definitions affect the decisions of an arbitrary authority (which is why the real story there is one of obedience vs rebellion). The philosopher-robots of Talos 2 are debating things that directly affect public policy, and thus their lives. But it still feels a little airy. Robot society is small and relatively new, and doesn’t have the complications of history, of biology, of ethnicity and nation and race. The divisions are shallow, based entirely on personal opinions, without the weight of tradition (despite the efforts of some robots to revere their creators). It’s an internet rationalist’s paradise.

Perhaps that’s why it took me so long to notice how political the game gets. The main point of contention is unfettered growth and expansion vs regulation, limited population, and deference to the balance of nature — with no real moderate stance presented. The player can take either side, affecting the ending, and, having looked at all the ending cinematics on Youtube, I’d say it does a pretty good job of at least giving the players inclined towards one side or the other something that they’d find satisfying. But on the way there, it seriously favors the unfettered expansion. Limitationists are portrayed as fools, hypocrites, or hypocrites pretending to be fools, with just one exception, and even he doesn’t make a satisfying case for his position, as if the writer didn’t really understand it. And these are the people who are in charge and culturally dominant at the start of the game, resulting in citywide malaise, a breaking of the human spirit, an obsession with the past, and not just an inability to innovate but an inability to even adequately maintain the existing infrastructure they depend on. Meanwhile, the people who walked away from that society create incredible things. This is not far removed from the plot of Atlas Shrugged. It’s not that the reaction it’s trying to provoke is wrong, exactly, given its context. But I’m instinctively wary of narrative rhetoric that’s historically been used mainly in support of loathsome and antisocial positions, and I’m a little taken aback at how little recognition this aspect of the game has gotten from other commentators.

But then again, worse can be said of a very large proportion of all games. Probably the majority of the titles on my Stack implicitly endorse war and/or colonialism. Heck, a lot of them endorse monarchism. And I just kind of accept that, because they don’t leave room for any other points of view. At least Talos 2 acknowledges that people might disagree.

1 I realize references to obscure games I haven’t blogged about will be lost on most readers. I’m okay with that; I write this blog mainly to collect my own thoughts, and only secondarily to share them.

Bioshock: Would you kindly finish the game?

I’ve cited superhero comics as an influence on Bioshock already, but the single most superhero-like moment in the game comes when you start catching up to Atlas, and he blocks your progress by hefting and throwing massive pieces of architecture at you, and striking an Action Comics #1 pose to do it. I suppose he has plasmids that I don’t — I can’t even lift so much as a brick except by telekinesis. 1Telekinesis in this game, by the way, is an obvious imitation of Half-Life 2‘s gravity gun. Not that I necessarily want whatever he’s been taking. By the time of your final boss fight, all the splicing has turned him into something monstrous, resembling a living version of that Atlas statue.

Mind you, the player character has his own brush with monstrosity. The penultimate level comes up with an excuse to get the player character to disguise himself as a Big Daddy — or possibly actually become one. This is a multi-part quest: you get the suit here, the boots there, the voice-box that produces those whalesong-like cries another place. Atlas sends you taunting messages warning about the consequences of what you’re doing, but it isn’t until you’re well into the process that you start finding reasons to believe that it’s not reversible. An audio log describes how the suit doesn’t work unless it’s bonded to the internal organs, replacing the skin. The voice-box is installed with a vicious-looking device that could plausibly be replacing your larynx. You naturally start to wonder just what you’re doing to yourself, what you’re giving up. It all leads into an escort mission, protecting a Little Sister (or, more accurately, a little girl who used to be a Little Sister) as she makes her rounds, and it’s easy to think “Is this how it’s going to be from now on for the rest of my life?”

Or maybe it's a new sort of stealth diving suit that allows the Big Daddies to blend in.But then, the game isn’t consistent about its presentation of your new status. Your first-person view has the circular window of a Big Daddy’s helmet superimposed on it (with some nice distortion effects at the edges), but your hands, when visible, show no such alteration. And when you go into the final boss fight, any sign or memory of the terrible possibilities just goes away. I can understand why they’d want a happy ending here (even though they miss out on a chance for a really memorably dark one), but I would have liked at least a word acknowledging the implications of the previous section.

Looking at a walkthrough afterward to find out what I’d missed, I saw one that concluded with the words “Congratulations, Rapture is saved!” I can only assume that this was put in as a matter of habit, part of the general walkthrough formula, because it’s flabbergasting in its wrongness. Your struggle towards the end is to save the outside world from a super-powered Frank Fontaine, or, if you’re playing the Sith path, to seize his Adam for yourself. Rapture is beyond saving. Its founder doesn’t even believe in salvation — not just in the religious sense, but in that he doesn’t believe in altruistic acts. And when you come down to it, the story of this game is primarily the story of a collapse. That’s unusual in games, even though ruins are a common setting — usually they’re just a setting, and the focus is on the player’s reason for being there. In Bioshock, the player’s real reason for being there is intimately linked with the ongoing collapse.

And the cause of the collapse? Given the Objectivist window-dressing, the obvious way to read the game is as a warning against the consequences of that philosophy. But, as I noted before, that point is blunted by Fontaine’s involvement. Or is it? The rise of Atlas and his revolution was made possible by the large numbers of dissatisfied poor (who weren’t allowed to leave Rapture lest they betray the secret of its existence to the outside world), and is therefore a consequence of Ryan’s no-social-safety-net policy. Something was going to break; Fontaine simply rode the wave, and satisfied videogame conventions by providing the player with something to kill.

It’s been suggested that we can’t really blame Objectivism for what happened, because Ryan had abandoned so many of Objectivism’s core tenets: initiating the use of force, robbing people of their free will through genetic manipulation. But that’s kind of the point. Ryan’s project was idealistic, and Ryan was unable to sustain that idealism. Even the “No gods or kings” bit is implicitly betrayed from the beginning by the way city features are named: Apollo Square, Port Poseidon, etc. Back at the point when you confront him, it’s notable how defeated he already is, despite his earlier appearance of nigh-omnipotent control: locked in his bunker-like office, alone, unable to affect what’s going on outside, finally understanding your mission but unable to do anything about it. He orders you to kill him, using your command words. Some have said that this represents a kind of victory on his part, proving to you that you’re no more than a slave. But he could have proved that with any command. By ordering his own death, he desperately takes the only sort of control he can over his fate, and the fate of Rapture.

I suppose this is why we didn’t have a boss fight against Ryan. He’s the personification of a certain set of ideals, and of how they can go wrong. To turn him into a powerful figure who has to be fought, and to make it possible to lose that fight, would be to suggest that his ideals are still powerful, and undermine the theme of inevitable collapse. Instead, the end boss is Fontaine, personification of things not going as planned.

1 Telekinesis in this game, by the way, is an obvious imitation of Half-Life 2‘s gravity gun.

Bioshock: Twists

Posting this a couple days late. I finally got up to (and substantially past) the point of long-anticipated revelations. So let’s talk plot, in a spoilery way.

But first, to provide a buffer for for those not wanting spoilers, let’s talk a bit about the function of revelations in a game. Mainly they give some shape to an experience that might otherwise feel homogeneous: instead of spending six hours shooting bad guys, for example, you spend four hours shooting bad guys while confused and seeking answers followed by two hours shooting bad guys with firm and definite purpose. Alternately, new facts can justify sudden changes in gameplay — learning the bad guys’ motivations, for example, could lead to fighting on their side. Bioshock has a little of both sorts. There’s a third sort I think I should mention, because I feel like I’ve been mentioning it a lot lately, what with all the horror games in this year’s IF Comp: the revelation of something that the player already knows but the player character doesn’t, usually something that’s going to make life awful for the protagonist once he knows it and which therefore excites tragic sympathy. (I suppose that the “My god, what is that thing?” moment is also an example of this, albeit a very clumsy one.) Bioshock is something of a horror game and something of a tragedy, but it doesn’t quite do this, or at least not for me: when I speak of long-anticipated revelations, I don’t mean that I knew in advance what the revelations were going to be. I just knew there were going to be revelations.

There are really two twists delivered nearly simultaneously: the truth about Atlas, and the truth about the player character. Like I said before, I was suspicious of Atlas the moment he started being helpful, and his callousness towards the Little Sisters made me even moreso, so I was pretty sure he was hiding something, but I didn’t know what. I had some baseless guesses — was he a pseudonym of Andrew Ryan, allowing him to play both sides? A Big Daddy that overcame its conditioning? I suppose someone cleverer than myself could have figured out the truth: you hear quite a lot about Frank Fontaine, about how he was a crime boss who wielded illegitimate control over Rapture by controlling the Adam supply until Ryan’s men killed him, shortly before Atlas came along and started his uprising. The thing is, the level where you start hearing about Fontaine is also the level where you start hearing about Ryan rounding up dissidents and imposing the death penalty in complete contradiction to his stated ideals (with the usual mealy-mouthed excuses you hear from any dictator). And not just dissidents, but smugglers. Smugglers, in a free-trade paradise? It doesn’t take long to learn (and be repeatedly, anviliciously reminded) that the contraband they were smuggling consisted of literature and other media considered dangerous to Rapture society, mainly Bibles. So Ryan comes off as simply power-hungry and paranoid, and it’s easy to draw the conclusion that Fontaine is just someone who he demonized because he didn’t want to share power, and probably fundamentally blameless. It didn’t even occur to me that he actually is the fulfillment of Ryan’s paranoid fantasies, a con man playing the public for saps, and devious enough to fake his own death and come back with an even better con when it all went bust. But now that he’s come clean and become my enemy, he’s positively determined to prove Ryan right, to make Rapture’s collapse into the effect of an evil outside influence rather than the inevitable result of its intrinsic flaws. It’s a conclusion that’s morally uncomfortable in roughly the same way as the documents released in the 1990s showing that there actually had been Soviet infiltration of the State Department when McCarthy said there was: some people are so wrong in their actions, you don’t want them to turn out to be right about anything. I have to remind myself that Andrew Ryan is still enough of a monster that he’d rather destroy Rapture’s oxygen supply than allow the city to fall into the hands of, well, anyone without his permission — that he once burned down a forest to keep it from being turned into a public park — that, indeed, he’s become the sort of Kurtz-like madman who hangs corpses on hooks outside his office as a warning to others.

The revelations about the player character, now. Every once in a while, throughout the game, you get flashes of memory, in the form of sepia photographs of unclear significance: a farmhouse, a small group of people — the PC and his parents, perhaps? Not entirely clear: they flash by too fast for you get a good look. But the flashes are accompanied by ominous sound effects, sometimes by distant screaming, which I think is generally horror-game shorthand for suppressed knowledge. So, as in those horror games I mentioned earlier, it was clear that there was some dire revelation brewing, but unlike most such situations, it wasn’t at all clear what it was going to be. Some connection to Rapture, I presumed — perhaps the plane crash somehow wasn’t an accident. I was righter than I suspected: the PC’s connection to Rapture is that he was genetically engineered in Rapture, grown to adulthood in a matter of hours and had false memories implanted in Rapture, for the specific purpose of a mission in Rapture. Apparently the command phrase “Would you kindly”, used frequently by Atlas in his communications, activates the PC’s mental conditioning, giving him commands that he can’t help but obey — which is to say, your mission objectives throughout the game. This is one of those things that makes me want to go back and play through the game again, or at least to review the messages available from within the game’s info menus, to hear all the dialogue with knowledge of what it really means. Did Sasha Cohen use the phrase, during the brief time when he took over as taskmaster? Did Atlas say it when telling me to kill the Little Sisters, the one order of his that I’ve disobeyed? When exactly did Andrew Ryan figure out what I was? For it’s Ryan who tells you the truth, when you finally confront him. He definitely starts off at least as clueless as the player: the first time he contacts you by radio, he asks if you’re CIA or KGB. But as you approach his lair, he makes comments about how you’re “not fully human”, which seemed at the time to simply be part of his free-men-vs-parasites rhetoric.

Shortly after this revelation, Dr. Tenenbaum removes the “Will you kindly” trigger, making it impossible for Fontaine to clean up loose ends just by saying “Will you kindly commit suicide”. He does activate some other failsafes that mix up the gameplay a bit, lowering your maximum health, and then, when you attempt to undo that, temporarily putting you into an unsettled state where you can’t control what plasmid you’re using at any given moment, changing it at random. (The game can even choose plasmids you haven’t purchased, which I suppose is a bug, but it’s also a nice way to give the player experience of stuff that might otherwise go unseen.) The funny thing is how little really changes. The trigger phrase was essentially an in-fiction justification for why tasks assigned to you by strangers are mandatory, and in particular for why you have to kill Ryan instead of just sitting down and talking to him. But even without the phrase, the rules of the game demand that you get your marching orders from someone — it just shifts that role from Atlas to Tenenbaum. “A man decides, a slave obeys”: Ryan repeats this several times in his final spiel. By that standard, the player is still a slave.

Speaking of in-game justifications, the game tries to use the same revelations to sell everything else that’s implausible about your success so far. You can face incredible odds and kill Big Daddies so much more easily than the locals (who certainly try) because you were designed to be a killing machine. You can bypass the security systems so easily because Andrew Ryan left genetically-keyed back doors for himself, and you were created using his DNA. Actually, at one point it’s stated that you have half his DNA, which suggests that the PC may not be just a vat-grown homunculus, but Ryan’s natural son (modulo enhancements and rapid growth). This would explain why Diane McClintock, Ryan’s girlfriend, remains such a major source of audio logs throughout the game, despite being such a minor figure in Rapture and in the story so far: she’s probably the PC’s mother. I’m getting ahead of myself here, mind you; I still have a couple of levels to go. But it’s nice to finally have a revelation that I’m anticipating.

Bioshock: Stupid?

Coincidentally, there was some discussion of Bioshock at my workplace the other day. (Steam had put it on sale for Halloween.) One person insisted that it was “stupid”, and others rushed to defend it. I tried to argue on the stupid side, just to balance things out a little, and to that end adapted some of what I said in my last post — essentially, that it’s sensationalistic, and the line between sensationalism and stupidity is so fine that I’m not even sure it’s there. In addition, Objectivism is a basically stupid philosophy, by which I mean that adhering to it necessarily involves forgetting or ignoring a lot of what you know about humanity, and often seems to also involve other sorts of idiocy like pretending that you can derive practical information from a tautology like “A is A”. This is the sort of stupid that you can’t even argue against intelligently; just taking it seriously enough to engage it lowers the level of discourse. Bioshock certainly engages it, but perhaps not seriously enough to be affected. The chief argument it employs is “O NO YOU ARE BEING ATTACKED BY MONSTER PEOPLE”, which is kind of dismissive. Or perhaps just kind of stupid.

But this isn’t what the accuser in this discussion meant. He wasn’t thinking about the style or the theme, but about the gameplay. This is a game that imposes no penalty for dying, which, to him, meant there was no motivation for playing skillfully or learning new techniques. His knock-down argument was that he claimed he had beaten the game on the Hard difficulty setting using no weapon or plasmid other than the wrench that you get early on as your default melee weapon. It didn’t make a difference, he said, because enemies don’t heal when you respawn, so you can just whittle them down to nothing no matter how often they kill you. Thus, the game is stupid.

Now, I have my doubts about the veracity of his claims. I myself took a few wrench-swings at Dr. Steiner, the game’s first boss-like enemy, and I could have sworn that he was back at full health by the time I got back from the vita-chamber. Perhaps there was a health dispenser I failed to notice. Regardless, everyone present, including myself, felt that he was approaching the game wrong. I recognize that everyone’s different, and that not everyone who plays games plays them for the same reasons, or derives the same sorts of satisfaction from them. No game will appeal to everyone. But even bearing this in mind, it seemed like his poor experience of the game was his own doing, the result of a willful refusal to appreciate its merits.

It was argued that Bioshock is about the setting and story rather than about the challenge, and as far as that goes, I can’t disagree. A colleague of mine once said about Quake that it wasn’t really a game about shooting, but rather, a game about 3D environments. The shooting was just there to give you something to do in those environments. You can say the same about most first-person shooters, to varying degrees. Some are more about action, some are more about place. Bioshock is very much about place. But this isn’t a very satisfying excuse. If you’re going to fill your decaying underwater city with combat set-pieces, surely you can at least provide interesting combat mechanics?

But that’s where the argument for stupid breaks down. The game does provide interesting mechanics; my colleague just refused to use them, and the game never forced the issue. Again, people enjoy different things, and the game recognizes this by allowing you to take different approaches. If you enjoy sticking with the wrench, killing things by degrees and dying a lot, it gives you that option. If you don’t enjoy playing it that way, why do it? The fact that the game lets you respawn without resetting the game state doesn’t mean you have to take advantage of it.

I’m reminded of my experience with Final Fantasy 8. This is a game that gives you access to powerful summoning spells from near the very beginning, and lets you cast them at a much lower cost than in other Final Fantasy games. Thus, for most of the game, you can pretty much just do a summon at the beginning of every combat to win them all trivially. A lot of people did this, and consequently decided that the game was stupid. So when I played, I made a point of not doing it that way. As a result, I probably had a more satisfying experience than most players.

So, this all got me thinking. I had already been doing more dying than I liked in Bioshock. Even if it’s without consequence, it’s a kind of failure. So I’m replaying from the beginning, trying to avoid dying entirely, or at least minimize it. To support this, I’m dialing the difficulty down from Hard to Normal. The game recommends Normal if you’ve played shooters before and Hard if you’ve played a lot of shooters before, and so, although I don’t consider myself skilled by multiplayer standards, I figured I qualified for Hard just on the basis of long experience. But that was without my new handicap. Restarting also gives me the luxury of making decisions differently, and in particular, choosing different plasmids. The first time through, when I had the opportunity to purchase the Rage plasmid, which makes enemies attack each other, I instead purchased a couple of others that would make normal gameplay easier (for example, one of them was simply armor against physical damage). That might have been important under Hard, but at this point I think the better way to play this game is to choose things that make the game interesting instead of things that make it easy.

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.

Red Alert: Stalin’s Story

Before I start talking about playing Red Alert on the Soviet side, let me describe the closing cutscene of the Allied campaign. A trio of American GI’s searching the wreckage that used to be the Kremlin discover Stalin himself buried in the rubble, throughly pinned down with only his face visible. (It looks very unnatural, as if he had been deliberately buried, but I don’t think that’s how we’re meant to read it.) The soldiers’ orders are to take him prisoner, but a figure steps out from the shadows: the German commander who we’ve seen in most of the mission briefings. He tells the soldiers to just walk away and report nothing. After they comply, he calmly gags Stalin and covers him completely, so he’ll die a slow lingering death in the ruins, unable even to cry out “For the love of God, Montresor!” — although of course we know he’ll more likely be rescued just in time for the sequel.

The scene left me doubtful about what its point was supposed to be. Was I supposed to be horrified at the commander’s cold-blooded cruelty, perhaps even think that my German allies were not quite as historically-altered as they appeared? Or was I supposed to regard it as no more than the villain deserved, and cheer for his getting more suffering than strict adherence to the code of war allows? I’m a little reminded of another alternate WWII story, Inglorious Basterds. I recall seeing a review of IB that complained about its simplistic view, that it used Nazis as one-dimensional monsters, a mere means for the characters fighting them to perform extreme acts of gratuitous violence without losing our sympathy. This struck me as a good description of just about any other WWII movie, but way off base for IB. Probably the only reason that the gratuitous violence bothered that reviewer so much was that Tarantino took special care to repeatedly remind us that we were cheering on monstrous behaviour on the part of our own side. (I could write about this at length, but I’m already digressing enough.) But then, Tarantino is a special case: a maker of violent entertainment who actually wants us to think about what violent entertainment means. I really don’t think that the writers of Red Alert reflected on it that much. The simple fact that Stalin is head of the Soviet Union was enough to get people itching for a resolution like this in 1996, in the nearer aftermath of Communism’s collapse, which left the more hawkish-minded Americans feeling a little cheated, denied a glorious military victory of the sort depicted in this game.

I mention all this now because the start of the Soviet campaign clears it up completely. We’re supposed to regard Stalin as completely deserving of the worst fate the Allies can dish out. The very first thing you see, as the curtain rises on first mission briefing, is the tail end of another meeting, a report on a test of a new poison gas — tested on an unnamed village, with special mention made of its effect on children. To drive the point home, your first mission is to pacify a small village in the Ukraine by destroying it and killing everyone in it.

So, although it’s not explicitly stated this way, the clear implication is that Stalin is gassing his own people — rather like another mustachioed dictator who American hawks felt a lack of resolution with in 1996. Was this comparison deliberate? Honestly, looking online, it looks like “he gassed his own people” didn’t really achieve repeated meme status until 2002. Still, the events it refers to were in the past, so it’s plausibly intentional.

Anyway, I’m pleased to note that this isn’t just cutscene plot: the lack of regard for “your own people” does in fact extend to gameplay. I earlier made mention of Medic units that heal injured soldiers. The Soviet side doesn’t seem to have them at all. Armored personnel carriers, sometimes the best way to keep soldiers alive, do exist — I had a couple at the start of one mission — but they’re not as readily available as on the Allied side, where they’re one of the basic things that you can build with the same factory that produces tanks. Tanks themselves only come in larger, tougher, and more expensive sizes than the Allies produce, so you’re inevitably going to rely on foot soldiers a lot more, which, given the lack of ways to keep them alive, means producing lots of them and then seeing most of them get killed. I don’t remember the original Command & Conquer well enough to know how much of this simply carries over from there, but I am reminded of the few differences between the sides in the original Warcraft, where healing magic was the exclusive domain of the Human side. (No sign of the Soviets reanimating their dead yet, though.)

One last unrelated thing I’d like to mention before signing off and possibly playing something else: I’m quite pleased with Kane’s cameo. Kane, who looks like he goes to the same barber as Anton LaVey, is the chief bad guy in those Command & Conquer games not set in the past. He’s unusually death-resistant — always a good attribute in a series villain, as it spares the writers from having to set up plausible escapes like they did with Stalin — and he may in fact be immortal, which would explain why hasn’t aged since the 1940s. (Alternately, I suppose he could have access to time travel. Which has interesting implications for this game’s premise.) And what role does he play in alt-history? Hard to say. He just shows up during one of the meetings, whispers something into Stalin’s ear, and leaves. One assumes he’s playing puppet-master somehow. Now, I haven’t completed the game, so I don’t know if he shows up later, but I hope not. This one appearance as it stands strikes me as just about the best way to establish a link between the games: subtle enough that newcomers can play without even noticing it, vague enough to fuel fan speculation, but at the same time highly visible and undeniably significant to those in the know.

Red Alert: Moral Clarity

Both sides in Red Alert have their own distinct superweapons: the Soviets have the “Iron Curtain” effect described previously, while the Allies have the Chronosphere, a temporary teleportation device developed from the conspiracy-theory-famous Philadelphia Experiment. I still haven’t seen either of these things used in battle, but their development figures big in the plot, which is greatly concerned with protecting your own research and sabotaging the enemy’s. About two-thirds of the way through the Allied campaign, we learn of another project, Stalin’s ultimate secret weapon: his scientists have discovered how to unleash the power in the heart of the atom, creating an explosion of unparalleled destructive power. You, of course, have to prevent these doomsday weapons — these “atom bombs” — from ever being deployed.

It’s alternate history as moral wish-fulfillment fantasy for America. I suppose some people would argue otherwise — I mean, a world where the Reds got the bomb first? That’s your fantasy? But it is: it puts us in the role of unambiguous good guy. Nukes are, after all, bad-guy weapons, things whose chief practical use is to terrorize the world into submission like a James Bond villain. The first Command & Conquer recognized this by making tactical nukes the ultimate weapon for the fanatical terrorist side, the Brotherhood of Nod. The ultimate weapon for the good guys, the Global Defense Initiative, was an orbital laser: clean, precise, comfortably remote from retaliation, and best of all, fictional, and therefore never yet historically used to massacre civilians.

Come to think of it, the very premise of Red Alert is a moral simplification of World War II. Forget the real-world use of atomic weapons for the moment; that’s something people manage to justify in their minds. All it takes is an extreme us/them mentality, the sort that considers “uncompromising” to be a compliment. But that same mentality finds it extremely galling that, in order to fight the Nazis, we had to be on the same side as the Communists. Removing this factor, Red Alert allows us the luxury of complete purity, of both aims and means. Heck, even the lack of any involvement with Japan presumably means no Japanese-American internment. It all comes a lot closer to our national myth of WWII-as-last-good-war than the reality ever did. It really says something that the creators of this game felt it necessary to clarify and improve our good-guy status even in the context of the war we spent fighting Hitler. And it’s profoundly weird that they decided to do this by removing Hitler from the story.

Police Quest 4

pq4-hqI dropped out of Sierra’s Police Quest series after its second episode, playing the third only after the series was anthologized years later. PQ1 was a must-have item for me on its initial release, not because I’m a particular fan of cop dramas, but simply because Sierra-style adventures were scarce in those days. Sierra’s adventures were often badly-designed, usually goofier than intended, given to amateurish prose and misused words, but I was willing to forgive a lot to get my fix while they were the only game in town. Even today, launching this game and seeing the old familiar SCI-era Sierra logo animation gives me a little warm fuzzy feeling. But you’ll find a lot more people today with fond memories of the old Lucasarts adventures than of the Sierra ones, and it’s basically because Lucasarts had some actual writers on staff, and possibly even proofreaders. The designer of the first three Police Quest games, Jim Walls, apparently got the job by being a friend of the company founder; he had fifteen years of experience as a cop, and zero years as a writer or game designer. (And this from a company that had made games for the likes of Disney and Jim Henson.)

But PQ4 isn’t by Walls. By this point, Sierra had enough clout to get a famous non-writer: Daryl Gates, recently-retired chief of the Los Angeles Police Department. Gates presided over the the controversial transformation of the LAPD into a paramilitary force, a period that most of America remembers primarily as the Rodney King era. I’ve tried to avoid getting into politics on this blog, but it’s impossible to play this game without thinking of the man behind it. I find myself unavoidably watching for glimpses of the alleged racism and brutality that he’s no doubt scrupulously avoided giving any hint of here. It’s like looking at Hitler’s paintings.

But so far, the primary sense I get is simply one of goofiness and amateurish prose, a crime thriller by a wannabe writer. A body is described as “strewn” in a dumpster. The voice actors, obviously recorded in separate sessions, valiantly do their best with unnatural exposition. The narrator is just confusing: he addresses the player character, an experienced homicide detective, by name, but keeps reacting to player actions by explaining basic principles of police work, as if addressing a raw recruit. (This would have worked better as the PC’s inner voice, I think.) The graphics are all photographic, which makes this a work of proto-FMV, and it’s easy to think of this as related to the lack of polish in early FMV-based titles.

Chrono Trigger: Mass Destruction

Having now been through scenarios past and future, I reach what seems to be a sort of time-travel hub. Described as “the end of time”, it’s your basic stone platform in an inky void, with a mysterious elderly guardian-of-the-balance type on hand to explain things. There are a few permanent time portals there, including one back to the present. (That is, the time period in which the game starts. To some of the player characters, it’s the past or the future.) But it doesn’t go to the same geographical location that you started in. It goes to Monstertown.

That’s not its real name. It’s just a more descriptive name than the real one, which I’ve already forgotten. Regardless, it’s the place where an evil wizard tried to take over the world 400 years ago, and it’s still inhabited by the descendants of his minions, who still bear a grudge against all humans for defeating him. Not an attack-on-sight sort of grudge like most monsters, just a seething prejudice and an active project to eventually summon a Godzilla-like lava monster to lay waste to all human civilization. And when I say “Godzilla-like”, I mean it’s an obvious metaphor for nuclear weapons. The future you visit is a post-apocalyptic wasteland with starving survivors huddling in shelters and mutants in the ruins outside, and it was Lavos who made it that way. The present seems to be in a state of cold war.

It seems to me that East and West have different trends when it comes to post-apocalyptic scenarios. Japan is the only nation on Earth to be the target of a nuclear attack, and understandably has never forgotten it. America is the only nation to have launched a nuclear attack, and has done its level best to forget. Thus, in American games with post-apocalyptic scenarios, such as Wasteland and the Fallout series, the details and origins of the conflict tend to be either lost to history or just not particularly relevant to the story — the world has moved on and developed new bad guys from the chaos following the war, and thus has more important things to worry about than who nuked who. Japanese games, on the other hand, are generally very clear that whoever activated the doomsday device is the story’s villain. We see this most clearly in the Final Fantasy games, where, as I’ve noted before, the world tends to get destroyed at the end of the first half. In FF5 and FF6, even after the world is shattered, the villains continue to target individual cities for destruction with city-destroying weapons.

Puzzle Quest: Investigations

Although it could probably get by on the novelty of its gameplay alone, Puzzle Quest actually does something a little interesting with the plot. The premise is uninspired — the peaceful cities suddenly come under attack by orcish slavers and undead, just like in about half the D&D campaigns ever devised. But rather than just go on an uninhibited slaughter spree into Mordor, the player character, recognizing that the orcs are taking captives at an unusually aggressive rate, goes and talks to them in their city in order to get more information. There are even quite a few side quests you can do on behalf of the “evil” races, such as killing various monsters for an ogre gourmand who’s gotta eat ’em all. Do enough of these quests and he joins your party to save time.

This isn’t to say that it’s Ultima VI-style “we’re all brothers under the skin/scales/chitinous plates” time here. Sometimes the enemy can’t be negotiated with, even if you try. One ogre chief, when asked “Is there really any need for war?”, memorably replies “Is there really any need for PEACE?” But overall, the monsters have been more helpful to me than my supposed allies, who have been stinting on aid even in the face of the return of ancient evils bent on taking over the world, preferring to sit back and watch me win the war singlehanded. They’re far enough from the real action to think it’ll never affect them. It’s the orcs and ogres and minotaurs who are already starting to live under the lash of something scarier than themselves and, in some cases, not liking it.

Diplomacy with monsters isn’t unheard of, of course, especially in RPGs. I think of Ultima Underworld, which has settlements of peaceful goblins and ghouls, or the peaceful resolution to the Triton quest in Quest for Glory V. But it’s unexpected here, where all the story is really required to provide is excuses for ever-escalating combat. Also, to get slightly political here, I’m slightly reminded of the immediate aftermath of 9/11. People are already forgetting this, but at the very beginning, there was actually some debate about whether the attacks should be treated as acts of war or as crimes. Terrorism, after all, usually falls under the purview of the police, and the clearest antecedent — the 1995 car bomb attack on the WTC — was handled by the NYPD and the FBI, not the armed forces. Now, in Puzzle Quest, you’re not dealing with terrorism, but unquestionable acts of military aggression by foreign powers. However, the PC largely treats it like a criminal investigation anyway, questioning witnesses in order to try to find the guy at the top, and cooperating with the local authorities when possible, even when the local authority is a dragon god or something. I’m not saying that the creators of Puzzle Quest have a political agenda here, but it’s a strange way to write a fantasy epic.

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