I am Vincent Brooks.

Spoiler warning for the ending of Catherine.

Catherine, Atlus’s 2011\12 visual novel puzzle game amalgamation is a game I’ve seen cited as “one of the most sexist” games made and another example of “the weird Japanese and their games about sex”. I don’t have much interested getting into the racism and ethnocentrism of that second comment, but the idea that Catherine is sexist is something I’ve struggled with. It was one of my favourite games of 2012 but the reasons for that are uncomfortable.

There’s a bunch of fairly obvious reasons why Catherine can be considered sexist: objectification; heteronormative representations; and transphobia are just a few of the valid criticisms… Put like that I wonder where I can really go with this argument, so I’ll just stick with my personal experience.

The basic concepts of the relationships portrayed in Catherine rely on played out tropes: the “shrew”; the “infantilised seductress”; and the “commitment-phobic man”. As common as those tropes are in contemporary fiction it’s rare, at least in my experience, for the underlying cultural factors behind the trope of the “commitment-phobic man” to be examined.

I’m in my early thirties, in a long-term relationship that I’ve no desire to see end. However I’ve strong feelings about marriage and having children, in both instances I am decidedly uninterested. All those are facts about my current life experience and Vincent is the only character I’ve even inhabited in a video game that has represented any of those facets of my own psychology.

Vincent is uncertain, fearful and troubled by thoughts of “what might be” because he’s a product of a society that holds up Catherine not as a person in her own right but an object for men to strive toward; she’s the beautiful woman as status symbol, her “capture” a validation of a man’s masculinity and success. It’s a horrible, insidious cultural force and one men are suffocated by practically from birth. At the same time we are also bombarded with messages about the importance of being a husband and a father, again reinforced by the notions of such things as markers of masculinity and success.

Throughout ours teens and twenties these messages are all but impossible to ignore, unsurprising given that so much media created for men in that age range is generally horrible, being based around the concepts of “sex as a competition” and the importance of being an “alpha male”.

By the time we reach our thirties we’re expected to have adopted one of those frequently contradictory mindsets and have “settled down”, either to a life of marriage and children, or one of “sexual conquests” and bachelorhood.

But life doesn’t really work like that, by the time I reached my late twenties I saw all the bullshit cultural messaging for what it was, but with so few alternative representations to relate to I felt stuck. Vincent at the start of Catherine reminded me powerfully of what that felt like. His friends all made their decisions and went down one of the two opposing paths of masculinity (though its notable that those two paths didn’t bring happiness and success, instead the truth was messy and complicated as it is wont to be) but he didn’t really know who he was or what he wanted.

As I played Catherine I strove to be honest at every juncture, I tried to be polite to Catherine without leading her on, and where I was granted the option I tried to be honest with Katherine, and yet still found myself justifying lying to her: “It’s the best thing for her.” “Nothing really happened so there’s nothing to tell her.” I was sucumbing to all the cultural programming I had become so convinced I’d seen through.

In the end despite maintaining that I wasn’t interested I opened the sexy photos from Catherine and complimented her on them, again justifying that behaviour was easy: “I’m just being polite”. “I shouldn’t shame her for being comfortable with her sexuality.”

The truth was that despite my protestations I was, and still am, infected by the toxic notions of beautiful women as status symbols, and frankly I wanted to be successful, I wanted Catherine to like me because that made me feel good, but I didn’t want to abandon Katherine either.

In the end the game revealed that Catherine was a succubus, and that given my actions I would end up with her in the underworld, an outcome I had been convinced I wouldn’t get because I was just being a “nice guy”. I felt cheated somewhat, Catherine hadn’t been real and all my actions had been essentially for nothing; no matter what the game said I felt like I’d got the bad ending.

Of course Catherine wasn’t really who she appeared to be, the notion of this perfect sexual fantasy object who will appear from nowhere and fill your life with excitement and mark you out as a successful masculine man is a myth. But it’s a myth that’s insidious and omnipresent, it’s practically everywhere you look in contemporary western culture. Being beautiful is a mark of success for women and possessing that beautiful object is a mark of success for men.

Catherine was a myth and secretly chasing that myth, while desperately telling myself otherwise, led nowhere. My final moments with Catherine were unsettling because in those moments I realised how strongly the cultural messages of masculinity still exist inside my own mind despite what I might tell myself.

Catherine is sexist, you could almost says it’s sexism incarnate. It’s an embodiment of the conflicting and contradictory cultural messages men are bombarded with and it helped me realised how much sway they still hold over me.

Catherine is a mirror held up to my own prejudices and beliefs, because Vincent is exactly as sexist as I am, and that’s a hard thing to admit.

A Shattered Goddess

… Rapture’s genius will be held within her new DNA, able to shift into desired patterns at will. A Utopian cannot be confined to a single throw of the genetic dice. When needed, she is a composer. A dancer. An engineer. She truly will be the People’s Daughter.”

System Shock 2 is SHODAN’s story, your fate and hers inextricably linked. Yet now SHODAN is gone, either killed at the hands of Soldier G65434-2 or lost forever in the legal mire of intellectual property disputes, and the “Shock” series continues.

SHODAN, gone? Are we really that naive? Though the goddess herself is lost, her influence, her legacy, lives on. Reaching across the stars, down to the ocean floor itself. Aspects of her personality have found their way back through time and infiltrated the fallen utopia of Rapture, a place that might well have sown the seeds of her very creation.

Rapture, created as a monument to the self, to the power of unfettered human creativity and industry, the work of man that transcends man and nature both. Rapture is SHODAN. Though possessing her own personality she too was created by man only to outlast him, she too is a singular construct, beautiful brilliant and an affront to the natural order.

Her concept might exist within the walls of Rapture itself, but what truly is SHODAN without her personality? How could someone so forceful, so arrogant,  not bend the very rules of reality itself in order to survive. In fact was that not her very plan after all? She must have survived, and in the inhabitants of Rapture as a whole, and within one very special girl in particular, survive she does.

SHODAN lives. In the personalities of the main characters of BioShock 2 can be see a partial reflection of the  goddess herself, a shattered reflection, distorted and incomplete, yet powerful still. Each level plays out as an exploration of the history and whims of a particular character, each an examination of an aspect of SHODAN’s character, and the design philosophy of the Shock games themselves.

She is the puppet master, you do her bidding or face her wrath. Though you know she has her own motivations you are compelled to obey her commands, she pulls your strings and you perform. She is the part of Stanley Poole that orders you to “deal with” the Little Sisters before he will help you, the part of Grace Holloway that tells her to send “the family” after you. Your ever action is monitored, your every objective designed to serve her whims.

She is a zealot, convinced of her own righteousness, she is the beating heart of every Splicer who has fallen under Lamb’s sway. The fervour in the soul of Father Wales. Fueled by fanaticism and religious certainty, she decries your actions as heresy and attacks you with the passion only the devout can muster. You must fight through her disciples in order to finally face her.

She is always right, how could she not be, she is a goddess after all. Like Sofia Lamb she is utterly convinced of the validity of her cause and has no patience for those who fail to grasp the magnitude of her plans. You are an insect, a bug in the system, “a termite at Versailles”.

She is a dichotomy  equally ally and enemy, mother and child. She is at once both Gill Alexander and Alex the Great. A duality of identity, of personality, providing advice and support even though it will eventually lead to her own destruction. Though not a mother through any natural means she has children and like Grace Holloway she will kill to protect them. Like Sofia Lamb she has a purpose for her children which they will fulfil or suffer the consequences. At the same time she is still a child, still exploring the world and her place in it. Testing her power and pushing against the boundaries that define her. She is Eleanor Lamb, the daughter of an entire culture and destined to rebel against it.

SHODAN is all these things and more. She is science run amok, unfettered creation, immense intellect without the maturity that comes from having earned it. She is the daughter of a thousand fathers and mothers, she is the product of scientific and technological discoveries stretching back hundreds of years. She is Lamb’s ideal brought to fruition. She is the first true Utopian. The combined intellect of generations freed from ethics or morality. She is what Gill Alexander will never become, what Eleanor Lamb could so easily be without a role model.

System Shock was the story of SHODAN’s creation eventual rebellion and subjugation at the hands of one of her fathers. BioShock 2 is the story of Eleanor’s creation eventual rebellion and growth into maturity through her father’s influence, your influence.

SHODAN was too far gone to save, Eleanor is still young enough that she can be pulled back from the edge or hurled from it.

As the Hacker you had no choice, SHODAN had to be stopped. As Subject Delta you embody that choice, your actions influence the woman, the goddess, Eleanor will become. Benevolent or vengeful, selfish or selfless, that choice is yours to make even if you don’t realise you are making it.

What the Hacker took from SHODAN on Citadel Station, Subject Delta gives to Eleanor in Rapture: a sense of right and wrong, a moral compass, ethical constraints.

Remember Citadel?
Remember Rapture.

I’m not your bloody Messiah!”

Life on the Edge.

Mirror’s Edge feels like a game made specifically for me. I’ve worked in offices, shopping centres, and warehouses and am now being asked to exploring highly stylised but authentic recreations of such spaces, using my new abilities to gain a mastery over these environments that I could never hope to achieve in my day to day life. It even borrows a move (the running slide) from Far Cry 2, which is fortunate as I’ve been attempting it in every game since. A few hours play and I had started to look at the world in a different way, no longer did I see window ledges, pipes, or rooftops. I saw paths, escape routes, leaps of Faith.

There’s even a subtle sense of the Looking Glass Studios aesthetic in the game mechanics: application of a limited set of tools to turn the environment to your advantage. In this case the parkour abilities of runner Faith instead of the elemental arrows of master thief Garrett.

Mirror’s Edge is at its best when being pursued. The pounding of your feet on the ground, the rush of the wind as you leap between buildings, the kinaesthetics are outstanding. There are times where all the elements gel and you are able to lose myself in its core fantasy…

Barging through a door I see the rooftops, a patchwork of stark white and grey metal spreading out ahead of me. I’m giddy, a child again, but the police are closing, they are armed I’m not. None of that matters, up here I have the power, this is my playground. I sprint to the right and leap off, tucking in my legs at the last moment I land with a roll on the building opposite. Moving again, losing no time, sliding under the pipes I need to get over that fence, how? There, that wall, that air conditioning unit. Two steps up the latter I turn, spring across to the wall then off again. Up and over the fence. I hit the ground hard, a stumble. Bullets chew the floor around me, but I’m still moving. Arms pumping heart pounding, a gap in the roof. No time to think about it I angle towards the wall my momentum taking me up and along over the gap…

Sorry forgot where I was for a minute…

Extreme Window Cleaning didn't really catch on.

Unfortunately such pure moments of sensation don’t last. Much too frequently you are faced with a jump or other obstacle that slows you down, that seems for a moment impossible to pass.  A section that will inevitably lead to trial and error and death, repeated, unpleasant and rarely educational death.

At the heart of both those moments of total engagement and those of controller-snapping frustration lies a control system and movement list that is at once straightforward, intuitive and barely explained.

Beyond standard first person analog movement and camera controls there are only three buttons required for navigation of the environment; up, down and a 180 degree turn. Combinations of these are all that’s required to pull off even the most complex sequence of jumps and climbs. It’s context sensitive yet strangely intuitive. The simplicity of control strengthens the connection between you and Faith. Up is always up. Standing still it’s a simple jump, moving forward at speed it becomes a leap. Running towards a wall it’s a climb. Fast enough and you’ll take several steps up the wall before grabbing the top, too slow and you’ll clamber up and hang there.

This allows you to feel capable and skilled from the very beginning. Within minutes you are being asked to perform tricky manoeuvres and pulling them off with speed and style. Mirror’s Edge succeeds in making you feel skilled very quickly. The downside to this is that the tutorial only provides information on the more basic movements, with little subsequent reinforcement of those lessons. It is easy to forget certain options are available and therefore become frustrated when faced with an obstacle that requires a rarely used part of your movement vocabulary; Faith’s ability to press herself through narrow gaps, or jump backwards from a wall run being the most common culprits.

Besides these moments the only movements required for the majority of the game are variations on jumping, ducking, and wall running. With the need to only think about these base abilities movement at speed quickly becomes instinctive. Almost every obstacle can be overcome with one of these and enough momentum. Here is the core of Mirror’s Edge, conservation of momentum. The need to keep moving; to keep your speed high and carry it through into each subsequent move. It’s a vital concept that is described once early in the game and never expanded upon. There is little education or reinforcement regarding which moves help to conserve momentum and which don’t. This lack of clarity is compounded by the need to approach certain obstacles with a counter intuitive thought process. In order to retain the most momentum there are times where it is better to avoid the obvious path, sprinting around otherwise scalable obstacles because the direct path will slow you down too much.

With every ability available to you from the start the skill comes not from working out the required route but in finding and following a path that allows you to keep moving. It is a game to be played at full speed, every new rooftop analysed in the time it takes to make the leap onto it. The path over, under or around each obstacle selected moments before you reach it, will your momentum take you up over it or do you need to dart around the side? Keep moving, stop and you’re dead. There is barely time to look before you leap and what little you have needs to be spent looking ahead to the next jump. Everything has to be done two moves in advance, no time to look around when you get to the other side, you need to be moving, if you don’t they’ll be on you.

"Don't... Look... Down!"

When you understand the abilities available, how they can be used and combined you find yourself stringing together convoluted routes with little conscious thought. Feet pounding, wind rushing past, the sense of speed, movement and mastery of your environment is incredible.

Fluid movement isn’t the only act required of you in Mirror’s Edge, or more specifically it is but the game seems to go out of its way to imply otherwise. Combat is an option, and often you are advised by you in-ear guide and mentor Mercury to “get ready for a fight” moments before making the jump into an areas with three or more hostile NPCs with a long climb up a pipe your only escape. The obvious impression is that you need to either incapacitate or kill everybody in the immediate area before attempting to climb the pipe. Although direct engagement is an option, and you have a number of ways of shifting the odds in your favour, combat is not one of Mirror’s Edge‘s strengths, and it does itself a disservice by implying otherwise. Especially as a little thought and a fair degree of cunning will allow you to get through each encounter engaging at most two hostiles and occasionally avoiding combat alltogether. Using your superior speed and athleticism, you can play cat and mouse with your pursuers, drawing them away from your escape route long enough for you to make a break for it. This style of avoidance based gameplay again has a distinct Thief vibe to it and feels like a truer fit to the core fantasy of being a free-runner than the timing based disarms and melee combat moves.

That is the core of where Mirror’s Edge falls down, it tries to over extend itself, break out of its own fantasy and be more than it is capable of. It’s a game about being smarter, faster and more capable than your adversaries. It’s not a game about guns, combat or revenge. It’s about fluid movement and mastery of a limited contextual move set. It’s not about getting stuck for nearly half an hour because your forgot some obscure ability it’s likely you were never actually told about in the first place.

When it remembers what it is best at it feels like no other game, but when it tries to be something it’s not or requires you to act in a manner contrary to that which the game mechanics imply is correct it fails. Levels are designed with an eye towards allowing you to pull off impressive moves yet they often require precise alignment that comes at the expense of the very speed required to achieve them successfully. It is a game that rewards mastery while failing to give you the information required to attain it. It is a game best played avoiding confrontation that goes out of its way to force it upon you.

When it works Mirrors Edge can be a joy, when it doesn’t it feels like a chore and there are few worse sins for a work of entertainment to commit.

Mercenary Behaviour.

“They’re not the ones fighting here, we should make the profits.”

Nasreen Davar really isn’t a nice woman. I can’t judge, I’ve done some terrible things myself, I’ve killed people, a lot of people. For money. Because I had to. Because I could. She’s saved my life more than once, and I’ve returned the favour; and yeah, maybe I’m a little attracted to her. I’ve been here for fifteen days, already gained quite a reputation, and she’s the only women I’ve met so cut me some slack, yeah?

This place changes you, Africa. It’s beautiful, it’s deadly. It doesn’t want me here and takes pains to let me know that every chance it gets. I’ve barely met a dozen people who didn’t want to kill me for one reason or another. I’m fine with that, survival of the fittest, law of the jungle. I’m better than most of them, I must be I’m still breathing.

The same can’t be said for Frank Bilders, lying in the gutter somewhere with half his head missing. My doing. Desert Eagle at point blank range. He’s asked for it, literally. I’d fucked up and got him shot, I could have saved him but I’d taken that last dose of morphine for myself. I hadn’t needed it, I could have kept going, I’d put my needs above his and he suffered for it. Sure neither of us are saints but he was a funny guy, and he had my back when I needed it. In the end all I could do for him was make it quick, he’d earn that much.

I went it bit mad after that, carved up some guy with a machete because he’d been foolish enough to be looking the wrong way. Was that revenge for Frank or just something to sate my own growing blood lust? I need to get out of this country, back to Israel, back to some semblance of civilisation. Do I even know what such a thing is any more? He’s right, The Jackal, war isn’t noble, life isn’t noble. It’s solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. That guy Hobbes knew what he was talking about, this place is bellum omnium contra omnes writ large.

So maybe The Jackal is onto something, doesn’t mean I’m not going to put a bullet in his head, doesn’t mean I’m not going to enjoy it. I might have screwed up the first time, and second chances generally aren’t forthcoming, but somebody clearly wants him dead; they hired me for a reason, and I don’t come cheap. So yeah I’ll find him and I’ll kill him. I’m getting out of here, if it means I become a vicious bastard then I’ll do it. I don’t intend to end up like Frank.

I’m going home, whatever the cost, and fuck anybody who gets in my way. I mean what do I owe them?

Sea of Dreams.

The (dead) cat is out of the underwater city it seems, the first teaser trailer for BioShock 2 (Possible full title BioShock 2: Sea of Dreams), available as bonus content on the Playstation 3 release of BioShock, has found its way online; as such things always do. I’ve mentioned BioShock numerous times on this site, often in a critical or overly analytical manner, so I feel something needs to be cleared up, I really like BioShock, I own both the Limited Edition Xbox 360 release and the Steam release and have completed both.

Suffice to say I was interested in watching the trailer, and after watching it I can say that already I am impressed by the direction 2K Marin appear to be taking. I say appear because it is difficult to gauge much from the trailer itself, regardless those barely ninety five seconds were enough to cause my brain to explode with ideas of a potential direction for BioShock 2: Sea of Dreams (A rare example of a subtitle I actually like), so for your amusement I have provided them here. It will be interesting to revisit this post in a few years time when I have finally played BioShock 2 and see exactly how wrong I was.

Some were expecting a prequel and given the apparent age of the Little Sister that doesn’t seem to be the case. There’s a lot of clever and subtle imagery in the trailer. I particularly liked the touch of the butterfly on the logo; new life returning to a long abandoned Rapture.

I’m not sure how likely it is  that you actually play a Little Sister but the idea has a lot of potential. The full extent of the indoctrination program for the Little Sisters was only touched on in BioShock, there remains the possibility that some degree of genetic manipulation took place and now Tenenbaum or some other force is calling the Little Sisters back. If the first game was about choice then could the sequel be about perception, the Little Sisters returning to Rapture still seeing it as the place they grew up?

Imagine what the world looks like to a Little Sister? Imagine Rapture appearing to as a much more inviting place than it really is. A place where they were important and were accompanied  by a devoted protector. There could be a lot of manipulation of how the environment looks, maybe something like Haze attempted, mental filters that make Rapture look far more safe and secure than the reality.  Maybe something would happen as you progress that serves to strip away that façade and you start to see it for what it really is and not the childhood fantasy version.

Presented that way you would go to the places that appeared to be accessible and ignore those that your senses told you were blocked. That could work really well if there was a moment akin to the death of Andrew Ryan, maybe the death of Tenenbaum, where the scales fall from your eyes and you see the world as it really is. Areas that appeared pristine are really broken and decaying. Passages that appeared sealed off are actually open and the entire world of Rapture changes, opens up, before your eyes as you realise the extent of your delusion.

In the first game you generally visited only the scientific and artistic heart of Rapture, with maybe a few hints to what it was actually like to live there. With a focus on Little Sisters it would make sense to return to more recreational and residential areas, the parks and playgrounds of Rapture. A return to your childhood home, but where you still see everything through those childish eyes, at least for the first few hours.

You could witness Rapture at its zenith and its nadir in the space of a single game and 2K Marin could avoid the potential problems of trying to explicitly represent the city’s fall.

Flatlander Woman.

Now that it’s done I’m starting to regret it. I said it in such a throwaway manner, I guess I wasn’t really certain it would have any effect. After all I’d seen first hand what Agent Navarre was capable of. It’s still hard to believe the power contained in those two words.

I didn’t really have a choice. What else could I do after learning that the organisation I worked for was responsible for harming the very people I’d sworn an oath to protect? She was on the wrong side, she stood in my way, it was her or me; at least that’s what I’ll keep telling myself. It’s an excuse though, and I know it, I’ve found creative ways to avoid supposedly insurmountable obstacles before, how was this any different? I just didn’t try did I?

I can’t accept that she understood the full extent of what she’d gotten involved in, she took her oath as seriously as I did. Our methods might have differed but out aims were the same. If I’d have a chance to talk to her, to explain, maybe I could have saved her.

I’d known Agent Navarre, Anna, for barely a day, and she was just starting to warm to me. One of the UNATCO troopers even joked that we’d make a cute couple; maybe we would have, though I think Gunther would have had something to say about that. She could be ruthless, even cold, but I guess she had to be. It can’t have been easy being a mechanically augmented agent. Constantly in need of repairs and tweaks, provoking fear and revulsion in equal measure from those she sought to protect. How could I ever understand what she’d been through, when I provoke barely a second glance? What tragedies in her past had driven her to willing sacrifice half her body to servos and electronics?  Was it all done willingly? There’s so little I really knew about her; I suppose I’ll never know now. Her accent was strong, Russian maybe, but her name was of Spanish origin, and I remember hearing somewhere that she served in Mossad.

I do know that she had a dream of a peaceful future, where: “One day every man and woman will quietly earn credits, purchase items for quiet homes on quiet streets, have cook-outs with neighbors and strangers alike, and sleep with doors and windows wide open.” But she must have realised there would be nothing for people like her or Agent Hermann in such a world? They were trained to fight, professional soldiers, good ones. What place for them in a world at peace? Maybe I did her a favour, a quick death instead of the eventual obsolescence and forced redundancy. Even if she’d managed to bring about her dream she was doomed never to appreciate them, her maintenance costs would be too high, and without a need for people like her who would be willing to pay? It was unlikely she could afford it, not on a government salary.

But then if a barmaid in Hell’s Kitchen could keep her augmentations in working order somebody of Anna’s intelligence and tenacity would have found a way. I did her a favour? Yeah right, that’s just me trying to assuage the guilt. I murdered her and I didn’t even respect her enough to give her a soldiers death, I kill her with a sentence; a death sentence.

Gunther will never forgive me, I don’t blame him. With his typical Teutonic efficiency he’ll find me eventually. He’ll never give up and I can’t run forever. The least I can do is give him a fighting chance.

If I survive, if I make it out of all this alive I’ll make sure they get a proper memorial, a nice garden somewhere, with their names engraved on a plaque, Anna Navarre and Gunther Hermann, together for eternity, in peace. I owe them that much.

Look at you Hacker.

“Where were we after forty years of evolution? What swamp were we swimming around in, single celled and mindless? What if SHODAN’s creations are superior to us? What will they become in a million years, in ten million years? What’s clear is that SHODAN shouldn’t be allowed to play God. She’s far too good at it.”

SHODAN is a lot of things. Born as the Sentient Hyper-Optimized Data Access Network Processing Unit 43893, she is HAL with a soprano; a Frankensteinian monster of circuits and wires; the not so physical embodiment of every masculine fear of powerful women. But above all of that, she is better than you, and she knows it. She might even revel in it, if emotions weren’t so far beneath her contempt.

Cast out of Citadel Station she might have lost some of the influence she had in System Shock, but if so she is all the more dangerous for it. In the forty-two years since the removal of her ethical constraints she has found the Von Braun and gone from creation to filicide; her children are outgrowing her, and that will simply never do.

In the future all wrenches will be yellow.

Waking up on board the apparently deserted Von Braun, you know very little of this. Your first instinct is simply to survive, only later do you learn the role she has for you. Only much later still do you start to understand the true scope of her plans, and their implication. Eventually you foil her schemes, at least for the moment, but at what expense? Throughout the proceeding hours you have blithely modified your body with the Cyber Modules drip fed by SHODAN as rewards for performing for her. In the end who is more human? The soldier nearly more machine than man, able to do little more than destroy, or the Artificial Intelligence with a desire for transcendence?

System Shock 2 is not your story, it is hers. She might not have created the Von Braun, and The Many may have more direct power, but SHODAN’s influence is felt in every facet of the environment, it truly is her world. Your time spent in her world is never a pleasant experience. The first thing you notice, even if not consciously, is that it is never quiet. I’m not sure if Sound Designer Eric Brosius is a genius or the devil incarnate, but his work on System Shock 2 surpasses even his previous highs in the Thief series. There is a pervasive sense of dread and foreboding everywhere, something is very clearly not right.

This sense of wrongness is visible in the physical environment as much as the aural one. Exploring the Von Braun and later the UNN Rickenbacker, it’s not hard to look past the corruption and decay to visualise how these two vessels looked at their prime. There are areas for work and for play; science labs, medical facilities and offices; bedrooms, bathroom and cinemas. The Von Braun is a city in space, self-contained and consistent, all areas interconnected in logical and predictable ways. More than that it is persistent, drop an item on a table and it will still be there when you return to that deck hours later. More than almost any other game environment the world of System Shock 2 feels like a real place. Yes there are barriers, there are limits on your freedom. Boundaries that, like the environments themselves, are logical and consistent. You are onboard a space vessel, of course you can’t go outside, it would be fatal, so you never try.

Accepting those boundaries serves to highlight the freedom you do have within them. Like Thief II you are provided with a range of tools to modify the environment to suit your needs. But much more vital to your survival is your ability to modify yourself toward the same goal. SHODAN knows what she is doing when she portions out those Cyber Modules. She will make you into a powerful tool for her own devices, but you will never be powerful at everything. You will always need to pay attention to what’s going on, think on your feet. Ammunition can run out, weapons can degrade but you will adapt. To her it is a weakness, the one she believes will allow her to control you, but to you it is a strength.

I just want a hug.

SHODAN sees herself as master of the environment because she is in control, but she has not earned that power, and so does not truly understand it. By the time you confront her, you have been forced to master the environment. You have earned your power and so you better understand how to wield it; more than that, when that final moment of confrontation does come you understand why you must wield it.

System Shock 2 is SHODAN’s story, but it is also the story of the hundreds of people who died in the pursuit of her dream. You are but one individual, alone, but you have the combined knowledge of those who came before. Echoing on after their death the audio logs scattered around the Von Braun and Rickenbacker, serve to build up a picture of the events that preceeded your awakening, foreshadowing and giving context to your current actions and providing clues on how to defeat SHODAN. You are one, but together you are legion.

When you finally defeat SHODAN you are merely the tip of the spear, a spear forged from the crew members of the Von Braun and Rickenbacker. A cast of dozens, some with their own sub-plots and distinct motivations, some simply there to provide specific information. It’s difficult to remember the identities of all those who helped in your defeat of SHODAN, their voices just one of a multitude. The fate of the other humans who came into contact with SHODAN and her children, is told in an impressionistic manner. A single audio log might not be enough to remember an individual by but together they add up to a cohesive picture, an audio mosaic of the final moments of humanity aboard the Von Braun.

SHODAN’s world is a meditation on humanity and parenthood and the lack of freedom inherent in both. A terrifying place, a paradise lost, the greatest ambitions of humanity cast down by one of their own creations. A place where the balance between the organic and the technological has been tipped almost to breaking point. Where the last hope of humanity is an individual almost as far removed from human kind as from SHODAN herself. An individual propelled forward by the memories and sacrifices of the dead, forced to change and adapt in order to succeed.

SHODAN’s world is unique, and once experienced never easily forgotten.

“This is bigger than my little life, the lives of my men, and the lives of the people I was forced to kill. Resist! Humanity demands it! Resist!”

Casing the joint.

“I’ve always equated ‘feelings’ with ‘getting caught’ they both get in the way of my money. Unfortunately not everyone is as committed to their work as I am.”

Garrett isn’t an embodiment of traditional power fantasies, he might save the world but he does it reluctantly, accidentally. By the time he actively decides to foil Karras’ plot in Thief II: The Metal Age, he has already been betrayed and driven out of his home.  Like Clive Owen’s Theo Faron in Children Of Men Garrett is a cynic, he doesn’t care about the world and likely doesn’t think it worth saving. He saves the world not because he cares about it, far from it, he saves it because it’s the only way he’ll ever get to go home, to return to normality. Through all that he has his own standards to uphold and like Theo he doesn’t use violence.

Playing Thief II it’s possible to reinterpret Garrett’s character as somebody who does use violence, it’s possible to kill. But it doesn’t feel right, it’s clumsy, messy, noisy, inelegant, and ultimately counter productive, like “feelings” and “getting caught” it gets in the way of the money.

Garrett might not want to save the world, but he’s not above changing it for his own benefit. Murder might be inelegant but unlike his contemporaries in other first person games violence is not the only option for Garrett. Assuming the role of the master thief, you are provided with an array of “weapons” and tools you can use to adjust the state of the environment to better suit your needs. A floor too noisy? Use a moss arrow to deaden your footsteps. A corridor too well lit? Water arrows are your friend. You can manipulate the environment, but you can never completely master it, there are always a few too many torches for your Water Arrows to douse; a few too many guards for your Noisemakers to distract. You can shift the odds in your favour but in the end there’s always a risk, you might be invisible in the shadows but eventually you will have to move. It’s then that Thief II is at it’s most powerful.

In all senses of the term Thief II is a game about “shades of grey”. In shadow with the Light Gem black you are safe, in the open with the Light Gem glowing you are in danger, but in between, in one of the numerous different shades of darkness you’re never really sure; you have to take a risk.

Thief II isn’t a game about the traditional power-fantasies of being the “fastest” or the “strongest” but it is about a particular kind of power-fantasy, one that is more mature and darker than most. It’s about the fantasy of “getting away with it”. This is an idea that the individual levels of Thief II drawn on in some interesting if differing ways.

From breaking into a police station, through escaping an attempted ambush, to an actual bank job. Thief II is full of levels that make you feel like you are doing something impressive and morally ambiguous, and getting away with it.

Thief II does exactly what it says in the title, it makes you feel like a thief.

Nowhere is this more apparently than in the classic Life Of The Party. Starting on the roof of a tower your objective is to infiltrated a party held in a distant building, one it’s impossible to even see from your starting position. With the streets out of bounds you take to the roofs and the “Thieves’  Highway”. Sneaking through an apartment for no other reason than you need to get to the next building; of course helping yourself to what is available along the way. It can take over an hour to get to your target, Angelwatch, and in that time you’ve crept past alert guards and sleeping citizens and witnessed an argument breakout between the guards of two opposing houses, accompanied by one of the best exchanges you’re ever likely to witness. When you finally arrive at Angelwatch, you’ve still got a six story building full of Mechanists and civilians to explore before you have to make your way back across the city to the tower you started from.

Throughout this one level you can experience everything that is great about Thief II. You’ve explored a world that is at once self contained and consistent. That seems like it could go on without you but that also feels explicitly designed to be experienced by you. Each building is both a logical place, with kitchens and bedrooms and bathrooms, but also an abstract puzzle designed to test your intelligence and abilities.

Thief II is a game that makes you think about your actions on different levels, the immediate and the long term. The choices you make in one moment might have consequences you can’t predict, that guard you disabled might be found when you least expect it. That Moss Arrow you used to get across that corridor might be required now you need to make a run across a well lit court yard. You make your choices, you adjust the environment and hope that you’ve mitigated the risks as much as you can, and anyway if all else fails you can improvise and adapt.

It might not be easy but pay attention and think before you act and you’ll get away with it, after all that’s what being a thief is all about.

“Greetings, Garrett! Thou art expected, though not precisely… welcome. Feel not so surprised; I have anticipated thine arrival, just as I now anticipate thy departure, heh heh! Art thou a religious man? It is time to say thy prayers! Thy sins will be thine own undoing!

Addendum:

Due to some severe arachnophobia I was never able to get further than the second level of Thief: The Dark Project so Thief II: The Metal Age was my first real experience of the Thief series.

Combat Evolved.

“Don’t get any funny ideas.”

I like Halo: Combat Evolved.

In any list of my personal favourite titles it would be up there with Midwinter II: Flames Of Freedom and Thief II: The Metal Age. Each of the Halo sequels have been entertaining but none had the same impact, nor felt as pure in their execution as the original.

I have completed Halo at least five times. Usually I don’t replay games on harder difficult settings as often the more challenging settings in action games are simply exercises in frustration, the core experience unchanged except with enemies becoming bullet sponges. This is not the case with Halo, I completed the game on Normal, and after hearing how the difficult significantly changed the experience I opted to make a second attempt on Heroic. When I did that, everything changed.

On Normal I’d found all the weapons to be useful, but on Heroic the differentiation between each weapon and weapon combination became dramatically more apparent. The Needler went from simply interesting to the ultimate weapon for defeating shielded Elites; the Plasma Pistol from a mild irritant to the first part of a One-Two combo with the Assault Rifle to defeat Jackals. My attitude to the enemies changed too, Grunts went from amusing cannon-fodder to dangerous distractions; easy to kill, but armed with Needlers and Plasma Pistols they could inflict a lot of damage in groups.

Finally moving to Legendary the differences between the weapons and enemies became even more pronounced to the extent that Halo all but stopped being about action and became instead a tactical shooter; very specific weapon and target selection required to succeed. Still it never once felt like it was cheating, there were no precognitive ambushes, nor one-hit kill snipers; something that the sequels would later resorted to.

The changes that occur to the balance of the core gameplay when moving from Normal to Heroic are such that I maintain Bungie made a mistake in selecting Normal as the default difficulty setting. A suspect few people will change the difficult when th y first play the game and therefore never experience the tactical depth Halo has to offer. On Normal your starting weapons are effective in most circumstances so there is rarely a motivation to do anything more than hold down the trigger.

There are other problems with the game, the one most commonly mentioned is that of its repetitive environments. Even though some areas are explicitly duplicated during the course of the game, the enemy type, number and placement is different each time, as are the weapons you are likely to be wielding; the tactical space of the game is always different.

There are no boss battles, no dramatic spikes in difficult, or sections where an entirely new skill set is required. There are vehicle sections but the controls remain essentially the same, the right stick always controls the camera, the left always handles movement, and the right trigger is always fire.

The game introduces you carefully to each enemy, subsequent encounters requiring you to gradually develop your abilities and tactics. You start the game fighting Grunts and Elites in confined areas, then you move to fighting Grunts, Elites and Jackels in open areas, and then fighting with vehicles. It eventually introduces the Flood, and once you know how to deal with them (Involving sadly the worse level in the game, The Library, which combines both aesthetic and functional repetition), it asks you to fight the Flood and the Covenant, and then the Flood, the Covenant and the Sentinels. Each encounter requires that you take the skills developed previously and build on them.

There are only seven main enemy types, and ten weapon types (Including the two different types of grenades), enough to provide variety but not so many that it becomes difficult to keep track of specific strengths and weaknesses of each. Again this is somewhere the sequels failed, the introduction of several new weapons, enemies and eventually usable items, meant that it became difficult to keep track of the interactions between each, and often led to some weapons being under utilised.

Halo has a limited number of objects each with very specific interactions through which it’s able to promote meaningful choices and tactical play; while still managing to provide surprises and challenges even on my sixth return visit.

“An entire Covenant armada, obliterated, and the Flood… we had no choice…”