Prototype is a very brutal game.
A number of developers have had a hand at Activision’s licensed super-hero games based on Spider-Man and the Hulk, and Radical Entertainment (who was responsible for one of those Hulk games) seems comfortable with building on the mechanics and themes of those open world games to create a new “superhero” open world experience. Albeit a considerably darker and more violent type of hero than your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man or that lovable Hulk.
Prototype begins by introducing us to the amnesiac, Alex Mercer, the seeming alter ego of a super powered being that is a weapon of considerable power. Mercer and the player become slowly acquainted with what they have become over the course of several introductory missions that familiarize the player with the powers conferred upon a living weapon. It becomes quickly apparent that such a powerful weapon needs fuel and that the consumption of other lives is the necessary end of powering up.
Much of Prototype is spent on feeding on humans, be it to replenish Alex’s life bar or to gain experience points to gain upgraded powers, mobility, and skills. Like so many video games, Prototype is one that depends on a conceit that consumption is progressive, but it also tends to reveal in its brutal imagery that the cost of that progress is not necessarily pretty. Most role playing games have long relied on the idea that the protagonist levels up on the backs of his opposition. Experience points, gold to buy better skills and items, and treasure in the form of armor and weapons are the reward for combat and also symbolize the progression of power for the player. These rewards often appear directly as the corpse is harvested. Largely, the near cannibalistic metaphor that this suggests has remained an indirect one, though. As my colleague, L.B. Jeffries has pointed out, some designers, like Suda51 in No More Heroes, seem more eager than others to acknowledge this tendency in games to reward the consumption of life with money or power. In No More Heroes for instance, defeated enemies burst with geysers of both blood and money, parodying how advancement in games depends on violence. While the bloody mess of the progress of Travis Touchdown as a character largely remains a joke, though, in Prototype this violence is more stomach churning and horrific. The player can consume anyone, opponent or innocent bystander to achieve the ends of maintaining and progressing the character. While a player might try for awhile to focus on merely consuming the fascistic mercenary force of Blackwatch soldiers who oppose him or the monstrous plague infected mutants produced by a virus within the population of New York, sooner or later, it tends to dawn on you that it is easier at times to grab and consume an innocent caught in order to stay alive. Coupled with the sheer variety of brutal ways that Alex dismembers, impales, or tears apart the people and other enemies that he consumes, the fact that power is contingent upon feeding off the bodies of those around him very quickly becomes achingly and ickily obvious as one of the game’s major themes.
Additionally, there are some political concerns embedded in this broader concern with the cost of progressing towards power. The game’s plot does parallel certain elements of the War on Terror, noting how the political machine and media spin the tragic situation engulfing New York into an argument to fear and feel hostility towards a possible external and faceless enemy (none of the politicians or reporters want to admit that a virus has turned New Yorkers into the monsters, they blame it on an outside attack). Yet, because of the vicious qualities that the player finds him- or herself taking on by inhabiting the main character, it becomes obvious that the developers want to suggest that the things that we should probably fear most is ourselves, our impulse to power and the behavior that it recommends.
Interestingly, too, Radical has chosen to build this conceit, not only into the basic mechanics of keeping the main character alive and progressing his abilities, but it is also an essential tool in advancing the narrative. While the notion of introducing a video game player to their second self through an amnesiac protagonist has become a cliché, here this cliché serves a useful purpose by building the idea of developing a character through consumption into the narrative itself. Since Alex does not know quite who or what he is by devouring certain individuals (largely the military and scientists involved in the debacle occurring in a virus infested New York), he also gains fragmented pieces of memories that the player can watch to attempt to decipher both Alex’s past as well as the present plot that this anti-hero finds himself embroiled in. While many of the initial pieces of history that Alex receives via the consumption of his victims’ memories also seem like clichéd events and ideas from prior games (doesn’t Alex know that anyone in a video game world working for a big corporation called Gentek is just asking for trouble?), these memory fragments do become more varied and richer as you, the player, and Alex get their hands more and more dirty with the blood of the vessels of this information. In other words, if harvesting the dead for power seems the point of the game’s mechanics, that same harvest also motivates the player’s successful understanding of the game’s plot. Consumption is a means to power and understanding in Prototype.
Alongside grappling with the ethics of being a virus-fueled cannibal super “hero,” the game also serves the player the requisite delight in being super human. Like the aforementioned, Spider-Man and Hulk games, a great deal of the pleasure derived from playing Prototype comes from sheer locomotion and kinetics. As he travels between storyline-related missions and other activities, moving Alex through a now familiar (especially to players of the other Marvel inspired games) open world New York is a fast paced feast of acrobatics, parkour, and Hulk-like bounding that generates a sense of velocity and acceleration throughout the gameplay experience. Playing Activision’s super hero themed games is reminiscent of watching a well choreographed martial arts film with lots of groovy special effects. Except of course, all of the dynamism of movement and athleticism present in films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or House of Flying Daggers is not merely breathlessly viewed but breathlessly performed by the player. It is as if gaining the abilities to perform such impossibly elegant and balletic motions is the reward for checking your ethical qualms about the actions that pay for such powers. Perhaps, though, this is partly what Radical wants the player to consider in this game, though: just what are we willing to do or to stomach to feel this powerful? This is a question that sunnier (and more familiar) super hero games have been less willing to consider.