Alpha Protocol Redux: Prelude

I was wrong once. The year was 2010, and the subject of my falter was the dank and depressing Metro 2033. Ejecting it rather violently from my disc drawer at the game’s halfway point, every conceivable facet of Metro seemed to me to be loathsome: the limp combat, impotent stealth, crappy gas mask mechanic, dour loading screen expositions, even the jarring implementation early-on of third-person cutscenes. Returning to it after months of internet-bitching, I found the experience to be… well, much the same. The combat remains to this day something of a damp-squib, although its ineffectualness has been plugged somewhat with the addition of ‘Ranger’ difficulties, whilst the gas mask mechanic is either simply broken or else woefully unclear to everyone ever. And yet as I slinked through its moody tunnels and stations and service depots there was, undeniably, something new, something sublime: an understated and haunting slice of excellence. Stealth in particular had become something to master and conquer; not an irritating and buggy instance of half-arsedness, but a finely-tuned and almost erotically-satisfying undertaking. In short: at first I was blind, but then I came to see.

Alpha Protocol is a game which echoes the first-half of my Metro experience: the bit where I hate it and badmouth it and surprisingly large groups of people arrive at my doorstep to reel off its supposed positives. All the while I remain convinced that had it been put out by the British government then I’m pretty sure a certain Mr Tucker would have labelled it a “fucking omnishambles” and sent the spin-cycle into overdrive to make up for it. Indeed, any number of quibbles and hatreds are resurrected through my memories of Alpha Protocol. For starters, it’s an ugly sumbitch. Then there’s tone, which seemed to veer from almost generically straight-faced in its Middle East segment to pure cheese later on. Add to that a rather forgetful cast of characters, laughably uninspired plot (spy ‘thriller’ in evil PMC shocker) and some incredibly contradictory design, and you’ve got yourself a fuck up. And yet for the longest time, my venomous attitude towards it has bothered me. Because Alpha Protocol is a game I should at least admire in some aspect, isn’t it? The malleability of its story and the attempt, at least, to permit wildly different playstyles are things I tend to bang on about. Shouldn’t I at least have commended it for giving it a go?

So, in desperate need of a new writing project and with a sore lack of excuses to ignore another batch of upcoming University essays, I have set myself a challenge: to replay Alpha Protocol, and to see if I wasn’t right about the piece of crap uh… little fellow the first time. As I post this I’m nearing the end of the game’s Middle East portion, so with any luck, all shall be updated soon.

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Dishonoured: Karma Get Some Morality

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Originally I had intended for this piece – or a version of this piece – to be the next in my regular column, The Scripted Sequence, in Haywire, but it seems it’ll overlap with a longer, more thorough discussion-type feature that Joe (of Deadpan Lunacyhopes to get going. Still, waste not want not. I’ve adapted it a little to be less magazine-y, but it’s most definitely the original piece in mind, spirit and body(ish). 

And on the plus side, I get to spell Dishonoured properly. Every cloud. 

Mark Twain once said a person should, ‘Always do what is right. It will gratify half of mankind and astound the other.’ Well I’m sorry Twainster, but your mumbo-jumbo doesn’t cut it anymore. With The Witcher 2 and Deus Ex: Human Revolution both asking us in recent times to make up our own damn minds about what is right, it seems that even game developers no longer dare impart their own morals onto the choices they give us. Even Mass Effect 3, still using the Red ‘n’ Blue dichotomy of Knights of the Old Republic, makes a decent crack of the whip at being impartial towards our decisions. But now Dishonoured’s come along, reared its beautiful – but really quite bloody ugly – skull-faced head and, some have argued, stuck a shiv in the moral-relativism of those other games with a system it calls ‘Chaos’.

Quite.

Chaos in Dishonoured is simple. Cut your way through the streets of Dunwall like the Demon Barber of Fleet Street and kill all manner of folks, both nasty and nice alike, and you’ll come to realise that you’ve probably done more harm than good: Samuel the boatman certainly won’t be afraid to tell you as much. But choose to cuddle your opponents to sleep and you might just find yourself looking on the brighter side of life: Little Miss Empress will be crowned at the beginning of a new Golden Age for Dunwall, and not atop a pile of corpses that you’ve lovingly carved up for her to sit on. Samuel’s final departure will see him impart feelings of pride and loyalty, not disgust and trepidation.

Although Chaos was sold as a system of subtleties reliant on your physical actions throughout the entire game, in practice you come to realise that for all the things that do and don’t count against you as kills for whatever reason, the system is still just counting kills. And once you kill one chump too many, your gameplay stats are sent to Broadmoor and the end-of-mission slaughter count brands your Chaos rating ‘High’. Binary’s great for getting computers to do their bizzle and for saying naughty words in code (01100011 01101111 01100011 01101011), but that’s about it. In the wake of the monster-slayers and transhumanists, one can’t help but feel that Dishonoured’s apparent commentary on players’ choices is a little antiquated; a regression on new-found (or newly regained) principles of choice-systems in gaming.

I foresee a Dishonourable discharge in the near future.

To counter this, Deus Ex the First employed an extremely clever tactic of having a number of characters with ranging personalities react differently to your field-methods and general behaviour. By doing so, the game let players feel as if they were genuinely impacting upon the characters around them and averted the issue of making them feel as if they were being demonised by the developers for certain behaviours – a potentially problematic trait for any game that sells itself on letting you play how you want. Dishonoured does try this, but only once. And with only one character. A character whose moral alignment is “just a nice guy”. Yes, dearest Samuel: you’re a part of the problem. Because if you only have one character commenting on the player’s actions and it’s only once in the game and that character possesses the moral alignment of pretty much any regular, non-psychopathic person, then you may as well have the developers themselves send you a letter of elation/disappointment (delete as appropriate) in response to your actions.

So far then, so unsuccessful.

But whilst there are definite failures to be noted in light of Dishonoured’s cyperbunk ancestor, there are also legitimate, deviating paths to be mapped. Like, oh I dunno, the very essence of the Chaos system itself! Aha! If you were inclined to kill Anna Navarre after rebelling against her orders in Deus Ex then Gunther, Anna’s old partner, would have a personal vendetta in tow as he hunted you down. A pragmatic consequence to a physical choice. The narrative of Deus Ex is not unlike a tapestry, ready for you to pick your own needle and thread and embroider into it your own tastes and opinions. Sure, some bits are filled in already, you can’t choose the material and the tapestry isn’t endless, but when you’re finished you’ll find each of your own threads has a traceable lineage, and with a personalised touch.

Dishonoured, on the other hand, is like a Picasso. There is reason and meaning (or so my Art-student friends tell me), but its relevance to what you see in front of you can be strained and even tenuous. The link between action and consequence is karmic. And whilst the philosophy is quite obviously a load of horse shit in real life, it’s not an uninteresting concept to embed within an interactive narrative. There’s little practical logic in having Corvo’s bloodlust lead to a more plague-ridden Dunwall, but there is a theoretical and defined logic in his negative behaviour impacting upon the city around him in an equally negative way: a kind of pathetic fallacy.

Dishonoured’s Chaos certainly isn’t perfect, and I’ll rally alongside its detractors and many of their criticisms. But it is important to remember that there are two sides to the system: one which failed by being too limited in scope, and one which might prove a valid alternative to the approaches to choice and morality we have now, also hindered by that limited scope. And although it seems unlikely that a karmic system could ever live up to the satisfaction of seeing the practical repercussions to your actions, or entirely avoid the pratfalls of attaching a developer’s morality to a player’s decisions, I don’t know if it’s something we should discourage just yet.