Advent Rising: Ending

In some ways, Advent Rising is a better Jedi Knight than the Jedi Knight games. It has a lot to do with not having any obligation to stick to an established fictional milieu, in either detail or in philosophy. For example, in a Star Wars game, using Force powers for direct attack is the province of the Dark Side. Advent Rising doesn’t care about that: Gideon is the good guy purely on the basis that he’s trying to save the human race from destruction at the hands of cruel and merciless alien invaders, and if he chooses to kill his enemies with energy blasts from his hands rather than energy blasts from zap guns, no one is going to take him to task for it. And without the need for a distinct class of white magic, the designers are free to weaponize the utility spells. The jumping power, at higher levels, includes the option to produce a powerful shockwave on landing. The level design keeps on including stretches set on cliffs or bridges or inside tall buildings with large plate glass windows just to give you the opportunity to hurl enemies to their doom with your telekinesis.

But there’s enough Star Wars in the mix to keep reminding me of it. There’s one boss fight on a rooftop against a singularly unpleasant-looking alien, a sort of skeletal she-demon with a metal plate where you’d think her eyes should be, who attacks with both a zap gun and lightning-fast alien kung fu (including moves that can’t be performed without a tail). Despite the difference in appearance, it doesn’t take long to realize that she’s basically Boba Fett. You can’t just knock her off the roof because she has a jetpack. If you manage to land a hit on her, she jumps off the roof of her own accord, only to rise up a moment later in a small spacecraft and attempt to blast you with its cannons. When you finally drive her away, she even comments that she wanted to take you alive, as if some unknown Jabba-analog wants you frozen in carbonite on his wall.

The real reason she wanted Gideon alive didn’t occur to me until well after completing the game. I suppose I should have noticed what was going on sooner, because most of the clues were there in front of me. I’m going to describe the ending, and that will require describing the beginning, because the ending pays off a mystery established in the opening cutscene and then forgotten by the player. Basically, the opening cutscene shows a brief and wordless confrontation between some serious-looking floating bald-headed guys in long, flowing garments in some sort of weird and indeterminate glowy orange place. There is no obvious connection between this scene and the following scene of Gideon’s shuttle arriving at the space station, or indeed with most of the game that follows.

Now, the ending. Like Prince of Persia (2008) would later do, Advent Rising takes the tricky approach of putting the real ending after the closing credits. But where PoP was subtle about it, letting the player not just figure out what to do next but figure out that there was anything to do (the main hint being that the game was still letting you walk around), Advent Rising just throws you into a sudden and unexpected additional boss fight. It starts with what seems like just a bonus cinematic and sequel hook: a cutscene of the good guys finally arriving at the Galactic Senate to testify against the Seekers, who apparently have been doing their genocide and planet-busting in secret while presenting a benevolent face to galactic society at large. (This is the one Star Wars riff that seemed most drawn from the prequel trilogy.) The presentation of a living human causes a stir, but Gideon’s thunder is quickly stolen by the arrival of a “real” human — which is to say, one of the bald-headed guys from the opening, floating and radiant and looking far more worthy of being worshiped as a god by aliens than Gideon is. This new arrival calls Gideon’s people subhuman savages who tried to usurp their betters, and explains that, while it’s true that the Seekers made war on these mere primates, it’s entirely alright because it was done on the real humans’ behalf.

And for a moment, I had the thought: what if he’s right? What if this creature is what all the legends about humans had in mind all along? Just because the translator devices render the aliens’ word for their legendary space gods as “human” doesn’t mean that humans really are their legendary space gods. (It’s made explicit that the translators are programmed by feeding them a large quantity of language data. False assumptions could contaminate such a process.)

The one thing that didn’t quite make sense to me was that Gideon recognized the floating bald-headed person. When it arrives, Gideon says “Ethan?”, and when he defeats it, he says “You may have my brother’s face, but you’re not him”, both comments referring to his brother who got left behind on the space station when it was destroyed in the first chapter. (Well, actually, that doesn’t necessarily happen: you have the option of saving Ethan at the cost of losing Olivia, Gideon’s fiancee. Apparently if you do this Gideon recognizes the interloper as Olivia instead.) This reaction seemed strange to me, because I, the player, didn’t recognize the floating guy at all. At the time, I thought there might be some kind of illusion or mind-control mojo going on, making Gideon see a resemblance that wasn’t there — which would be a strange separation of player knowledge from avatar knowledge for so late in the game 1Usually when there’s a large gulf between what the player knows and what the player character knows, it’s at its greatest at the game’s beginning. The characters know things about their present and past situation that the player will later learn from cutscenes, and the player tends to have some advance story knowledge, if only from the title and genre. Over the course of play, the player and avatar both converge towards complete knowledge of the story. It would be interesting to see a game that goes the other way. — but now I think we’re just running into the limitations of the character models. The hair is the only thing making them recognizable, so when you take that away, you need to identify them in dialogue.

Anyway, when I think about it, I never saw Ethan die. He was last seen on a space station overrun by Seekers, who were occasionally grabbing people and scanning their brains. It’s obvious that they were looking for people with psychic potential, but now I understand why: to capture and control them, and turn them into weapons. There was an exchange when fish-alien Yoda 2He’s actually a bit of a subversion of Yoda, in that he’s considerably less powerful than Gideon after just a little training. first explains the powers to Gideon: Gideon says “So it’s a weapon”, and the response is a hesitant “…Interesting that you would draw than conclusion.” At the time, I interpreted this as “Humans are so innately violent that they see nothing but weapon potential in their magical gifts. Perhaps we were wrong to approach them”, but now I think it means he knew a little more than he was letting on about what the Seekers were doing with their abductees.

Ethan/Olivia is one of those puzzle-bosses that’s vulnerable to only one approach, or, more specifically, to only one of your powers. You get new powers at a rate of one per chapter for most of the game, and some of them have alt-fire modes, but even so, you have less than a dozen things to try here. And yet, I had to hit up a walkthrough to win. The reason is that one of the powers is misleadingly close to effective. The baddie’s chief weapon is a ball of darkness that homes in on you and passes through obstacles. It takes away most of your health with a single hit, but he takes several seconds to gather the darkness together — long enough to prepare for it. Now, one of Gideon’s powers is a sort of brief disco-ball of force that reflects projectiles. Perhaps I could use it to reflect the ball back at its thrower? Not quite: it does reflect, but it veers off in a curved path. But I found that if I stood quite close to Ethan, that curved path would orbit me a few times. If I jumped up at just the right moment, perhaps I could get that orbit to hit Ethan? I spent a long time trying to get this to work, but it simply doesn’t. Yes, you do have to swat the ball back at the boss a few times in a sort of deadly Jedi tennis, but there’s a much simpler way to do it.

This was a little disappointing, considering how most of the game allows for multiple viable approaches. Some of the early levels even let you pass by enemies without engaging them. It’s not quite stealth sections, but more just that they’re too busy fighting the people who are actually shooting at them to pay much attention to anyone who isn’t. This of course ends once they know you’re the Kwisatz Haderach, but that’s also when you start getting the choice of whether to shoot dudes or just throw them out windows.

Anyway, it’s a fairly satisfying game, even if the controls are over-complicated and the story leaves a lot unresolved. Apparently it was intended as the first part of a trilogy, but the sales figures put the kibosh on that. The art remains vibrant and compellingly composed throughout, and although the plot is cliché in outline, having a real writer on board seems to have helped a lot. In particular, although the game starts off with a race of good aliens and a race of bad aliens, it manages to give you just enough of the politics backgrounding the conflict to complicate matters. The Seekers aren’t all Seekers, and the few fish-guys who help you are rightly regarded as dangerous by many (most?) of their own people, who prefer the status quo, in which they’re not involved in a galactic war that’s arguably none of their business. I suppose that’s where it really parts ways with Star Wars, which never gave the impression that anyone other than outright villains actually thought that the Empire was a good thing.

1 Usually when there’s a large gulf between what the player knows and what the player character knows, it’s at its greatest at the game’s beginning. The characters know things about their present and past situation that the player will later learn from cutscenes, and the player tends to have some advance story knowledge, if only from the title and genre. Over the course of play, the player and avatar both converge towards complete knowledge of the story. It would be interesting to see a game that goes the other way.
2 He’s actually a bit of a subversion of Yoda, in that he’s considerably less powerful than Gideon after just a little training.

The Gungan Frontier: Finished?

Open-ended games present some difficulty for deciding when to remove them from the Stack. The Gungan Frontier at least contains some optional discrete challenges in the form of those training missions, the last couple of which are more like missions that you train for by playing the main game. The penultimate mission asks you to turn around an ecosystem on the verge of collapse due to overharvesting, and get it to the point where it can support a city population of 60000. This would be most easily done by temporarily forbidding all harvesting while you get things into shape, if it weren’t for the stipulation that you lose the mission if the city population ever drops below 5000. I have now managed to pass this test (something I didn’t manage when I first bought the game), but my own best efforts at designing a stable ecosystem from scratch have been a lot closer to the losing end of that range. (Indeed, when I passed the 60k mark in the mission, it wasn’t with a stable ecosystem. Rather, I impatiently gave the city an extra population boom at the end by giving them permission to harvest as much as they wanted of everything, leaving the system in far worse shape than when I started. This is perhaps the grossest violation of the spirit of the game imaginable.)

Anyway, I’ve completed all the explicit challenges in the game, which leaves me with the implicit ones. Creating a stable ecosystem is actually quite easy: all you really have to do is throw in some plants and refrain from overharvesting them. Which raises the question of why you need animals in the system at all. There’s one species of plant that’s carnivorous, and another that supposedly uses an animal to spread its seeds, but for the most part, plants in this game don’t benefit at all from having animals around.

But adding animals to the mix is crucial to exploiting things for the city (in the same way that cows allow us to indirectly eat grass), and also for maximizing your “bio-score”, which seems to take biodiversity into account. But city population and bio-score are just numbers, and even when they’re both far from optimal, Boss Nass will regularly ring you up with effusive congratulations on your success. (I wonder if I can turn him off like Jar Jar? Past a certain point, he’s just as much of a pointless interruption as Jar Jar ever was.) More important, to my mind, is the because-it’s-there factor. The longest possible food chain seems to be five steps, with the Rancor as apex predator. Keeping a five-step chain stable would be a considerable challenge, and thus something one could pursue for its own sake. Then there are some exotic combinations to pursue. I mentioned a carnivorous plant, the Tooke Trap. It can combine with the Shiro, an herbivorous turtle-analogue, to form the Shiro Trap, a bulbasaur-like symbiote: the plant grows on the animal’s back to provide the plant with mobility and the animal with camouflage. Creating a system with a stable Shiro Trap population would require enough set-up that you’d pretty much have to pursue it as an end in itself.

The game contains a total of 85 distinct lifeforms, although the number of species is somewhat less due to multi-stage life cycles: one species of plant has spores that drift about independently, one species of animal lays eggs that you can harvest separately, a couple of animals have young with different diets and predators and terrain access than their parents. If a player really wants a thorough Gungan Frontier experience, there’s plenty of complexity to explore. The game itself contains encyclopedic data about each organism, but it’s not organized in a way conducive to big-picture planning. If I really wanted to delve into it, I’d start by making a chart of all the predator-prey relationships, annotated with observations about how much things eat and how fast they reproduce. (The game is packaged with a poster showing all the species, and I hoped at first that it would be such a chart, like the tech-tree posters often packaged with strategy games. But no, it just shows names and pictures.)

But I don’t think I want to delve into it that deeply. Self-imposed implicit challenges are never a requirement for removing something from the Stack. I’ve spent a significant amount of time fiddling with ecosystems on my own, and that’s all the game can ask from me.

The Gungan Frontier

gungan-surfaceA random pick from the stack today: The Gungan Frontier (released 1999, bought by me maybe six months later when it hit the bargain bins) is basically an ecosystem simulation, the sort where life forms roam about a 2D world, eating each other and dying off when they over-predate and so forth. Countless computer science undergrads (myself included) have written sims of this sort, but this one is a bit more elaborate than most, with multiple overlapping food chains and varying terrain. And, of course, it additionally allows player interaction, mainly by means of seeding the environment with organisms you’ve got in storage. By my reckoning, there’s enough interactivity to make it a game, but it’s a game like Sim City, in that it’s not essentially goal-oriented. There’s a set of training missions with explicit goals, such as raising the population of a particular creature to a certain threshold within a time limit, but in the game proper, the only goal is to keep things going indefinitely. But even though there’s no win condition, there’s definitely a lose condition: your stores are finite, so if things go extinct, you can’t necessarily replenish them.

gungan-cityThere’s one other thing about the game that makes it particularly Sim City-like: the city. The whole premise is that you’re creating this ecosystem for the benefit of a space colony, which harvests the organisms for food and building materials. If you like, you can switch the main view from the ecosystem to the colony, watching it add pods containing classrooms and hospitals and the like as it gains the necessary materials, or, if you’re not doing so well, watching those pods gray out through disuse as the colonists move out. It really seems like the colony view was designed to provide some of Sim City‘s particular experiences and motivations, but because the only things you can interact with are over in the ecosystem view, I seldom look at it. It seems a bit of a shame, because someone clearly went to some effort to create it.

The game was marketed as an educational game, but it seems to me to have aspects of what’s come to be called “persuasive” games as well. (I suppose these things are not clearly separable.) The whole point is to teach you the importance of caring for the ecosystem, so obviously there’s a bit of an environmentalist agenda there. But it’s a very non-specific environmentalist agenda, and somewhat muddled, what with its underlying assumption that wildlife exists primarily to be exploited. But consider how the harvesting of resources works. You can set the harvest rate for each species to a few rough categories: “None”, “Some”, “Lots”, “Maintain”, “As needed”. As far as I can tell, the “Lots” setting translates to “Render this species extinct as quickly as possible”. Although that’s handy in a few of the training missions, where you don’t have to worry about lasting consequences, it’s hard to imagine it being useful in a real game. No, the “Lots” option is not there to serve a gameplay purpose, but to convey a message, that unbridled consumption yields environmental devastation.

I should probably mention that this is nominally a Star Wars Episode 1 game. This doesn’t make a great deal of difference; of all the Star Wars-themed games I’ve played, this is probably the one that has the least to do with the movies. (The closest runner-up for that honor is probably Pit Droids, a puzzle game also from the Lucas Learning line.) A few of the organisms are taken from the movies; for the first time, you get to see dewbacks, rancors, and dianogas in the wild. But the Star Wars movies don’t contain nearly enough plant or animal species to form an ecosystem, so the bulk of the critters were invented for this game. Boss Nass will occasionally send you a voice message about how the colonists urgently need more materials, and sometimes Jar Jar Binks will pop up to say something utterly pointless. Finding the option to turn off Jar Jar is one of the game’s most satisfying moments. It’s almost as if he was included for the specific purpose of allowing the player to disable him.

DROD RPG: Monsters

Let’s take a moment to examine how the monsters of DROD were adapted for DROD RPG. The main thing that distinguishes the monsters from each other in the original game is how they move: roaches and tar babies charge straight at you, roach queens flee, evil eyes stay still until you cross their line of sight, goblins try to avoid your sword and attack you from behind, rock golems tend to get stuck on obstacles that other monsters are smart enough to go around, and so forth. Well, in DROD RPG, monsters don’t move. They just stand there blocking passageways until you decide to fight them. So, that’s a whole lot of distinguishing characteristics scrapped. As a result, most of the monsters are pretty much the same thing with different stats.

Mind you, that’s something that a game of this sort really needs. Like most RPGs, it’s all about the steady escalation of power. The game weirdly abstracts away some of the escalation effect by simply giving each level a multiplier that affects all potions and power-ups on that level, but I suppose applying it to monsters stats as well would be more honesty than the genre could bear. At any rate, the developers seem to have needed more gradations of monster stat than easily fit onto the set of original DROD monsters, and have crammed in some extras, repurposing some of Beethro’s puzzle-solving tools such as the fegundo and the decoy as monsters, as well as making up more powerful versions of existing monsters. It all reminds me a little of Star Wars-based games such as Dark Forces that have you fight things like the the Interrogation Droid and the Imperial Probot that appeared in the films in brief non-combatant roles.

There is still some variation of behavior, though. Some monsters, such as the evil eye, take a swing at you automatically when you pass right in front of them. People with swords get an extra attack in at the beginning of combat if you have to go through the sword to get at them, as is sometimes the case. Of all the creatures I’ve seen, the one that comes closest to its original form is the Aumtlich, which still has its deadly screen-crossing eyebeams. They don’t have the same effect at they did on Beethro — instead of freezing you in place, walking through the beam drains half your hit points, which is yet another example of stats substituting for movement. But at least it’s using the room geometry, and there are some puzzles made from it.

The creatures called “brains” are another notable special case. As in the original, they’re not powerful combatants themselves, but they make all the other monsters in the room more formidable. Again, stats take the place of movement: where the DROD brains gave the monsters access to a pathing algorithm, the DROD RPG ones double their attack strength.

drod-rpg-wubbapmgThen there’s wubbas. Wubbas are essentially giant fluffly marshmallows, impossible to destroy with a sword. They’re harmless, but only in the sense that they can’t damage you. In Journey to Rooted Hold, where they first showed up, they often thronged around Beethro until he couldn’t move and had to start the room over. I’ve only seen one wubba so far in DROD RPG, where it was standing guard over a semi-secret hallway. The interesting thing is that its invulnerability wasn’t a special property: instead, it simply had a very high defense stat. In theory, you could kill it with a sword if you found enough power-ups, although I don’t think enough exist in Chapter 1. Still, there just might be a way past it by using special items. In fact, I’d have enough attack power to get by it if I only had the Slayer’s hook that I can see tantalizingly discarded in an inaccessible part of one room. I’ll talk about that more in my next post.

Psychonauts: Collection

psychonauts-figmentsPsychonauts has a fairly complicated system of item collection, and it’s instructive to compare it to that seen in Lego Star Wars 2 (described previously in this blog). I described the latter as byzantine and difficult to understand, with its multiple goals and overlapping effects. Now, Psychonauts has more types of collectible. In the real world sections, there are:

  • Psi challenge markers: few in number and located in difficult-to-reach places
  • Psi cards: fragments that can be assembled into new psi challenge markers. More numerous and usually easy to reach, but often hard to spot
  • Scavenger hunt items: unique objects, most of which require solving an optional puzzle

And in the mental realms:

  • Figments of the imagination: all over the place, sometimes moving
  • Mental cobwebs: collectible only using a special piece of equipment, and can be turned into psi cards back in the real world
  • Memories: located in ambulatory safes that flee your approach; when collected, offer glimpses into character backstory
  • Emotional baggage: a two-step collectible that involves finding a tag to match with each bag; matching all five in a mind unlocks some production art

However, I find the collection in Psychonauts easier to follow, and I think it’s mainly because the effects are simpler. With the exception of the effects mentioned above of the memories and the emotional baggage (which don’t seem to affect gameplay, and can be classed as “extras”), the end result of collection is always the same: increasing your “rank”. Attaining certain ranks grants permission to buy new equipment, or allows you to learn new powers, or enhances the powers you have. By funneling everything through the “rank” concept, the game simplifies the way you can think about gaining access to stuff. I suppose that this is something that RPGs have been doing all along with character levels, but it’s unusual to see a level system that isn’t at all based on gaining experience through combat.

Now, getting all the collectibles in everyone’s mental worlds typically involves going through them more than once. Indeed, it’s completely impossible to collect mental cobwebs from the first couple of minds on your first visit, as you don’t yet have access to the necessary equipment. It’s not uncommon in these games for collection to involve repeat visits to completed levels, but it’s usually handled non-diegetically: to use Lego Star Wars as an example again, if you replay the Battle of Hoth level, there’s no sense that you’re creating a story in which the Battle of Hoth was fought more than once. In Psychonauts, however, every visit is taken to be part of the same ongoing story, even if this requires convoluted excuses. So, the first time train with Sasha Nein, his mental defenses spin out of control and he urgently needs your help to restore order, but when you go back, Sasha offers to put you through the same “training course”, explaining that the emergency was a ruse to motivate you.

A more extreme example: In the mental landscape of the monster lungfish, it’s Raz who’s the monster, a Godzilla-like building-crumbling behemoth attacking Lungfishopolis. When you complete the level, by destroying a certain broadcast tower (the lungfish’s mental representation of the crainial implants that the bad guys are using to control it), the lungfish of the city are freed from their brainwashing and come to regard you as a hero. On a return visit, you’re cordially greeted by a lungfish who warns you that there are still some crazy guys out there who “don’t realize that the war is over”, and invites you to destroy as many buildings as you want: now that they’re free, they realize that lungfish were meant to live in mucus-lined bubbles at the bottom of lakes, not in tower blocks.

These scenes make a virtue of a constraint: they treat an unlikely situation resulting from gameplay decisions as an opportunity for humor. Or possibly the other way around: they use the fact that this is a humorous game as an excuse to integrate gameplay decisions with the story in ways that would be implausible if taken seriously. Whichever way it goes, it’s something that Schafer has been doing since his Lucasarts days.

Metal Gear Solid 2: So Far

The Big Shell, ostensibly a oil spill clean-up facility, consists of two hexagonal structures called Shell 1 and Shell 2, each made of six buildings, joined by bridges, around a central core. Raiden’s mission starts on Shell 1, and as long as he’s there, the player enjoys considerable freedom. You pretty much have the run of the complex, and your mission objectives take you all over the place and back. This changes when the action shifts to Shell 2, which is heavily damaged. Suddenly there are fewer places to go. The action becomes more linear, the cutscenes more frequent. In some cases, all you have to do between two lengthy cutscenes is walk across a room. If this continues, maybe the game will turn out to be mostly plot after all.

After Shell 2 comes the descent into the secret depths of the complex, and it is here that things seem to start getting seriously weird. The web of deceit and double-cross is already pretty hard to follow by this point, and this may well be my last chance to make sense of it. Spoilers ho. Let’s start by listing the sides.

Philanthropy: Solid Snake and his tech support. Their mandate is to destroy Metal Gears. Part of the fallout from the previous game was that the Metal Gear schematics were leaked to the public, and now every armed force in the world is trying to build one.

“FOXHOUND”: Supposedly an elite anti-terrorist unit, Solid Snake’s alma mater, now represented by Raiden (the player character), led by Colonel Campbell. I say “supposedly” because we’re pretty sure that the real FOXHOUND was disbanded following the events of Metal Gear Solid, and it’s abundantly clear by now that just about everything that the man claiming to be the Colonel says is a lie. He’s probably tampered with Raiden’s memory, and may well not even be a real person: Raiden comments pointedly at one juncture that he’s never met the Colonel face-to-face, only talked with him over their comm link. Raiden’s girlfriend is also doing mission support through that comm link, and I don’t think she’s real either.

The Patriots: Twelve people who secretly 1 Although not too secretly. An awful lot of the NPCs know all about them. rule the world, controlling the outcome of presidential elections and suchlike. They’re apparently the prime movers of most of the plot, and any random plot event can, without warning, turn out to have always been an essential part of their master plan. Their ultimate interest here is in the vast implausible computer system they’ve built under the ocean (the real purpose of the Big Shell), which they will use to control all the world’s information, invisibly censoring anything that might threaten them. They control the Metal Gear project, and probably did all along. In fact, they’re mass-producing Metal Gears to protect the computer. Note that the end boss in the previous games was a single Metal Gear. 2 To go off on a wild tangent, I’ve long thought that one of the weaknesses of Return of the Jedi is that it tries to show how ill-prepared and outclassed the rebels are by revealing that the in-progress Death Star’s weapon systems are already operational. Big deal, we already saw them fight a fully complete Death Star and win in the first film. In my opinion, a much better big reveal would have been multiple Death Stars — a Death Star factory, filling the sky, gearing up to put one in permanent orbit around every inhabited planet in the galaxy. Plus, that way they could end the film with a whole series of Death Star explosions. Perhaps accompanied by the 1812 Overture.

The Sons of Liberty: The people who attacked the Big Shell. It’s not at all clear to me if there’s actually anyone calling themselves by this name; it might have just come out of Raiden’s mission briefing, which I won’t even bother describing here, because it was all lies. But given that it means the people that the “Colonel” wants you to fight, it seems to refer to an alliance of Solidus Snake (another of Solid Snake’s evil twins), Revolver Ocelot 3 All the henchmen in Metal Gear Solid had code names consisting of their preferred weapon and an animal. The resulting names are strikingly similar to the main enemies in the Mega Man X series, but there, Revolver Ocelot would be a cat-shaped robot with special attacks based on making things spin. (Liquid Snake’s sole surviving henchman), Dead Cell (a small clan of creepy level bosses, one of whom seems to be a vampire), Olga Gurlukovich (enemy of Solid Snake from Chapter 1, now leader of the Russian mercenaries that form the game’s grunt force), and the President of the United States. They’re basically opposed to the Patriots, and their goal is to destroy the aforementioned megacomputer. They had first tried to do this by means of the electromagnetic pulse created by detonating a nuclear missile in the atmosphere. These are the people that Raiden was sent to fight, which I suppose means that “Colonel Campbell” is a tool of the Patriots.

It’s not quite that simple, though. The Sons of Liberty all have personal agendas, and some of them betray their cause. The President really believes that having the Patriots in charge is preferable to the chaos that would result otherwise. Ocelot, who lost an arm in the previous game, had Liquid Snake’s arm grafted on in its place, and it periodically tries to take over his mind. Olga, blackmailed by the Patriots (who hold her child hostage), has been donning a disguise and helping Raiden fight the troops under her command. Solidus seems to have some plan of his own, although I don’t know what; he just doesn’t seem the public-spirited type. The freaking vampire just out and attacks the one person who has a chance of stopping the computer from going online at one point. I don’t know what his problem is. Maybe it’s just uncontrollable vampire urges.

Solid Snake cooperates with Raiden for most of the game, but abruptly betrays him at the end of the Shell 2 sequence. This came as a surprise, but in retrospect it makes a certain amount of sense. They were never really on the same side, whatever Raiden thought. They just had some common goals for a while. Solid Snake is the Good Guy. He wants to rescue the hostages, which means getting past the Sons’ defenses and preventing the Big Shell from being destroyed with everyone inside. Raiden is a well-meaning dupe of the Patriots. His assigned mission is to get past the Sons’ defenses in order to “rescue” the President, and preserve the Big Shell from harm until it’s fully operational. He’s also okay with helping to rescue the hostages, even though the “Colonel” keeps reminding him that it’s not part of his mission. But in the end, Raiden’s masters are building Metal Gears, and Snake can’t abide that.

1 Although not too secretly. An awful lot of the NPCs know all about them.
2 To go off on a wild tangent, I’ve long thought that one of the weaknesses of Return of the Jedi is that it tries to show how ill-prepared and outclassed the rebels are by revealing that the in-progress Death Star’s weapon systems are already operational. Big deal, we already saw them fight a fully complete Death Star and win in the first film. In my opinion, a much better big reveal would have been multiple Death Stars — a Death Star factory, filling the sky, gearing up to put one in permanent orbit around every inhabited planet in the galaxy. Plus, that way they could end the film with a whole series of Death Star explosions. Perhaps accompanied by the 1812 Overture.
3 All the henchmen in Metal Gear Solid had code names consisting of their preferred weapon and an animal. The resulting names are strikingly similar to the main enemies in the Mega Man X series, but there, Revolver Ocelot would be a cat-shaped robot with special attacks based on making things spin.

Lego Star Wars as a whole

It’s notable that the lego aspect of the Lego Star Wars games isn’t very strong compared to the Star Wars aspect. At no point does the player actually participate in assembling things out of legos. Oh, sure, there are loose piles of legos here and there to be assembled — created, in some cases, when the player blasts an existing lego structure apart — but the player’s involvement in the process is just plunking a character into the middle of the pile, holding down the “action” button, and watching the legos fly to their predetermined spots. Beyond that, lego is basically window dressing on a Star Wars substrate. Like all stylistic aberrations, you get used to it after a while, and basically stop noticing anything strange about it. (With some exceptions, of course. Seeing Lego Slave Leia for the first time was a bit of a shock.)

So where does that leave the Star Wars aspect of the games? If I’m not mistaken, Lego Star Wars and Lego Star Wars II taken together form the only complete game adaptation of the entire 6-episode saga in a single consistent idiom of graphical presentation and gameplay. The closest I’ve seen is a coin-op rail shooter from 1998 that only covered the original trilogy, not the prequels (which hadn’t been released yet). Absurd as it sounds, this makes the Lego games something like the definitive game adaptation of the series.

As such, they provide a good perspective into Star Wars and its relationship with games. It’s hardly news that the prequel trilogy was more videogame-inspired than the original trilogy — the race in Episode 1 and the platformer-like droid factory in Episode 2 in particular have aroused suspicion that they were added to the movies specifically in order to provide fodder for videogame adaptations. “Racing games are popular,” one imagines Lucas saying. “We need a canonical basis for a racing game. Can we use the Endor speeder bikes? Nah, let’s do something more completely like Daytona.” Even if that’s not how it happened, it’s hard to imagine that these scenes could have been produced without anyone involved in the production consciously imitating videogames. The original trilogy, on the other hand, went the other way: instead of videogame-inspired, it was videogame-inspiring. The movies were showing things that couldn’t be effectively done in games yet, but it all looked so cool, and had such obvious promise for the fledgling game medium, that people tried anyway. And they kept trying until the technology caught up and they really could do something that looked as cool as the movies, or cooler. And then they did it again with legos.

As much as I’d like to say that the innovative original trilogy yields better game material than the imitative prequels, it’s just not so. Apart from specific set-pieces, there’s one thing that really separates any game adaptations of the two trilogies: the bosses. The prequel trilogy had a whole bunch of characters that were basically level bosses, such as Darth Maul, Count Dooku, General Grievous — even Sebulba, as the only opponent with a distinct name and personality, is effectively a boss for the Super Anakin Kart sequence. Darth Maul was a disappointment as a character in the movie, especially after all the hype, because all he did was attack the heroes every once in a while. But in a game, that’s not disappointing at all; it’s exactly what we expect. So the prequel trilogy gets a gold star for its colorful array of baddies. In the original trilogy, it’s basically Vader, Vader, Vader. Oh, and briefly Boba Fett, but mainly Vader over and over again, on the Death Star and Bespin and Dagobah (even if that’s just a mystical vision, it’s still a boss fight), until the end, when you fight the Emperor, who isn’t very interesting as a fighter — he basically just zaps one of the two player characters with Force Lightning until you switch to the other character and hit him. They had to turn that scene into a series of platformer puzzles in order to make it viable.

[added June 9 2007] Vader basically has the opposite of Darth Maul’s problem. Unlike Maul, he does a great deal more than just attack the heroes: he captures the princess, interrogates her by extreme means including making her watch him destroy an entire planet, orders underlings around and force-chokes them to death when they fail him, exposes Obi-Wan’s lies, and ultimately switches sides and betrays the Emperor. But only the last of these points translates into gameplay; the rest are shown in cut-scenes, if at all. So he’s less interesting as a videogame character than as a movie character.

Lego Star Wars II: Extras and Secrets

Getting through the Return of the Jedi section of Lego Star Wars II didn’t take long. Cleverly, they used Vader’s redemption at the end of the movie as an excuse to turn him into a player character. This was something of a relief, because it means there’s one Dark Force wielder who doesn’t have to be purchased with lego studs. Once you’ve been given control of him once, you can have him in Free Play mode whenever you like.

About those lego studs. Lego studs fill the same role as “bolts” in Ratchet and Clank: little money items that you acquire mainly by breaking stuff. Some of the various secrets and extras can be purchased with lego studs, but, in most cases, you also have to unlock them by completing some other task, such as completing a level or finding a special “power brick”. There are also gold bricks which accumulate to open up bonus areas, and which are mainly earned by accumulating a certain threshhold of lego studs within a single play-through of a level. It’s all rather byzantine, but it’s done with juicy feedback, both when you attain a goal and again as a summary of your accomplishments on finishing a level. Even if you don’t know what you’re doing, you know when you’ve done it, and even if you don’t know what it means, you know it was a good thing.

To use my earlier nomenclature, finding power bricks is a Challenge, and accumulating lego studs is an Activity. So getting all of the extra powers requires both. One of the powers is particularly worth noting: it multiplies stud yield by 10. So this would be the perfect thing to aim for in order to minimize your time spent stud-farming, except for the fact that it costs more than all the other purchasable items put together. Seriously, there are only two reasons to go for that one. One is that you just enjoy making your games display very large numbers — not something that appeals to me, but this is for the people who keep on trying to beat their own high scores at games they’ve already won. The other is the completist’s urge to catch ’em all, to not have any gaps in their collectibles. Well, Lego Star Wars II is officially off the stack now, but I definitely want to keep hunting secrets at least until I finish all the mini-kits. (Each level has one, in ten scattered and hidden pieces. I don’t know much about the toy line, but I assume that they’re all replicas of actual purchasable lego kits.) Whether I go for the 30-million-stud exercise in uselessness depends on how close I am to it after that.

Lego Star Wars II

When I first became aware of the original Lego Star Wars game, my first thought was of an enormous lego Death Star that I had seen in a store window. The whole idea of taking that huge sphere of grey bricks and blowing it up, sending a firework-like shower of lego flying through space in all directions, was tremendously appealing to me. So you can imagine my disappointment when I learned that the game only covered the prequel trilogy, and my delight at the sequel covering episodes 4-6. That’s two Death Star explosions, one in 4 and one in 6.

Well, I can report on the first of those explosions now. It wasn’t all it could have been. The game keeps the scale too consistent to make the moon-sized Death Star noticably lego-like from a distance. Still, that’s the only disappointing thing in this game so far. (It’s so similar in style and gameplay to the first Lego Star Wars, it usually meets expectations exactly.)

The Lego Star Wars videogame franchise is, needless to say, peculiar. Game adaptations of things that are adaptations themselves actually aren’t all that unusual, but usually it goes book — movie — game (like the various Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movie tie-in games) or comic — movie — game (like the mandatory tie-in game for every superhero movie since 1990), not movie — licensed toy line — game. 1 The only other pattern I can remember seeing offhand is book — comic — game without any movie involved at all. This was done by an adventure game based on Druillet’s comic adaptation of Flaubert’s Salammbo. This, incedentally, is one of three games I own that I discovered only after purchase to be based on French comic books. One effect of mediating the adaptation of the movies through lego is that it becomes pointless to take it all too seriously. We’re presented with a world, yea, a galactic civilization populated entirely by lego people. The designers run with that, throwing in lots of slapstick and silly hats — the silly hats have no effect on gameplay; a silly hat is its own reward — and allowing comic dismemberment. We’ve heard about Wookiees pulling people’s arms out of their sockets, but now we get to see it happen. It happens quite neatly: Chewie pulls on an arm, the arm pops off.

For all its flippancy, it’s actually a better-designed game than most of the other official adaptations of the saga. Well, okay: there have been Star Wars-based videogames for nearly 30 years at this point. The Death Star trench run and the Battle of Hoth have been made and remade in so many games, it would be surprising if they weren’t getting pretty good at them by now. Indeed, the designers of Lego Star Wars II seem to want to avoid repeating other games here: the trench run is surprisingly short, and Hoth has various innovations added to spice it up. (Basically, the tow cable has uses other than tripping up AT-AT’s.)

Right now, I’m all the way through A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, which is to say, I’ve gotten 2/3 of the way to the end. It took the better part of a day. Like the original Lego Star Wars, this is a pretty short game. Or rather, it’s a game for completists, and their close kin, perfectionists. Reaching the end of Episode VI shouldn’t take long, but getting all the stuff — the golden bricks and the hidden multi-part lego models — will take slightly longer. Reaching the end of the game is in a sense only the beginning, just a way to unlock all the characters you’ll need when you go back to hunt secrets. Some optional areas are accessible by using the dark side of the Force. There are only two characters in the movies who can do that, and I suspect that they’ll be the last ones to become available for play.

1 The only other pattern I can remember seeing offhand is book — comic — game without any movie involved at all. This was done by an adventure game based on Druillet’s comic adaptation of Flaubert’s Salammbo. This, incedentally, is one of three games I own that I discovered only after purchase to be based on French comic books.

Guitar Hero

This was the last game purchase I made before starting this blog. I’d been meaning to get it for some time, not just because of the overwhelmingly positive reviews, but because one of the developers is an acquaintance of mine, and if there’s one kind of game you always have to play, it’s games involving people you know, however slightly. But I hesitated. Partly because, with the custom controller, it’s the most expensive game I’ve ever bought (unless you count Katamari Damacy, the game that finally made me buy a PS2). Partly because no one seemed to be able to answer the question: Is this game still fun if you don’t have a fantasy of being a rock star?

This may seem like an odd question. When I first asked it in an online chat, one person replied “Everyone has a fantasy of being a rock star!” Well… no. Not everyone. It’s not that I hate rock, it’s just that it’s never inspired in me the zealous enthusiasm that makes people idolize its practicioners. Think of, say, John Williams. Here’s a musician whose works have had an emotional impact on millions of people: imagine how dry Darth Vader’s initial entrance onto Leia’s ship would have been without the strains of the Imperial March in the background. But John Williams doesn’t have screaming fans. He doesn’t have groupies. He doesn’t have people quitting their jobs to follow him around on tour. Few if any people have commercially-successful movie sountrack composer fantasies.

Given that the question isn’t purely hypothetical, there’s another problem with it: the assumption that gaming is based on a fantasy of being the player character. Sure, it’s a factor, and a game with a really unacceptable protagonist can raise hackles — witness the recent furor over Super Columbine Massacre RPG! But in most cases, I’d say that character identification isn’t as big a deal in games as pro-censorship activists think it is. If you can play Super Mario Brothers without actually wanting to be a plumber in the Mushroom Kingdom, why can’t you play Guitar Hero without wanting to be a rock star?

(To go off on a tangent: I remember when Infocom released Plundered Hearts, a romance-novel-like text adventure with a female hero. All of Infocom’s promotional materials seemed to be geared towards reassuring their predominantly male fanbase that it was okay to play it, that they knew some very macho people who played it without becoming less macho, etc. And I remember thinking at the time: No one would do this for a novel or a movie with a female hero. And it’s not like audience identification with the hero in a novel is weak; in many, you’re actually privy to the hero’s inner thoughts. But they had to respond to the idea that the player of a game is fantasizing about being the protagonist, and therefore, in the case of Plundered Hearts, fantasizing about being a woman. Of course, no one would bother refuting this notion today. Tomb Raider has rendered it laughable.)

Still, there’s some reason to think that the rock star fantasy may be more important than usual in this game. Whenever people describe why it’s so fun, what they talk about is rocking out. This is apparently the main appeal of the game: it gives you an excuse to rock out, and a context out from which to rock. Sure, it’s a simplified and videogamized version of rocking out, but apparently it does a good job of capturing the experience. The thing is, I wouldn’t describe most games in terms like these. If a first-person shooter felt like actually shooting people, I doubt I’d be able to play it. Jumping around is kind of fun, but the fun in playing a platformer is not based on how well it captures the experience of jumping. That’s because a platformer isn’t about replicating a jumping-on-platforms fantasy.

So, is Guitar Hero fun if you don’t have a fantasy of being a rock star? We’ll find out in my next post, after I’ve tried it out.