Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Faust, Interloper

"Money - it's a hit!
Don't give me that do goody good bullshit"

Pink Floyd - Money

(This one's for you, T)
(Also, I feel obligated to warn of a minor TSW issue 11 spoiler. Avert your eyes! Wait, no, don't, get back here, you!)
(But no, really, I'm writing this for those who don't play TSW. If you do and haven't gone through the Faust levels of The Eight-Headed Serpent, it's worth experiencing for yourself... then come back and tell me if you liked the effect as much as I did.)

See, it's crap like this that gets me back into The Secret World year after year: stories. Though its gameplay was hopelessly compromised by shoehorning in WoW-clone mechanics (like faction grinds and PvP battlegrounds) and though despite some desperate damage control the skill system is still stuck somewhere between redundancy and imbalance, TSW benefits from some true talent in the interactive storytelling department.

I've been catching up on issues 11 and 12, finding to my rather happy surprise that at least the pointless faction grind treadmill has been eased considerably, allowing players to cooperate more freely in the tacked-on "endgame" multiplayer portion of the game. Still, that's largely window-dressing. The meat, bones and most other body parts of TSW lie within its single-player adventure-game side.

Anyone remember the original Half-Life? Remember the Interloper chapter? You teleport to another dimension and have to make your way through an alien environment - but more importantly, it is not an environment defined by its conflict with you. You trudge through hungry fauna and surprise hapless vortigaunt workers minding their own business, tending what looks like mining equipment. It's not all about you, you know. Part of HL's charm was precisely this perspective, rather fresh in FPS games at the time, of not simply plowing through endless "baddies" spawned specifically for you to defeat, but being just one well-armed nerd making your way through a conflux of external forces. You were never really a hero until the very end.

TSW's main storyline is of Lovecraftian scope, one of vast, primordial forces and bombastic mythological figures. "Imagine eating the sunlight. Eating the sun. One bite at a time." Yet so far the writing team manages to offset their grandiose backdrop by guiding the player among the commonfolk, forcing you to slow down, to walk and consider instead of simply barreling through every corridor mowing down enemy after enemy. Contrast is key. So while tackling the eight-headed serpent, fighting your way up through the corporate ranks, through a skyscraper to the penthouse level, you are detoured through the various rank-and-file of Orochi megacorp's eight constituents. The setup would've made Poe proud. Each level centers on a single effect depending on the nature of whatever experiment has gotten loose - darkness, riddles, dodging the elements, pathos or disgust. Vignettes.

Yet possibly the most cathartic moments were created simply by placing the conflict within a corporate environment complete with all the standard fear and backbiting inherent in keeping the lower ranks under constant tension, the facetious company picnics and casual Fridays dressing up the incompetence, pettiness and destructiveness divulged through post-it notes and old e-mails. Usually, it's just a prelude to fighting the monster of the day at the end of the level... usually. The true stroke of genius was Faust Capital's beta-security level.

There's nothing to fight. No monsters roam these halls. You enter tense, weapon at the ready, only to stumble into a room full of office workers typing and sipping coffee, undisturbed... uninteractable... droning on. After scanning the room for anything, any point to the setup, you move on... to a nearly identical room. Then another one, and another, and another. Room after room of row after row of noninteractable NPCs, a circular hell of varnished, stultifying futility in the midst of a world-class disaster which has demolished Tokyo, a fourth circle silent but for the clacking of fingers funneling wealth up the food chain. The greatest concern here is the thundering command on every whiteboard to vote on which brand of disposable plastic pens to purchase for the office.
Row after row, room after room.
After room. You pace past the rows of desks unmolested and unable to molest, powerless to harm or help.
The storm of violence of normal gameplay, that's one thing, but the creepiness of the eye of the storm, now that's masterful. Had they stopped here, TSW's team would still have achieved a grand effect, but oh hot damn, is there ever icing on this cake!

It's there in the last few rooms, not quite an Easter-egg but easy to miss. It's all the same grinding monotony, all the same figures typing away, life reduced to near-inertia... no chimes sound, no spotlights shine. You can walk right past it, you the interloper in this alien world. That's the whole point.
Holy shit. That thing's been stinking up the place for how long?
- and all around him the drones drone on.
Nothing changes. This isn't just Lovecraft with a side of Poe a la Dante, but Kafka for dessert. It hits with the gut-wrenching strength of a Terry Gilliam movie.
Every so often, at some of the endlessly repeating identical desks in endlessly, circularly re-iterated identical rooms, you find a worker rotting at his or her desk, slumped in their company-issue standardized office chairs, utterly ignored by the doomed souls around them.
Now here's where the interactive portion, the value of placing such situations in a game, makes the situation so magical: you just walk on by. You, the player, the hero, the dynamic apian ubermensch, just pass it by. You may want to scream at them all, to point an accusing finger, to drag the rot out of the system... but you can't. You walk the neatly polished tiles to the tune of clacking keyboards, complicit through inaction, and the automatic doors whoosh for you as you exit the fourth circle with not even a Virgil for company.

Brilliant. Whoever dreamt this up, whichever Funcom drones painstakingly painted this still-life deserve a raise... but we all know they won't get it, don't we? Anyone who's experienced a corporate meritocracy knows that's not how that circle spins. Ours is not to question why but to type until we die.
Check your pulse.

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