Friday, November 4, 2011

Assault and Vinnyger

I once spoke to someone about a conversation she had with a schizophrenic man. The man described disembodied voices coming from over his left shoulder. They would comment, offer advice, and sometimes issue commands. The nature of their words were often violent and dangerous, and the man had learned mostly to ignore voices coming from that direction. Not above trivialising a serious mental disorder, I reflected that it must be a lot like playing videogames, except that in videogames you're supposed to listen carefully and do exactly what the voices tell you. In particular, I was reminded of The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena and its titular protagonist, Richard B. Riddick.

Riddick was introduced to the world in 2000 by the movie Pitch Black. It was Vin Diesel's breakthrough role and the movie soon became a cult hit. Diesel has never looked back, even while almost everyone else has turned away. His efforts to keep the Riddick train rolling resulted in The Chronicles of Riddick in 2004, co-produced by Diesel. It was an ambitious attempt to launch Riddick as a media-spanning franchise including movies, books, videogames and more. However, critics and punters alike gave the sequel a lukewarm to scathing reception, and Riddick hasn't been seen in theatres since.

The bright spot of the gestating franchise was its videogame incarnation developed by Starbreeze Studios: The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay. Posited as a prequel to Pitch Black, it told the story of Riddick's time in a "triple-max high security slam." Solid design and great visuals earned it prestigious awards and ample commercial receipts. Riddick's movie career might have appeared dead in the water, but his voyage into videogames had caught an early wind. By 2009, Starbreeze had finished production of a sequel and Assault on Dark Athena hit store shelves.

Assault on Dark Athena is everything my wife abhors about videogames; it's symptomatic of the medium's moral degeneracy. The game is about despicable people in horrific circumstances doing terrible things. Upon revealing the content of this "game" I was "playing," she looked at me as though discovering that I tortured animals for fun. Her stomach turned just at the thought of my using it for entertainment. My wife is a delicate flower, and was, for example, practically traumatised by the opening scenes of Disney-Pixar's Up. However, as words came fumbling out my mouth in a vain attempt to assuage her concerns, I slowly realised that I didn't have any satisfactory responses.

I am not an angry or vicious man. In fact, my wife is far more likely to wish violent death upon her adversaries than I: that delicate flower can transform into a ferocious beast when its patience is exhausted. Maybe, I thought, it is simply a guy thing. I've been killing friends with guns, swords, and grenades since my imagination was first able to see the ballistic potential latent in broom handles and walking canes. Guys have been fascinated by stories of war, violence, and evil for as long as history, and the rise of civilisation has done little to dampen that appetite. But rather than legitimising my experience with Assault on Dark Athena, these explanations are as likely to just generalise its depravity to all of mankind.

Worst of all, what I enjoyed most about Assault on Dark Athena was playing its protagonist. Riddick is a bad man, though perhaps not quite as bad as he puts on. Although he's killed countless times, I have never known him to slay an innocent. Riddick relishes threatening and precarious circumstances to test himself, but he doesn't kill just for kicks. Mastery and survival are his highest values. They are what he admires in others, and they are what guide his macabre philosophy. He isn't fighting for anything but to survive until the next challenge. This is Riddick's strength and his tragedy, both as a fictional character and a commercial product.

We catch up with our plucky antihero shortly after the events of Escape From Butcher Bay. The spaceship he's traveling on is seized by the Dark Athena, a formidable pirate ship. Riddick wakes before his vessel is boarded and hides while his copassenger is taken captive. The Dark Athena is oppressive and terrifying. It is populated by hundreds of scumbag ex-mercenaries, and their chief occupation is apprehending vulnerable colonists and turning them into mindless "ghost drones." Alone and unarmed, Riddick is trapped aboard the Dark Athena, and there is nowhere else in the galaxy he'd rather be.

Somewhere in guys' brains lurks the primeval assumption that they too, one day, will be confronted with the horrors of war, a cold-blooded killer, or a desperate circumstance where terrible things must be done. This assumption is probably less true today than ever before, but it's as entrenched as our preference for a high-calorie diet. We begin preparing ourselves for this "inevitability" from a young age, and start to explore the psychology of conflict and suffering through roleplay: though we'd likely have just described it as having fun. This fascination with violence and danger doesn't vanish with age, but rather the play just becomes more serious and informed.

The antihero, the villain, and the murderer are among the most coveted and celebrated of acting roles, and it's no secret that playing the bad guy is fun. Who wants to play Holmes when they could play Moriaty? Why would anyone be Cyclops when they can be Wolverine? In Assault on Dark Athena, I was cast in the role of Riddick. I got to play the antihero, and it was fun. Its brutal violence was no worse than what I once imagined when opening fire on a friend from a fully-loaded tennis racket. Then as now, such fantasies weren't surrogates for a repressed urge to kill and maim, but rather, I think, they satisfied an impulse to understand and master a dangerous world. Play, I submit, is a far more interesting and varied activity than is usually appreciated.

I'll say one thing for the Dark Athena, it's got to be the best ventilated ship this side of the Andromeda Galaxy. Riddick spends an inordinate amount of time crawling around conveniently large ducts and shafts. There's even a section of the story about acquiring a "vent tool" which -- you guessed it -- enables access to even more cramped metal corridors. The Dark Athena's ventilation system is a security breach waiting to happen, and yet none of the crew seem interested in solving the problem: perhaps the air quality is just that good. Scrambling around air vents is nothing new to gamers; it's an overused trick to enable secret traversal of enemy territory, and it's indicative of Starbreeze's occasional lapse into lazy design.

Assault on Dark Athena falls into a downward spiral shortly after Riddick crashes on the planet Aguerra Prime. It had been fun sneaking around the Dark Athena like a slippery parasite, assaulting it piecemeal from the inside. Once the story landed on Aguerra Prime, however, events regressed into little more than a series of by-the-numbers shootouts against ever more brawny foes. Why Riddick left the Dark Athena in the first place is never explained, especially in an escape pod which was always unlikely to land anywhere interesting. It seems as though he did it just to give Starbreeze's artists something to paint other than dark spaceship interiors.

Nothing exemplifies Assault on Dark Athena's decline better than the alpha drone. It's a magnification of all of Starbreeze's worst decisions. Alpha drones are invulnerable to bullets, though there is nothing in their appearance to suggest this and no precedent or explanation is given. In fact, Riddick gains control of an alpha drone himself, late in the story, whereupon this invulnerability mysteriously disappears. Presumably, Starbreeze only make them temporarily immune to gunfire in order to challenge the player. Alpha drones must first be stunned using a special weapon and then, I kid you not, finished off with a melee attack: a couple of sharp blades can apparently do what a shotgun blast could not. It's an arbitrary inversion of everything the player has learned up until that point.

Starbreeze capriciously change established rules during big fights to force players into a particular strategy, and it results in scenes that linger somewhere between tedium and exasperation. Alpha drones and mech suits become impenetrable, standard melee counterattacks cease to work, and one enemy is suddenly only vulnerable to heights. Perhaps Starbreeze worried that its big fights would be too easy or anticlimactic, but rather than going back to the drawing board and trying again, they arbitrarily decided to stymie the player instead. They then seem to try and ruin Assault on Dark Athena's final chapters by clustering their errors into a series of cack-handed showdowns.

Assault on Dark Athena is at its best when Riddick is an interloper skulking around the Dark Athena and getting into the odd skirmish. The second act upon Aguerra Prime seems haphazardly displaced from a another game with a different protagonist: it's antithetical to Riddick's character and frustrates the player's attempts to discharge their role. I hesitate to say, but it feels like Starbreeze stopped caring about Assault on Dark Athena during production and finished it more out of obligation than creative passion.

Videogame exposition is a curse. In traditional storytelling, bad exposition is often just a nuisance. The story continues and the audience puts together loose pieces on their own. In videogames, however, if the player doesn't know what to do next or how, the story might grind to a sudden halt. The intended pacing of events can be radically rearranged. Players can find themselves wandering from one location to the next with no clear idea of what they are doing or why. Videogames tend to err on the side of caution, and the result is exposition-heavy writing -- constant digressions to explain events and restate goals -- with a clunky and unnatural feel.

The need to deliver all this exposition has resulted in many a contrivance, but few of the standard techniques sit comfortably with Assault on Dark Athena. Riddick has no commander or boffins at headquarters to bark orders or pass along useful information. Gamers are usually cast as inexperienced characters; perhaps they are lost in a foreign land or have spent their entire lives in a closed community. These cliches provide a narrative excuse to indulge the player with training and exposition, but Riddick is already highly skilled, experienced, and knowledgeable. Starbreeze's solution is so simple that I suspect it was discovered by accident: maybe to give Vin Diesel more dialogue.

Players hear Riddick's inner monologue. No need to pretend he is an idiot so that other characters can deliver exposition. No need for the implausibly omniscient geek in constant radio communication. Riddick just thinks about stuff and the player hears it. Not only is this a great way to avoid the standard narrative jury-rigging, but it helps the player get into character. What might be a tired and lazy storytelling trick on the silverscreen suddenly finds new purpose and value in a videogame.

Many games cast players in the role of characters facing horrifying dangers, but most of them don't seek such predicaments. Riddick, however, is actually attracted to the challenge the Dark Athena presents. Its inhabitants are vicious outlaws and undead drones that he can kill without consequence. They're hunting him and he's hunting them. They're many and he's one. For Riddick, the Dark Athena is a playground. Despite its bone-chilling premise and frightful imagery, I was never afraid during Assault on Dark Athena. The scariest thing in Riddick's universe, he kept reminding me, is himself: the monsters should be afraid of me.

Every character but the player has memorised the script: they know where to stand, what to say, and when to move onto the next scene. The player, on the other hand, is improvising his part and depends on directorial cues to guide his performance. Usually these are just crude stage directions, e.g. stand in the flashing circle, press the big glowing button, or avoid doors below red lights. But too often no attempt is made to answer the actor's refrain, "What's my motivation?" In Assault on Dark Athena, Riddick will tell you.

"They say hope begins in the dark, but most just flail around in the blackness, searching for their destiny. The darkness -- for me -- is where I shine."

These words weren't stolen from the journal of an angsty teen with black lipstick. They are the first words in Assault on Dark Athena, and they're spoken by Riddick. Honestly, I don't know what they mean, but hearing them from gravely depths of Vin Diesel's vocal tract I can't imagine they are anything but absolutely true. This man is an internet meme away from being the next Chuck Norris. If he uttered Chomsky's nonsense sentence, "Colourless green ideas sleep furiously," then I'd probably also believe that. It's fortunate for us all that Mr. Diesel decided to get into hammy acting instead of politics.

When Assault on Dark Athena stumbles over its often pretentious dialogue or hackneyed design, like a Borg drone stepping into an open manhole, I am reminded of how ridiculous the Riddick franchise is. Like snack food, Assault on Dark Athena is ultimately a rather shallow and fleeting pleasure; it certainly shouldn't replace a healthy and balanced diet. While it's a fun diversion to play as Riddick, and Starbreeze nicely facilitates roleplay, it exposes, ironically, the limits of his character. Ultimately, neither Riddick nor his universe are nutritious enough to sustain the kind of healthy media-spanning franchise that Mr. Diesel craves.


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  2. A good read, shame they couldn't recreate the genius that was Butcher Bay - it was still a nice ride in the Dark Athena though, before Riddick got any guns and was just punching and slicing mercenaries in instants of ultra-violence :)

  3. Nobody has to divorce anyone, gamers should just tell their delicate spouses what was said here in this bit; "such fantasies weren't surrogates for a repressed urge to kill and maim, but rather, I think, they satisfied an impulse to understand and master a dangerous world".

  4. Interesting. The MAX PAYNE games are also notable for featuring the protagonist character's inner monologue (at quite some considerable length) explaining his motivations and, for the player's benefit, what the heck is going on.

  5. I do this game reviewing lark for a living, and I can honestly say that this is the most enlightening and refreshing review of a game I've read all year. Seriously clever writing, Lee - kudos.

  6. That's high praise, Gwynne. Thank you. My personal favourite is my Metro 2033 piece, though this was more difficult to write. (In part, I chose Assault on Dark Athena precisely because it would be a challenge to write about).

    Thanks again. Now you have me thinking about selling out! :p

  7. I just read 'Learning Russian' - also good. I'm sure you're probably aware of this already (if so, sorry in advance for being patronising), but you're a disciple of New Games Journalism. It's no doubt why Rock Paper Shotgun linked through to this article in their regular 'The Sunday Papers' feature yesterday...

  8. Gwynne,

    I'm vaguely aware of the phrase "New Games Journalism," but I couldn't have told what it meant exactly.

    I'm just doing odd jobs at the moment: mostly labouring and sales. The most fun I have is doing residential tree surgery with a friend -- climbing trees and running chainsaws never gets old.

    I am from the England but currently living in the United States. I have been unemployed for a while due to immigration procedures, which will hopefully be finished with in December. I have a work permit, but, ridiculously, can't get my drivers license renewed until I get my green card. All this has prohibited getting a real job and given me a lot of time to play, and now write about, videogames.

    I am glad you're enjoying the blog.

  9. It's great stuff Lee - I'll be returning in future...

  10. Gwynne,

    I'd love to see your best writing about videogames, if you're interested in sharing.