[1 July 2010]
I’ve been playing Singularity. It’s a fun enough game, and it’s got some neat little tricks to it. With a central conceit built around time travel, the game offers some interesting ways to fast forward and reverse time, although even these aren’t on the level of complexity as the last Ratchet and Clank game. Even through the whole story centers around shuffling back and forth between timelines, the weapons themselves feel mostly like cheap tricks rather than an integral part of the dramatic setting of the story. Hey, it’s a game, and when we’re playing most games, we overlook these things. So let me be clear: the complaints and observations that I’m about to make don’t mean that Singularity is a bad game. It is, however, emblematic of some standard tropes that I think are common artistic failings in many games.
So what is this cheap trick that I’m bitching about? Early in the game, you get a device that can manipulate time. At first, you can cause objects to transform between ruined and pristine states. For example, broken staircases mend and crushed boxes expand into non-crushed boxes. It’s a neat little effect, and it’s used in some clever puzzles, like putting a crushed box under a partially open shutter and making it whole so it acts as a jack, making room for you to crawl under. It’s also used for some silly puzzles, like “un-crushing” a box so that you can move it in place to hop up on a ledge that, really, you should just be able to clamber up onto—except you’re in an FPS. The core issue with this time control device is that it’s just not grand and sweeping enough. It doesn’t feel like it’s part of a world gone mad. Instead it’s just a gameplay tool. You can only use it on certain things in certain places. You can “un-decay” this chalkboard but not that desk. You can dissolve that piece of cover but not most of the walls in the game.
The ultimate failure of such cheap tricks is that they make the game world less immersive rather than more compelling. The world gets divided into those few things that I can time shift, that different set of things I can levitate, and that majority of things that I can’t interact with at all. I would have loved to see at least some sort of texture swapping effect where I could zip around Mario Sunshine-style and leave swaths of pristine or decayed landscape in my wake. As it is, I’m painfully aware that all that I’m really doing is pushing the right button at the right place and time. Sure, that’s what many games are when you get down to it, but part of the artistry of game design comes from trying to hide this fact.
And then there are the cheap shots. Singularity is no more egregious on this front than any other game, but it’s a pet peeve of mine, and I felt it in a few especially curse worthy moments in this game. The big thing that games bring to the artistic table is conveying a sense of agency to the player. Any time that a game feels the urge to take away from the agency that we’re used to, it should really think twice about it. I know that there needs to be a certain amount of railroading in games in order to make the plot unfold, and oftentimes this railroading happens in cut scenes. Again, we’re used to this, and I have no problem with it in theory. But what I hate most of all is the cheap knockout shot.
You know what I’m talking about. You’ve got max health, full ammo, and five health packs. You’re rolling along, gunning enemies down with ease. In Singularity, a guy bursts out of the door and knocks you out. Bam! You’re a prisoner. Weapons gone, watch this cut scene. This can’t help but feel cheap and, worse yet, clumsy. Wear me down a little first, beat me within the confines of the game. I know that one lone soldier can’t take me out because I’ve proved it again and again. Making me “lose” a fight that I would’ve won if you’d just let me keep control is a cheap shot and it’s bad storytelling.
Singularity has some slightly less egregious railroading moments, common things like the floor suddenly giving way below you, sending you plummeting down into a cut scene. I don’t usually like these either (and I didn’t much like them here), but at least, they fit within the paradigm of gameplay I’ve grown accustomed to: I know full well that I’m bad at jumping in this game from having had to suffer through a few mild platforming puzzles.
Great, artistic games hide the mechanisms and conceits behind a great experience. It’s like going to see a play on stage—you’re surrounded by nothing but artifice, as even the most realistic set is missing one big, fourth wall. But when the acting and script are working with rather than against the scenery, the artificial nature of it all fades away into irrelevance. Cheap tricks and cheap shots are just like going to see a magician and having someone whisper how all the illusions work. You can appreciate the skill in the conjuror’s execution, but all the magic’s gone.