Monday, February 4, 2008

Raziel is a scab.

I first heard of Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain via a preview in Diehard GameFan magazine. The emphasis, unsurprisingly, was on the game's graphic and aesthetic qualities; it was an early PlayStation game (released in late 1996), and the thrill of (then) high-quality full-motion video (FMV) hadn't yet worn off. In addition, the media hysteria over Mortal Kombat and Night Trap had only recently worn off, and violent game--games that would likely arouse controversy and thus validate the reviewers' occupations--were always in high demand at the thoroughly contrarian GameFan. An interview with the creators followed the preview, and the conversation took a curious turn: the creator began talking about the game's plot, and the psychological profile they had tried to construct for the protagonist.

I was out of school at the time, after 7th grade and before college, and the always significant role of videogames in my life was growing. My interest in storytelling in general was growing as well, and much of the time I didn't spend on games was focused on creative writing in the form of prose and screenplays. I had begun to understand games as stories integrated within tests of strategy and reflexes (a whole lot simpler than what I believe now, but not exactly a bad view of the medium), and I purchased the game not long after it came out, expecting just this: a good little morality tale with some exploration and a few boss fights thrown in.

In my first time through the game, my expectations were fulfilled, but not exceeded. The gameplay itself was mediocre, a 2D, 3/4 overhead view Zelda knock-off showing some of the same gimmicks (real-time scaling) and problems (oppressive load times) as other early PS games, as well as inconsistent collision detection that would have seemed out of place in a 16-bit game. The strategies I (as the player) was called upon to learn were rather simple, and challenging only in that they were well outside the strategies usually employed in the genre. The story, and the presentation, were something else altogether. The actual plot is perhaps too convoluted to describe here, but can be summarized thus: Kain of Coorhagen, an arrogant nobleman, is set upon by brigands and murdered. Offered a chance for vengeance by the necromancer Mortanius, Kain eagerly accepts the offer without asking the consequences. He is returned to earth as a vampire, a living corpse despised by his own class and his inferiors alike. After killing his assassins, he finds himself lured into a quest to end the malaise that has so corrupted the land of Nosgoth by killing the nine guardians of the land, who have been perverted by a darkness that manifests as insanity in some and moral collapse in others. These nine are referred to as the Circle of Nine, and each is linked to one of the Pillars of Nosgoth, nine columns representing the magical elements that control the land: Mind, Conflict, Nature, Energy, Time, Dimension, States, Death, and Balance.

Incidentally, do you see why your college lit professors told you not to do plot summary in your writings? It's fucking awful to read. I wrote that crap paragraph above this one, and am now so bored I'll probably end up spending an hour looking at political blogs and porn just to get the taste of plot synopsis out of my mouth.

Anyway, the story is arranged, toward the game's beginning, in a standard fashion for the genre: nine powerful wizards must be tracked to their opulent lairs and slain. The genre conventions, however, do not hold throughout the game. The wizards in question do not, as they had in all previous incarnations of this game design, simply wait for the “hero” to slowly grow in power until he bursts in and kills them; they behave, for lack of a better term, realistically. One flees from his pursuer, knowing he stands no chance. Another cannot be defeated, and the player must escape and seek assistance from a third party. Three form an alliance to protect themselves. Two attempt to kill each other. Members of the Circle, far from bit players, are active participants in the story even when Kain (and, by extension, the player) can't see them. The player's perspective is mostly fixed to Kain, and as such the player seldom knows more than the avatar; most of the story is revealed to players only through Kain's discoveries. At the end of the game, with the Circle annihilated, the final truth is revealed. Kain has been selected, through his actions, to become the new guardian of Balance, but his own body is an abomination, regardless of what good he has managed to do with it. As the lone remaining power in Nosgoth, he can rule it as a king overseeing its continuing slow death, or sacrifice himself and restore balance, bringing salvation to a land damned hundreds of years before his birth.

The device is a fairly common one: a good ending and a bad one. It is easy enough, by loading a saved game near the end, to see both. Nonetheless, the game does offer the player the choice, and players are thus allowed to engage in an activity that is both role-playing and literary criticism: what, given what is known about Kain's character, would he do?

It is here that the ambitiousness of Kain's design becomes most apparent. There is no onscreen text in Blood Omen, aside from file management and one puzzle involving runes; all information, even that not directly related to the story (such as descriptions of items or spells), is carried to the player by Kain in short oral narratives. It is in these moments, seemingly extraneous, that we learn much of Kain's character. Kain is a vicious, bloodthirsty sadist, and it seems from his comments that this was true even when he was alive. He enjoys the kill, but resents that he must do it to survive. He is a bad person by any stretch of the imagination, consumed by hatred at every turn, but in his hatred lies his redemption. He hates the state Nosgoth is in, the corruption that runs through every plant and animal in the land. He hates being a vampire, even if he enjoys the power it gives him. His hatred sets him in his way, and amid his blood-soaked journey, he begins to change. He begins his quest looking for vengeance, continues it looking to restore his own life, and at some point, simply forgets about the trappings of power with which he seemed so concerned both before and after his perverted resurrection, going so far as to ignore a chance to travel back in time and prevent his own death. Kain's own power, and his own vengeance, slip by the wayside as he increasingly fights on behalf of Nosgoth itself, and neither Kain nor the player is called upon to notice this change in priorities until the choice that ends the game.

In the GameFan interview, the creator says that Kain is a character of moral transformation: a thing of darkness that can think only evil, yet ultimately finds himself trying to save the world. My own reading of the text confirmed this claim: Kain was not an anti-hero, as semi-literate game reviewers have always been fond of calling him, but a hero.

I enjoyed the game greatly, and awaited the sequel I presumed was coming—most games don't have both a main title and a subtitle unless a series is intended, after all. Two years later, I saw a feature on the GameFan website of the upcoming Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver. I was initially confused that the subtitle had become the series title, and that the Soul Reaver, a minor plot point in the first game, would be featured so prominently. Upon reading more of the preview, I became even more confused. Kain had chosen his own survival over the well-being of Nosgoth, said the preview, and now ruled of the dying remnants of the land with six lieutenants, vampires he had created. Moreover, the Soul Reaver storyline contradicted the Blood Omen storyline, specifically its physics/metaphysics, in several ways. It was still possible, of course, that the designers had changed their minds, or that I had just happened to stumble upon a radical, possibly unsupportable interpretation of the text. Nonetheless, if any designers were to assert that a game had a meaning bound up in the text itself--that “readers” could not pick and choose the elements they felt valid to support what future storylines made sense--it would be those at Silicon Knights. Some time later, I read a minor story on the same site that Crystal Dynamics, Blood Omen's distributor, was being sued by Silicon Knights. Not much in the way of detail was given.

I did some digging, and soon found that Soul Reaver was being developed in-house at Crystal Dynamics, not at Silicon Knights. At the time, I was working (in the sense of doing work, not in the sense of being paid) for an amateur game review site. My main job was to go on professional sites and grab screenshots for games, which I'd send to our graphics department (a woman named Katie), who would open a graphic editing program and place our site's logo directly over the watermarks on the screenshots I'd grabbed. I'm not sure if that was, strictly speaking, legal, and won't be repeating the process here. That said, I soon started writing reviews, and thus my participation in the site was sufficient to write to people and imply that I was a member of the press. I wrote an article about the games (now lost to the ages) for the now-defunct site, and sent drafts to Crystal Dynamics and Silicon Knights, in case they preferred to correct any errors or argue any judgments before its publication. Crystal Dynamics sent no response, but my email to Silicon Knights was answered by the lead designer, Denis Dyack. Although legally prohibited from discussing the terms of the settlement with Crystal Dynamics, he did discuss the team's plans for the series and issues with the story path chosen by the sequel's designers.

Crystal Dynamics' Kain series, which now has four published entires (including one that purports to be the sequel to the original Blood Omen), did eventually develop quite a fan following of its incredibly convoluted storyline, even if it ended up being more like an extended spy movie than the classical tragedy to which Blood Omen aspired, and aside from the glaring, unresolved inconsistencies with Blood Omen, the new series has been pretty consistent with itself. Perhaps more importantly, the storyline was matched with a more modern gameplay system (swiped from the 3D Zelda games and Tomb Raider) and exponentially better graphics. A modest success in the hands of Silicon Knights, Crystal Dynamics made a highly lucrative franchise out of Nosgoth.

The experience as a whole made me think long and hard about the nature of authorship, and how the concept had not yet been fully developed in games. The videogame industry does produce its share of superstar designers—Wil Wright, John Carmack, Sid Meier—but they're usually valued for general game design principles, nothing so pedestrian as character creation or story. It made me think about how the non-interactive elements of what is so often presumed to be an interactive medium were so important to my overall experience of the game, and what that meant for the future of games as a storytelling medium. It made me wonder why the press didn't seem to think the legal theft of the Blood Omen series, renamed as the Legacy of Kain series, warranted any print, and it made me wonder to what extent players would have cared if it did. It made me think about rules of interpretation, and brought forth ideas for which I wouldn't find words until I studied literature in college, years later. In short, the treatment of Blood Omen by the distributor, by the press and by the players pissed me off, and I ended up channeling that anger into my academic work.

Though the ideas are obviously still in development, what I learned from Blood Omen and its subsequent sequels still informs a great deal of my work. First, despite all the griping about videogames being a “dumb” medium fundamentally incapable of storytelling, deep, throught-provoking games exist; they just don't often become famous, because the gaming press often can't be bothered to notice. Second, active gameplay does not entirely divorce games from rules of non-ergodic narrative. The drama in playing Blood Omen comes not only from the ergodic elements, or from the voiceovers and cut-scenes, but from the tension between the two: not control, but illusion of control. This illusion of control makes this particular form of game design (one that seems to be receiving fairly little critical interest when compared to the ludic playgrounds of Grand Theft Auto or The Sims) particularly well-suited to tragedy. Finally, if the industry is going to prosper, creators' rights must be respected, and when they are not, the media have to cry foul, or give players the information needed to do so themselves. It isn't a lack of creativity that slows down artistic progress in videogames, it's a lack of critical involvement by those that play them.

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