PC Games as “Art” — Seeking Relevance in Rapture

I’d like to divulge a long-kept secret: majoring in English gives you superpowers. Specifically, while studying English in the capacity of literary criticism and theory, you develop a heightened sense of perception regarding media of all sorts. It’s essentially like Superman’s X-ray vision, except instead of seeing through any solid material you gain the ability to punch right through all the smoke and mirrors (and loads of straight-up bullshit, too) that human beings like to swirl around whatever ideas they’re trying to communicate to you. Like, for example, when a political candidate decries an account of her personal life as sexist (which is true) and degrading (also true), an English major is immediately aware of what she’s trying to draw your attention away from: that a) she is sexist, herself, against her own gender and if elected would enact policies accordingly, and b) she is a raging, unabashed hypocrite.

This is exactly what happens every time I use terms like “social norms” and “cultural narrative.”

I know that’s probably obvious to most human beings with functioning gray matter, but it’s just an example. Anyway, like all superhuman abilities, these lightning-quick powers of inductive reasoning come with a weakness: we cannot communicate anything about our conclusions without also informing everybody why they should care about what we’re saying. Think of it as analogous to DC’s Billy Batson, who can’t utilize his superpowers as Captain Marvel unless he shouts “SHAZAM!” The difference is that English majors just take a lot longer to say the magic word(s). Or… paragraphs. Or thesis papers. (Incidentally, English majors are also akin to the Green Lantern in that they require extended periods to recharge their abilities. Coffee generally accelerates this process considerably.)

What I’m getting at is the idea of social or cultural relevance. Like any medium, video games are chock full of examples that have little or nothing to do with real life. Some of the most fun games ever made are on that list (Super Mario Bros., anyone?), so I want to make sure we cut off any connection between quality and relevance straight away. Relevance ≠ quality. Got it? Some games, on the other hand, feature socio-cultural commentary in spades, and it’s one of those we’re talking about today.

Once upon a time, an incredibly rich and powerful American business magnate decided to found a self-contained city far beyond the reaches of the various political and cultural influences which he perceived as oppressive and limiting to his success as an individual. He assumed that, given a society completely unrestricted by laws or regulations and populated by the most intelligent, innovative, and ambitious minds in the world, he could create “a city where the artist would not fear the censor, where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality, where the great would not be constrained by the small” — a place where the elites of the world could roam free of obligations and restrictions which they regarded as beneath them.

Yes, I did quote Andrew Ryan just now, and that paragraph mostly describes the setting of 2007’s BioShock by 2K Games, but I could also have been referring at various points to any one of these places or people as well. Even now, in the 21st century, free-market capitalism still reigns as the undeniably dominant cultural narrative (SHAZAM!) — so dominant, in fact, that anyone daring to suggest that it may be time to devise a more functional and less hazardous economic system is immediately vilified as anti-American and a dirty, dirty, probably bearded Marxist (nevermind whether they actually are either of those things). Want proof? Check this out.

Truer words…

It’s a singular source of pleasure for the gamer in me, then, when a game developer extrapolates on unrestrained capitalism (informed by Ayn Rand’s Objectivism) and really runs with it. Plenty of different media are dabbling in post-apocalyptic sorts of narratives the last few years, but few employ an economic collapse as their cause. Rapture’s economy, inherently limited by its location at the bottom of the sea, could not sustain both the rapid accumulation of wealth by its top handful of elites and severe shortages of a product (ADAM) for which the demand increases exponentially. Sound familiar? We could replace any of the details in that last sentence and be talking about a real society (e.g., “America’s economy, inherently limited by its location on Earth…)

We talked about Deus Ex last time, and how it invokes the player’s moral prerogative to communicate its ideas. These two games’ philosophies intersect quite frequently, but where Deus Ex is complicated and cerebral, BioShock is visceral and brutally honest. In the former you rub elbows with the ruling class of the dystopian society; in the latter, you are knee-deep in the suffering and despair that Andrew Ryan’s selfish and naive worldview has created. The gaudy, opulent flagship of capitalism has sunk (pun intended) and the player must tread through human flotsam to escape to the surface — where, by the way, everything is virtually the same (minus Splicers and Big Daddies).

Let’s talk about those Big Daddies in an metaphorical sense for a moment. They protect the Little Sisters, who are the driving force of Rapture’s ADAM economy (and are controlled by the ruling elite), but they can also be seen performing repairs throughout the city, typically fixing leaks and other threats from the surrounding ocean. In other words, they maintain the status quo; they embody all of the laws and policies and regulations and taxes and so on of a government hell-bent on retaining its grasp on the society. Subsequently, we can read the Little Sisters as the all-but-invincible corporate entities that produce the society’s critical resources (without which the society crumbles — petroleum allegory, anyone?). While the Sisters are functionally invincible to physical attack, they are vulnerable after their attendant Big Daddy has been put down (violently). The most critical facet to recognize in this reading is that the Big Daddies defend the society’s corporate interests, not the civilian population as a whole.

Big Daddy = Big Brother

Plasmids are the end result of ADAM; they fundamentally alter the abilities of the user. Running with our capitalist allegory, three of these plasmids seem particularly relevant in that they might represent what the average person living in the society gains from dependency on ADAM or, in our allegory, on petroleum. “Electro Bolt” can represent the electricity (or just plain raw energy) that oil and other fossil fuels provide us, which is critical to basically every sphere of our society; “Incinerate!” can stand in for the use of combustibles to produce, transport, maintain and replace all of the commodities that a capitalist society values so highly; “Winter Blast” for the ability to refrigerate, or perhaps more broadly, preserve those commodities beyond what would otherwise be their normal cycle of usefulness. Again, all of these abilities are dependent upon the continued supply of the original resource, the demand for which is ever increasing.

So what’s the result of this sort of interpretation of 2K’s masterpiece? Is it an indictment of capitalism? An argument for collectivism? (Nope — see BioShock 2.) I think the underlying assertion of the game is little more than that human beings can wreak some serious havoc with their greed and their selfish desires. After all, the primary goal of a video game is to entertain and, perhaps more than any other medium, if a game can’t entertain then it’s not going to get anything else across to its audiences, either. But the game is asserting at least one other thing — that an economy entirely dependent upon a single resource for all of its (increasingly ostentatious) needs and desires is, at any given time, little more than a hair’s breadth away from collapse.

Advertisements

PC Games as “Art” — The Catch-33 of Deus Ex

The only ambiguity here is what exactly I’m shooting at… pixelated vampire Hitler?

I’m not using that term quite right, but you’ll get it in a minute. For those of you lacking the patience to plow through what’s certain to be a long post, feel free to skim and comment: Name some instances in which you appreciated shades of gray in a game’s plot or worldview.

Let’s dive right in. I think the most important distinguishing feature of video games is the immersion of the player into the narrative. You, personally, are participating in the unraveling story, not sitting at a comfortable remove as a passive observer. The First Person Shooter (FPS) genre has an easier time achieving this than others for obvious reasons, and the home of the FPS is undoubtedly the personal computer, emerging with Wolfenstein 3D in 1992 and solidifying with Doom in 1993 (it took a full four more years before a console would produce a truly worthy counterpart with GoldenEye in 1997).

The proverbial tip of the iceberg.

Now, nobody’s trying to avoid the honest truth here — games like Wolf and Doom were conceptual and technical successes only. Their plots can be summarized roughly by a mere handful of words: “Get weapons. Shoot [insert appropriate undesirables here]. Repeat.” (The only ambiguity I see here is what exactly I’m shooting at… pixelated vampire-Hitler?) But with their undeniable popularity, these proto-shooters gave rise to a genre that has blossomed into a powerful vehicle for complex narratives. Much as Rapture’s lighthouse represents but a narrow portal into the depths of its underwater city, gamers have come to expect not only an entertaining variety of gameplay dynamics in their first-person shooters, but also a wealth of story and character that they experience through that gameplay.

An FPS is possibly the easiest way to get a visceral thrill out of your gaming — see Omaha Beach in Medal of Honor: Allied Assault or the darkened, demon-infested Mars-base of Doom 3 — and these are fun and valuable experiences. Lord knows I love to stay up into the wee hours of the night with the lights off and the volume up and scare myself witless with some Doom 3 or Dead Space. But these are still largely reactions you can get from popping in Saving Private Ryan or any (in)decent horror flick. What I want to talk about in this entry are the responses that I think gaming has a unique opportunity to effect.

Enter Deus Ex, which I regard as the magnum opus of the modern cyberpunk-thriller genre. Read my review here, or skim the Wikipedia article for more info. Dark, serious, and solidly based upon real-world politics and theoretical sciences, Deus Ex extrapolates logically upon current social climates and technological development (circa 2000) to a future overrun by parasitic, corporate capitalism (that’s not too far-fetched for you, is it?) and troubled by increasingly questionable uses of bioengineering and genetic modification. The player character represents the synthesis of those two motives, a superhuman created by a “cabal of technophiles” to defend national interests against various “terrorist” groups (noteworthy is the fact that national and corporate interests are essentially equivalent in this context). Your job throughout the game is, in the simplest terms, akin to peeling an onion — an onion whose every layer is another conspiracy of global portent.

Ok. Are you still reading? Then you probably realize that a set of problems this massive and complex simply cannot be satisfactorily solved unless you’ve got a big red “S” stuck to your chest. The key word is “satisfactorily.” There are solutions available to you at the end of the game (three, in fact), but none of them are anything but problematic, much less offer you a sure road to human salvation and the obligatory victory cutscene. The brilliance of Deus Ex is that though you are, more or less, a superhero, you cannot save the world. All your extraordinary abilities win you is the chance to get yourself all good and invested in the outcome of the plot only to arrive at a tie between three equally dubious choices.

One of the three endings quotes Voltaire. Can you name another game that quotes Voltaire?

Many games offer the player options; a (sometimes paralyzing) degree of control over your character serves as a supporting pillar of basically every RPG in existence, and several other franchises have also capitalized on player choice as the impetus of plot development (see the Star Wars Jedi Knight series), but these choices are largely relegated to very black and white, good vs. evil situations (do I wantonly slice that hapless bystander with my lightsaber, or… not?). Deus Ex is one of a relatively small contingent of games to thoughtfully, persistently delve into moral territory so grey as to be virtually impossible to navigate. There are no right choices in Deus Ex, only choices.

Of course, we shouldn’t praise moral ambiguity simply for its own sake; if we did, we might just as easily prefer characters like, say, the Joker to come out on top instead of Batman, at which point… what’s the point? But the complexity of Deus Ex provokes a kind of reasoning that is really only just beginning to be utilized in gaming: ethics. To keep the superhero thread running, who’s really going to boo Superman for saving a bus-load of children from toppling off a bridge? He’s a stand-up guy, no doubt about it, and that kind of simplicity can be satisfying, too. My favorite novel, The Lord of the Rings, features one of the clearest notions of right and wrong ever put on paper. Clarity is definitely a good thing.

But consider, in contrast, the conclusion of a film like The Dark Knight, with Batman accused of multiple homicide. It’s certainly not the ideal outcome, but the way the characters deal with it says a lot more about them than a knee-jerk reaction to the tired “rescue X from Y” trope ever could. In Deus Ex, it is the player who must react effectively to an unyielding, unforgiving environment, and I think the process of that reaction unlocks not just an exploratory gaming experience, but a self-exploratory one. Isn’t that exactly what “art,” however we define that almost totally useless term, is supposed to provoke? Explorations like that are vital to our media because they require us to examine and sometimes redefine the beliefs and the values with which we approach the world; they’re especially vital to our video games because they continue to prove that this medium can make worthwhile contributions to modern culture.

I digress. Next time, I’ll dive into Rapture in search of a little thing called “cultural relevance.” Sounds thrilling, doesn’t it? I know. I’ve had Django Reinhardt’s “La Mer” on repeat for days in anticipation. (Just for clarity, that’s repeat in my head. I apparently can’t make it stop.) So, readers — what other games haunt you with their moral complexity? Any I absolutely can’t afford to miss? And yes, I’m already working on Fallout 3.

 

 

 

PC Games as “Art” — An Introduction

Thus commences a long-planned exploration of the medium that demands (and receives) a massive allotment of my fascination and my imaginative energies. Throughout, I hope to perpetuate, at minimum, the following idea: PC gaming is a valuable medium in modern pop culture, offering complex, entertaining narratives that are (with the rare exception) unique in that they rely entirely on decisions and actions taken by the participant rather than following a predetermined arrangement of scenes and characters. (This is not to say that game plots are not linear; rather, the manner in which they progress is determined by the player rather than the developers.)

To that end, I will not stoop to arguing why PC games are, in fact, art; at this point in time, I believe the only persons who would actively argue against this are both a) snobbish, likely aging members of academia with a vested interest in keeping a relatively new medium in its place, and b) woefully uncool (see right). Sorry, Roger, but your argument assumes that all other art forms except video games contain no dialogue whatsoever between artist and consumer, which any English major worth his or her student loans will tell you just isn’t true. Instead of arguing something that’s been successfully argued already, I will provide and discuss examples of PC titles and concepts which prove the point. (And for further discussion on game narratives, check this out.)

And why PC games, as opposed to video gaming in general? Two reasons. One — quite simply, I am a PC gamer, and always will be. The personal computer offers a degree of customization and end-user freedom that is and always has been light years ahead of any other gaming platform ever produced. Case in point: user modifications, which simply do not exist elsewhere, not to mention the ability to tweak the game and/or your hardware to achieve the best performance possible for any given title.

Second, I generally regard the PC as the most economical option for today’s video gamer, considering that a brand new console from each competing developer emerges every few years and costs $300+, simultaneously rendering the previous ones obsolete, while a single PC can continue to evolve with the technology.

Let me tell you now, the line about PCs being more expensive because they require constant upgrading is a steaming pile of bullshit. I purchased a pretty middle-of-the-road PC in 2006 for about $600 (AMD Athlon 64 3500+, 1GB DDR SDRAM, NVIDIA GeForce 7300 GT, for any who care) and have been happily gaming away ever since. Don’t believe me? Check the BIOS date in the pic at the left. Only this past January did I have to add memory and a new video card to play BioShock and Batman: Arkham Asylum, which cost me roughly $100 (Newegg.com ftw!). I have only recently broken down and decided to replace the motherboard and processor, but that’s it — they’ll be going straight into the same old casing and hooking up to the same old power supply and hard drive. The cost of maintaining a decent gaming computer is, at the very most, more or less equivalent to purchasing a single brand of consoles (e.g., Microsoft/Sony/Nintendo) over two of their generations (Xbox + Xbox 360, PS2 + PS3) — except mine runs games and does everything else a PC can do, which means I don’t have to drop an additional few hundred dollars just to be able to write this blog post or use a word processor.

And, on a pleasantly responsible note, the less you replace your electronics, the less you contribute to the problem of conflict minerals, and the less you have to take your old ones to a special recycling center or, worse, commit the wasteful and environmentally harmful act of just tossing them in the garbage. And, on another responsible note, upgrading your own PC means you will necessarily learn a lot more about how your entertainment devices function, which is never a bad thing.

This is not to say that console games don’t have their own positive aspects (in-house multiplayer rather than over the internet and their generally much larger libraries come to mind) — I just don’t plan on discussing them here, except in relation to their PC counterparts.

Well, the day is getting on, and I’m due at work in about an hour, so the “actual” first entry in this series will have to wait. As a teaser, though: I’ll discuss the value of moral ambiguity and Really Tough Choices in a medium where all is dependent on player action, via Deus Ex and BioShock. Read up on them so you know what I’m on about.

The Ethics of Digital Rights Management vs. Software Piracy

So gamers everywhere are a bit peeved (oh who am I kidding, they’ve already collected the torches and pitchforks) over the new version of digital rights management (DRM) software shipping out on the PC port of Assassin’s Creed II, the console versions of which have received rave reviews for slick, atmospheric gameplay and more finely-tuned mechanics carried over from the original. UbiSoft, on the other hand, is getting the proverbial vegetable justice for the unprecedentedly stringent anti-piracy software required to even install the game, much less play it.

A brief rundown on DRM software: anti-piracy measures originated as little more than a coding trick to prevent users from copying the game CDs or DVDs; since these are typically required to be in the computer’s CD/DVD-ROM drive during play, this method prevents your average consumer from buying a single copy and distributing it for free to all his/her friends. More recently, publishers have started requiring users to register the software online, which “unlocks” the game on your computer (Steam and Games for Windows Live are a couple of examples). Combined, these methods effectively prevent most of the population from actually initiating any software piracy, but that’s of little consequence when a small percentage of those people can “crack” the game and make it available for download to anyone with an internet connection.

Assassin’s Creed II is taking anti-piracy to a whole new level. Besides the by-now obligatory internet activation, PC gamers will be required to be connected to the Internet at all times during play. If your connection goes out for longer than a few seconds, all progress since the last checkpoint in the game will be lost.

What I want to address in this post is the extremely awkward and unpleasant position in which most PC gamers now find themselves, should they want to play recent and upcoming games. We are either forced to acquiesce to such blatantly ridiculous anti-piracy measures, or start illegally downloading our games.

Before I get into that, though, I’ll explain why it’s ridiculous. Time was when I could walk into a store, purchase an item, take it home, and use it. End of happy capitalist consumer story. But not anymore. Let’s say I want to go into GameStop or wherever and buy a copy of BioShock 2 or Batman: Arkham Asylum. When I take it home, the game is unplayable until I’ve asked permission from Windows Live to use my legally purchased product. Apparently exchange of currency is no longer enough to get you certain retail items in this society built on rampant capitalism. Much as I despise that economic system most of the time, I must say that not having complete control over something I’ve paid a decent chunk of cash for (currently about $50 and rising for a new PC game) really, really pisses me off.

Further, it cannot be said under any circumstances that video game developers and publishers are doing anything other than raking in the money hand over fist. Grand Theft Auto IV, the most expensive video game ever made, cost $100 million. It generated $500 million in the first week after it was released. It has apparently shipped 13 million copies worldwide, which, if we do a little simple math at 50 bucks a pop, brings the total up to $650 million.

Returning to ACII, which has only been released on Xbox 360 and the PS3 so far, we find it has sold roughly 8 million copies as of February 10 this year. A little more math (this one costing $60), and we get a total of $480 million. UbiSoft is apparently a little cagey about their production costs, but if we go with high-end numbers from this article, ACII probably did not cost UbiSoft more than $34 million. Let’s see… that’s a profit of 446 million dollars, which is a higher net profit than 17 of the 20 most profitable films of all time (only The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Titanic, and Avatar have had a better turnaround). Assassin’s Creed II has only been out since November, and the PC version still hasn’t been released. Here’s my general feeling toward UbiSoft on the subject of software piracy:


I’m so sorry, UbiSoft, I didn’t realize you had fallen on such hard times. Please, let me shell out 60 dollars, which is between 15-20% of my average paycheck, in order to play (but not physically own) a game that has made more money for you in four months on only two of its three systems than Jurassic Park did for Universal in its entire run through movie theaters. Piracy is pretty much only possible on PC versions of video games, and as we know, they’re certainly not hurting for console sales. What’s really at stake then, if not their company’s survival? I think this whole thing is about property. The fat cats of video gaming are pissed off that some guy (who likely knows more about computers than they ever will) can sit in his room at home and alter the software so that it can be used without paying their increasingly exorbitant prices.

Okay, okay, enough sarcasm and simple arithmetic. I believe, as many do, that video games are just as much an art form as books, music, films, and television programs (the extremely variable quality of these is not currently under discussion), and as such, their creators do indeed deserve reasonable compensation for their efforts. All of these media (except PC games) are available to me in some fashion for free or for a small fee before I actually have to pay to own them — which is a good thing, because it’s extremely disappointing to spend one’s hard-earned money on some form of media only to find out that it sucks. (Case in point: since I didn’t get to the theater in time, I am the unfortunate owner of The Matrix Revolutions.) Instead of spending stupid amounts of money developing more and better DRM software, which is guaranteed to alienate honest PC users and only slightly more likely to confound pirates, why not develop a system in which PC gamers can test-play a game before we have to buy it? Or perhaps figure out a way that we could play a game only once before having to pay the full amount, like seeing a movie at the theater vs. buying the DVD? I’d be fine with UbiSoft’s new technique if, say, it was significantly cheaper and good for only a single playthrough — provided I could later purchase the game, permanently, in its complete form (no bullshit Internet connections required).

Demos do not count toward this end, and I’ll tell you why. If I was given a demo of the original Assassin’s Creed, containing only the first couple of levels, I would probably run out and buy the game right then and there; I mean, in the first hour of play, the game appears to be truly amazing. What a demo wouldn’t tell you, though, is that the game is extremely repetitive through its entirety and downright annoying by the last hour or so. I know this from recent experience, and as a consequence I will not be buying the game. On the other hand, I played through Arkham Asylum once and purchased it immediately afterward. Like I said, good work deserves good compensation. Another good example: I recently played BioShock for the first time, too, and I plan on buying it myself at some point. In any case, my point is that I should not have to pay money for something that I won’t like, and at this point in time, there is no way for a PC gamer to make that determination aside from a) borrowing a game, or b) downloading it illegally. That needs to change.

Granted, these methods still probably wouldn’t stop piracy, but then, it seems unlikely that anything ever will. What it would do is retain PC gamers’ trust, and, ideally, encourage developers to produce games that are so good, gamers will want to spend their money.

Classic PC Game Reviews, Vol. II — Deus Ex

The abundance of conspiracy theories in our culture is often attributed to some kind of latent desire in human beings for a more interesting, more colorful world. Our existence isn’t already complex enough for some, it seems, so we’re treated to a host of disturbing tales and urban myths about flying saucers, government cover-ups and surveillance, or hostile takeovers of our infrastructure, etc. While they’re almost always far-fetched for one reason or another, I’ll give them one thing — they’re certainly creative, and frequently fascinating. But what if they were all true? Such is the premise of Deus Ex, a 2000 Eidos release developed by Ion Storm.

The year is 2052, and as usual in the fictional mid-21st century, shit ain’t too good. Governments are more or less entirely corrupt, and a virus with a 100% fatality rate (minus a few special individuals) decimates the less fortunate strata of society. There’s a widespread suspicion that the government has a vaccine, but is failing to distribute it. The Internet is centralized at Area 51, meaning that every bit of electronically-transmitted information passes through a single location on Earth. You simply can’t swing a stick in Deus Ex without hitting somebody who’s got their own convoluted agenda for a new world order. Scary stuff indeed, but nothing new to sci-fi nerds so far. Read on.

This is called symbolism.

In the midst of all this global hullabaloo comes the advent of human nano-augmentation. Exhibit A? The player character, JC Denton (technically, though, you’re Exhibit B, following your brother Paul). You are a state-of-the-art computer/biochemistry project, your physiology augmented by nanites that alter the molecular functionality of your body, from the efficiency of your eyeballs to how high you can jump and how fast you can run. In other words, you’re a BAMF who answers only to UNATCO (United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition), the organization that ostensibly funded your creation. You are also immune to the mysterious virus, for reasons I’ll not divulge here.

Discussing even minuscule plot points would almost certainly spoil the entire game for you, but be sure that pretty much every commonly-uttered conspiracy theory in popular culture is somehow woven into the story of Deus Ex. Area 51, the Illuminati, pandemic government surveillance, and even the sci-fi staple Greys all make an appearance — and that’s not even half of what’s going down in this eternal night full of backstabbing, money-grubbing, and shameless power-grabbing of planet-wide proportions (what, couldn’t you tell from the screenshot?). Suffice it to say that Deus Ex features a level of complexity and detail in its story that I have not seen in any other game.

Each slot features two different augmentations; selections are permanent, so choose wisely.

But what about the actual gameplay? Deus Ex is essentially a first-person shooter, but significant RPG elements abide as the most memorable aspects of the experience. Though the story is linear in that it will always lead you to the same locations in the same order, it is completely open-ended when it comes to how exactly you want to go about solving the problems you face. I vaguely recall from an interview with one of the developers (possibly Warren Spector?) that one of the specific goals during development was to provide the player with at least a handful of ways to approach every event in the game. Add to this the dynamic of upgrading various skill categories and installing augmentations that give you specific abilities (such as health regeneration or complete invisibility; see pic), and you have a game that is virtually endless in the different ways you can play.

Beyond all these great qualities, though, there’s something that video games in general really lack — moral and philosophical complexity. Deus Ex is at no turn in the road afraid to ask, and force you to answer, extremely difficult questions about topics such as distribution of power in political structures, the effects of extremely advanced technology on human society, and my personal favorite: a moral dilemma involving the game’s title, which comes from the Latin phrase deus ex machina, literally translated as “god from the machine.” Even better, the game features three unique conclusions based on who you decide to ally yourself with in the end — and rest assured, this is possibly the hardest decision you’ll ever face in the virtual world. Each choice is extremely ethically problematic, and yet each seems to hold a glimmer of hope for the ultimate fate of humanity. And once you’ve decided, you’ll play the game all over again so you can make a different choice. It is unavoidable. It is your destiny. (Nerd-cred to whomever places that quote.)

Those who have even just started into this labyrinthine game will understand when I say there isn’t any way to summarize it effectively. Concerning overall atmostphere, think of it perhaps as a skillful, engrossing, and incredibly detailed amalgam of Blade Runner, The Matrix, The Terminator, and The X-Files, with no shortage of ideas and innovations of its own. Other great aspects worth mentioning are the killer techno-punk soundtrack and the staggering amount of research the developers must have done to present their story so realistically — you can learn almost as much about the sciences in question from the game than you can from their respective Wikipedia articles. If you enjoy story-driven gaming that hurls itself into theoretical science and philosophical dilemmas, you cannot afford to miss the greatest conspiracy-shooter of all time.

5 stars of 5.

Classic PC Game Reviews, Vol. I — Thief: The Dark Project

Appearing in 1998 was a tough business for any PC game if it wasn’t titled Half-Life, particularly for other first-person shooter types. Better just leave off the groundbreaking new genres until next year, lads.

But the folks at Looking Glass Studios didn’t, and aren’t we all glad. Thief: The Dark Project is the ancestor of all stealth-based games, period. It also happens to still be the most fun. No game before (or since) has so single-handedly created an entire sub-genre of first-person shooters (Thief is often called a “first-person looter” for obvious reasons).

The concept is straightforward (steal things and don’t get caught), but the execution is quite complex. Your character Garrett has plenty of tools at his disposal to deal with guards, locked doors, and inconveniently-placed light sources, but supplies are limited and many situations require you to rely on patience and three-dimensional thinking (the importance of “up” cannot be overstated) to get the loot you’re looking for. Imagine that — patience as a mandatory element in a first-person shooter. I cannot stress enough how refreshing that is in a gaming world that mostly has the FPS genre constantly shouting “OMFG TIME-TRAVELING KILLER ALIEN ROBOTS FROM OUTER SPACE GRAB YOUR BFG9000!!1!”

Further, in an era of gaming where detailed graphics and physics seem to take precedence over immersive storylines, Thief puts others to shame with its beautifully-crafted cutscenes and brilliantly-detailed fantasy world full of intrigue, revenge and the undead.

Speaking of which — Thief is also one of the most absolutely terrifying games I’ve ever played, surpassed in its cardiac-arresting potential only by Doom 3. To illustrate, I’ll relate an anecdote from the early days of my career in larceny and graverobbing: I was wandering through the bowels of an abandoned mine, trying to find my way up to the Hammerite prison above, when what should appear in the darkened hallway ahead but a corpse, rotting happily away in a forgotten mining tunnel.

“Gross,” thought I, as I stepped over it and headed on down the passage.

Suddenly a decidedly inhuman groan blasted out from my speakers (Thief is best played at high volumes to increase your sensitivity to loud or unnecessary noises). As unnerving as that was, I still had the presence of mind to spin my mouse in circles, frantically searching for the source of the sound. Nothing to be seen, so I just crouched down in the shadows and waited, which is generally the proper course of action until you know what you’re up against. Unfortunately for me, I was facing away from the corpse on the ground nearby, which as you’ve probably deduced by now, wasn’t really a corpse in the strictest sense.

Well, a few seconds later, I heard another unpleasant moaning sound, this time from away left. As I twisted to face the noise, a sickening *crack* took my health bar down to about two hit points, and I was staring in horror at a zombie looking to OM-NOM my brains. And he did. Oh, how he did.

My reaction? Near heart failure. This was the case for me on all four of the levels featuring undead foes, particularly “Return to the Cathedral,” which induced complete paralysis. I was literally incapable of moving Garrett through the level for several minutes for fear of disturbing the Cathedral’s ghastly residents. All of Thief‘s various elements — story, music, ambient noise, lighting — combine perfectly to completely immerse the player.

This is, usually, a certain road to death.

 

Other comments: Have you ever wanted to be Indiana Jones in a video game? Thief lets you do that in several levels, and far more satisfyingly than any of the actual Indy titles. Thief also accommodates many styles of play through three genuinely different difficulty settings and sheer open-ended level construction. It has also given way to an enormous fan-mission and fanfic following, which you can take part in at Thief: The Circle. Thief: The Dark Project certainly isn’t the most influential title of its time, but it was without doubt one of the most innovative. A must-play for anyone who prefers mind-over-matter gaming.

So — why is it underrated? Well, as mentioned before, coming out in close proximity to one of the best-selling and most critically-acclaimed games of all time is rough, especially when your game is drastically different from that particular title. But in my explorations into the demise of Looking Glass Studios in 2000, I’ve heard that Thief‘s unjustly low popularity-to-quality ratio was also due to a simple lack of effective marketing. The game does enjoy favorable opinions from pretty much everyone I talk to about it, but a strangely small number of those people have ever actually played it or its sequel, Thief II: The Metal Age.

So get out there a find yourself a copy. There’s a surprising number of supposedly brand-new copies on eBay at the moment, and the entire game consists of about 3 or 400 megabytes (insta-Torrent, anyone?), so you really have no excuse. With any luck, you’ll end up like me: aggressively shushing nearby friends who, with their noisy careless lifestyles, are sure to expose you to the heavily-armed guards around the corner.

5 stars of 5.