I started playing Prototype today. It’s a game where you’re a freaky, super-powered mutant dude who can change your arms into giant blades and run straight up the side of buildings and kind of fly and somehow consume and then become other people. Suffice to say you’re a pretty intense guy. And you always wear a hoodie for that reason.

They also do that thing where you start the game “at the end” with all your amazing powers (knife arms, giant metal fists, etc.) and experience the carnage that ensues before flash-backing (new verb!) to just after you escaped from some facility and discovered you had these crazy powers for the first time. Assassin’s Creed did that particular trick, too – super-powers: now you got ’em, now you don’t.

Except that particularly in Prototype (and also to a degree in Assassin’s Creed) you still had a shitload of special abilities even in your early state. From the beginning of the game you can do the “sprint directly up a building” thing. You can jump off a building and just land on the ground below (complete with cracking the pavement). You can throw cars at helicopters. So it’s not like you’re some 90 pound weakling that has to build up some muscle or anything.

And there’s the rub. Prototype is like a super-extreme version of something that always vaguely bugs me about narrative-oriented video games in which you’re the hero/special person. It’s just madness from the get-go. From the word go you’re throwing cars around, morphing into other people, and killing vast swatches of military personnel. Just like in Half-Life 2 you’re thrown pretty rapidly into beating the crap out of the Combine or in Assassin’s Creed you’re sprinting full tilt across the rooftops and stabbing people with your retractable shiv.

I think that this situation can be crystallised very well by thinking about walking. Where is all the walking (or orderly driving) in these games? Where are those times when you walk calmly down a city street or perhaps just walk because you’re in disguise and don’t want to attract attention to yourself? Nowhere is where. You can walk and kind of pretend that you’re blending in, but it’s not really part of the game. In Prototype even if you try to quietly walk down the street, and ordinary citizen, if you go anywhere near someone your avatar shoves them violently out of the way. But more to the point, walking serves no real purpose except that you go slower. The game doesn’t have a conception of walking or “normalcy” in it, it has no use for the pedestrian, quite literally.

For a while, particularly in situations when I was disguised as someone else, I did try to walk around, thinking it was more appropriate and fitting. But it’s basically a disadvantage. It’s a world of sprinting around – and the people around you think nothing of your sprinting. Military commander rocketing past a bunch of soldiers? “Hi, Sarge. Bye, Sarge.”

It seems to me that these games are missing out of a really lovely opportunity to offset our super-powers (whether we’re freaky mutants or just physicists who are unnaturally good with military weaponry) with normalcy. After all, that’s theoretically what makes those things interesting – the contrast to the quotidian. It’s as though the designers figure we have sufficiently boring real lives that the contrast is to be drawn between what we can do in the game versus what we can do outside the game. But I don’t think that’s true, or at least not anymore. Now, I’d like to see games that present the contrast inside the world.

When my avatar in Prototype found his sister and they talked excitedly about all the freaky science shit that was going on and just how intense everything was, he warned her that she should stay inside and not go out. Because they might try to kill her (again). I thought to myself,

“Man, I’d really love to do a mission where I have to walk to the grocery store to get her food supplies, since she can’t go out…”

24 February 2011
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