Skulls and Arms and Torsos Squelching Noisily Underfoot Like Pillows Stuffed With Runny Porridge: And other children’s favourites

Isaac Clarke: the single least interesting protagonist in a videogame, ever.

Due to a combination of factors – mostly not having to save for a life-changing trip, being done with college, and also denying my body most of its vital nutrients – I’ve had a bit of disposable cash lately, to burn away on some kind of pointless frippery. Married to an RPS-and-Steam-inspired resurgence of interest in video games, this aberration has resulted in me buying a frankly stupid amount of games in the last two months. It’s also led to me becoming a pallid, palsied, semi-arthritic, RSI-afflicted, withering husk of a human being, but hey – that’s not all that different to usual.

Admittedly, most – nay, all – of these games were on the cheap: I bought Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis for €4, Call of Duty 4 for a smidgen over €20, TOCA Race Driver 3 for €3, Mirror’s Edge for €8, Dead Space for €9, and The Longest Journey and its sequel, Dreamfall, for €25. (To put into perspective how stingy I am, the most recent of those games is about 6 months old, and Fate of Atlantis is 16 years old. It’s beyond being a cheerful bargain hunter, and into the territory of “wretched, miserable miser”.)

Playing Dreamfall and Dead Space in such a short span of time made me realise something about how I’ve changed as a gamer in the years since my obsession last peaked. Dead Space is the kind of game I’ve always loved: going from room to room, shooting the living bejesus out of everything that moved, in the goriest manner possible. Dead Space, in particular, emphasises the gore; rather than aiming for a single shot kill, or a headshot, the game requires you to systematically dismember your targets, hacking off their limbs with mining lasers and pulse rifles, until your avatar is literally wading through a vast sea of inhuman detritus, skulls and arms and torsos squelching noisily underfoot like pillows stuffed with runny porridge. It’s a stunningly visceral experience, punctuated with the odd bit of effective horror, reminiscent of walking around a particularly dark bit of Lucan on a Saturday night.

Dreamfall, on the other hand, is a story.

Dreamfall's Zoe Castillo, though, is utterly beguiling. And pwetty.

It’s a game, yes, but that’s very much secondary in what it achieves. From the wonderful mind of Ragnar Tornquist (John Walker did a remarkable interview series with him here, here, and here, which convinced me to buy the Longest Journey pack on Steam) Dreamfall tells a beautiful, inspiring story, but forgets to give you much to do in between listening to characters talking. What’s worse, the bits that it does give you to do consist of mind-numbingly awful combat and stealth sections that simply don’t work in any appreciable way.

But hot damn, I loved Dreamfall. On a general level, together with its predecessor, it tells a story about storytelling – its importance, its vitality, and its potential. On a more specific level, Dreamfall tells a story about faith, and what it means to have it, and to lose it. Which all seems stupidly high-minded when you consider that most video games give you a target, numerous ways of obliterating it into a million tiny pieces, and a paragraph-long summary on why you, as John Q. Bulletbringer, must dispense justice upon those targets. But Dreamfall succeeds where most every other game has failed, in providing a substantial, moving story – with standout scenes that stand out not for the incredibly cool way you destroyed a man’s life, but for the incredibly potent way the narrative unfolds before you – and convincing, lovable characters, who have convincing, effective dialogue, and there’s subtext, and everything. That it fails to be Tomb Raider at the same time seems so very easily forgivable.

Dead Space, though… Mindless, disembowelling-based sci-fi shootery – I really should have adored it. I mean, my favourite developer for years was Raven, who specialised in mindless sci-fi shootery, and in disembowelling-based shootery. Star Trek: Elite Force, Jedi Knight: Jedi Outcast and Jedi Academy were all beloved favourites of mine five or six years ago, as was Soldier of Fortune (as far as I know, the only first-person shooter where it’s possible to actually remove a man’s intestines with a knife). Surely a combination of futuristic science fiction and gun-based surgical procedures would be gaming nirvana for an apparently sadistic, psychopathic nerd like myself?

It's probably more scared of you than you are of it. Probably.

As it turns out, I got to the fifth chapter, and completely lost interest. Where Dreamfall gave me two interesting, personable protagonists (and one vaguely intriguing guy) to play as, with a charming support cast, Dead Space gives me Isaac Clarke: a futuristic miner, covered head to toe in metallic armour with shiny blue lights all over it, and a bunch of laser guns. Joining Isaac are his superior officer, who orders him to go shoot some aliens, and a medical officer, who orders him to go collect sciency things – which are inevitably surrounded by aliens he’ll need to shoot first. All of which seemed fine, until I realised there was absolutely no reason for any of this to be happening: the story was a rip-off of Aliens that the developers probably tossed off in a minute or two and the characters were just basic stereotypes plastered on top of exquisitely crafted polygons with no discernible motivations. Worst of all, I was just absent-mindedly plodding back and forth across a spaceship because I didn’t want to do anything more productive, like sleeping, or crying.

The strange part is, a year or two ago, that wouldn’t have bothered me. I likely would have relished in every last goo-splattered minute, playing and replaying until the ghastly images of bloodied, broken alien bodies were seared across my eyeballs. The fact that Isaac Clarke is a silent, emotionless, personality-bereft purveyor of meaningless violence wouldn’t have bothered me so much. All that would have mattered was that some aliens received a good punch in the throat. And I can’t really pinpoint when that changed – or what changed, exactly.

When did I become the guy that plays through the tremendous shooting bits of Bioshock just to get to the next spectacular bit of art deco room design? Three years ago, would I have hated Mirror’s Edge when it tries to force you to play it as an FPS like I do now, or would I have hated the free-running bits that get in the way of gunplay? And why am I more concerned with analysing the minutiae of COD 4’s plot than the broken spawn mechanics or grenade-spam deaths?

Bioshock: forgetting about games as art, and focusing on art in games. To beautiful effect.

Honest answer: I don’t know. Maybe it’s a form of post-college malaise, and like most people with a degree in English and Anthropology, I’m becoming a bit of a pretentious asshole (or more of one), and refusing to be entertained by anything as simple as “shooting some things”. Or maybe I’m just growing up a bit.

More likely, my sideline (a sideline to nothing in particular, admittedly) as a mediocre music cricket, and my habit for reading far too much brainy, witty games criticism, have combined to make me approach games from a different perspective than I did before.

Specifically, in my case, the perspective of a difficult-to-please, pretentious twat.

Dreamfall: once again, absolutely ravishing. I'll hopefully write a whole load more about this game fairly soon. Or else I'll get lazy.

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