Here’s a game I’m willing to bet that none of you have encountered before: Lost Eden.
I’ve been thinking an awful lot lately about my youth as a gamer, partly in response to reading Steven Kent’s excellent history of the game industry (The Ultimate History of Video Games), and it’s been a real pleasure to compare the milestones of the industry with my own experiences as a young’un: getting my Game Boy at the tender age of six, being on the Sega side of the Great 90’s Console Wars, choosing a Sony PlayStation over an N64 in a moment of blind prescience. I’m beginning to understand the global context in which my own history as a gamer has occurred.
One of the eras I’ve recently been reexamining is the mid-90’s, at the tail end of the 16-bit generation, just before the arrival of the PlayStation, the Saturn, and the N64. I have been thinking about the time my family acquired our first computer with a CD-ROM drive and the bizarre and foreign experiences that were now available to me, a kid who had grown up entirely in the realm of consoles and handhelds. I remember playing Myst and marveling at how different it was from anything in my previous experience. What were you supposed to do? It was intriguing. It was mysterious. It was, it is to be admitted, a trifle dull.
Nevertheless! The enormous success of Myst in 1993 opened a floodgate of adventure-game imitators, and at one point, at the house of a friend, I encountered Lost Eden. “What’s the deal with this game?” I asked my friend. I was eleven.
“It’s kind of like Myst, but with dinosaurs,” he explained. He had captured my interest.
“What kind of dinosaurs?” I asked, no doubt raising a discerning eyebrow.
“All kinds,” he replied. Upon learning that the game featured a talking, psychic parasaurolophus, I knew I had to have a copy for myself.
Lost Eden tells the story of Adam of Mo, a young human prince tasked with rebuilding the severed alliances between dinosaurs and man and uniting the world under a single banner in order to defy the evil Moorkus Rex, leader of a tyrannosaur army threatening to subjugate the entire world. Except… he didn’t really look like a t-rex? That part was a little weird.
The point is, the t-rexes were the bad guys, and the velociraptors were the good guys. As a youth devoted to the point of obsession with Jurassic Park, this was clearly right up my alley.
Lost Eden was not a particularly great adventure game. It didn’t have the unique humor of a LucasArts title, nor did it have the compelling arhitecture or attention to detail found in Myst. It didn’t even really possess the charm of a King’s Quest. What it did have was dinosaurs. A generous helping of dinosaurs.
While the gameplay and puzzles were not particularly interesting or challenging, there were a couple of elements that worked well. Its narrative, while mostly predictable (it’s called Lost Eden, you play a guy named Adam… is anybody surprised when Eve shows up?), does have a couple of poignant moments: the reaction of your dinosaur companions to the discovery that their culture’s great prophecy for the future spells doom for their races has the appropriate gravitas, and a moment in which the hero poisons himself to journey to the land of the dead is pretty cool.
The game also had a really interesting new-agey score by Stephane Picq. Some of the tracks sound like B-sides from Pure Moods, but on the whole, they contribute greatly to the game’s excellent, brooding atmosphere. Also there is a track called “Velociraptor Ride,” which, come on. It was compelling enough that I actually tracked down the soundtrack on the internet five or six years after playing the game and had it shipped from France. Importantly, because CD-ROM games were a relatively new phenomenon, the music sounded unbelievably different than anything else I was used to hearing in games.
Here are a couple tracks, to show you what I’m talking about:
The main theme:
Would I recommend that other people track down Lost Eden and give it a go for themselves? Eh, probably not. We’re busy people, and it isn’t what I’d call a forgotten classic. It’s important to me, however, because it demonstrates just how varied our gaming histories are–none of us can claim to have played all of the classics, for one, but all of us–especially those of us who have been gaming since we were very small–have played many, many games. As children, when we were less discerning, we exposed ourselves to a higher-than-usual proportion of flawed-but-interesting pieces.
As someone who’s interested in the whole history of the medium, I’m fascinated by all of the forgotten games of our collective childhoods. How many games have you played that were, by all accounts, not great–but have stuck in your memory anyway, informing your tastes as a gamer and occupying a special place in your heart? I’d be willing to bet that each of us has quite a few.
Anyhow, here’s “Velociraptor Ride.”
Who’s excited for the impending DuckTales remaster? Hands in the air.
Everyone’s hand should be in the air right now. What’s wrong with you people?
I had the opportunity to fool around with WayForward’s remake at PAX East, and I’m fairly confident that Scrooge is in good hands–it feels pretty much identical to the original, and the new visual flair that they’ve laid overtop the old mechanics doesn’t distract much from the exceptionally solid platforming that was the hallmark of the NES classic. I don’t think we’ve got another “Turtles in Time: Reshelled” situation on our hands, is what I’m saying.
One of the things that I’m most curious about with the remake is how WayForward is going to treat the original’s exceptional music. The Penny Arcade Report mentioned in its announcement that Yoshihiro Sakaguchi’s music was not going to be “replaced,” but rather “updated.” As someone who has a deep and abiding love for chiptunes, I would be quite content to have the game’s soundtrack be completely unaltered, but as someone who also has a healthy dedication to the archives over at OCRemix, I’m open to the idea of new takes on old favorites.
The music to DuckTales isn’t just nostalgia-inducing, it’s legitimately great. I’ve argued before that the Moon Theme is the pinnacle of all human musical achievement, and it’s an argument I stand by. Here, have a listen.
What will the updated version of the Moon Theme sound like? Could it possibly be altered and still retain its supremacy over all other musical endeavor?
Maybe, maybe not. If WayForward walks the path of the remixer, it might end up sounding like this OCRemix from the ever-talented Star Salzman:
Listening to this, one almost wishes that WayForward would solicit OCRemixers to redo the entire soundtrack, much like Capcom did for the HD remake of Street Fighter II. But there are other ways to update classics, too, and the Moon Theme isn’t the only brilliant piece in the original DuckTales. Here, for instance, is the music from the African Mines:
Fairly funky, no? Might WayForward, then, choose to update in a similar manner to The One-Ups, who busted out some superb sax in their rendition of the tune?
Listen to that sax! The One-Ups sure know what they’re doing, don’t they? I’ve got my fingers crossed that whatever happens to the music in DuckTales, it captures the spirit of the original pieces in much the same manner as the arrangements I’ve highlighted.
But y’know, as excited as I am to team up with Scrooge McDuck again, I can’t help but be a little forlorn. See, this is my shameful secret: as much as I love DuckTales, as much as I continue to believe that the Moon Theme is a perfect expression of musical brilliance, as much as I have dreams of one day swimming in a money bin full of coins myself, there yet remains a classic Capcom platformer that I think is tragically overlooked, that deserves more love, that is even more chock full of chiptune goodness. It’s a game that I think deserves to be remade even more than DuckTales.
What is it, you ask? What is this pinnacle of perfection, this paragon of playability?
DuckTales 2, of course.
Yes! Scrooge had a second outing on the NES, and it was every bit as fine-tuned and brilliantly balanced as the first. Maybe even more so. It gets overlooked, often, because it came out in ’93, at the twilight of the NES’s life cycle. Admittedly, it didn’t improve on the formula much, but when your source material is as brilliant as DuckTales, you don’t really need to.
And the most important thing, of course, is that DuckTales 2, like its predecessor, had some totally rockin’ chiptune music. Without the Moon Theme it’ll never have as much cultural cache as the original, but just listen to some of these tracks and try to tell me I’m wrong:
Glomgold’s pirate ship:
And, perhaps my favorite, the music from the final screen (this version is from the Game Boy port):
It may be a madman’s hope, but all I want is for the sales of the DuckTales Remaster to be so overwhelming that Capcom remembers the lonely, forgotten sequel to its masterpiece and finds it in its heart to gussy it up and trot it out just like they’re doing for its big brother.
I’m not going to hold my breath, of course, but then– what does the song say? “Everyday, they’re out there making DuckTales.”
A guy can dream.
[Note: This is an article primarily about the ending of Bioshock Infinite, and as such it contains numerous spoilers, as well as spoilers for the original Bioshock. Probably you shouldn’t read it if you haven’t finished these games. There are also some references to other games–the new Tomb Raider, Mass Effect 3, and Red Dead Redemption–but they’re less explicit. Nevertheless, fair warning.]
There have been a number of essays written recently about the strengths and weaknesses of Bioshock Infinite. It is a hugely significant game for a number of reasons, and it deserves most of the praise (and most of the criticism!) that it’s receiving from the gaming press. I can certainly go on record to say that I enjoyed my time with the game thoroughly, and despite a few criticisms, I’d easily call it one of the best games I’ve played in the last couple years. But the final half-hour of the game, after the final battle has been fought, in which all of the game’s secrets are laid bare before the player, left something of a sour taste in my mouth.
Bioshock Infinite has one of the most frustrating endings of any game that I can recall. It gains much of its emotional impact by being deliberately dissatisfying to the player, and it thwarts a player’s sense of agency in a way that few other games dare to–for better or worse.
Inevitability is at the heart of Bioshock Infinite’s narrative. It’s a theme that is brought up frequently throughout the game, most often by Robert and Rosalind Lutece, who show up periodically to remind Booker of how little choice he has in the events of the story–and, simultaneously, to remind the player of how little choice THEY have in influencing the narrative. None of the minor choices present throughout the game have any significant effect on the events of the plot, and indeed, some of them are even decided for the player.
An early scene in which the Luteces ask Booker to call a coin toss always comes up heads, but Booker can actually call it either heads or tails. Importantly, however, it is Booker, and not the player, who makes this decision. This scene accomplishes a couple different things: first, it reinforces the overarching theme of the game, that the events of the world will play out in a certain way no matter what the player does; second, it creates dissonance between the player and their avatar, Booker–”why,” the player must ask themselves, “does the game not offer me input on this binary choice, when I have already been asked to decide between two courses of action earlier in the game?” (The scene is also, as Kevin Wong points out at Gamasutra, a nice little hat tip to Tom Stoppard.)
Booker tells Elizabeth, on a number of different occasions throughout the game, that there’s nothing he can do to wipe away his past. Ultimately, of course, that turns out not to be true–not only is Booker able to atone for his sins, but he is able to literally prevent them from ever having occurred–and all it takes is allowing himself to be murdered.
This is an exceptionally powerful ending to the story, but at the same time it’s very frustrating to the player–neither Booker nor the player have a complete picture of the situation until the final moments of the game, and by that point it’s too late. Once all of the pieces are in place, there’s nothing left to do but watch yourself be killed and watch the credits roll. The inevitability of the narrative hits you hard, and you have to sit by yourself on the couch for a while and sort things out in your head.
The question that was left ringing in my head, for days afterwards, was: “If the whole point of the exercise was that there was nothing I could do, why did I play the game?”
Bioshock Infinite’s comment on player agency in games seems to be that, at least narratively, it’s an illusion. None of the choices that you make have any real consequences. There is nothing you can do to affect the outcome of the story. Just like Booker, you are brought into the world of the game in order to play your part in events over which you have no control. Even death can’t stop you from playing your part: die outside the company of Elizabeth (who would otherwise resurrect you), and you reappear inside Booker’s apartment, only one door away from picking up where you left off. (And is it the same Booker? Does it matter?)
Like everything else in the game’s story, Booker’s ultimate demise (or is it a willing sacrifice?) is thrust upon the player without ever allowing them to take ownership of it. It’s not clear that it’s a choice Booker is making, and it’s not at all something that the player can make the decision to undertake–we don’t even really know it’s coming until a moment or two before it happens.
In no other medium could you so powerfully confront the player with their own narrative impotence, and that makes Bioshock Infinite very potent! In some ways, however, it makes me wonder whether the plot of the game wouldn’t be more satisfying in a different medium. Someone’s edited every story sequence in the game into a 3.5 hour film. Would the same messages about inevitability be just as compelling if the story weren’t interactive? Is the impact of the game’s ending dependent on the player’s belief that they might have some agency, or is it weakened by the player’s expectation to take ownership of the actions of their avatar?
“Nobody tells me where to go,” Booker says, close to the end of the game, and it’s an ironic statement on a number of levels. On the one hand, we as the player are telling him where to go. And on the other hand, there’s really no choice in the matter. As Elizabeth points out, the game brings us to the same place no matter how we try to fight it. And in the end, what happens to us? We are, as the many Elizabeths so appropriately echo, “smothered.” Frustrating! There’s nothing we can do. There was never anything we could do.
In the original Bioshock, one of the greatest twists in gaming plays heavily off the fact that you can’t progress in the game without following its prescribed, linear set of objectives. “A man chooses. A slave obeys.” And you have, of course, been unwittingly obeying the entire time. One of the great elements of thematic dissonance in that game, however, is the fact that the second act involves ridding your avatar from another character’s mind control, and yet the linear progression of objectives remains–you’re just taking orders from a different character, and though you’re no longer under the influence of “mind control,” you cannot deviate from the narrative’s path without bringing the wheels of the game to a screeching halt. You are, essentially, still a slave, and not a man. Players ask themselves: what have I really freed myself from, in the end?
I was always fundamentally disappointed with this element of Bioshock, and I think that I’m not alone in that assessment–the game’s ending is generally considered to be less compelling than its mid-game climax. I’m re-evaluating that assessment in the wake of Bioshock Infinite, however. My dissatisfaction with Bioshock’s second act was only retrospective–in examining the themes of the game once I’d finished it, I felt like there was a bit of hypocrisy there. While I had the controller in my hand, I didn’t feel any of that dissonance, because the narrative was aligned with my interests as a player: Tenenbaum wanted me to take down Fontaine, and she gave me instructions as to how I might do so. That was fine. After the betrayal I’d just experienced, I wanted to take down Fontaine, and I was willing to follow her “suggestions” as to how I might proceed, “would you kindly” or no.
Instead of asserting the player’s narrative impotence halfway through the narrative and then falsely “freeing” them from that impotence, Bioshock Infinite uses the last thirty minutes of the game to show us just how much of a pawn we really are, and then drive it home by murdering us and letting us watch the credits with slack jaws and a vague sense of betrayal.
As gamers, we’re willing to suspend our disbelief about how much agency we have in a linear narrative in order to see that narrative through to the end–as long as the game gives us a compelling reason to do so. Playing through the Tomb Raider reboot, I didn’t care that I was helping to turn Lara into a mass-murderer, or that so much of the narrative (and indeed, the gameplay!) was “on rails.” The premise of the game is that Lara’s in a terrible situation and that she and her friends will all die if she doesn’t resort to some extreme measures. (Kirk Hamilton calling out the game’s homages to The Descent over at Kotaku underscores this pretty well.) Tomb Raider isn’t a game that’s particularly concerned with issues of player agency, and so players don’t feel too compelled to consider moral culpability as they play it. I think that’s just fine.
There’s a reason, however, that there have been some good arguments raised about whether or not Bioshock Infinite’s ultraviolence undermines its narrative (and, of course, its accessibility to non-gamers or casual gamers). When a game strives to remind us, throughout its story, both that our character cannot wash the blood off his hands and that we may or may not have any choice in the actions that we’re taking, we start to look a little more critically at the slaughter that we’re perpetrating. This isn’t Yamatai–we’re not forced to choose between helping Lara slaughter thousands of men or watching her die. This isn’t even Rapture, where we’re forced to put down scores of Splicers that want to harvest us for our ADAM.
In Columbia, we kill hundreds of men because… Booker’s a bad guy already, and that makes it okay? Because we’ve been brought here by fate (or the Luteces) and because we have no choice? Because if we let them kill us, we’ll wake up back in our apartment and step out the door and… keep on killing? That’s a sort of WarGames scenario, right there. The only way to win is not to play. In Tomb Raider or the original Bioshock, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel–kill all the bad men, and eventually the killing will stop, and you’ll be safe. In Bioshock Infinite, if you kill enough bad men, then… none of it will ever have happened? Well, that’s cool. I’ll tell you how else that could happen, though: don’t play the game in the first place.
Obviously this isn’t a course of action I suggest anybody take. The game is awesome. If you don’t play it, you’ll be missing out on all sorts of wonders. I only mean to highlight the ways in which the game’s ending makes you reflect on your experience throughout the narrative and ask yourself, “why?” This isn’t Mass Effect 3 or Red Dead Redemption, games which also involve inevitable final sacrifices but allow the player to internalize, come to terms with, and follow through with those sacrifices as though they were their own decisions. Nor is it Shadow of the Colossus, which telegraphs its protagonist’s fate within the first hour of the game and dares the player to continue anyway.
Bioshock Infinite, by keeping the player’s blinders on until the final sequence, never allows players to understand the full import of their situation until they’re waist deep in the river and the only thing left to do is drown.
It’s a bold, powerful choice. Is it a good one? I’m not sure I’ve figured that out yet. Maybe the fact that I’m still sorting through it in my head means it was a good decision. Not all art needs to be cathartic, and sometimes brilliant pieces are deliberately dissatisfying. Nevertheless, I’m not sure I’ll be returning to Columbia anytime soon. The game aims to frustrate, and it succeeds! I will go and play some other things, and perhaps when my frustration has subsided, I will return. I’ll let you know how long that takes.
I have an unabashed love for the Monkey Island games. Like many other series, my experience with them is somewhat incomplete: I didn’t even know the games existed until someone gifted me with a copy of The Curse of Monkey Island, and I wasn’t able to devote the time to working on the earlier entries until the special editions were released a couple of years ago (and I still haven’t played Escape from Monkey Island, or Telltale’s latest episodic entries into the series).
But man, oh, man. The Monkey Island aesthetic is just brilliant. The number of video game narratives set in the Age of Sail is criminally small, and the number of successful video game comedies is pretty paltry, too. To have a game that combines the two, and does so with aplomb, is truly a gift.
It doesn’t hurt that Monkey Island has one of the catchiest and most memorable main themes in all of gaming. When I first booted up Curse and was treated to this:
I knew that somebody at LucasArts was working some magic.
The absolute best part, though, is that this theme has a strong enough melody that it’ll succeed on just about any hardware. The first game, playing its theme using your PC’s system noises, sounded like this:
You can call that horrific, electronic bleeps and bloops if you want, but to my ears that is solid musical gold.
If you really want proof of Monkey Island’s beautiful marriage of aesthetic, music, and comedy, however, you need look no farther than this scene from Curse, in which hero Guybrush and his newly-acquired crew of miscreants are boarded and robbed by a rival. If you’ve not seen it before, be sure to watch until the end. It’s… priceless.
Buying the special edition of Bioshock Infinite, which comes with a digital copy of the game’s score, was a pretty fantastic decision.
I’ve been listening to Garry Schyman’s superb work for the better part of a week now, and it’s absolutely beautiful. Any fan of game music, or orchestral music, or music that’s able to evoke any kind of emotion at all, ought to look it up immediately.
But I thought this afternoon that I’d highlight a track from Schyman’s score for the original Bioshock, which is every bit as worthwhile as his newest endeavor. This track, “Empty Houses,” is not as immediately recognizable as “Welcome to Rapture” or “Cohen’s Masterpiece,” but it’s still my favorite piece in the whole score–it gets utilized early on in the game, just as you realize what a bleak and appalling mess you’ve stumbled into, just as your one ally is asking of you an impossible task. This piece, more than any other, captures just how sad the story of Rapture is.
Give it a listen–really let the strings sink in–and think about how frightening it was to contemplate the prospect of navigating through the whole of that decaying, anarchic metropolis beneath the waves.