Archive for cyberpunk

Brain Freeze: Frozen Synapse

Posted in criticism, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 5, 2013 by drayfish

Frozen Synapse Logo

IMAGE: Frozen Synapse (Mode 7 Games)

In many ways I have a thoroughly unhelpful and disappointing brain.  Reactive, more emotionally intuitive than coldly logical, motivated by comfort and sanguinity and introspection rather than the practicalities and planning that builds a society and keeps the lights on.  No one should ask me to build a house.  Or fix anything.  Or work out why my computer is not speaking to my printer…  I mean, shouldn’t that just work?!  I put the plug in the thing!  It says that it’s on.  The light is even blinking!

Come on!

Simply put, I’m the lazy, vague, distracted type that enjoys sitting on a sofa sipping a warm cup of tea, my thoughts drifting through the resplendent vagaries of imagination, more than I am the enterprising strategian, artfully mapping out complex manoeuvres and schemes.  When I play chess (and I play it badly), I get caught up in narrative, anthropomorphising everything.  I mourn for every fallen piece, find myself drawn into demonstratively ill-considered plays, motivated in completely irrational ways to seek vengeance for a captured rook and lamenting the soldier cut down (usually through my abject idiocy) before his time.

Oh, little horsey guy.  I will avenge thee.

So everything about my brain, my psyche, the very fabric of my being, is wired completely wrong to enjoy an experience like Mode 7 Games’ Frozen Synapse.

As a top down, turn-based strategy game in which the entire conceit is to predict, outthink, and outplay your opponent, Frozen Synapse is perhaps something of a spiritual successor to works like the original XCOM (someone, anyone, with more knowledge of these strategy games will know how accurate or otherwise this statement is).  In Frozen, you command a small squadron of drones with primitive AI – reactive pawns who obey simple, yet intuitive commands – and you are attempting to manoeuvre around a playing space – one designed to be reminiscent of a digitised circuit board – by issuing orders on where to move, where to look, how to stand, how relaxed or trigger-happy to behave.  Meanwhile, you compete against an aggressor who is concurrently trying to wipe your men off the board.  It is strategic, orderly, regimented, and requires focus and planning.

Gun to my head, I can scarcely think of a game more antithetical to my personality, less aligned with my interests…

And yet.

There is something about this game – something that ticks every box in my mind that I never knew went wanting.  Something that lies beyond that simple, petulant urge to have one-more-try…

What differentiates Frozen Synapse from other similar turn-based game designs is its innovation of an asynchronous planning stage and a parallel resolution.  You are afforded as much time as you like to plot out your move, and your opponent (either another human player, or the game itself) is offered the same; but once you both commit to the manoeuvre, time restarts, and for several seconds all of this strategy is enacted simultaneously.  Suddenly the enemy soldier you were moving to intercept has already spun off in the opposite direction; now two soldiers are heading to the same piece of cover; in a twist, the guy you were flanking has flanked your flank with his flankety flank (…I’m using that word right, no?)  And with each of these semi-intelligent playing pieces having snappy, reactive trigger fingers, things get explodey fast.

It becomes evident that unlike many strategy games, you are not prey to the whims of dice rolls and stat upgrades.  Indeed, ultimately you are not even playing the lay of the board, but rather where you predict that your opposition will move next.  It adds a whole component of projection and bluff into the objective, as you know that once you have locked in those behavioural patterns, you will be watching their routines engage with each other beyond your direct influence.  Rather than control every action, you are therefore striving to craft the most fortuitous scenario through which your little agents can succeed on their own.  You become a god of opportunity, tweaking determinism to give your rudimentary bots the greatest possibility of success.

And not surprisingly, this proves to be utterly absorbing.

Having to methodically plan out each move, watching your soldiers follow your dictates (for better or worse), scrambling for cover, peering into a room, avoiding a line of sight, blowing the snot out of half the map with a rocket launcher (that’s a good one), is profoundly addictive.  Because when it comes together, when a move does in fact accurately predict the enemy’s momentum and get the drop on them in a cathartically fatal (if momentary) triumph, the sense of achievement is quite intoxicating.  There is a genuine sense in which you have legitimately overcome, have outplayed and outwitted, a system – even in instances where (as has far too frequently been the case for me) it clearly wasn’t entirely foreseen …some in which, in truth, it was just dumb luck.

So I should make clear at this point, lest I give entirely the wrong impression: I still suck at this game.

I’m terrible.

So many times the game screen ends littered with the fallen wreckage of my shambling discordant schemes, little geometrically primitive bodies laying shattered and inert in pools of their synthetic blood.  I’ve not quite grappled with the mechanics of how swiftly a shotgunner can outpace a machinegunner; if I have to escort someone in missions I have a tendency to charge off into farcically useless cover, completely out of their line of sight; and I have little to no idea what the ‘duck’ feature does.  But wonderfully (and this is a sensation that is true of all the best videogames), here even failure feels like progression.

Even as you watch your plans go awry, you are still gradually learning the game’s mechanics, watching their logics play out.  Winning, it reveals, is not about memorising rote patterns or cracking AI routines, but about incrementally familiarising yourself with this pocket universe’s action and temporal flow.  And once you have got these jumps and starts and tactics subconsciously woven into your technique, a curious poetry of motion starts to emerge.  Suddenly line-of-sight becomes second-nature, the splashback on a grenade and destroying cover is commonplace, the sight of a missile threading doorways to ignite a distant encampment has an almost balletic grace.

On top of all this, the single player experience impressively does include a serviceable cyberpunk narrative about a dire dystopian future in which warfare (of the kind played out in the game) is conducted by synthetic programs in virtual reality.  You are effectively a hacker, using the tactics you develop to dance these algorithms into visceral combat in the artificial ‘shape’ world – the threat of death nonetheless remaining compelling despite these soldiers being overtly reduced to winking pixels and shaders.  You are vying for control of Markov Geist, a city as blessed with an overabundance of terms like ‘infographics’ and ‘vatforms’ and ‘knowledge nexus’ as it is sprinkled with suitably romantic descriptors like ‘The Shard’, ‘The Brightling Core’, ‘Fortune’s Glave’, ‘Torpor’, and the ‘Cortecan Eye’.  There are oppressive regimes, resistance movements (why, you’re a member of one, of course), cults, splinter groups, propaganda engines, totalitarian philosophies being ironically toppled by dispassionate inhuman programs.  And with the optional dossiers that accompany each mission you can dig as deeply as you wish (or not at all) into the game’s welcomingly robust world-building and fiction.

Perhaps its most ingenious design choice is the way in which it incorporates the player’s own interaction with the text into its conceit, as you, through the input of your computer, stir these digitised beings into action.  In this abstracted play-space – part Tron, part Wargames, more than a little Matrix – the game simultaneously dehumanises and invests with meaning this world, these vatform bots, and the player themself, binding them all into a necessary symbiosis.  These algorithms grant you subservience and a complete devotion of will to complete your mission; you supply them with the attribute that for the time being – at least until the inevitable robot uprising* still separates us from artificial intelligence: the capacity to imagine.  Because this game lives and breathes in that moment of projection – in that ability to fantasise oneself into a possible future, and to try to plan for its innumerable potentialities.

So with that in mind, perhaps I should look into playing the new version of X-Com: Enemy Unknown.  After all, with my penchant for getting overly invested in games of strategy and poise now totally under control, it seems to be the next logical step.  And from everything that I’ve heard about it, I’m sure I won’t get attached to those soldiers, right?  I’m sure they’ll be just like my faceless, Frozen Synapse bots.  There’s no way I’ll obsess over their every dash for cover and each foreboding engagement with the unknown.  It sure won’t matter if I name them after my friends and family and most beloved cultural icons…  Surely there’s no way I’ll feel anything when Major Springsteen is eviscerated before my eyes.  Right?

…Right?

Frozen Synapse Game Screen

IMAGE: Frozen Synapse (Mode 7 Games)

* ‘Don’t tase me, Wall-E.  Don’t tase me.’

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Deus Ex: Human Revolution: A bold new future… mired in the past

Posted in criticism, video games with tags , , , , , , , on November 16, 2012 by drayfish

Deus Ex: Human Revolution concept art (Square Enix)

Going in I had heard rumour that there was an uncomfortable, anachronistic moment in Deus Ex: Human Revolution.  I was vague on the details, but had a faint recollection – from out of the mists of those early weeks after the game’s release – that a number of players had expressed discomfort with one minor aspect of the game.  I even remembered hearing that this mysterious element was considered by some to be a blemish on the otherwise elegantly realised vision of the future that developers Eidos Montreal had sculpted.  But to be honest, whatever that imperfection was, I wasn’t seeing it.

Here I stood, having finally set aside the time to sink into the game (over a year after everyone else had watched the final credits roll), moving around that wonderfully sombre, burnished gold space, stunned by the whole game’s noir-inflected cyberpunk aesthetic, utterly thrilled with the rich potential of narrative and game-play that stretched out before me.   But still, nagging at the back of my mind like some glitch in the Matrix, I wondered: what on earth had people been complaining about?

Was it Jensen’s voice?

Sure, it was probably a little too Clint-Eastwood’s-Man-With-No-Name from the Fistful of Dollars trilogy.  …Indeed, if you swapped out the poncho and replaced it with a pair of Swiss-Army-Cylon-Arms they would be virtually identical.  ‘I didn’t ask for this…’, Jensen would rasp around a chewed up cigar, his voice crunching like a handful of gravel.

Was it the unnecessary, slightly obnoxious sunglasses?

I mean, okay, fine – a little pretentious.  But hey: people can have sensitive eyes.  Even at midnight.  In Detroit.  In a dark alley.  Hiding under a box.  …And maybe getting completely-shot-to-death and rebuilt by the clandestine machinations of a corporate overlord can result in scratched corneas?  Robocop went with a visor too, after all.  Who am I to judge?

Surely it couldn’t be the cityscape…

I mean, yes, maybe the streets of a future American metropolis are a little barren of moving cars.  And all pedestrian activity does seem to be rooted in redundant behavioural loops.  That same couple has been arguing about that same traffic accident for quite some time now.  That hotel cleaner has been loitering in place for days, and he clearly didn’t bring a magazine to read or anything.  And sure – I hear it – a lot of voices and dialogues are getting rehashed…

But come on.

A grumbling monorail glides overhead.  Police officers patrol ominously, seemingly poised for the ideological riots that might break out at any moment.  Street punks that appear to have wandered out of Michael Jackson’s Bad video clip, by way of Philip K. Dick, pepper the back alleys, warming the night air with the glow of their cigarettes.  No, if there was some weird aberration in this glistening techno salad it had completely passed me by; for a projected, fantastical environment, Deus Ex’s dystopian vision felt wonderfully familiar and alien all at once.

Indeed, this had to be some of the most beautiful, absorbing art direction I’ve ever seen in a videogame – that honeyed techno conflagration of society; that worn in, decayed futurism; characters nonchalantly sporting or debating upgrades and optics and augs.  Walking around this world, watching though Jensen’s gold-tinged visual display, you feel like a mosquito suspended in amber: the relic of an age that has passed, watching a new society swirl into view just beyond the confines of your screen.  I could almost feel the pistons and pressurising fluids pumping through my appendages; tingled with the hum of nanotech under my skin; was even a little worried about what that discoloured rain might be doing to my swishy leather coat…

‘Well, sheeyit!  If it ain’t the Cap’n, hisself!’

What the – ?

‘Mister Sarif done fixed you up good, ain’t he?  Give you a new set of glasses an’ everythin’!  Damn…’

In my usual borderline OCD game-play style I had been clicking away on every container and NPC in sight – and apparently the speaker was the middle aged homeless woman in front of me, her hands at that very moment plunged into a garbage can.

…And hey: I’m not judging.  I had just been fishing through that same canister in the hopes of finding stray consumables.  (Speaking of which, why does Jensen – a man working for the wealthiest company on the globe – need to scrounge for discarded candy bars?  Is there seriously no expense account for the one guy you got covering your multibillion dollar global enterprise?!  Anyway…)

Her name was Letitia.  An African American woman dressed in a dishevelled pull-over, with cool grey eyes and no discernible augmentations – she looked like any other figure huddled away from the chill of the streets.  But her voice

I wish that I were exaggerating how overwrought her dialogue and its delivery was, but there is literally no way to overemphasise her inflected intonation.*  Unless Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel was yet to make a surprise appearance as a higher level boss battle, her speech (unlike any other figure, including the other homeless people that peppered this level) remains by far the most flamboyant caricature I had stumbled across in game.

Now, at this point, I want to make it very clear that I have no interest in making a statement as to whether I personally think this characterisation is racist.  Having subsequently explored online for an explanation for this curious depiction, I have found many such readings, with a number of interpreters seeing Letitia as a pastiche of every insulting, culturally vilifying stereotype that one would have once heard in the grotesquery of a blackface minstrel show.**  As those interpretations have pointed out, she says ‘pacifics’ instead of ‘specifics; drawls ‘So whatchu wanna know?’; and vacillates in an hysterically inflected patter:

‘Didn’t think I’d see YOU walking this boulevard any time soon, that’s fer sure.  Not afta what happen six months ago.  People said you’s down for the count…’

But, once again, while sadly I think there is a wealth of worthy (indeed necessary) questions to ask about the potentially racial stereotyping of such a character, for the purposes of my discussion here, I will put that loaded issue aside momentarily.  The publishers of the game, Square Enix, when asked for a comment on this peculiar characterisation, responded by saying:

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a fictional story which reflects the diversity of the world’s future population by featuring characters of various cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. While these characters are meant to portray people living in the year 2027, it has never been our intention to represent any particular ethnic group in a negative light.***

And thankfully there are other African American characters within the game – business people; police officers; scientists – who reflect more varied personalities.  (Although it is sad that in a 21st century text such a qualification even needs to be made.)

Instead, what baffled me more than the fact that my quest-giver recalled those two ‘comic relief’ robot twins Michael Bay loaded into his second Transformers atrocity, was how antithetical this depiction was to the overarching themes of the game’s narrative, both on a practical and conceptual level.

Letitia’s purpose, it appeared, was to be a font of contextualising information – a person from the street; one of Jensen’s old informants from his days as a cop – a figure who might offer the player a fresh perspective upon this unfamiliar new culture.  But rather than presenting a unique glimpse into the world of the haves through the eyes of the have-nots, instead we get a character largely ignorant of the class structure, concerned predominantly with the acquisition of alcohol and spare change.

Indeed, in her third line of dialogue (ironically, in response to the suggestion that that people underestimate Jensen), she replies by begging for money (‘You an’ me both, Capt’n!  You an’ me both!  Uh, you, uh… got any credits you can spare?’); and if the player goes to some effort to deliver her four beers (of the brand that she likes), she eventually responds:

Damn’ Capt’n.  You knows how to warm a girl’s insides!  Here.  You takes this.  I founds it on Brooklyn Court, near the basketball court.  Thought I might hold onto it, ‘case I needed to crawl inside some rainy night.  But maybe you find some use for it instead.’

So while it is nice that Letitia is offering up a cache of goods to Jensen, the literal trade occurring here is the exchange of shelter for alcohol.  She happily forgoes accommodation in order to drink.

This was not the researched, artful dialogue of the corner-hoppers on The Wire; instead it felt rather more like a gauche, naive stereotype:

‘Oh, things ain’t looking good, Capt’n.  People losing their jobs… their homes…  Locking everything theys own inta those, uh, garage-door storage units ’round town, hoping nobody breaks in an’ steals stuff.  Mr. Sarif gonna save us, he better do it soon.’

It’s not even clear that she understands the augmentation debate that festers at the very core of this societal unrest, even referring to Jensen as ‘an adventuring man … fixed wit’ suma them fancy technolimbs Mr. Sarif makes…’

Most strangely of all, however, on the larger thematic scale, falling back on such dated, outmoded caricatures works in complete opposition to subject matter of technological and ideological evolution that this game is trying to explore…  For a narrative fundamentally concerned with blurring the divisions between man and machine, biology and synthetics, suddenly finding oneself face to face with gaming’s version of Mr. Yonioshi from Breakfast at Tiffany’s is an ugly fissure in the otherwise finely wrought artifice of the Deus Ex world.

On most every level the game dares the player to move their ideology beyond rigid, old-fashioned modes of thought, to not become mired in conventional or tediously outdated presumption – life, it says, is to no longer be shackled by the biological metronome of a heartbeat; identity and thought cannot be tethered merely to electrical impulses and grey matter; the delineations between humanity and machine, good and evil, advancement and regression, gender and sexuality, all are to be inextricably, immutably blurred…

Except here.

Here, in this one bizarre pocket of dialogue, where two characters are depicted shooting the breeze over the contents of a trash can, all of those notions of diversity and progressivity, that whole sombre dystopian panoply that the designers so skilfully wrought, is momentarily jettisoned, marred by a garishly reductive cliché (whether racist or not) that – like the bottle of Hot Devil Ale Jensen retrieved from another pile of refuse a few streets over – arguably should have remained discarded.

IMAGE: Letitia, Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Square Enix)

* Indeed, the snatches of dialogue I am recounting are lifted, unaltered, from the spelling of the game’s own subtitles.  You can see video of the exchange with Letitia here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RwGI7su0QlA

** See ‘The Worst Thing About Deus Ex: Human Revolution’ by Evan Narcisse (Time, http://techland.time.com/2011/08/31/the-worst-thing-about-deus-ex-human-revolution/)

*** http://www.gamesradar.com/deus-ex-racist-square-enix-responds/

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