Monday, January 23, 2012

Prototype - Part I - Missed Opportunities

Prototype (video game)Box Art, via Wikipedia

Prototype is an Activision game that was released in June 2009.  The reason I’m picking it for my first Game Story Reboot is because it has several really intriguing ideas that don’t quite hit the mark.  Prototype has good voice acting - especially for the protagonist, voiced by Barry Pepper.  It has excellent production values, and was critically well-received.  There are a lot of good things about Prototype, which is why when the story missed the mark for me, it really felt jarring.  So let’s fix it!

By the by, you really shouldn't be reading these things if you care about story spoilers. We have to look at the whole story, including the ending, in order to see what went wrong and what went right.  Ready?

Prototype As It Is

Prototype is a third-person (you view the main character from behind) action game that takes place in Manhattan.  The main character has many abilities that permit him to race up skyscrapers, glide from one building to another, run at super-speed, transform his arms into various weapons and shields, and, most interestingly for our purposes, absorb the bodies of people and obtain their memories and skills.  The character battles against “infected”, who are monsters from zombies to giant Cthulhoid tentacles, and military forces from regular police officers with pistols to massive tanks and rocket-launching helicopters.

Prototype’s Story

I’m going to present the story of Prototype in the order that it occurs in the game world, not the order in which the player experiences it.  When presented like this, some of the flaws in the story become immediately and obviously apparent.

In 1969, a secret quasi-governmental program to develop biological weapons goes awry in a small town, Hope, Idaho, killing virtually the entire population of the town.  There is one survivor, a young woman named Elizabeth Greene, whose body somehow absorbs and alters the virus.  She goes insane from the experience.  Her child, Pariah, who has a similar immunity, is stolen from her at birth, and she is trapped in research facilities for 40 years.  (We do not directly see Pariah in the game.)  Over time it becomes clear that the virus in Greene’s body has either a modicum of sentience, or has copied hers and is now in control.  The research on the virus and Greene becomes the foundation for a powerful genetic engineering corporation, GenTek.  GenTek is partly controlled by Blackwatch, a military faction that was created in the aftermath of the destruction in Idaho.

The intervening 40 years are very good for GenTek and Blackwatch, they are able to parlay the biological technologies they get from studying Greene and her viral progeny into government contracts and private medical development.

A researcher at GenTek, Alex Mercer, begins to learn some of the truth about the virus he's working on. He provides confidential information to his sister Dana, who investigates GenTek from the outside.  Concerned about the leaks, Blackwatch decides to take direct control of GenTek and eliminate all suspects.  Mercer steals a sample of one of the viruses (called Blacklight) as “insurance”, and when he is cornered by Blackwatch at Penn Station, he releases the virus and is immediately killed. Blacklight fuses with his dead body (as the predecessor virus did with Elizabeth Greene’s live body) and awakens in the morgue at GenTek, just before being autopsied.  Although the virus has gained sentience and some basic information from Mercer’s body, it has no memories.  Seeing the name on the morgue documents, it believes it is Alex Mercer, although it has no knowledge of Alex’s life. 

The game begins at this point, with the player unknowingly taking control of the sentient virus occupying Mercer’s dead body.  

The virus released at Penn Station also enters the population of Manhattan, killing many and transmuting many others into violent beasts.   Blackwatch is sweeping in to wipe out or capture GenTek, in order to cover up their involvement.  In the chaos, “Alex” escapes.  Blackwatch knows that Alex is dead and terms the Blacklight-Mercer fusion “Zeus”, and refers to it as “it” throughout the game.  This is a good way to differentiate between the protagonist and the deceased Mercer, a crucial aspect of this Reboot, so I will, with no small sense of gleeful irony, adopt Blackwatch’s terminology.

Pursuing a lead that Alex has a sister, Dana, Zeus approaches her.  Dana (and most of the people Zeus interacts with as Alex) believes that GenTek has infected Alex with the virus as a coverup or as part of some other sinister plan.  Zeus also makes contact with an ex-girlfriend of Alex’s, Karen Parker, who also worked with him at GenTek.  In addition, early in the game Zeus absorbs a memory related to Elizabeth Greene, and believes she may be “another test subject”.  He releases her from GenTek, not realizing that by doing so he has created another viral outbreak, this one even more severe and destructive, and under Greene’s control and direction.  Dana and Karen provide him with clues and objectives - either Blackwatch goals or Elizabeth’s activities that that have to be investigated or stopped. 

Eventually, Dana is captured by Greene and Karen turns on Zeus, leading him into a Blackwatch trap.  Zeus rescues Dana, defeats Greene, and makes contact with an informant inside Blackwatch, who informs Zeus of his true nature as a virus, and that Blackwatch intends to nuke the island of Manhattan to contain the plague.  This informant turns out to be another sentient carrier of the plague, one created by Zeus’ attempts to neutralize Greene.  The carrier (called, lamely, the Supreme Hunter) wants the nuclear attack to happen so that it can escape Manhattan undetected and spread itself elsewhere.  The Hunter helped Zeus in order to eliminate those at Blackwatch who might recognize that he isn’t who he appears to be.  Zeus defeats this last carrier of the plague and disposes of the nuclear device as far from Manhattan as possible.  Though Zeus is caught in the edge of the blast, it survives, reconstituting itself, as Manhattan begins to rebuild.  The end.

Problems And Opportunities

There is one obvious, glaring opportunity in the above story that is almost completely ignored throughout.  Prototype is a story about identity.  Zeus thinks he’s Alex Mercer, but he’s not.  People refer to Elizabeth Greene by her name, but maybe she’s more virus than woman.  Karen appears to help Alex but she’s leading him on.  The informant is really working against Zeus too, playing both sides for his own benefit.
The identity story - the story of how a hero decides who he is - is one that has recurred in literature for years.  It is highly compelling.  Some even say that it’s the only story there is.  Romeo and Juliet is a romance about identity  (Romeo? Why are you Romeo?).  One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is a novel (and film) about identity.  Great Expectations is a novel about identity.  However, the identity of Alex/Zeus never really has an impact on the story.  Before Zeus learns of his true nature, he is trying to stop Blackwatch and save people from Elizabeth.  And after he learns of his true nature, he is doing the same.  And although the narration tells us that he’s concerned about what his true nature means to his identity, he doesn’t make any choices based on that concern.  He doesn’t ever decide, “I’m going to do this because I’m really a virus” or “I’m going to do this because of the humanity I’ve experienced, rejecting my viral nature.”  The player doesn’t decide, to be sure, but the character doesn’t really either.  There is never any conflict between the two that would illuminate Zeus' identity or the struggle to understand it.

The groundwork is laid for such a decision: the Supreme Hunter and Greene, both sentient viruses in their own way, have demonstrable goals that they seek to achieve based on their identity as viruses.  And Zeus has a unique insight into humanity’s nature by virtue of its ability to absorb the memories, skills and consciousnesses of other human beings, which the Supreme Hunter and Greene do not demonstrate.  Zeus learns how Blackwatch and GenTek operates probably better than they themselves know, since it absorbs both low-ranking jerks with rifles and high-ranking dudes with suits.  Yet this ability plays no real role with respect to the plotline, let alone with respect to Zeus' characterization.

The second missed story opportunity is in a feminist approach to the game, since Zeus is surrounded by women.  Virtually every fully realized character (such as they are) in the game is female.  The male leaders of Blackwater and GenTek are only directly interacted with in brief scenes, and their motivations are crude and ill-formed.  Otherwise their influence is indirect and behind the scenes.  By contrast, Dana, Karen and Elizabeth interact with Alex several times, and interacting with them is crucial to advancing in the game.

There are several simple tests to identify feminist elements in your creation, from the famous Bechdel Test ("Are there two female characters in your movie that talk about something other than a man?") to the long list of TV Tropes related to women (FemaleSuccessIsFamily, for example).  Prototype has the opportunity, by virtue of a blank-slate male protagonist surrounded by female influences, to explore how their differing views and experiences can influence identity.  In the actual game, Dana, Karen and Elizabeth are rather flat, two-dimensional mission-givers, betrayers and maniacs.  In our reboot we will try to adopt the radical notion that women are actually fully functional human beings complete with intellect, emotion, and goals.

There are other missed story opportunities in the game.  Example: Although Zeus is horrified when it learns about Alex Mercer’s responsibility for the release of the virus, it never connects Mercer’s decision to its own existence, and the motivation for Mercer’s release of the virus is never explored.  It is said that Mercer took the virus from GenTek for “insurance”, but by the time Blackwatch reached him, that insurance policy had clearly already failed. 

Perhaps most importantly, Mercer then decides to take all of humanity with him when he dies, releasing a virus so deadly and virulent that it could wipe the world clean of humanity in a matter of weeks.  This is an act of petulant sociopathy on an enormous scale - yet Zeus is the only one who ever comments on this, and  doesn’t do anything based on this knowledge.  Nor do we ever hear Dana, Karen or anyone who knew Alex, remark on any aspect of Alex that might have produced this level of dangerous narcissism - nor does anyone (other than Blackwatch, before the events of the game begin) really react to “Alex” in a way that reflects any knowledge of this rather remarkable aspect of his character.

This is a major hole in characterization.  If Alex really was that bad, someone should know about it, and react to that, or to his “change” when Zeus takes over his appearance and name.

There are some plot holes, too, especially at the end of the game.  A Blackwatch general sets the timer on the nuclear bomb, telling Zeus “I’m the only one that knows the codes to deactivate it”, when every single person in the room knows Zeus has absorbed the knowledge and memories of dozens of people over the course of the last three weeks and can learn the codes from the guy by just walking up to him and grabbing him.  This is just flat dumb.  Why not just say “There’s no code to deactivate it, either!” Gasp!  Just as much tension without the audience screaming “Just absorb him, Alex!”

So, the primary missed opportunity of Prototype is right at its core: there are so many holes in the characters that are presented, there is very little tension in finding out what they will do in a particular situation.  The plot is driven more because we must advance it in order to play the next mission than because it has an urgency of its own.

Now, let’s fix that.
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