Games

Mastering the Basics in Butcher Bay

Escape From Butcher Bay is a simple story with simple mechanics, but it works with what it has elegantly.

Starbreeze’s The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay is one of the most competently organized and coherent games ever made. While nothing particularly dramatic or life changing will happen while playing, like Star Wars: Republic Commando it sticks with the basics and hits all the right notes. There are numerous things that the average action game screws up that Butcher Bay gets right. The setting makes sense with the way that the levels are setup. The game effectively makes you feel like you’re in prison through small details and interactions. While I don’t expect Butcher Bay to radically change the way that people think about games, I think it solidly establishes the bare minimum of what a “good” plot driven game is supposed to do.

The plot is divided into three coherent segments that are matched with proper variation in design to mirror what’s going on. Each segment is basically the same conceptually but varies in length. Riddick is placed in a low security portion of the prison where he talks with prisoners and sneaks around. After mucking about for a bit, you eventually establish a way to escape. The game then switches from stealth and dialogue to action as you tear the place apart while making your exit. Something goes wrong, you get caught, and you get dumped in another part of the prison. It holds together thematically because despite the fact that you will meet dozens of characters there is still only one overarching goal: escape from Butcher Bay. This leaves room for the dialogue to establish character instead of constantly explaining why this person is bad or why the player should care. All missions and side-missions build towards escaping, so you don’t have to worry about what the player is thinking. As Mitch Krpata puts it, “You always understand what your character is doing, and why. Riddick has to accomplish fetch missions, but they're not burdened with a bunch of useless filler” ("The Chronic-what-cles of Riddick", Insult Swordfighting, 29 April 2009).

In terms of design, the game is setup like Beyond Good & Evil. There are social spaces for talking with NPCs and the occasional side mission, followed by encounters in dangerous areas where you’ll be required to use stealth. Like Beyond Good & Evil, the use of stealth is often strictly enforced by using automated turrets and giving Riddick limited health and medical stations. Riddick can’t use guns for the majority of the game because they are DNA locked. If you trip the alarm, you can brawl with an opponent, but there are a lot of instances where you can’t survive doing this. Stealth kills, hiding in the shadows, and avoiding combat entirely are often the best choices until the game gives you a weapon. The resemblance to Beyond Good & Evil becomes noticeable when you realize that the game’s savepoint system (even on PC) is grouped by obstacles rather than player status or location. It saves just when you enter a stealth obstacle course and saves after you get by, resulting in the game’s difficulty feeling very arbitrary. To paraphrase Krpata’s review from the above link, you don’t really master a set of fundamental skills. You just go from room to room, study it, and figure out a way to progress. It’s a good design choice for making me appreciate my surroundings because unlike the usual "Run and Gun" style of an FPS, you have to stop and pay attention. When the game does kick into action, you’re often passing through areas that you’ve already been to or playing with new toys that are all about the explosions anyways.

This isn’t to say that Butcher Bay isn’t a large series of everyone’s favorite video game levels: the sewer, the cave, and the warehouse. It’s all steel walls and grey rocks just up to the ending. The thing is that it all makes sense. There are no filler rooms or long gunfights set up just to drag out the game. Despite the in game map being totally useless, I never got lost or confused because every room had a logical purpose. The mine is essentially a long winding cave with vents and elevators that connect back to other areas of the prison. The processing station is just above that, the smelting conveyor is an easy shortcut, and access back to the prison barracks is located above these rooms. It helps that directions are painted everywhere, but I rarely needed them.

NPCs and side missions will help with progress through these spaces by giving you smaller goals and ideas about what to look for in these spaces. In the first prison area, you need to kill the head gang leader, Rust. Someone will ask you to do this almost immediately, which will string you along through various NPC encounters as you find out where Rust is and pick a fight. The same applies for the second section when someone asks you to find Jagger Vance. These are the mid-goals that you need to reach to get back to the larger one of escaping Butcher Bay. Accomplishing these goals helps to slowly unlock each area of the prison space in a slow plodding manner rather than just dumping you into an enormous city. Titles like Mass Effect can often be overwhelming because they just drop you in a hub with little direction. In Butcher Bay, there are always guards and locked doors impeding your progress, which you open up by interacting with people. It makes sense in the context of being in prison because there’s never a moment of wondering why a door is locked or sealed. You’re in jail after all.

This all holds together on the plot end because Riddick is generally a stagnant character. While in the original films, he always feels a bit flat because he doesn’t really have a personality, in games it works thematically because having a narrative arc for an avatar is a huge challenge that most games aren’t up to. Implying that Riddick should undergo some kind of character change would require the player to willingly participate and that’s not necessarily the best route for an action story. To Starbreeze’s credit, they did pull this off in The Darkness, but here they are content with just having Riddick be a one note character and it works.

The game’s other main characters are equally one note yet effective at delivering a coherent story. Xzibit plays the tough captain, there’s the snooty prison warden Hoxie, and the crafty bounty hunter Johns who keeps catching you. Solid writing establishes their characters, particularly because the game gives them enough talking time to actually make an impression. Everyone else around you is forgettable and has a tendency to end up dead once the action portions fire up. These characters serve as a great source of feedback for your in game conduct. Guards will comment on the latest rumor about your exploits. Prisoners will ask if you’re “THE Riddick”. It helps create a sense that your actions have meaning and consequence in the game because people acknowledge things that have happened.

Finally, the game knows how to let you have fun. One of the key aspects of this is making sure that the player has a heightened sense of excitement once the action sections get going. By the time that you finally unlock guns, you have been salivating for one for a few hours. You aren’t allowed to use a riot mech until after you’ve had to fight or hide from them several times. The same goes for the spider tank. It gives the player an appreciation for the weapons that they’re using because they’ve had to fight them multiple times already. Contrast that to something like Doom 3 where you just stumble on the BFG without ever really experiencing it as a weapon. It feels a bit flat and disappointing because you don’t really appreciate how much damage a weapon can do until you’re on the business end of it. It makes pulling the trigger all the more satisfying.

There are plenty of other great moments and set pieces in the game that bear mentioning. The thrill of unleashing a swarm of aliens into the mines and then hauling ass out before they seal off that section of the prison was excellent. The cryo chamber created a real sense of place and struggle as I tried to figure out how to escape before my two minutes of “recreation time” were up. What’s great about Butcher Bay is that it’s still a good game to this day despite how basic most of its content is. There are too many games to count with bigger budgets and prettier graphics that still cannot manage what this game gets right. Escape From Butcher Bay is a simple story with simple mechanics, but it works with what it has elegantly.

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