Sunday, May 25, 2008

More shit about rules and fiction.

So, last night I was depressed, and my partner and I rented Alien vs. Predator: Requiem. These two things may not seem like they complement each other to most people, but we are a strange breed. The clerks were split on whether this was a good choice, but agreed that it worked fine as a retaliation for my recently having been forced to watch A Chorus Line. The retaliation theory doesn't really work, in that she enjoyed the first AvP more than I did, partially because she thought the lead predator was adorable. So, he said, there's that.

The new one is, well, what you see is what you get. Aliens blown apart by bullets. Aliens ripped apart by glaives. Humans decapitated by shoulder cannons. But AvP isn't really ideal for narrative media anyway; I have some of the old comics somewhere, and perhaps I'm wrong and the whole predator homeworld thing added something really vital to the mythos, something greater than the sum of its parts. But as far as I can see, it's piggybacking on the established tropes of two sci-fi/horror series of wildly varying respectability. All it adds is fighting. The appeal of AvP is more kinetic than narrative. Which means that it probably ought to have been a videogame in the first place.

There've been quite a few AvP games over the years, of course. The one for the Jaguar has been largely forgotten, which is a shame, because it represents an era of gaming culture that is, frankly, hilarious. The later PC release is the one most of us remember, I suspect, and aside from somewhat clunky multiplayer, it was a thoroughly brilliant FPS. When everyone talks about System Shock, I bring up AvP. What I remember about the game is mostly its use of darkness, and how each species relied on different methods to cope with it, but my fondest memories involve the weapons. The presence of three species allowed developers to build two contradictory weapon sets into the human and predator armories. Most importantly, these weapons were narratively consistent with what we knew from the films: the shoulder cannon fires in a straight line, and aliens are too fast for it, so that's for humans. The prox pistol lobs a ball of energy that safely and quickly kills aliens with its splash damage, but if you miss and hit one with the initial shot, they'll explode and bathe you in acid. It's too short range to be useful against something that's not running toward you, so that's for aliens. And the invisibility, conveniently, fails when coupled with any of the weapons designed for aliens, who don't need to see you anyway.

The sequel, the aptly titled AvP2, improved on the first in virtually every way. Still, it took me a long time to warm up to it, because it was narratively inconsistent with both the films and the previous game. The shoulder cannon became a tracking weapon for fast-moving prey, and became incompatible with invisibility. The new weapons, like the netgun, seemed awfully human-like, complete with ammo pickups. In fact, the line between human and predator seemed to be getting smaller.

On further play, I realized what I had been missing. Despite the increased emphasis on story in the three single-player campaigns, the game had been optimized for multiplayer, specifically a class-based multiplayer that divided all three species into four specialized classes. Every piece of weaponry, every alien mutation, now made perfect sense from a design perspective, and had the single-player campaign used a similar structure--back in the days of dial-up, I can be forgiven for reliably playing the single-player campaign first--I would have grasped the reason for the changes immediately, and acknowledged that they did, in fact, lead to a better game. But even for a better game, the narrative inconsistency might have been a little tough to swallow. Different people value texts for different reasons, of course; does this mean I'm a narratologist?

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