Thursday, October 15, 2009
Thursday, October 15, 2009
Skip the part about the screeching kid and the Oedipal overtones and the retroactive ruination of a classic film trilogy--skip all of it save the image of a man in black, eaten up with machinery. That's Gunther.
Portishead - Machine Gun
In Deus Ex (2000) Gunther Hermann is mostly a punchline: a psychotic dinosaur, a mechanically-augmented agent rightfully fearful of being made obsolete by the new-model nanotech Denton brothers.
But picture a prequel centered on Gunther's descent into monsterhood. Start with a well meaning field agent with the deck stacked against him. End with an echo of a man, steeped in blood, pleading for a clean slate.
A friend once told me what they wanted out of games was feeling "like I had just jumped out of an airplane with no parachute."
Laputan Machine is about that suicidal freefall: a series of choices between bad and worse, how a man's moral compass is broken by way of desperate self-preservation.
The game starts with a fully human Gunther Hermann on his first major field op. It is a disaster, a bloodbath, the wounded Gunther barely escaping with his life. While convalescing he is talked into receiving his first mechanical augmentation.
At first he is elated; the young agent is given a bulwark against mortality, an easy upgrade to dramatically increased operational fitness, the player behind him given a seemingly familiar route to more mayhem (shadows of Syndicate's classic agent upgrade system, pictured right).
But here also begins the central conflict/negative feedback loop of the game: balancing Gunther's mental stability/grasp on humanity with the dehumanizing necessity of mechanical augmentation. (Perhaps implemented something like the "sanity" system of Lovecraftian horror games.)
The more indiscriminate the killing, the higher the bodycount, the more unstable Gunther becomes and the more he gives in to the mech-augs enabling the bloodshed, dimming his conscience and humanity. Give in to the machine too quickly, or kill too many and Gunther loses it, the game ends prematurely with the first major alternate ending: Gunther being put down like a rabid dog by his disappointed handlers.
As in the original Deus Ex, the game may be completed with predominantly non-lethal tactics employed for most missions. This limits Gunther's recourse to mech-augs and eventually earns the second alternate ending of Gunther finishing with his mind mostly intact, possibly even leaving the newly established UNATCO, but this is an ever increasingly difficult path.
The player is in Gunther's shoes: ultraviolence by way of mechanical augmentations is the easy way out, but also the road to lost humanity. Do you take the increasingly difficult moral high road, or does Gunther give in to the machine?
Going the full mech-augs/1,000 killcount scenario earns the ending that places Gunther as he is at the beginning of Deus Ex, with the revelation of where Gunther's childlike psychosis stems from.
Conflicted over his lost humanity and psychopathic killing, Gunther begs his handlers to finish what the mech-augs have started: memory erasure/ personality augmentation. He loses most of himself, even losing the cherished memory of the final stage of mechanical augmentation available in the game: the skul-gun aug.
The game encompasses the classic cyberpunk question of humanity eclipsed by technology, but is also centered on the questioning the moral ramifications of an action videogame protagonist's typically guilt-free mass murdering sprees.
I personally love IO Interactive's Kane & Lynch (2007) for most of all the reasons Jeff Gerstmann famously hated it: the characters are exactly as ugly and unredeemed as their actions would dictate. There is no mystifying disconnect between the character and their actions in the game. I think it's an idea worth further exploration.
[For me this is the major cognitive dissonance in Uncharted--Drake efficiently killing swaths of men, then gets back to effortlessly chucklehorsing around with the cute blonde in cutscenes. Uncharted is hardly alone in this, but the extremely high quality of the storytelling heightens the dissonance above most other games.]
Upon release, Laputan Machine earns a Metacritic score of 69/100.
It slowly builds a following from Deus Ex fans, but many critics and gamers are off-put by the frank, "un-fun" depiction of violence and gore; the game's themes are judged too heavy handed, the story too much of a downer. Who wants to get their nose rubbed in the violence they're complicit to?
Check in tomorrow for the companion piece: Flatlander Woman.