Monday, March 21, 2011

Musical Monday - Crusader: Dystopian Cyberpunk Gaming

In 1995 Origin Systems released Crusader: No Remorse, a third person three-quarter-angle view game set in a cyberpunkish dystopian future. In 1996 they followed that up with Crusader: No Regret in which the action from the first game moves to the moon. The game was written for DOS, and although some people have said they can get it to run on more modern PCs using a DOSBox emulator, I have never been able to make it work that way. But this game remains one of my favorite computer games, even fifteen years after it was released, and more than a decade after I was able to actually play it. And one of the reasons was the music for the game, which seems to perfectly reflect the hyper violent game play with the sadness and fear that runs through the underlying story (this music is actually from No Regret, the second game, although No Remorse had very similar music). The game was somewhat innovative for its use of music - instead of the standard of the day with one or two musical themes that played in the background for the entire game, every mission in the Crusader games had its own accompanying background music, which always seemed to fit perfectly with what was going on during the game.

The game itself was fairly straightforward: you play a renegade Silencer, one of the elite soldiers of the tyrannical World Economic Consortium (or WEC). You join forces with the Resistance and go on a series of missions infiltrating WEC industrial facilities, office buildings, and eventually, a space station. The game was also incredibly destructive: almost everything on the screen could be shot or blown up or both. For most objects in the game, if you point a gun at them, they suffer if you pull the trigger. You could destroy industrial machinery, containers of fuel, crates containing supplies, cameras, walls, and in some cases, even the flooring. Of course there were enemies to kill, but since the fighting usually took place in some sort of factory or office, there were plenty of innocent bystanders, and you could kill them too. Since they had money you could loot off their dead bodies, and some of them would, if left alone, trip alarms drawing more guards, there was usually an upside to killing them, so if I ran across a bystander in the game, they were pretty much dead on the spot. For the truly demented, the game creators included a number of death animations for the combatants, ranging from merely keeling over in a puddle of blood (as a result of being shot), to having all your flesh vaporized (for one of the more technologically advanced weapons), to the always amusing one in which a character catches on fire and runs screaming until they collapse into a pile of ash. Well, it's amusing for me at least.

The game includes several cut scenes (with pretty hilariously bad acting and awful costumes), but they are relatively rare and fairly short, moving the story along without interfering with the game itself. An interesting element of the game is that your character never speaks at any point in the game, from the opening cinematic to the post-victory epilogue, making the name "Silencer" pretty much apropos (although in the opening cinematic two other Silencers carry on a conversation that essentially explains why you switch allegiances and join the Resistance). But even with the terrible acting and the mute protagonist, the story draws you in. The WEC is somewhat cartoonish as a villainous government, but the setting has the dark, gritty, and almost hopeless feeling that cyberpunk has to have. The reports you see over the news relating to your exploits provide some comic relief, but also illustrate the oppressive nature of the world in which your character lives. With fairly simple elements the creators of the game manage to do what many more recent games, with piles of expositional back story, extended cut scenes, and flashy production values can not: they make the player care about the events in the game. So when my character encountered the cloning tanks, I destroyed every one of them, even though it had no effect on game play. While I went out of my way to kill bystanders in the first game, which was set on Earth. But when the action moved to the Moon, which the WEC is described as using as a penal colony, I became much more circumspect about killing civilians. And any game that can get you to care about what is happening on the screen for reasons beyond immediate in-game advantage is a game that has a story that is well-done.

But when one looks at our world, with the U.S. government $14 trillion in debt, seemingly perpetual war in the Middle-East, government-backed megacorporations running Russia, and, of course, a heavily wired populace tied to dominant corporations like Facebook, one has to wonder if we are already living in a cyberpunk future. I don't think it is an accident that cyberpunk grew out of the disillusionment of the late 1970s and early 1980s - it is an inherently cynical and dark vision of the future after all. I just hope that if we can't find our own way to a better version of the future we don't have to wait until the 22nd century for a Silencer to show up and blow everything up for us. Because I am pretty sure I won't be around to be doing it. And blowing things up is a lot of fun.

The truly sad thing about our current cyberpunk future is that it seems that game makers are simply not able to make as effective use of their resources as the Crusader games were able to do back in 1995-1996 to provide a good story meshed with good game play. In many cases, game companies have taken far superior technology and produced games that are decidedly inferior to the Crusader titles. And maybe that is the evidence that we are in a cyberpunk world: Technology advances, but the quality of life (or in this case, computer games) goes down.

Previous Musical Monday: She Don't Like Firefly by Mikey Mason
Subsequent Musical Monday: The Future Soon by Jonathan Coulton

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