Johnathan found himself feeling rather down.  It was the zeitgeist; for everywhere there was corruption and vice. Decency, civility, industriousness and all the other virtues had gone out of the world. Decadence and rot, from the upper echelons of society down to Johnathan’s own place of business, had worked their worst.

And so as he walked through the dingy back-alleys to his gloomy little apartment, his mood was understandably grim.  As he approached the stained white door, the faded American flag next to it caught the breeze and hit him in the face.  He cursed and, in the imprudent fury that occasionally possesses a frustrated person, tore the banner, pole and all, from its fixture beside the door.

Grumbling profanities, he opened the door and went inside the dark apartment, flag and pole tucked under his arm. He set down his briefcase and entered his kitchen to make himself a meager dinner. The kitchen was dark; barely illuminated by the dim light that filtered through the window by the stove.  He fumbled for the light switch and finally found it. But on turning on the light, he found he was not alone.

Seated at his kitchen table was a tall, olive-skinned woman, dressed in a style that Johnathan would have described as “Victorian”, though in fact that was not the correct period.  She wore a full-length red and white striped dress, with a shiny blue caraco, with golden epaulettes at the shoulder.

After dropping the flag and recoiling in surprise, Johnathan managed to blurt out, “Who are you? What are you doing? I’ll call the police!”

The woman smiled slightly. “No need for that, my friend,” she said coolly. “Although I request that you pick up that lovely flag you have rather unceremoniously left lying on the floor.”

“What, this?” said Johnathan stupidly.  “It’s old and faded. I may as well pitch it.”

“Please don’t,” said the woman, in a tone of annoyance that told Johnathan he had better pick up the flag already. Having done so, he returned to his line of questioning: “What are you doing in my apartment, ma’am?” he asked, and then added, “I did not invite you. Please leave before I call the police.”

“I have not, and will not, steal any of your belongings, nor harm you in any way.” she said calmly. “I only want to talk to you.”

“About what?” Johnathan said, with ill-concealed irritation. “I don’t even know who you are!”

“Columbia is my name,” she answered. “And I want to talk to you about America.”

“You want… what?” he said in confusion. “Well, I don’t know why you want to talk about that, but if you want to know what I think: America’s going to hell in a handbasket. It’s a disaster.  The government is nothing but criminals and liars, out to make a buck.”

“Ah, but that is politics,” she replied. “That is not America.”

“Well, call it whatever you want, but the bottom line is nobody has a clue what they’re doing. They can’t hold anyone accountable, they can’t do their own jobs right–it’s chaos everywhere; people are out of work, they can’t afford decent food or a decent place to live, and criminals are all over the place–killing people, stealing stuff, and, and–and breaking into people’s houses in the middle of the night!” (He concluded this speech by pointing towards Columbia.)

“Can you really think of nothing good about the country?” she queried.

“Oh, it used to be better, back in the old days.  People weren’t perfect, but at least they tried,” he muttered.  “It was a great country once, but it’s all ruined because people are too stupid or too afraid to try to fix things anymore.”

“And what was it that made it great?” she asked.

He shook his head,  “I… I don’t know.  Do you think if I knew that I would be here?”

She folded her hands. “Let me tell you something about America: it does not have as much history as other parts of the world do. People who come here are looking to build something new–without all the baggage of the old world weighing them down.”

“Well, what of it?” said Johnathan.  He tried to sound as disinterested as possible, and yet he found himself sitting down to listen to her all the same. “It’s all failed now, anyway.”

She replied crisply: “I believe it’s not about ‘success’ or ‘failure’–those are things that only apply in a contest with a clearly defined end. The beauty of creating something new is that it is a risk. You do not know how it will turn out–but there is courage in trying.”

“That is what really matters, you see,’ she continued. “When anything–a life, a country, anything–begins, there is no guarantee of ‘success’. And yet, if no one were ever willing to run that risk…”

She trailed off, and Johnathan now found himself mesmerized by her speech. He stared at her for a few moments. Her brown eyes had a strange calming effect upon him, and he felt like he was becoming hypnotized as he studied her dark, angular face.

“But what’s the use of any of it now?” he asked, forcing himself back to reality. “There’s nothing new here–it’s old and rotten and falling apart!”

Columbia closed her eyes for a moment and smiled patiently, as though she had expected this from him.  She opened her eyes, looked directly into his, and said: “And don’t you think that in the past, others have felt just as frustrated and lost as you do now?”

“Yes,” he admitted, after a pause.

“And what did they do?”

“They… created something new.” he answered quietly.

“That’s right,” she said with a satisfied nod. “They faced their challenges, assessed them, and overcame them through courage and ingenuity. That is America.”

The two of them sat in silence after that.  Columbia leaned back in her chair and glanced around the room with an expression of mild interest. Johnathan simply stared at her, the strange feeling of hypnosis growing stronger all the time.

A loud bang from outside jolted him to his feet.  For an instant, he thought it was a gunshot, but when he rushed to the window, he saw glittering white sparks in the air and realized it was a firework display.

“Look at that,” he said with a smile, as more bright showers of light exploded in the darkness overhead. “Columbia, come and see–”

He turned to beckon her to the window, but she was gone.  The chair was empty. Johnathan looked around in confusion. He ran back through the kitchen and out the front door on to the porch, looking around for her as he went.

She was nowhere to be seen. Johnathan stood on the porch in a daze, listening to the crackle of the pyrotechnic display building to its climax.

He looked around and caught sight of the empty metal bracket beside the door. The flag and pole, he realized, were still under his arm. He hurriedly unfurled the flag and restored it to its place.

THE END

I’ve heard lots of criticisms of video games over the years, but Jeff Vogel’s critique that they have too many words is a new one. He makes a strong case against one particular game–Obsidian Entertainment’s Pillars of Eternity. After reading his article, it’s hard to argue against the claim that Pillars is too verbose. The character creation and menu screens are packed with tons of text for the player to wade through.

I’m less sure about whether this is really a trend in gaming generally. After all, Pillars was explicitly designed as a throwback to the beloved text- and lore-heavy Black Isle RPGs. For example, Planescape: Torment has over a million words. Even I tended to ignore some of the esoteric descriptions in Planescape, and I love that game.

Scene from “Planescape: Torment”

Some players really do seem to enjoy the atmosphere of a game rich with background material. It may be true that much of the information is irrelevant to the game’s mechanics, but this is High Fantasy, and one of the things High Fantasy fans look for is a sprawling world filled with many interesting details that don’t all fit into the main narrative.

Using lots of words is indeed a problem, as Vogel says, but not just in games. The High Fantasy trope of giving tons of background information can be traced back to J.R.R. Tolkien. The Pillars of Eternity intro is nothing next to the dense opening chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring. In general, when writing in a genre, you will try to emulate the most successful authors in that genre, so it’s hard to blame Obsidian for looking to the work of Tolkien and his successors for ideas.

I myself have never been a fan of this style. And that’s despite the fact that some of my influences favored verbosity. Take H.P. Lovecraft for example–he was a pioneer in writing horror, but he tended to go overboard with some of his descriptions. I think some of that crept into my own early attempts at writing horror.

It’s much easier to use too many words than to use just the right number. The old line about “writing a long letter because I didn’t have time to write a short one” applies.  It’s easy to waste words, and that dilutes their intended effect.

The economy of any piece of writing is a very important consideration, but few people ever think about it. It wasn’t until I saw the movie Lawrence of Arabia that I really learned to appreciate it.

Think of it this way: whenever you write something, eventually you will have to stop. You only have so many words before you have to hit send, or mail it to the publisher, or whatever. While the supply of words is theoretically infinite, in practice it’s severely limited–by the reader’s attention span if nothing else.

So, you want to maximize the value you get per word. What do I mean by “value”? Well, it’s whatever idea or feeling you are trying to communicate in your writing. If it’s an informational document or a bit of technical description, then you want to be as clear and concise as possible. If you are writing a character who prefers to communicate non-verbally or who is just mysterious, you use few words, and you make them vague and open to interpretation.

Sometimes there is value in deliberately using too many words. The dramatist W.S. Gilbert (another of my favorites) would often have characters say things in as complicated and lengthy a way as possible for comic effect. “Quantity has a quality all its own,” as they say in big organizations.

Vogel is right that the Pillars opening screens are bad at conveying information. They could have communicated the same points more succinctly. But the problem is that in addition to giving the player some information, they are also supposed to be atmospheric. And you usually need more–or at least different–words to create an atmosphere than to just convey information.

It’s a difficult balancing act–the writer(s) must both communicate technical detail about how to actually play the game while also keeping the player immersed in the virtual world in which the story is set. (For an example of a character creation intro that is more integrated with the game and doesn’t bore the player, I recommend Fallout: New Vegas-also by Obsidian.)

The “optimal” number of words is dependent on what the writer is trying to convey, as well as on the medium they are using. Obviously, a screenwriter is going to use fewer words than a novelist to describe the exact same scene, because the screenwriter knows they will have actors and sets that will communicate certain things visually.

To summarize, all writers, regardless of their subject, style or genre, should follow Einstein’s advice: “Everything should be as simple as possible–but no simpler.”

"Prey" cover
“Prey” cover. Image via Wikipedia.

I think it was somewhere in the arboretum of the TranStar corporation’s Talos I space station, about six hours into Prey, that I started to realize what was wrong.

Something had been gnawing at me; a vague sense of discomfort in the back of my mind.  It wasn’t the apprehension that every object in every room might turn out to be an alien mimic waiting to ambush me, nor was it the thought that at any minute the possessed remains of crew members might teleport in to attack me with psychic energy blasts.

No, these things I had expected, and indeed become accustomed to.

In fact, that was the problem.  What was really bothering me was that none of it was all that scary.

Prey sounds like a game almost engineered to my personal taste.  It’s a horror RPG in which you play as Morgan Yu, a scientist on a space station overtaken by mysterious aliens called “the Typhon”.  As you explore the station and fight the Typhon, you gradually uncover the backstory by reading logs of deceased crew members, and talking with the few survivors. All the while, you must overcome obstacles placed by Morgan’s brother, Alex–the scientist who seems to be responsible for the disaster.

Some of the Typhon, called “mimics”, have the ability to take any form, including such innocuous items as coffee mugs and even health kits and other useful items. So, you never know what might turn into a monster and attack as you creep through the dark, eerie corridors.

In addition to the usual video game weapons–pistols, shotguns, etc.–Morgan can use an experimental technology called “neuromods”, which grant the user all sorts of abilities, but can erase the user’s memory–a significant point, as it accounts for why Morgan has no memory of events that occurred before the beginning of the game. (This is explained by a character named January–a robot assistant who holds Morgan’s memories and acts as a guide in the early stages of the game.)

Prey has multiple paths and endings, and many different ways of accomplishing your objectives–a style of gameplay I strongly prefer.  And to top it all off, Chris Avellone, perhaps the greatest game designer ever, helped write it.

It’s like a hybrid of Doom 3 and Deus Ex (two games that I love), along with many other influences.  It also evokes the mining station episode that starts off my all-time favorite game, Avellone’s Knights of the Old Republic II.

With all this going for it, I was a bit dismayed by how weak the first act was.

Not that it’s bad.  It’s good enough.  Especially the opening 20 minutes or so; which are very disconcerting and disturbing. Not since Spec Ops: The Line has a game so successfully pulled the rug out from under me. But I’ll talk more about that later. (This is probably a good time to mention I’m going to spoil the game’s plot here, so don’t proceed any further if you want to play it without knowing what happens.)

I reference Spec Ops because it’s another favorite game of mine–again, Prey mimics elements from many of the classics. There are elements of Bioshock (takes place in a remote futuristic art-deco station) Half-Life, (the mimics look like headcrabs) Alan Wake (the shadowy phantoms murmur phrases spoken by the victims they now possess) and Dishonored. (This is only to be expected, since both are made by Arkane studios.) Indeed, there’s so much mimicry here, it makes the clever “not a mimic” marketing slogan seem rather ironic.

And yet… it doesn’t quite work as well as it should in the the beginning. And by “the beginning”, I mean approximately the first five hours after the opening sequence.

It’s like how all-star teams in sports don’t necessarily play up to the potential of all the great players on the roster.  This is usually because all-star teams don’t have time to develop chemistry–the sense of timing that makes a team function well as a unit.

Something similar is going on with Prey: it is built up of some very excellent parts, but they don’t always work together to create a coherent whole.

It’s not always clear what Prey is supposed to be. A lot of it looks like survival horror, but it’s not particularly scary. (One exception is an enemy called the Poltergeist. It’s invisible and causes all sorts of disruptions. Very effective, especially the first time it happens.)

Portrait of JFK from alternate future game "Prey"
Portrait from “Prey”

Prey‘s setting is also somewhat puzzling. It’s set in an alternate future in which John F. Kennedy was not assassinated, and the U.S. and Soviets worked together on space exploration.  But it’s not clear to me why this background was needed for the story. It felt like a gimmick.

Then there are the graphics.  They are good, but strangely cartoonish, which makes it hard to take anything seriously. I had this same problem with Bioshock and Dishonored as well. The people in these games all have soft, caricatured features, which creates a feeling of unreality.

I’m not sure why this particular style bothers me more than the outdated graphics of older games like Deus Ex or even Doom 3, but somehow it does

It is probably true that if I weren’t so well-versed in the simulated experience of exploring a creepy station overrun by monsters, the beginning of Prey might have been a lot more intriguing. If you haven’t played Doom 3 or Bioshock or System Shock 2 or Half-Life or Dead Space or the Fallout: New Vegas add-on Dead Money or… well, if you haven’t played many survival/horror games, everything in Prey will be new and interesting.

To get back to the Arboretum, where I first began to have thoughts of just giving up on Prey–well, I didn’t. I pressed on, and was soon rewarded for my efforts.  Because not too long after this, I started to run into some survivors with whom I could actually interact, as opposed to just constantly sneaking around in the dark, trying to alternately fight and run away from the Typhon.

The game really picks up once you start to meet some of the other characters. One suspects there must be a behind-the-scenes reason for this…

Helping officer Sarah Elazar and her men prepare for and then win a battle against Typhon forces massed in a cargo bay was the first really satisfying part of the game, and meeting some characters I cared about (who weren’t already dead) made me feel much more invested in the plot.

Even better were the quests involving Mikhaila Ilyushin. She guides you through a section of the station, and eventually you have the opportunity to get her some life-saving medicine.  It’s an optional quest, but really satisfying to complete.

See what I mean about the graphics?
Best character in the game.

Mikhaila was my favorite character in the game, because the quests relating to her are both rewarding and emotionally “true”. After returning to Morgan’s office, she asks you to find data about her father that is stored in the station’s archives. On finding it, it reveals that Morgan ordered her father’s death. You have the choice of whether to tell her about this, or destroy the evidence. In the end, telling her is ultimately the right choice. “Honesty is the best policy…”

Between her and the security personnel in the cargo bay,  I started to care about the story in a way I hadn’t for the first six hours or so. And so I found myself once again heading to the arboretum to meet with Alex, and hear his explanation for the whole thing.

On reaching his office, you learn that in fact everything he’s been doing has been to fulfill orders previously given to him by… you.  Alex isn’t evil; he’s just doing what he believed the “real” Morgan would have wanted him to do, before neuromods and other experiments changed his sibling into someone he no longer recognizes.

This was a very powerful plot twist, because the game does a good job of making you hate Alex in the beginning, and then does an equally good job of making you want to work with him. The switch is accomplished very economically, and does not feel at all forced or contrived.

Alex explains that the key to understanding the Typhon has to do with the “coral”–a mysterious luminescent substance they have woven throughout the station as they have taken it over. After you study it further, it confirms what Alex claims Morgan initially suspected: the coral is a neural network.

For me, this development happened at about the 15 hour mark, and I was really getting into the game at this point. I returned to the arboretum (Alex’s office is there) to bring back the data I had collected and upload it for analysis. This, I figured, would trigger the endgame sequence.

But no–the upload gets interrupted by a surprise attack from a mercenary named Walther Dahl. He’s been sent by the TranStar corporation to steal back all the data and kill everyone on the station.

He’s also the most annoying character in the entire game. He blows in at the eleventh hour with his army of military robots, totally disrupting the pace of the narrative. He may have been referenced earlier in the story–although I sure don’t remember it–but certainly not in any way that counts as meaningful foreshadowing. My reaction to his arrival wasn’t “oh, wow; it’s that Walther Dahl guy I heard about earlier”, but instead “who the hell are you?”

It reminded me of Stephen Leacock’s mockery of a common trope in detective novels that explains the crime by concluding: “It was the work of one of the most audacious criminals ever heard of (except that the reader never heard of him till this second)”.

Even worse, Dahl undercuts the main enemy of the game, the Typhon. It’s like in Mass Effect 2 and especially 3, when Cerberus and the Illusive Man kept getting in the way of fighting the Reapers.

I actually found myself rooting for and counting on the Typhon to get rid of Dahl’s inexplicable army of robots for me.  This is detrimental to the plot in two different ways: first, it makes you feel sympathy for what had previously been an unambiguous enemy; and second, it undercuts the Typhon’s effectiveness–they can’t be that powerful, if Dahl was able to show up and take over the station in the space of about five minutes.

This whole sequence was undoubtedly the weakest point of the game, and it took about two hours to resolve. (In fairness, defeating Dahl was extremely satisfying, but not so much as to justify his existence in the first place.)

So now, I found myself going back to the arboretum yet again, to do the same thing I had been about to do two hours before, prior to the pointless Dahl episode. And that wasn’t even the worst thing about it–but I’ll get to that later.

There had been several points throughout the game where it seemed like they were just throwing obstacles at me to  make everything as hard as possible. There were quests that went something like this:

  1. “Go get some files from a computer on the other side of the station.”
  2. <Goes there, fighting and hiding from Typhon all the way>
  3. “Oh, the door is broken. You have to get parts to fix it.”
  4. <Gets parts>
  5. “Shoot, the power’s out. Backtrack and turn it on.”
  6. <Goes back; fights more Typhon>
  7. “Hey, the power is out because the reactor is broken. Fix it.”
  8. <Rebuilds nuclear reactor>
  9. “What were we doing again?”

This had been frustrating enough, but the Dahl interruption was just too much.  I prefer games in which each objective involves uncovering new information that advances the plot, rather than have most of the objectives be about doing busywork that eventually uncovers information that advances the plot. It felt at times like they were just dragging it out. And this turned out to be a big problem, but again, more about that later.

Once the coral data is analyzed, Alex explains that the coral is used by the Typhon to transmit a signal.  Morgan, he continues, had suspected this from the beginning and had designed a device that could destroy the Typhon by taking over the neural network.  He suggests using this, instead of following January’s suggestion of activating the station’s self-destruct mechanism.

At this point, a massive Typhon creature appears from deep space and begins to consume the entire station. Morgan then has to choose between whether to destroy the station and the Typhon along with it, or activate the device and destroy the Typhon but keep all the research and technology the team on Talos I has developed.

I chose the latter. I’m always a big one for keeping knowledge–same reason I always leave the Collector base intact at the end of Mass Effect 2. It never hurts to have more technology at your disposal; you can always choose not to use it if you don’t want to.

In either ending, the Typhon are destroyed, and the credits roll. But Prey still has one final twist in store. And it’s significant enough that even though I warned you about spoilers earlier, I’m putting it after the page break…

(more…)

WARNING! The following clip contains intense LEGO violence.  Parents, this is what happens when you give your nine-year-old sons red clay and LEGO skeletons! (Credits blurred as before, to avoid embarrassing family and friends.)

This movie is a little clearer than my previous ones, I think.  It was about an army of skeletons who invade a planet and massacre the inhabitants. I made the movie when I was nine, but the music came much later–when I was about 15, and I briefly got into composing scores for my old movies.

And now you know how far back my cosmic-horror fixation goes…

250px-planescape-torment-box[Last week Beamdog released an enhanced edition of Planescape: Torment for modern desktops and tablets. In honor of this occasion (and hopefully to drive more people to play it) I decided to post a full-length review of the game, which I’ve somehow never done despite going on about my love for it all these years. Be warned: some spoilers ahead!]

What always strikes me first about Planescape: Torment every time I start a new game is how weird it is.  Your character –called “the Nameless One”–wakes up in a mortuary, apparently as an amnesiac zombie, and is greeted by a floating skull who proceeds to read a message written on the Nameless One’s back.

And that’s just the opening few minutes of what’s at least a 20- to 30-hour game.  It doesn’t get less weird after that.  You meet a whole host of bizarre characters: a chaste succubus, a living suit of armor, a man who is eternally on fire, a living cube with crossbows… the list goes on.  And that doesn’t even address the weird setting–an indescribable world of twisting labyrinths and cities that shift both in physical space and across different planes of reality.

All in all, it’s a strange and disturbing universe that the Nameless One must traverse in order to complete his quest.

And yet, for all the outré creatures and situations you encounter, it always remains possible to relate, even if it’s only in some twisted way, to the humanity of the characters. That is the first piece of genius that points to the heart of Torment’s brilliance: though it is surreal, it is also real on an emotional level–more real, in fact, than many other games that strive for super-realistic graphics and gameplay.

03
Gameplay screenshot via Planescape.com

There is a heart to Torment‘s characters, and a logic to its locales and events, because they are all connected by a unifying theme: their relationship to the Nameless One, and how his actions impact all of this is the thread that weaves all these fantastical elements together into a coherent whole.

The fundamental feature of all video games is interactivity.  What differentiates games from other art forms is that the intended audience is meant to actively engage with the game.  It is not merely a passive experience, but one in which the audience is meant to take some action which in turn advances them towards a goal.

In games with narrative–what we might call “dramatic games”–the player’s actions are supposed to advance the story.  By performing an action, the player sees what happens next.  In more sophisticated games, the player has some choice of what actions to perform, and these affect the course of the larger story.

The full potential of this storytelling style is seldom realized in most dramatic games. Generally, most stick with the tried-and-true formula of the player advancing a straightforward narrative by performing a set of actions. But in Torment, the concept of interactivity is wedded to the story of the game itself.

One of the central themes in Torment is the idea of “consensus reality”–the idea that by agreeing to believe in something, it becomes effectively “real”. This is also tied to the game’s famous recurring line: “What can change the Nature of a Man?” (In some endings, the Nameless One can argue that “whatever you believe can change the nature of a man, can.”)

With its relativistic approach to “reality” (that is, the reality of the game world) Torment acknowledges a little-noted but integral truth of gaming: that the game-reality is subject to the manipulations of the player.  In other words, since the player is interacting with the rest of a pre-programmed world, it is ultimately their “reality”, to shape as they see fit.

This is technically true of any game. When you play anything, from Pong to Minecraft to Fallout 4, you are interacting with a virtual world and manipulating it according to your desires.  The difference is that Torment is implicitly aware of this, and it makes the player character’s relationship to the world mimic that of the player themselves.

It is this subtle, critical point that makes Torment an all-time classic that’s still being played nearly 20 years since its release.

Nearly everything that happens in the story, and every character who appears in the game, either has previously been or currently is affected by the Nameless One’s actions. The entire game-world is (or can become) a reflection of the Nameless One’s character, either in his current life or in previous ones.

The architect Louis Sullivan famously wrote that “form ever follows function.” He meant this not merely as an architectural philosophy, but as a wide-ranging principle of design.

I’d argue that good design in narrative isn’t so much a matter of form “following” function, but simply form and function being in harmony.  In drama, you might decide the “form” (the medium/genre in which you will tell your story) before the “function” (the content/theme of your story), but they had better work well together.  That’s why it’s tough to write an action movie that glorifies pacifism, for example.

In Torment, form and function complement one another perfectly: the gameplay involves the player making decisions that alter the world, and the story is about how the Nameless One’s decisions alter the world.

Of course, Torment’s story and dialogue are brilliant on their own merits, and even in another form (it was adapted into a book, after all), the writing hits all the right notes: witty, moving, disturbing, clever and deeply philosophical.

But what makes the lines so powerful, and the intensely introspective storyline so memorable, is the fact that the player is able to make the game their own through their choices.  The player and the player character effectively merge, in a way that transcends (I used that word deliberately) the usual emotional distance between player and avatar.

It’s a difficult in any game to get players to really connect with the characters or the setting.  They intellectually know it’s all just pixels drawn by a bunch of zeroes and ones. And besides, how much can in-game choices “matter”, if you can just reload and try again if it doesn’t work out?

What’s truly amazing is that Torment should theoretically be less accessible than the average game. The strange setting and characters, forbiddingly odd even by fantasy standards, adds another barrier to the player’s ability to relate to it.

And then there’s the fact that the player character’s “death” means even less than in typical games.  He’s immortal; so it doesn’t matter if he gets killed in a fight; he just wakes up again afterwards.  In theory, this should make every conflict less emotionally-charged than it otherwise would be.

The designers stacked the deck against themselves, and then overcame the odds to deliver one of the most emotionally compelling games of all time. And so Torment‘s weirdness is not a flaw, but a strength–it adds to its unique flavor.

Throughout this review, I’ve said relatively little about the specifics of the game itself. That’s because the game defies description–and I think that’s because it’s like a mosaic: I can’t explain why it’s beautiful by showing just one tile–you have to see the interconnected nature of the whole thing to understand it. The best I can do is describe the sense I got from looking at it.

If you like dramatic, narrative-driven video games and you like to think, give Planescape: Torment a try.  You’ll never forget it.

ghost poster1. Plot Summary

Ghost in the Shell is set “in the near future” according to the opening title card, in a world in which people are cybernetically enhanced. It opens with a young woman named Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson) waking up inside of a life-like mechanical body.  The doctor who performed the operation tells her that she is the survivor of a terrorist attack, and that her body was destroyed but her brain was saved–the first such instance of an entirely mechanical body.

The Hanka Robotics company that funded this miraculous operation then puts Killian to use as anti-terrorist agent in a group called “Section 9”. The Hanka CEO makes it clear that Killian, as the first fully mechanical shell housing a human brain, is a powerful weapon.

The film flashes forward a year to Killian, who is now a Major in Section 9, carrying out counter-terrorism operations.  After a gun battle with some hacked robots, Major Killian examines and attempts to hack the remains of one of the robots, the Major gets clues as to the location of the hacker, but also exposes herself to counter-hacks.

Eventually, the Major and her team track down the hacker, but when she finally finds him, he captures her and explains she is not really the first purely mechanical body created by the Hanka corporation.  He was a failed attempt they made prior to the Major.  He explains that they wiped her memories and gave her false ones. (Throughout the opening act, the Major has experienced odd hallucinations or “glitches” as her brain remembers fragments of her real past, including a burning pagoda-like structure. The hacker has a similar image tattooed on his chest.)

The Major finds the doctor who performed the operation who admits that the hacker’s story is true, and that in truth, there were 98 other test subjects who failed before the successful operation on the Major.

Now that she knows the truth, the Hanka corporation decides the Major is a threat, and the CEO orders the doctor to destroy her.  Instead, she gives her the address of her real home and helps her escape, before being killed by the CEO.

The Major goes to the address and finds a woman who she realizes is her mother, and who tells her how her daughter ran away a year before and was reported by the government to have committed suicide after being captured.

She contacts the other members of Section 9, which causes the Hanka CEO to attempt to assassinate all of them, but they manage to defeat his soldiers. The Major then meets the hacker at the ruins of the pagoda-like structure from their visions–it was their hideaway, where they both lived before being captured.

Hanka deploys a massive “Spider Tank” robot to destroy them.  The hacker is killed, but the Major destroys the Spider Tank and the Section 9 leader shoots and kills the Hanka CEO after the Major tells him to do so.

In the closing scenes, she meets with her mother and then continues going on missions for Section 9.

2. Analysis

That all probably sounds pretty confusing if you haven’t seen the film.  In fact, even having seen it, it sounded a little confusing to me just writing it.  But it all pretty much worked for me while I was watching the movie.

I went to see it because I like cyber-punk dystopian stories that deal with trans-humanism.  This is due to my fondness for the Deus Ex series of video games, which are set in futuristic dystopias and deal with augmented humans and the theme of humanity merging with machines. I saw a few bits and pieces about Ghost in the Shell and thought it looked kind of like that.

And I actually underestimated its resemblance to Deus Ex. For me, it was practically like watching Deus Ex: The Movie. The city in which most of it takes place looked like the cities in Deus Ex, right down to the intermingling of super-futuristic technology with trash-filled alleys and nightclubs. The fighting factions of hackers, mega-corporations and governments was straight out of that series as well.

The Major’s friend Batou reminded me strongly of Gunther from the original game, and the opening credits sequence looked like the start of Human Revolution. Even the guns looked like something J.C. Denton or Adam Jensen might wield.

More than that, even the structure of the plot was similar:

  • Augmented human/cyborg protagonist works for counter-terrorism organization.
  • Augmented human/cyborg protagonist finds out s/he is being lied to by said organization.
  • Augmented human/cyborg protagonist starts to have sympathy for the people s/he was originally fighting.

And to be clear, this didn’t bother me a bit.  I’m not saying they just stole all the ideas from Deus Ex. In fact, the Japanese graphic novel on which it is based (which I have not read) was written in the early ’90s, before Deus Ex. So I don’t know which is influencing which.  And frankly,  it doesn’t matter to me.  The fact is, it’s a good concept, so it pretty much works. All these things are common tropes of the cyberpunk genre.

Now, that isn’t to say that there weren’t some rough spots. There definitely were, including a major (no pun intended) one that I’ll get to later.  But I want to make clear that if you enjoy dystopian cyberpunk science fiction, you’re probably going to enjoy this.

At times, it felt like the greatest video game adaptation in history, even though it isn’t one.  There was tactical, squad-based combat, there were exciting gun battle scenes, and there was even a boss battle–in fact, the “Spider Tank” almost seemed like a brilliant parody of a typical video game boss fight.

The action sequences were pretty well-done, and most importantly, didn’t drag on too long.  In fact, except for one element (again, I’ll get to that later) they were surprisingly good.  The only one I really disliked was a scene in a nightclub where the Major is handcuffed to a stripper pole by some thugs who then hit her with some sort of electric prod.

First of all, it seemed like a bit of salaciously sexualized violence needlessly tossed in to titillate immature people. Second, it made no sense whatsoever why the Major would be susceptible to torture–why would anybody build a counter-terrorism cyborg that could feel pain?

Of course, the Major escaped–it wasn’t really clear why she waited–and satisfyingly beat up the thugs, albeit in a rather silly pole-dance-fight sequence. (It’s not as bad as that sounds–but still, not the film’s high point.)

One of my favorite scenes was the one in which the Major hacks into a broken mechanical geisha. I won’t try to describe it, but the visual metaphor they used for the hacking–and subsequent counter-hack–was very cleverly done. It was a good way of dramatizing the process.

Now, there are a lot of nitpicks one could make about the technology in the movie.  How can they have these super-sophisticated robots but still be using cartridge-based firearms? Moreover, how come the robots and augmented humans can still be destroyed by bullets?  There’s really no good answer, but this is where the concept of “suspension of disbelief” comes into play–if the story is good enough, the audience will accept it.

Except–and here’s that flaw I’ve been alluding to–there was one thing that totally ruined the immersion for me.

At the start of the first big action sequence, the Major is covertly monitoring a meeting that gets attacked by hacked robots.  She is standing atop a skyscraper in a black coat, which looks pretty cool.  When the attack starts, she leaps into action and… throws off her black coat to reveal the “outfit”–if you can call it that–pictured in the poster above.

Except the poster makes it look way better than it does in the movie.  Here’s a still from the movie:

ridiculous
via IMDb

This looks absolutely ridiculous.

For some reason, when particularly intense fights happen, the Major takes off her clothes and fights in what I guess you could call her “underwear”.  This allows her to periodically turn invisible, which is a useful tactic.

However, what is not a useful tactic is running around in what appears to be a bright-white naked human body. It’s hard to get any more conspicuous than that.

Images of Scarlett Johansson in this costume have been used heavily in the film’s promotional materials.  I guess this is just the marketing people trying to follow the age-old adage that “sex sells”, and figuring that this will appeal to teenage boys. (Although I was once a teenage boy, and I don’t think I would have thought this was hot even then.)

The effect is absurd and stupid.  The special effects are generally good, but on this, they really fall down.  The impression you get is that the bad guys are being attacked by a naked mannequin with a realistic-looking head superimposed on top of it. It’s slightly creepy but mostly just laughable.  It reminded me of the game Mass Effect 3, when the A.I. that pilots the ship takes over a robotic body that looks like–of all things!–a slender human female.

I would be inclined to complain that this is a rather cheap, crass and sexist ploy to get attention, except that it’s so silly-looking it’s kind of hard to imagine anybody thinks it’s sexy.  (And if they do, I can’t imagine what their reaction to walking into a clothing store with mannequins must be.)

This is even worse because most of the time, the Major wears perfectly respectable, everyday cyberpunk-heroine outfits that look just fine.

cool
via IMDb

(Side note: I have no idea what’s up with all the knives in this movie.  People would have knives and never used them.  The utility of a knife as a weapon in a world populated by cybernetically-augmented humans and pure machines seems limited.)

I don’t generally pay much attention to costumes in movies, and I feel slightly sexist myself for even discussing this.  (The natural feminist counter-argument would be that a strong, independent anti-terrorism cyborg has every right to wear what she deems best.)  I’m just saying it looked so bizarre that the scenes where it happened became unintentionally comical.

But what bothered me most about the suit is the fact that I could see people getting the wrong impression about this movie from how much it’s used in the marketing.  I was afraid the movie might be nothing but a flimsy excuse to give callow teenagers something to gawk at between shoot-’em-up scenes, and for the most part, it’s not that.  Apart from this relatively small (albeit really stupid) element, it’s actually a surprisingly thoughtful film, as these things go.

With that, enough about costumes.  Back to plotting and character–things that really matter.

Juliette Binoche is really good as the doctor who saves the Major and gives her the new body.  Hers was probably the most complex character–she is driven by a passion for science, and a genuine desire to help, but makes a Faustian bargain with the less-than-noble Hanka corporation to do so.

Her death scene, however, was poorly-handled.  It was clear enough when she helps the Major escape that she would be killed unless the Major saved her.  That she simply left her there made her seem a little cold.  Also, there is a logic problem in that the doctor is shot through a window looking into the room where the Major was held in captivity–you would expect that to be bulletproof glass.

There are no great feats of acting in this movie, but it’s not really the sort of movie that allows for or needs it.  All the actors delivered very solid, competent performances.  And the characters, while mostly stock figures of the genre, are reasonably well-written and consistent.  The script has only one memorable line and no masterful plot twists, but it is well-paced and workmanlike, with no serious flaws.

I would have ended the movie about two minutes earlier than it actually ends.  The last two scenes–of the Major reuniting with her mother and then going on a mission for Section 9–raise more questions at the worst time.  Who is the Major fighting now?  Is she still working for the government that collaborated with Hanka to kidnap her in the first place?  It seemed strange, and made the film a little less satisfying than it could have been.

All in all, I was very pleasantly surprised by Ghost in the Shell.  It is not a great film, but after the modern science-fiction films I have seen–Prometheus, The Force Awakens–even basic storytelling competence was really a treat.  If you like cyberpunk or science-fiction in general, I recommend it.

Now if only Section 9 would issue the Major a less-ridiculous stealth uniform…