Deus Ex: Thoroughness

It took me a while, but I’ve finally gotten through the first mission without anyone dying. This is probably harder in the first mission than in any of the subsequent ones. For one thing, as I mentioned earlier, there are the various defenders on your own side, both human and mechanical, who will gladly gun down anyone who runs towards them. Then there’s Gunther. A cyborg like the player character (albeit from an earlier generation of tech), he’s been captured by the enemy, and one of the mission objectives is to spring him. Unlike me, he has no qualms about killing, and indeed relishes it. If he sees anyone he can kill on the way back to base, he will fight them and he will win.

But most of all, there’s the ending. When you complete your mission, your backup will sweep the area and take down anyone still standing. Please understand that these are not simply abstract, story-level deaths. Completing your mission objectives doesn’t simply end things and load the next map: you can freely wander the site afterward and observe the fallen. That means that if you want to get through the scene without bloodshed, you have to knock every single enemy soldier unconscious before finishing the mission off.

And sure, I’m making things unnecessarily difficult for myself. But I could be doing worse. This is a stealth game, and stealth games have a tradition of “ghost” runs: never be seen, leave no evidence of your passage. I remember playing Thief: The Dark Project and feeling like ghost mode was clearly the correct way to play it, the approach intended by the authors. Not that I did it that way myself, mind you. I played Thief more or less the same way I did this mission: rendering anyone I came across unconscious. It just made things so much easier! Places fraught with peril are rendered completely safe for leisurely and thorough exploration. There’s a heightened sense of freedom in that.

Especially here, where my pointless commitment to not letting anyone die has forced me to explore rather thoroughly. But unlike in Thief, this kind of feels like the right way to go. Not picking options that constrain you, but expanding the possibilities as much as possible. Open every door, unlock every chest. You’re not just a cyborg killing machine, and you’re not just a thief. You’re an investigator of secrets.

It took three sessions, but I finally feel like I’ve hit my stride. It’s a slow stride. Last time I tried this game, I had a self-imposed deadline, and I’ve come to believe that was a mistake. The stealth in this game is the sort that requires patience, and I intend to approach the rest of the game in the same spirit.

Pokémon: Saffron City

Six badges now. Blenkinsop is level 46, and the only thing I’ve faced that posed any difficulty for him (or his assistant, Pratchett the Hypno) was Sabrina, Pokémon Leader of Saffron City. She specializes in psychic pokémon, and has a high-level alakazam of her own. Mine was bigger, but the key problem is that her alakazam knows Recover, a move that lets it heal itself in battle. At first, I was powerless to do more damage than it could recover in a single round. I eventually managed to give it the “paralysis” status effect, which makes it randomly skip turns, and then reduced its “special” rating, which seems to govern how much it can heal in a turn. After simply overpowering things for so long, it was nice to have a battle that actually required some tactics.

Before I could challenge Sabrina, I had to chase Team Rocket out of town. Team Rocket is one of those things that was drastically changed in the cartoon, which turned them into bumbling comic villains. Here, they’re more sinister and menacing, or at least as sinister and menacing as you can get when you’re displayed in a severely chibi style most of the time. They’re somewhere between gangsters and nazis, and their stated goal is to take over the world using an army of enslaved pokémon. I’m not quite clear on how this enslaving pokemon differs from what the player character does, but presumably it’s somehow worse than beating them up until they can’t resist being imprisoned in a pokéball from which they’re only taken out to fight other captives for their master’s amusement.

Before I kicked them out, Team Rocket was infesting the headquarters the Silph Company, which does pokémon-related research. The Silph Building is an eleven-story teleporter maze. As such, it constitutes a puzzle unrelated to the game’s core mechanic. I noticed a couple of other sections like that when I was wandering around trying to figure out what to do. For example, one town has a building with a maze of arrows, where stepping on an arrow tile makes you keep going in that direction until you hit an obstacle. I had solved that maze during my first Pokémon kick, but had completely forgotten that it existed. The memorable thing, the distinctive thing, in this game is obviously the pokémon. Mazes of this sort have nothing to do with pokémon; they could be shoved into any game, and often are. You can call it variety elements, varying the gameplay to keep unrelieved fight scenes from getting tedious 1 Speaking of tedious, unrelieved fight scenes, I saw the Michael Bay Transformers movie recently. Is there a videogame adaptation of this flick yet? Such a thing would be an oddity to rival Lego Star Wars: an adaptation chain that goes toys — cartoon — movie — game. , or you can call it filler. If you ask me, what it shows in this particular game is a certain lack of confidence on the part of the designers. I mean, Pokémon took risks. For all that it’s based on established RPG mechanics, it was a new paradigm, and no one knew how successful it would be, so can they be blamed for hedging their bets by throwing in some relatively safe generic content? I know that something of this sort happened in the development of Thief: The Dark Project, resulting in the combat-oriented “monster” levels that are generally regarded as the game’s weak spot. It’s not even really a phenomenon unique to games. Consider Don Quixote: Book 1 contains numerous digressions, essentially embedded novellas detailing the backstories of various secondary characters and the like, apparently because Cervantes didn’t think that the satire of chivalric romance would maintain the reader’s interest. By the time he wrote book 2, he knew better, and the digressions disappeared.

1 Speaking of tedious, unrelieved fight scenes, I saw the Michael Bay Transformers movie recently. Is there a videogame adaptation of this flick yet? Such a thing would be an oddity to rival Lego Star Wars: an adaptation chain that goes toys — cartoon — movie — game.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Stealth

Let’s talk about gameplay a little. MGS2 is basically a stealth game punctuated by boss fights. I think the first stealth game I was aware of was Thief: The Dark Project, and consequently this is in my mind the canonical stealth game, the one that I think of all others in terms of. Thief was released in 1998, the same year as the first Metal Gear Solid. There had been stealth games before — notably, the original Metal Gear that Metal Gear Solid was based on — but only a few, and they didn’t have as much as an impact as these 3D ones. There still aren’t all that many games based mainly on stealth mechanics, but it seems to be fairly popular as a temporary constraint in platformers and shooters, a way of varying gameplay. Here, of course, that’s reversed: it’s the occasional shooting mission that keeps the sneaking from getting stale.

The point of a stealth game is, of course, not being seen. The designer can enforce this by making the game end (or, more likely, restart from the last checkpoint) as soon as an enemy spots the player character. And indeed, that’s a common approach in those stealth scenes in non-stealth-based games, presumably because it’s simple to implement. But that’s a bit harsh for extended use, so in the MGS games, as in Thief, being spotted simply has negative but not-immediately-fatal consequences. The sentry who saw you sounds an alert, unless you can stop him in time, and suddenly you’re facing more foes than you can easily handle. What happens then varies from game to game. In Thief, it is always at least theoretically possible to defeat all the enemies and wander unhindered until you decide to finish the level. This can break the mood somewhat. MGS does it differently: the enemies are effectively infinite in number, with new troops coming in to replace those killed. The player basically has no choice but to find a place to hide until they decide to stop looking for him, and then resume sneaking. This approach makes for better gameplay, in my opinion, but it’s not without its drawbacks. To support it, there have to be certain places that the guards will never look: inside a locker here, behind a crate there. And once you figure out where they are, you can easily spend most of your time sitting in those spots, waiting for the alert timer to run down. This can also break the mood somewhat.

There’s also something about the MGS approach that I can’t quite articulate, a feeling that I find typical of console games as opposed to PC games. Something about the way that the level of detail in the solution (such as ducking into a closet) is on a much coarser scale than the level of detail in the presentation. I may return to this point as I go through more PS2 games.