IFComp 2000: R (Pron: Arrr…)

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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

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.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Kicking over the tattered remains of the fourth wall

I’ve said before that the writers of the Metal Gear games 1 Hideo Kojima and Tomokazu Fukushima, for what it’s worth. I keep talking about them without mentioning their names. are not at all shy about having the characters comment on the game mechanics. It’s not unusual for characters in games to refer to the controls during tutorial sections, of course, and only a few games try to disguise this as something that could plausibly occur in the gameworld. And the occasional sly nod to the fictionality of the setting is a long-standing tradition in games, going back at least to the first Scott Adams adventure, which included a room described as “in the ROM of a TRS-80. I think I made a wrong turn!” But the Metal Gear games really revel in ignoring the line between content and architecture.

In MGS1, the high point of this tendency was the encounter with Psycho Mantis, who demonstrated his psychic powers with feats such as peeking at the console’s memory card and commenting on what other games had saves there. These references to non-diegetic elements were something of a hint for the non-diegetic key to beating him: Psycho Mantis could react instantly to the player’s movements, but only if the controller was plugged into socket 1. Hot-swap it and you had him flummoxed. Unfortunately, playing on a PC, I missed most of this.

In MGS2, the self-reference really starts when “Colonel Campbell” goes Shodan. At a certain point in the game, Raiden and Snake succeed in uploading a virus to the computer system. It doesn’t have the effect they wanted (the code may have been tampered with by the Patriots), but apparently Campbell is an AI running on the same system, and he starts behaving oddly, repeatedly calling Raiden to gabble nonsense at him in a sometimes synthetic-sounding voice, including bits of dialogue from the previous games, as well as this choice exchange:

Campbell: Your role — that is, mission — is to infiltrate the structure and disarm the terrorists —
Raiden: My role? Why do you keep saying that.
Campbell: Why not? This is a type of role-playing game.

And, shortly afterward, this:

Campbell: Raiden, turn the game console off right now!
Raiden: What did you say?
Campbell: The mission is a failure! Cut the power right now!
Raiden: What’s wrong with you?
Campbell: Don’t worry, it’s a game! It’s a game just like usual.
Rose (replacing Campbell): You’ll ruin your eyes playing so close to the TV.
Raiden: What are you talking about!?

The effect here is a frisson. There’s that uncanny sense that something has happened that really isn’t supposed to happen, and that you can’t rely on the comfortable rules you’re used to. I’ve seen things like this in literature — heck, it’s practically the definition of postmodernism. But, as always, interactivity enhances the sense of danger.

(Speaking of postmodern literature, the game has a minor character named Peter Stillman. This is the name of a few characters in Paul Auster’s identity-bending New York Trilogy. I don’t think this is accidental. At the very least, the writers are playing similar tricks by reusing the name Snake. Raiden, remember, was also using the code-name Snake in the beginning.)

Not long after this scene is another choice bit of fourth wall demolition. In the middle of a big fight scene, you suddenly hear the familiar “game over” chord, and the game goes to the “Mission Failed” screen. Except it’s not quite right; among other things, it says “Fission Mailed” instead, and the screenshot in the upper left corner, showing your moment of death? It’s still moving. The fight isn’t over. It’s just a trick to distract you for a moment, to fool you into thinking you’ve already lost so that you’ll stop fighting. I’ve seen fake deaths like this in a few adventure games, but I don’t recall seeing it in an action game before. The effect isn’t a frisson this time: the fakeout aspect makes it more like a joke. At least, I chuckled when I realized what had happened.

I haven’t finished the game yet, so there’s probably more of this foolishness to come.

1 Hideo Kojima and Tomokazu Fukushima, for what it’s worth. I keep talking about them without mentioning their names.