Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The (Perhaps Accidental) Brilliance of The Bureau: XCOM Declassified (SPOILERS)

This was the least scary picture I could find
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified does a lot of things in a less than spectacularly good manner. The shooting is mediocre, the squad control is spongy, the graphics aren't the greatest, and it took too long too make and costs too much money. However, all that aside, the final act of the game gets bizarre and actually does something really really cool.

Massive spoilers after the jump
So after you attack the alien home planet the player learns that they are not truly agent Carter. Instead, the game breaks the fourth wall and directly addresses the player. The game sort of indirectly states that they player is represented in game as being called an Ethereal and has the power to basically take over an avatar and do amazing things as that person.

This is pretty much the same conceit as is the basis of the Assassin's Creed series. The player is represented in game by something that controls something else. This isn't new or ground breaking. What is interesting about the Bureau is that the NPCs are pretty clear that being controlled by the player creates a scenario in which the player character is not actually a character at all but instead a puppet whose motivations can never really be trusted.

Sorry Desmond, you're not the only one
Agent Carter really resents being controlled by the Ethereal (read: the player). He hates it so much so that he threatens to win a Pyrrhic victory by blowing everyone the hell up. The player is then forced to into a non-choice where they leave Carter and then must pick a new player character from the remaining NPCs.

One reviewer called this sidelining the most interesting character at a crucial stage in the game. Another said that this was done knowing the effect but not knowing the why behind the effect. A third said this was a narrative moment that made the rest of the plot worth paying attention to. I tend to agree with all three but what I think is the most interesting thing is what this says about being the player.

After you choose a new player character the game sort of goes off the rails. I'm not going to lie, the whole thing isn't exactly stable to begin with but everything really comes unglued here. If you can picture something called "the structural stability of the narrative" this is the moment where it totally collapses and becomes an extended shooting sequence with you piloting a new character.

What is really amazing with this ending sequence is that no one fully trusts whoever you picked anymore. Now consider that players and readers are usually given a character to identify with, someone who helps them understand the universe around them. An example of this would be Watson in Sherlock Holmes, he acts as a foil to allow the reader a place to anchor themselves and enter the narrative.

In video games this gets handled a bit differently. If the player controls one specific character, they rarely get any other option but to identify or at least associate as the character they control. This creates a sort of cognitive dissonance, some players choosing to adopt a persona they think is emblematic of the character they puppeteer and other choosing to be themselves. For many, its a mixture of the two.

Not even the player can control a man so hard boiled
An example of this dissonance would be my playing Carter as a redemptive person, someone attempting to be more than the ubiquitous "file" that everyone keeps referring to. From the perspective of the game, this is the control of the Ethereal improving upon a flawed man. My control is co-opted by the game as the work of the Ethereal, a contrivance but an interesting one.

Player characters in general all suffer from a magical Ethereal lording over them and controlling their movements. No two Master Chiefs saved the universe in the same way. No Link or Mario ever saved with the princess without an alien overarching presence guiding their hand. No SimCity was ever constructed without a visionary Mayor to plan, or ruin, it.

Silent protagonists are seemingly the most susceptible to being controlled by the ethereal player. Their personas are so weak that they can be taken over with little to no interference. In a close second would be first person characters with speaking roles. Much like Carter, they have personalities and stories all their own. However, their own personal hopes and ambitions are co-opted by the player. The player then either has the choice of mistaking this co-optation as their own will or simply forcing a will of their own.

The Bureau's final act is a mess but it's a mess that says something bigger about video games in general. It calls into question the role of the player and precisely where they are situated in relation to the video game. Perhaps the thesis of this final act might be that the player is always an ethereal being that moves from person to person either forgetting themselves and taking on the beliefs of the host or renouncing the beliefs of the host and doing things their own way.

So many hosts so little time
What is unique about The Bureau is that NPCs actually react to this relationship. Armed with knowledge of the player they state there is a disconnect between the desires and actions of the player and those of the character, insinuating that the two can never be fully reconciled.

Other fourth wall breaking games don't do this. Other fourth wall breaking games would simply drag the player into the narrative and call it a day. Even Assassin's Creed plays it safe by closing off the area that the player can affect. The Bureau refuses to fully accept the player, continuously telling the ethereal that they are alien (pun intended).

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