The Activity #2
US: Jan 2012
There’s a strange, bellicose one-two punch dished out by Thief: The Dark Project and its sequel Thief II: The Metal Age.
Just a handful of years after the magnificent, seemingly flawless Quake, and the original Thief simply deleted that model of gaming. It’s a first person view, but rather than a shoot-em-up or a beat-em-up, Thief was a sneak-em-up. If you got into combat, you’d most likely die. The point was to move as stealthily as you could, grabbing as much loot as you could. The simulated environment was completely immersive, aurally as much as visually. And the AI was vastly superior. Rather than simply “on” or “off”, Nonplayers had levels of alertness. Be quiet enough and they’d never know you were there. Clumsily knock over a vase, and they’d check things out before drawing a weapon.
But the one-two punch comes between the two games themselves. Thieves should break and enter, thieves should avoid the Sheriff and his deputies, particularly in a medieval steampunk setting like Thief. Thieves shouldn’t really Tomb Raider their way past ghosts and goblins and zombies and dinosaurs. The original Thief: The Dark Project felt like at some point, an executive decision had been made to include more elements that made the recent release of Tomb Raider as highly successful as it was. Thief: The Dark Project had more sneaking through graveyards and running and jumping and climbing than I cared for. The high concept seemed particularly dilute. It wasn’t until Thief II that I got to do really thiefly things like break into the Sheriff’s station and frame an over-ambitious Deputy.
Nathan Edmondson delivers a similar one-two with his recent creator-owned book, The Activity. The book relates the story of an ISA strike-team, soldiers who take direct action in urban, civilian-populated landscapes. “Silent Night”, the book’s second issue, engaged my far more quickly, and perhaps, far more deeply than last year’s series premier.
The plot involving the retrieval of a CIA operative is far more germane that the simply act of sabotage and the hasty introduction of the team’s newest operative. And the thematic overtone of using a Christmas Carol to describe key elements of the operation is just stunning. There’s something very comforting about the Dark Side of the Familiar that Edmondson conveys elegantly in issue two.
And then there’s Bookstore’s elegant reframing of the interpersonal, inter-team social tensions that emerge. You call us janitors, she says to one CIA operative, so you left a mop and bucket in the change-room. You should have left a Rubik’s Cube, it’s more like we solve the puzzle’s you can’t.
And yet, even with the high caliber thematic handling of the various plot arcs and sub-arcs, single missions could easily build an unwanted tedium into the book. There are parts of issue one that got me wanting read issue two, long before I know of the high-quality storytelling I’d find. The strange, swift efficiency of the team, for example. The fact that resolution is never what it really seems.
So as I did with Thief I’m left wondering, which would have made a better introductory issue? Which of the two should have gone first? And as with Thief, the original Looking Glass Studio productions of the first two games in the series, the question simply melts away in the face of superior art.
The Activity is a sleek essay on producing the maximal effect with the simplest interventions. It is the thriller genre boldly reimagined for an Obama-era administration, animated by the suppressed and supplanted personal lives of its protagonists. But The Activity’s greatest strength, is how it’s a love story to a very different kind of national security.
There’s a wonderful scene right at the end of “The War at Home”, an episode in the second season of The West Wing. “You know what Truman Capote said is the worst part of living outside the law? It’s that you no longer have it’s protection”, Bartlett says in the Oval Office to his fictive Chief of Staff. “What’s to stop me? 200 CIA operatives. Black Ops. 200 guys with no wives, no kids, no parents. I send 200 operatives down there, I read in the paper Monday morning, Juan Aguilar is dead. What’s to stop me?”
Bartlett’s protestations read like pleas for conventional warfare. And after Afghanistan and Iraq, Nathan’s plea is for exactly what he writes in the tagline “warfare, without warning”.