Despite the necessity for innovative game designs to support more complex exchanges in video games, there is still plenty of unexplored territory in game designs that already exist today. There may be plenty of action games, but there aren’t many action games that delve into the violence and ethics of that conduct. There are plenty of stories about invading alien races, but few that talk about xenophobia, culture clashes, and ignorance. Daniel Remar’s latest indie title Iji explores these themes while melding a variety of game designs and narrative techniques. The end product is a game that doesn’t just make you question whether violence can really solve a conflict, it makes you endure the struggle of choosing not to shoot as a solution.
The game design is that of a 2D platformer with RPG elements that lets you tweak the game to how you like to play. You move through each level collecting nano points that you use to level up at various stations scattered throughout the map. Depending on which stats you boost, you can hack, kick, or shoot your way through multiple paths to the exit. Remar explains in an e-mail, “It’s basically System Shock 2 in 2D, with inspirations from Another World, Alien 3, Blackthorne, Deus Ex, etc.”
US: 13 Sep 2008
The narrative delivery also takes a cue from these games by having the plot delivered through cutscenes and logbooks tucked around various corners and levels. The difference is that Remar has designed these cutscenes to change based on what the player does. The plot is still generally linear but the conversations and reactions people have will adapt in response to your actions. It’s a simple tweak, but the degree to which it enhances and improves the experience is quite impressive. Rather than having the alternate endings feel tacked on or undeveloped, each ending is developed and is the logical conclusion to your conduct throughout the game.
The thematic choice of the game is whether you wish to play Iji as she first starts out and refrain from violence, or use her newfound abilities to change her into a killer. What’s interesting is that this chiefly affects the game experience in minor ways as opposed to massive plot or game design shifts. Remar notes, “Being a pacifist changes many things in the game, such as a short truce, the diary-writing Soldier and her girlfriend surviving, and the General’s impressions of Iji. Her voice also stays the way it is at the start of the game, but she still grows confident even though she doesn’t use the same direct language. Her jumping and kicking voice clips change depending on mood too; try staying pacifist but trigger one of the chat sequences which makes her angry at her brother in Sector 2, and her jumping and kicking voices will increase in anger. Become a screaming berserker or see something traumatic, and the jump/kick voices will never return to normal for the rest of the game. The actual gameplay changes are few, however.”
The plot is mostly linear in regards to these changes as well, leaving the player with a curious ability to affect the person in the game as opposed to the game itself. When something awful happens, Iji will be screaming for vengeance at everyone she fires upon. When she is trying to keep someone alive, she’ll call out a terse “Sorry!” when one of them gets hit. The result is a very immediate kind of feedback to the player’s conduct that makes them more self-conscious without the irritation of removing progress. You’re never punished for choosing violence or rewarded for being a pacifist, you just have to watch the emotional and mental toll it takes on your character.
The story is about the Earth becoming a war zone between two alien species. The Humans, far from being central to the conflict, are taken out of the picture at the very beginning from a planetary strike. Iji, your character, is a cybernetically enhanced civilian who is five minutes too late to do anything but pick up the pieces. The best plan you can think of is to try to get these technologically advanced aliens to just leave or at least take notice of humanity’s plight. As the conflict rages on, the reality that your loyalties to either side are as misguided as your hatred for either one becomes a problem instead of a solution.
“One of the themes of the game can be said to be racism and intolerance, since even a leader like General Tor is meaningless when his people consist of heavily armed xenophobes. The entire conflict is the fault of a large group of people deciding that they don’t like another big group at all, and horde behavior is a truly scary thing among people. I tried not to be punishing about it though; Iji has an easier time progressing by killing her enemies, but at the cost of her personality and mindset, and being pointed out as a hypocrite. Violence is something that can change anyone from the ground up, even someone like Iji.” As you read the logbooks of each species, you discover individuals and dueling ideologies as well. Some of the aliens think the conflict has become meaningless, some cannot imagine life without war, and others cannot see past their next victim. And all are caught up in the same horde mentality that cannot be changed or stopped.
The game is not without its quirks, though. The narrative is handled competently but Remar could definitely use an editor for the written portions. Having a lengthy log book is not in and of itself a flaw, but because I’m stopping to read instead of listening to audio, it messes with the pacing. Remar compensates by keeping the logbooks optional to read, but since they enhance the story there aren’t many alternatives for players seeking a narrative experience except to stop and read. There are also not many options for playing as a pacifist except to run for your life. When choosing the peaceful route, many of the logbooks can’t be read because an alien will be blasting away while you try to look. There are a few tricks to getting aliens killed like leading them into opposing forces or hacking them, but it gets to be a little disingenuous if you’re only “innocent” in that you never pull the trigger yourself. “Violence is an easy way out (ignoring for a moment that it only causes more problems), of course promoting pacifism among a large group of enemies trying to kill you is not going to go so well. It’s more difficult preserving Iji the way she is, because it’s more realistic that way, but also because her relative innocence is something that holds emotional value only—if you don’t care for the story and just blast away while skipping text, you would barely even notice she had changed except for her occasional screaming and taunting. You wouldn’t even care, because emotion is not something that can be quantified like ammo and kills,” explains the author. Remar also manages to keep the experience varied by having a lot of the logbooks feature a more humorous and lighter tone. It helps to edge out any illusions of pretentiousness for those players who are not looking for a deeper experience.
It is this last that really makes Iji such an interesting game. It’s a free-to-download game that gives you the option of pacifism, gives it meaning through narrative, and makes it a burden through game design. Any discussion of violence in video games must inevitably boil down to how one could responsibly explore the topic without becoming unrealistic. How, precisely, do you explain the inherent problem of waging a war for peace? How do I portray a hero who must gun down an army of people for such a cause? Most important of all: how do I play as such a person? In the opening moments of the game as Iji is finding out her first mission she comments, “This gun…it’s so heavy. I can barely even carry it without standing straight.” How Iji learns to deal with that burden is up to the player, but whether you choose to be a pacifist or a fighter, the experience of making that choice and experiencing the consequences is what sets Iji apart from other games.