When it comes to childhood video games, it seems like there’s nothing better than a 3D character platformer. Almost every time I hear people discussing games they’ve played as a kid, they mention some title belonging to the genre. Be it Super Mario 64, Banjo Kazooie, Crash Bandicoot, Spyro The Dragon or even more obscure ones like Bugs Bunny: Lost in Time, Gex: Enter the Gecko(get outta here, you lizard!) or Rocket: Robots on Wheels. If you’ve read last month’s piece, you probably already know where this is going. Today, we will be looking at my favorite childhood game. Also a 3D character platformer. And if you’ve been following me for a while or… well… looked at the title of this piece… you know I just replayed Rayman 2: The Great Escape!
Interestingly enough, my first ever piece of published work was a tiny written review of said product. Years back, I sent it to a magazine (remember these?) focused on non-violent video games. Seeing how I ended up becoming a lore expert on Hitman, I fail to see it influencing me much. Still, White being a young lad, wasn’t allowed to play your Duke Nukems and GTAs. Length-wise, my Rayman 2 ‘review’ was comparable to the first paragraph of this piece but it granted me my own dedicated space on the page and a copy of a Winnie the Pooh video game – Pooh’s Party Game: In Search of the Treasure – which was basically a Mario Party clone. Maybe one day, I’ll dig it up and introduce it to you as well…
For now though, let’s go back to Rayman. As you know me well by this point, it is probably a surprise to nobody that once I managed to access the magical place known as the Internet, I started reading on some of my favorite games. And whilst Croc 2 ended up being a disappointment when I came back to it years later, Rayman 2 wasn’t. It also seems like I’m not the only one holding said opinion. Since its original release, it was ported to pretty much everything but a toaster and people do speak highly of it. No wonder, I was curious myself.
The title was released in October 1999 on Nintendo 64 and PC shortly after. Interestingly enough, it uses the same engine which later fueled games like Grand Theft Auto III through Vice City and San Andreas, Manhunt 1 and 2, Max Payne 2, Spongebob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottom, killer7 and Hello Kitty: Roller Rescue!…
The game was critically acclaimed. (Rayman 2, that is, not Hello Kitty: Roller Rescue – that ended up scoring ~60.) Review scores went up to 90+ points out of 100 if you’re for some reason interested in merely meaningless numbers. If not, it also ended up featured in multiple “Game of the Year” articles if you prefer insignificant lists instead. Apparently, numerous reimaginings did Rayman 2 well. It was originally going to be a straight-up sequel to the original, even retaining the 2D aesthetic (although not so brutally hard, mind you), and be released in August 1996. There does exist a playable version of it hidden as a reward for getting enough collectibles in the PSX edition of Rayman 2: The Great Escape but maybe it’s for the better than the leap to the scary 3D world was made after the team got inspired by Crash Bandicoot during E3 1996. With a background like that, how not to get excited?
Obviously, it wasn’t simple to get it to run on a modern system which is why I’m so in favor of active video game preservation projects. We attempt to preserve every other artform, so why not interactive ones as well? The problem here was that my physical copy was mined with a DRM inject which ended up being incompatible with a 64-bit operating system. Once I got around that – by basically getting frustrated and purchasing the game digitally… spoiling we will be looking at the PC version – it was back to The Glade of Dreams!
I was welcomed back by a weird yellow butterfly. A one with eyes, no less. To add to that, we are somewhere in a forest, greeted by a peculiar long-faced creature and fairy tale-like soundscape. It’s eerie and mysterious. What is the aforementioned creature and why is it bowing? Why is the insect so interested in getting into the shot of the camera? Questions don’t stop once we begin a new game either. Instead, new ones appear. Especially, as after a dreamy atmosphere of the main menu, we are brought to a flying ship and the narration appears on the screen.
“Rayman, look what the pirates have done to our world… A planet of anguish and pain, haunted by evil. A dark place, teeming with fierce monsters. Nothing can stop them now that they’ve captured you. They’ve taken everything and reduced our people to slaves. The robots search for innocent prey. In the chaos, they exploded the Heart of the World. The 1000 Lums of energy which form it have been scattered. We are getting weak. Soon, it will be too late…You must escape, Rayman. You are our only hope!”
Pretty dark for a children video game, I’ve got to admit. We watch the opening cinematic and are immediately thrown into action. A limbless “thingamajig”, to quote the Rayman Origins trailer, is locked in a cell with a blue frog-like animal who speaks of fairies and magic powers. After transferring some of those powers to Rayman, he can apparently now shoot energy from his fists… somehow. This can be used to open up a way out of the prison ship. Something which the player easily figures out once they get used to basic controls and physics in a closed off environment. Once they are ready, they can then run through the opening and leave. No dangers, no obstacles, no time limits. Just the player character, some space to run around and a very clear exit. Neat!
Rayman’s life meter starts out missing a few hit points. This can be circumvented by touching red pickups dotted around the slide out of the ship. They revealed to be one of many types of Lums – shards of energy fueling this universe. It appears that every ability and item is somehow explained as part of the lore. A feat I find quite impressive. In fact, quoting the Knowledge of the World: “Everything that moves around you, everything that lives and thinks is given life by the tiny magical lights which we call… Lums.” I especially enjoy how the title acknowledges the connection. During one of the cutscenes, Admiral Razorbeard even eats one of them which makes the counter go down by one. And then you can find a hidden extra one if you’re really perceptive!
Gameplay-wise, the title is a basic 3D platformer. There’s nothing out of ordinary. The levels are short and simple. There is usually only one way to get through them with not much out of the beaten path. That said, collecting Lums and freeing long-faced creatures known as Teensies are secondary objectives, and finding every single one can be tricky if you aren’t paying enough attention. Later on, you can also find optional areas so it’s probably wise to explore even if you think there’s nothing to explore! You can even enter previous stages that way so if you were ever wondering why you’re missing collectibles in The Fairy Glade, try looking a bit further…
Rayman’s abilities also are nothing we haven’t seen in other titles. He can jump, float and has a long-ranged attack which is later enhanced over the course of the story. He juggles parts of his own limbless body as his idle animation which, as all of them, in fact, are truly entertaining to watch. I still love how 2D sprites were used in late 90s/early 2000s. It’s part of the charm of video games such as The Sims, early Harry Potter games, Tomb Raider, Deus Ex or Hitman: Codename 47. I am absolutely positive that it looks off in an otherwise 3D environment and it was even replaced by actual 3D models in later ports of the title. 2D does speak to my particularly odd sense of aesthetics, however. Here, it’s even more captivating as all of the forest critters are animated sprites. We’re talking flying butterflies, big-eyed mosquitoes, jumping mushrooms, etc. It’s a big reason as to why the levels, even though basic in design feel dynamic.
To add to that, Rayman 2: The Great Escape does not dawdle when it comes to introducing new mechanics. Some would call them gimmicks but they are used to far more extent than that. Almost every level brings out something new to the table and the player never feels bored of the existing content – also used in more complex ways as time goes on. A simple slide – literally one of the first obstacles of the game is reused multiple times throughout the adventure. An entire level is also built on a re-imagined version of that mechanic. The hero ends up skating on the water of the Marshes of Awakening as he’s being dragged by a purple snake called Ssssam.
Ssssam isn’t the only useful friend in the game. Green fairy by the name of Murfy appears every now and again to explain new features in a better way than his blue counterpart in another video game franchise.
Previously mentioned blue frog-like creature also known as Rayman’s best friend Globox helps him in his quest by using his rain dance ability to destroy pirate technology and grow flowers and bushes. A purple whale – Carmen – is a part of an underwater level and a giant Clark tunnels a way for the protagonist to pass once brings him necessary medicine. It feels like every character in the game wants you to succeed. Even though all of them talk in gibberish and the dialogue is fairly elementary to begin with, the animations and character interactions are enough to establish deep connections between them. This is cemented by quotes from Ly the Fairy showing up during each respawn animation as well as the ending itself. The reason for it might be because Rayman’s adventure is quite of an important one. As mentioned before, the intro cinematic is surprisingly dark and even though the game keeps its lighthearted feeling, the undergoing tone is alarming. Topics of slavery and imprisonment run through the entire story as it goes as far as to specifically say that the antagonist wants to kill Carmen and use her blubber to grease the engines of his ship. One of the first characters we see during our adventure are Globox’s children who end up without their parents as they were both captured by the evil Robo-Pirates.
If you never noticed those disturbing bits of the story as a kid, I can assure you, there was another aspect of Rayman 2: The Great Escape which gave you nightmare fuel. Carrying a fairy tale-like feeling doesn’t mean places like The Cave of Bad Dreams cannot exist. And now that you know the name of it, you too can enter it! The level itself is nothing special. It starts out with basic platforming and playing with different colored orbs. Its aesthetic is a lot more eerie than the rest of the universe however and the danger keeps rising until it reaches peak at a high speed slide escape sequence with a huge overlay of The Cave’s Guardian – Jano’s – sharp teeth. At the end, it appears that Jano protects a cave full of golden coins and offers them to Rayman as he’s rightfully beaten him. This brings up a quite amusing non-choice as the player can either take the gold or leave it, therefore continuing the adventure.
New game mechanics never slow down. Rayman can soon ride on a Walking Shell, explosive barrels or the dreaded plum. The latter can again be used in multiple ways, even as a solution to enemy encounters. Speaking of enemies, the combat is also very simplistic. We have a generic lock-on button and Rayman’s shots target relevant items automatically. Confrontations are relatively quick yet feel dragged on by invincibility frames which last longer than I’d like. This paired with the fact that there’s not much to be done except for mashing the Fire button or holding it for a brief moment before releasing the shot makes the combat feel like something I’d prefer to skip. Especially as dodging isn’t required. Rayman’s life meter is long enough to survive multiple shots and his hit points get added as he releases more Teensies.
Overall, the game’s difficulty isn’t something to write essays about. The platforming is fairly simple, the combat is basic and the only tricky moments come from higher paced sections such as the ones involving the Walking Shell. Game Overs never pose a threat. The only consequence being returning you back to the previous checkpoint… which happens anyways if you fall into the abyss. The bosses aren’t dangerous, although they appear as intimidating. Only the end boss may give you any real trouble but that again, is because of the new and improved (!) Flying Shell. If you don’t mind missing the collectibles, the entire game can be beaten in just a few hours. If you’d prefer to see a nice round 100% however… it still can be beaten in a few hours although with a bit more trickiness involved. As mentioned before, some hiding spots are tougher to see than you’d think meaning you probably will have to replay levels to get every single Lum and Teensie cage.
Is it worth it though? Collecting Lums unlocks pages of the Knowledge of the World and breaking cages upgrades Rayman’s life meter. Lums are also required to progress but honestly, you should never be worried about having enough of them. Ending a stage with all of the collectibles grants you access to the Bonus Level but that ends up being pretty irrelevant too as all it does is refill your life meter or gives you extra powerups.
Given that the title is so basic, appears to offer little difficulty and can be finished in just a few hours, I think the question everyone asks is why is it so praised? Why has it been released on so many systems and is being called one of the best platformers of its era? Part of it is definitely because of its simplicity. Even though it is packed with different game mechanics, all of them present the same level of care put into them. Even the swimming stages, often disregarded as worst parts of otherwise great video games, aren’t much of an issue here. They are used more as a breather between high action sections and it helps that they carry the same tight controls. Rayman 2: The Great Escape never truly slows down. That’s part of its charm. New mechanics keep on being introduced making every level you jump into feel dynamic and fresh even though the design itself never gets any more complicated. There are too many memorable set pieces to count, especially as all of them are equally great. The music is absolutely fantastic, too. It’s cheery and upbeat to keep up with the vibrant, picturesque world but also can be toned down to pay respect to more oppressive parts of the story. And while I think this entire cocktail of features is why the game is still being talked about, it’s not what made it my favorite childhood title and my great escape. It was the in-game universe, its fairy-tale-like aesthetic and its lore which I happened to explore years later.
Young-in White was definitely drawn to the colorful environments and quirky characters. I replayed The Woods of Light more times than I can count, not even playing the level properly but exploring it and simply getting embroiled into the world. “Immersed”, I’d say if I was into industry buzzwords. The charming animations were a big part of me getting drawn into The Glade of Dreams. I loved letting Rayman perform his idle actions whilst listening to the calming music and indulge in this serene atmosphere. The story, being what it is, also made White appreciate specific values in life. Rayman is heroic but loyal to his friends and very sympathetic. He also fears nothing. He’s brave enough to embark on an adventure bringing him to dangerous places such as the aforementioned Cave of Bad Dreams, various enemy bases, ancient Sanctuaries and even an abstract dream world where he is having conversations with the divine creature and the creator himself – Polokus.
The lore is even deeper than that and has been gradually expanding over the course of the franchise. It tells tales of Lums merging together to forge a creature so powerful, his every thought became reality. Thus, he imagined a valley and its inhabitants. He was granted with a sense of humor, giving explanation to oddities surrounding this universe. He pictured fairies of various magical powers to help him. He gave life to amphibious organism known later as Globox, as well as his wife Uglette and 650 of their children. But as dreams can be both peaceful and restless, nightmares took over Polokus’ mind and thus, he created Jano – previously mentioned guardian of the Cave of Bad Dreams, thus introducing evil to the world.
Rayman 2’s story speaks of a sudden arrival of Robo-Pirates. Their leader – Admiral Razorbeard – wishes to reign over The Glade of Dreams, enslaving its inhabitants and getting access to the energy fueling the world. Again, for a product with such colorful environments and cheery characters, it’s honestly quite remarkable how dark the story ends up. Even though cartoony, it still carries the feeling of an intense battle, especially as you see powerful characters fall and fail. Ly the Fairy whom remains of magical powers are brought to our hero by his friend, has to be freed from a contrived cage. A literal giant has to be helped onto his feet after he has slayed multiple pirates by himself. And the creator of the universe himself has to be reconnected with four ancient masks first before he can offer his services to the inhabitants of The Glade of Dreams. The player gets invested in the adventure and the world itself and for me, this is why it’s not only a quest for a great escape for the creatures of this unique universe. It is also a quest for my own.
Rayman 2: The Great Escape will always carry a special place in my heart. Not only because it my favorite childhood video game but also because it’s still an amazing title. I can absolutely understand the reasons as to why it was ported to so many other systems. It deserves to be presented to a wider audience as it has held up magnificently over the years. Yes, the camera has aged, the title is quite short and basic but that’s exactly where the charm of it lies. It’s simple yet surprisingly varied in gameplay. Vivid and colorful yet dark and mature. Personally, I don’t recall another video game managing to grab me into its world and bring me such joy as Rayman 2. Its fairy-tale aesthetic is still relevant up to this day and can be enjoyed by players of all ages. Just as young-in White always found their great escape, and so will older White. See, young-in White kept coming back to it, never finding another game to grab their attention for so long. Not even the next title in the series… Not even Rayman 3: Hoodlum Havoc. But that is the story for another day…
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Growing up, video games weren’t really my thing. It might sound strange but even though I have been playing video games as a child, they were never my primary way of upping my Fun meter (The Sims analogy… have you ever pondered about how accurately that title presents ordinary human needs? An idea for an analysis piece? Maybe one day…). I never had a gaming system. I never got to experience the Nintendo vs. Sega or Nintendo vs. Sony console war. This is not how the interactive media market worked where I’m from. These electronic pieces were expensive on their own and you also need to add up having to purchase plastic cartridges or compact discs! That, in addition to Nintendo never really owning its share of the market (I only recall seeing original Gameboys in the wild and only for that short Pokémania phase; other than that; we’ve had many ripoffs), meant that if I wanted to game, I had to do it on the personal computer. It was a magical machine, used for not only interactive entertainment but also work and loads of other things! I know, how strange! I was pretty limited, too. Born in a dress, I wasn’t the target demographic of the violent Doom or Duke Nukem. Instead, my choices were either edutainment programs or everything involving cute animals… and most of those ended up being terrible movie tie-ins… And maybe we will get to those eventually, too.
A lot of those licensed video games were notably horrible once I came back to them later on. I’m not easily blinded by nostalgia. Instead, I tend to realize my awful choices and return to them as guilty pleasures from time to time. This is how I re-experience a bunch of old video games I used to play as a kid. I analyze them based on their own merits and more often than not realize how shallow and boring they are. Not this particular one, though. Oh no. One of my favorite childhood video games is still one of my favorite video games of all time even after I’ve came back to it later in life. I’ve 100% completed it on multiple occasions and end up at least thinking about it once every couple of months. If you’ve been following me for a while, you also probably know which title I’m talking about already. Yes. That would be Rayman 2: The Great Escape.
Only ever having a PSX in sight for what I recall being one day and never owning a gaming console on my own, it is obvious that I got to know the PC version of this classic 3D platformer. Nowadays, it has been re-released on everything but a toaster and I will be detailing its history another time. Here, I would just like to use it as an entryway into how an idea for this piece came to be. You know, to give you an insight to White’s Mind.
Rayman 2 was simply magical. I was deeply invested in its world from the very beginning. I never got far in the game, in fact, an embarrassing confession is that I used to be scared of enemies in pretty much every video game I owned. What helped me get involved in the world of Rayman however was its introductory level also serving as a tutorial. It featured no enemies and was really only just a small sample of what’s to come. I vividly remember its serene atmosphere though. The bright colors, fairytale aesthetic, jumping mushrooms, the wildlife and, of course, the gibberish whispered by Rayman’s helper Murfy.
Since there were no enemies, I was free to run around said level without feeling pressured. Now, we would be analyzing this kind of introduction by praising its freedom of movement, allowing the player to get comfortable with game’s controls and physics. That wasn’t what I was thinking back then though. And it’s not what I’m about to preach to you now. What you have to know for now is that Rayman 2: The Great Escape was my great escape. I spoke about how important escapism was and still is for me in regards to the Hitman series. You should also know me well enough now to realize that as an empathetic person, I’m deeply invested in atmospheric art pieces. From those, I think you can add two and two together. As a child, this game was my go-to and I don’t think anybody is going to be surprised when I tell them, as an adult, I was incredibly curious as to how good my childhood classic is as a proper video game.
There were manyothers which failed in convincing me of their status as a well developed product. Kids games aren’t exactly known for their greatness. That, again, is because most of them are rushed as a movie tie-in or because the studios didn’t have enough time to figure out the new 3D (!) technology. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the chance to experience other successful 3D platformers of the era in their prime time. Character platformers were abundant on consoles, which of I had none. I do try and play catch-up however. Don’t you worry about that. I love Banjo as well as Kazooie, I dig Crash Bandicoot, I dipped into Spyro, Sonic and many others. I wish I had them when I was a child but at least I had one good game to remember out of my early PC days! But that one was clearly a sequel. It has a “2” in its title and for a long period of time, I wasn’t even interested in the first game of the franchise. Later on, I learned it was a 2D sidescroller which left me disappointed, especially after 3: Hoodlum Havoc wasn’t exactly my cup of tea either. Then came the Rabbids and once Rayman eventually returned, he’s done so again in 2D. Finally though, I have decided to try the original and that is what this piece is going to be about. After oh so many years of being a fan of the franchise, I have launched and played the first Rayman!… But it wouldn’t be so fun if all of this was just a review of an old video game. No, no, we do video game analysis on this blog! Let’s use this old video game as a stepping stone then. Since Rayman returned in 2D and has been 2D ever since, let’s compare at how the vision for him has changed and answer a question of “Was Rayman Origins truly going back to Rayman’s Origins?”.
Before we even get to the main menu of the 1995’s Rayman, we get to hear a backstory for the game, told to us by a completely over the top limbless magician-looking-like character. All of it is pretty basic, as is the presentation but its charm and beautiful artwork may just be enough to win you over. And if not then maybe you’ll at least chuckle at the name “Mister Dark (!!!!!!!!)” (I cannot unhear the over the top introduction this character receives, I’m sorry) and how our main character himself is brought to the adventure from his comfy hammock. From there on it’s all about the funky music in the main menu. A couple of screens later we are finally introduced to a beautiful set of sprite work and a surprisingly claustrophobic camera angle. This, paired with the slow movement speed and quite sluggish (although responsive!) controls already feels like it’s going to be a challenge. But I’m not easily discouraged! We will press on but not before dipping into Rayman Origins for a quick comparison…
The choice to bring back Rayman into 2D was spawned when the initial small team of developers created a unique tool which later became known as Ubi Art. “We made 3D games, and of course, there will be others, but we thought that we could do a game with the same “spirit” that Rayman 1 had, with animated cartoons techniques.”, Michel Ancel – the father of Rayman – said. Origins was to showcase the software and what a better way of doing so than to breathe new life to a “thingamajig” from an already established classic Ubisoft franchise? After years of being pushed into the shadows by the loud and ravaging Rabbids, it was time for Rayman to be the star of his show once again.
The first trailer for Rayman Origins came up during E3 2010. The game was meant to be episodic and present the titular origin story of our main protagonist. In the first draft, it was a prequel. It was to tell a tale of Rayman’s creation and how he ended up befriending other creatures of the world. The story also was to shed light on the character of The Magician – the main antagonist of the game. His origins were to be told as well, explaining that he was bullied by his fellow Teensies and grew to admire the mysterious Mister Dark (!!!!!!!) which led him to become a villain himself and using the heroes to do the dirty deeds for him as part of his master plan. All of this was cut from the final product, although a few ambiguous references may be found throughout the adventure. If you’ve played Rayman Origins and was wondering why the game seems to be lacking in terms of storytelling – this is why. It was all there. Just that, as with a lot of titles we cover on this blog, it was simply scrapped during production. A shame but that’s not why we’re here today. Let us find out what we are presented with once we launch the finished game!
This time with no words but again, a beautiful artwork and delivery, we are given a backstory establishing the conflict. Rayman and his friends are seen sleeping before a grand adventure – something which hasn’t changed one bit throughout the years. Music is still a prominent part of the presentation. Just as in the original Rayman and its Band Land, the intro to Origins uses sound effects to create a quirky outlook for its universe. It feels as if the tone has shifted slightly from the 1995 classic. This can be seen a lot more clearly if we look at the overall character design over the years. The initial Rayman had almost a child-like influence. He was very round and cheery. We can definitely notice the latter in his facial expressions. The first few times we see him in the series, he wears a red scarf which was later replaced by a hood. That and the attitude he shows in the later games made him relatable to the older demographic. As Rayman 3’s press release states: “Like his core gaming audience, Rayman as a character has matured and now has a wilder edge, only hinted at in the earlier games.”. This is the kind of Rayman we end up also seeing in Origins, although he definitely carries the child-like spirit.
We are welcomed by the map screen once again. A one very similar in design to the one of 1995’s Rayman although obviously, modernized. The actual levels are hidden inside their respective worlds, very akin to other 2D platformers of that time. It is quite obvious that Rayman Origins took inspiration from New Super Mario Bros. That is probably the best news we’ve heard this far as it managed to improve on the sidescrolling formula and become one of the best 2D platformers of its time. I assure you, this would not be the case if the devs were to stick to the original Rayman’s design choices.
“But White, wasn’t Rayman released to critical acclaim, ended up being rereleased in so many ways and as a Ubisoft classic?”, you ask. Yes. Video games were also very different back then. Gaming culture was a lot different, too. Because players were more often to rent titles rather than buy then, the product had to do something to stop them from finishing it in one sitting. Narratives weren’t as complex as nowadays, usually resorting to “go save the princess… oh, she’s in another castle”. There was also not much available digital space inside of the tiny cartridges. Reusing assets was common. So how about make the game insanely difficult on purpose so the player has to rent it over and over again if they want to eventually see the end? Sounds like a swell idea!
This is what fueled artificial difficulty in games. It ended up being a trope – now called “Nintendo Hard”. Back in 1995, the levels were small, the camera was zoomed in and the controls – even though simplistic – clunky and floaty. It is always problematic to explain why controlling the character in a video game feels wrong so just take my word for it. The animations in Rayman are detailed, the sprites are beautiful but maybe it’s the slowness of it all which ramps up the overall difficulty. The enemies move a lot faster than the player character and it doesn’t help that his attacks have quite a windup and the hitboxes are rather precise. That, in addition to the fact that the game spawns enemies out of nowhere and in really annoying spots as well as the screen being already small to begin with can give you a pretty nice idea as to what are the main issues of this Ubisoft classic.
“But White-”, you interrupt me once again. “Rayman wasn’t a Nintendo game.”
I’d be a fool if I was to argue with you. It wasn’t a Nintendo game. In fact, it was mainly released on platforms which did not have technical limitations of cartridge-based consoles. A CD-ROM was massive compared to everything else on the market at the time and ports of Rayman often had to compromise on audio quality to fit the title inside of the tiny chip. The game also released much later than many of the “Nintendo Hard” games. Even though still pretty difficult, other 2D platformers released in 1995 – such as the sequels to Super Mario World and Donkey Kong Country – were a lot more forgiving and fair to players. Some of the discussed game design choices made their way onto PlayStation and MS-DOS however. It wasn’t just Rayman. It feels like the 2D platform sidescrolling genre split into two – one being fast-paced like Sonic or Jazz Jackrabbit, the other slow and methodical like Heart of Darkness, Claw or the original Prince of Persia.
And then there was Gex…
Video games and their design had to take their time to evolve accordingly to the needs of players and the overall marketplace. Jumping back into Origins, we do not see any of these problems anywhere. Thanks to the improved technology and widescreen, we can now be prepared for what’s to come even though the overall speed of the main character is much faster. You can also choose to run (an unlockable power in the original title), which is definitely favorable, and the levels are designed around it. Most of them you can clear without stopping once you get into a good flow. All it requires is some good reflexes instead of actual memorization – something which was a case in the first game.
Thanks to these changes, Rayman Origins, even though still a difficult platformer, creates its difficulty in another ways. In the early stages of development, we can see it having a health meter similar to the one of 1995’s Rayman. This was changed into a more Mario-like approach. One hit and you’re done! That is, unless you collect a heart which gives you that additional health point. The game will not allow you, however, to damage boost your way to collectibles, requiring you to actually complete the challenge it presents to you. It also got rid of limited lives. A blessing for everybody who remembers 1995’s Rayman’s Continue screen. And if you ever played it, I will assure you – it’s ingrained somewhere in your mind. The decision to remove them was also made sometime during the development of Origins, as there are still traces of extra lives artwork left in the game files.
Unfortunately, memorization is still somewhat a part of Rayman Origins, although not in such scale as in the 1995 classic. Bosses take three hits to kill and they are all beautifully animated, full of personality and very unique. They all make you utilize your newly acquired powers and skills to defeat but they also require you to remember their patterns and can strike in an unpredictable way if it’s your first time playing. Since Origins makes use of a checkpoint system, you will be replaying early portions of battles until you can beat the boss in one try (two if you have a handy extra heart). It’s not that big of a deal since boss battles are quite short but it may lead to frustration and was the case in both the original game and 16 years later in Origins.
Taking notice of more similarities between the titles – both feature a rise of power in form of effectively unlocking more moves for Rayman (and his friends in the latter game) thanks to the kindness of Betilla the Fairy and her sisters. These amazing “powers” are actions like…
You get some cooler powerups like running on walls and turning small to be able to fit in tight spaces, too. 1995’s Rayman also gets an ability to swing between purple lums – a skill which I deeply despised in the 3D sequel. The levels are built to let you explore them both before and after obtaining the additional movesets. This can be seen mostly in the original, as they are filled with cages of electoons you need to rescue to unlock the next stages. This is also the case in Origins but it’s, again, a lot more forgiving. That might be tied to the overall flow of the game, as it’s much faster paced or to the fact that you see more of the screen – therefore secrets are hidden in a typical 2D Mario platformer fashion. They aren’t as obvious as you may think though and the cute “Help me!” sound cue can make you scratch your head trying to locate its source.
I mentioned Betilla the Fairy appearing in both of the titles. She’s not the only recurring character as Origins. Many of them reappear, either in their original or repurposed form. The example for the latter being The Magician himself. Previously a Rayman-like limbless creature, he was changed to be the member of the Teensie species in Origins. This was also the case for The Photographer before he was ultimately removed from the later title.
Many enemies have also returned. These include, most notably, the Livingstones, Antitoons and Hunters (although, thankfully, in a less annoying form than in the 1995 classic), but we can also find Forks and the Stone Men. It’s interesting to see how their meaning evolved with the updated gameplay mechanics even though the enemy function has remained pretty much the same. Hunters are still annoying but because the sprites are much smaller and the view is wider, their projectiles are easier to dodge. They can still get you by surprise but their huge mallet-hitting bullets do not take almost half of the screen like in the first game. Antitoons used to be irritating due to their size, as you had to either fiddle with your flying fist to hit them or your jump length to avoid them. In Origins, they are only threatening if you get too close and do not pose as a “floor is lava” type of enemy.
What I do miss about the design of the original Rayman however is how the environment can be used to deal with the baddies. It’s actually quite impressive how innovating the game was in that regard. Plums are not only used to pass through water – they may also be dropped on heads of the Livingstones giving you a high platform to stand on and maybe access new parts of the level. The Walking Drums can carry you through the previously mentioned “floor is lava” type areas featuring short enemies. The magic seed was also an interesting mechanic. It is given to Rayman by Tarayazan (who was to appear in Origins but was cut) as a temporary power-up and used to create platforms in autoscrolling stages. Speaking of autoscrollers; then, of course, there is the Mosquito.
Given the whimsical and anthropomorphic nature of the character designs in the Rayman franchise, the first boss of the very first game is a gigantic insect with its huge eyes and a long proboscis. At this point, you probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear his names ends up being Bzzit and that the protagonist ends up riding him after he defeats him in battle. The flying stages in the 1995 classic are, once again, impaired by the size of the sprites and how much overall space they take of the already small 4:3 screen. Memorization is key to beating those levels as the dangers can appear suddenly out of nowhere with a limited options of avoiding getting hurt. Your ride can shoot projectiles but that’s only the case in the Atari Jaguar version of the original, making the flying autoscrollers this much more aggravating to deal with. Thankfully, all of these issues were fixed in Rayman Origins. Their difficulty is now based on the player reflexes and the mosquito can both suck other objects or shoot projectiles on its own.
So, let’s return to the previously asked question – “Was Rayman Origins truly going back to Rayman’s Origins?” Definitely. Both in the presentation and its gameplay principles. Thankfully, it managed to evolve the original game’s design philosophies and adapt it in a modernized way. That may be cause it realized the issues of the 1995 classic or simply wanted to rival with other 2D platformers on the market. Either or, it has made it a great title to begin with, even with the few issues I have with it. This being controls sometimes feeling a bit floaty – something which was fixed in the direct sequel: Legends.
But the original Rayman isn’t as bad as I’m making it. Even by today’s standards. There is a particular niche of players which love these difficult platformers and will gladly abide by their rules and limitations. This is why Super Meat Boy, They Bleed Pixels and similar titles got their five minutes of fame. This is how the fanbase around I Wanna Be The Guy grew. There are literally hundreds if not thousands of fangames created in vein of I Wanna Be The Guy. The most known, maybe even more popular than the original itself being I Wanna Be The Boshy. The market might have changed. The game design principles might have evolved but there will always be as many playstyles as there are players. The 1995 Ubisoft classic may not be a title for m, although I admire what it brought to the genre and, of course, that it spawned one of my favorite video games of all time a few years later. That’s a topic for another time though… a one we will definitely come back to. But for now, I leave you here. On the outskirts of the Primordial Forest.
A big thank you to all of my Patreons for making these pieces happen!
We’ve talked a lot about themes and aesthetics in our previous pieces. Analyzing the Hitman series has shown us how the premise shifted from delivering a vision and a thought-provoking narrative to pure gamification of the series. Silent Hill 2 proved that even if you sacrifice fluid combat mechanics and create a piece of media which isn’t specifically ‘fun’, you can still end up with a huge followup. Visiting Final Fantasy X’s Spira presented us with an alternate view on the personal story of its protagonist and Alice Madness Returns was all about moving away from the uniqueness of what made its prequel great to begin with.
I’ve also discussed many products dealing with mental well being. That is probably because of my personal interest in the subject. I find comfort and enjoyment from comparing my own experiences with those shown in various media. Digging up those which present topics close to my heart with accuracy and ability to make it visually appealing at the same time is simply exciting for yours truly. Today, we’ll be continuing this odd narrative by looking at ways to tell a story with a minimal number of words (an art I have never truly mastered, if you can believe…), instead focusing on themes, aesthetics and gameplay choices. As always, I encourage you to play these games on your own and do some more analysis in your spare time. We are individuals. Aspects invisible to me might be quite obvious for you and vice versa. All the matter of perspectives…
This piece has been partially influenced by Mark Brown’s “What Made Psychonauts Special”, so I obviously suggest you go watch his video before delving deeper into this piece. To be fair though, the idea for replaying Psychonauts for myself has sprouted during my replay of Alice Madness Returns. Both titles draw heavy inspiration from and attempt to picture, mental illnesses. Alice Otherlands is pretty much the concept of Psychonauts, just grounded in real life history. Unfortunately for Alice, it doesn’t do it well. Maybe it’s because its environments aren’t much different from what we are used to in the real world. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t do a great job in portraying mental issues using the magic of symbolism. Maybe it’s because it is somewhat game-y in its nature, with a linear upgrade system done via a boring menu. Maybe it’s all of those combined…
Weirdly though, Psychonauts also has a handful of menus and it throws the player back into the overworld after every single level. However, it does present great care when it comes to keeping everything in-universe. The item menu, for example is shown as Raz’s thought bubble. The objectives, collectibles and the map are all disguised as his notebook. The game never breaks its established illusion. Maybe except for the always on-screen HUD. Every item and mechanic is grounded in the Psychonauts fantasy and that’s the beauty of it. American McGee’s Alice has also succeeded in creating this feeling whilst its sequel failed. But there are other video games which have managed to convey their stories exclusively by using their themes and playing around with symbolism and we are going to look at a few of them in this piece.
It is no surprise to anybody that I absolutely adore The Binding of Isaac. If you ever took at least a peak at my Steam account, you would know that I have way too many hours of playtime clocked in both the original Flash version and the updated Rebirth. And whilst most of it is because of their gameplay mechanics and replay value, I do not think I would have ever took interest in the series if not for its unique theme.
The Binding of Isaac takes place inside our little protagonist’s troubled head. Tales of religion and violence have been present around the traumatized boy by the name of Isaac – akin to the Biblical tale which has also influenced the title of the game. The intro, narrated by the wonderful voice of Mattias Bossi, is one of the only times when the story is given to the player in a typical fashion. In this 300-word cutscene, we learn the framework – Isaac is being forcefully kept in his room by his deeply religious mother. She has presumably heard a voice of God speaking to her and asking to take away everything from her son up to even his life. To escape his fate, Isaac finds a trapdoor in his room and sneaks away into the bottom of their small house on a hill.
If you want to uncover the rest of the story, you will have to dig deep into it. In my “Theme of Hitman vs. Theme of HITMAN” analysis piece, The Binding of Isaac was one of the examples I gave when presenting a title keeping every aspect of itself in-universe. Starting from the very main menu and the intro cinematic shown to us as Isaac’s drawings. This should be the first tip off point. Is everything we see real or are these events exaggerated by the boy’s troubled mind? The few first chapters of his underworld adventure are fairly normal – he goes through The Basement to enter The Caves and then The Depths where his initial trial ends. But killing the boss featured at the end of The Depths is only the game’s prologue. From there, it is down to The Womb and then either The Cathedral and then The Chest or Sheol and its Dark Room. I am giving you a very linear path through Isaac’s world as there are multiple equivalents of those chapters as well as the optional Blue Womb area and the true final chapter – The Void. Those were gradually added to the game in multiple expansion packs starting from the Flash version’s Wrath of The Lamb and ending at Rebirth’s Afterbirth+.
This is all getting pretty confusing even with this basic rundown… The basis of what you need to know is that that the final boss of the prologue is Isaac’s own mother… or rather her giant leg and body trying to reach her son all the way down in The Depths. Killing her logically (accordingly to Isaac) unlocks The Womb and the next story-related boss. This trend continues until the very final area and the encounter with Delirium. This is one of the ways this story tells itself – via the natural gameplay progression. Killing the bosses not only gives you one of many ending cutscenes, it also rewards you with an item related in some way to either the boss itself or the choice of playable character. A Lump of Coal is given by defeating Krampus, a familiar by the name of Abel is unlocked by clearing The Cathedral as Cain, all of Maggie’s unlockables are based around her faith and are often presented in form of angels or crucifixes.
The items themselves are joyous to analyze and pick apart. We have an impressive arrange of religious themes, demonology, pop culture-related content as well as some unique sets inspired by the characters. Just thinking about a child getting their hands on their mother’s razorblade or various syringes can make your skin crawl but then add this thought to the mix: why would Isaac be in possession of things like Mom’s Wig, Mom’s Bra, Mom’s Perfume or Mom’s Pad. Why would he have his Dad’s Key or hold on to various parts of his Dead Cat’s body? Guppy was the only big transformation in the original Flash version of the game. Gathering three cat items made Isaac appear as Guppy himself and if you put a bit of thought into it, you will start asking yourself if he’s actually putting Guppy’s Head, Paw and Tail on his own body? With the release of Rebirth as well as the Afterbirth expansion, we got even more unique transformations. Isaac can now, among others, become Beelzebub – The Lord of The Flies, Seraphim – the highest rank of angelic beings, Leviathan – a Lovecraftian creature, as well as his own Mother. This, in addition to the fact that originally all of the enemies were supposed to be based around Isaac and all of the characters are Isaac, just in different hats, makes you wonder…
There have been manyhypothesis on the topic of the main storyline of The Binding of Isaac. A lot of them came around after the first endgame boss was released. Entering The Cathedral’s exit whilst holding The Polaroid transported Isaac into The Chest. Defeating its big foe then presented the player with a set of photographs documenting boy’s extended family. Here we could get a glimpse of Isaac’s father as well as his sister Magdalene (one of the playable characters, nonetheless). It appears that times were not well for the family as Isaac ends up miserable sitting by his toy chest.
This chest is probably the most important aspect of the story, as it is not only a physical being but a big symbolical piece as well. It represents Isaac being stuck in his own head not able to deal with the outside world. The later endings show him transfiguring into a demon-like form, squealing as he’s lying in the fetal position inside of the toy chest. We can also see him reading The Bible, grasping to his dead cat’s remains and later on, his mother looking for her son. All of this paints a greater picture and I definitely advise you to try and connect all of the pieces. For me though, the meat of it all are the little details.
The attention to theme-relevant technicalities is praiseworthy. There has been an entire separate mode developed around the theme of greed. It used the basic idea of how players were interacting with the main game to deliver on the core principles of the side mode. In the creator’s own words: “The inspiration for greed mode was greed. I tried my best to fold that theme back in on itself as much as possible throughout. I’ve been testing it out extensively now, and I can tell you that every single death was because I got greedy, I tried to save up my money for an item I really wanted, and disregarded my health.“ And then there are so many more tidbits! A ghost character – The Lost starts out with 1 coin – a possible reference to the Charon’s obol. One of the practices adopted by Christianity used to be placing a single coin in the dead person’s mouth sometimes accompanied by a small key. It is however most known for its place in Greek mythology as it served as a payment to Charon for transporting the soul of newly deceased through the river Styx.
An important mechanic in The Binding of Isaac is earning a Devil or Angel Room – a special type of room featuring powerful items – which is available after defeating the respective level boss. The Devil will offer his deal first. Taking it will result in closing your path to Angel Rooms during that run. From then, the chances are much smaller but can be upped by accomplishing specific tasks. Killing a beggar or a shopkeeper earns you a tiny percentage to your Devil Room chance. Same can be said about holding specific items. Avoiding taking red heart damage is probably the most important of it all. Waging the Devil/Angel Room chances is usually the key to victory in any run and I truly enjoy how even though it is a pure gameplay mechanic, it all still makes sense in-universe.
Even the song titles are relevant to the plot and the symbolism behind the game, a lot of it being in Latin. Sepulcrum plays during the Final Ending. Sepulcrum means literally a place of burials. Matricide is the act of killing one’s mother and that’s the track playing during the Mom fight in The Depths. Acceptance plays on the death screen and Ascension is The Chest’s boss fight theme. Everything in The Binding of Isaac is relevant to its theme. Why? Because that is what the creator himself thinks is what makes a memorable video game. In an interview with VICE, Edmund McMillen has stated: “a great indie game is something that not only brings something new to the table, but everything about the game embodies what it is.”The Binding of Isaac embodies Edmund McMillen’s childhood. It’s honest in nature and very intimate at times. It’s a tale of religious upbringings, traumatic experiences, D&D and a whole lot of poop. Art was always McMillen’s emotional output. “I try to make it as cute as possible when I want to get a really dark message across.”, he said.
The symbolism and themes helpedothersfindsolace in their lives. For me, it is fascinating how a tiny video game based heavily on the first The Legend of Zelda has managed to evolve overtime and create its own unique identity. It is often that creators get boxed in instead of branching out and trying something new. Maybe it was because of how different it was, or maybe because of its honesty that The Binding of Isaac has managed to captivate so many hearts. Not just red hearts but soul and black hearts as well…
Our second victim of analysis might also bring us closer to its creator’s mind… or maybe it doesn’t. The internet isn’t quite sure on that one… What I do know for sure though it’s that it is definitely a unique product worth at least looking at, if not – explore for yourself.
The best way to describe Yume Nikki would be that it isn’t strictly a video game. It’s an experience. The topic of “what is a game” has been plentiful throughout the years, often discussed whenever a new “walking simulator” hits our virtual store shelves. Yume Nikki is both a “walking simulator” and a “video game” if you want to go by a definition that a video game has to have a failure state. As there are many different and very loud voices on the topic however, let’s disregard the whole “what makes a video game” discussion. Maybe we will come back to it at some other time. The truth is that Yume Nikki doesn’t care about the rights and wrongs of game design. It makes wrong choices with premeditation as the player involvement isn’t craved. The product is free and given the creator(s?)’ anonymity and presumably literally living under a rock, the cult followup of Yume Nikki was never intended or wanted.
This tiny video ga–… interactive experience was developed by KIKIYAMA. All we know about them that they are Japanese and… that’s pretty much it. The internet hasn’t managed to dig up much more about the creator(s?) and boy, it tried. It still does, in fact.
It was developed in RPG Maker, specifically the 2003 edition of the software and trust me, I am a huge fan of seeking hidden gems in between the waves of “babby’s first video games” running on the engine. As much as the internet seems to hate RPG Maker games just because the software is so easy to use, I find it even more appealing. It’s accessibility allows a wide variety of people to create interactive experiences without the knowledge of advanced programming. This means everybody can simply pick up the software and play around with it. It’s what KIKIYAMA and many others did and how Yume Nikki came to be. Art is a way of self expression. Giving people easy access to it is also giving its receivers easy access to the creator’s mind. Picture it as sticking a Psycho-Portal on the back of someone’s head as it is what Yume Nikki probably should be described as.
The game is basic. It explains itself by showing players its Game Flow at the beginning of the adventure. From there, we are thrown into a tiny square room. A chubby little girl is facing the camera. Again, there are not many options. The girl does not want to step outside. We can only leave via the south double door and even then we are stuck on a small balcony. We can sit down and play NASU – a simple mini game involving a bird and fish raining down the sky, write in the girl’s journal which is equivalent to saving our progress or… go to sleep as sleeping is where the magic begins.
The majority of Yume Nikki takes place inside the protagonist’s dream world. The scope of this interactive experience quickly expands as we actually get outside Madotsuki’s room and into the Nexus. Here, we have multiple doors to choose from and they all lead to different locations. Those are vast. The walking speed isn’t favorable until you find one of the 24 effects or – in more generic terms – items. Some of them grand additional abilities, some are used to solve the most basic of puzzles, some trigger special events and some are simply cosmetic. Getting all of them is the player’s goal in this adventure but trust me, it’s not as easy as it might sound.
Not only the locations are huge, they are also extremely hard to navigate. They lack proper landmarks (something which fangames [yes, there are many, and I mean manyfangames] tend to fix), often loop around which means the environment seems never ending and are almost, if not full-blown, labyrinthine. The tiny resolution the game runs in, as well as the initial slow walking speed makes traversing the world feel like a chore. There aren’t many ways or opportunities to interact with creatures inhabiting Madotsuki’s dreams and some are even straight up hostile – touching them sends the player into a dead end with their only option being to pinch their cheeks and wake up. See what I mean by Yume Nikki throwing the “proper” game design out of the window? It’s almost as if it doesn’t want you to further your adventures and many players give up at this point, never knowing why this interactive experience is so praised.
Obviously, it is best to go into Yume Nikki not knowing anything about it but the initial wall might be hard to overcome. Take my word though that this is worth it and if you are struggling to keep your attention, come to it in small bursts or, if you really need help – Google where the Bicycle effect can be found. Yes, even the most basic of upgrades the game gives you is hidden behind many beginner options and inside a vast environment. From there – explore. This title is literally Exploration: The Ga– Interactive Experience! Enjoy the atmosphere created by dreamlike music and abstract imagery. The soundtrack is also as basic as it can get. It consists of shorttrackslooped indefinitely and yet somehow, it never feels boring or annoying.
Yume Nikki hides its true face. As exploration is key, the player will often find themselves in completely new environments as everything is connected™… well… a lot of things are connected… The secrets it carries range from simple hidden rooms to random events which you might not even known existed until someone else comes across it. It’s almost as if the title itself is a huge puzzle needing multiple people to solve and yet the solution is not clearly given. It carries its theme on a competent level, presenting us with an array of more or less reality-based locations. As dreams can be down to earth or truly abstract in nature, serene or nightmarish, it does an amazing job in showing all of those possibilities as well as so many in-between. Analyzing Madotsuki’s dream world gives us a window into her own personality and interests as the character never speaks or interacts in any meaningful fashion. At least The Legend of Zelda’s Link has diverse facial expressions… We may only deduct that she is partial to Aztec aesthetic as it is commonly present in her dreams. She might be afraid of people – the fact that she doesn’t want to leave her room as well as the existence of a humanoid enemy by the name of Toriningen might speak in favor of this hypothesis. One of my personal favorite details is that the Fat effect used to be acquired by interacting with a mirror.
Discussing and analyzing game design in Yume Nikki is an art in it of itself as it has so many flaws yet I am pretty certain it does not consider them as such. Its secrets are obscure for some reason or another just as KIKIYAMA secluded themselves out of the Big Brother’s view. Maybe there does exist a hidden meaning in all of this or maybe it’s as simple as a college project devised out of randomly created assets. The topic is still in the air and we may never get to know the answer. Yume Nikki, albeit we’ve known to love it as a complete title, was never finished. The version number still says 0.10 and after 13 years, the chances of it changing are dying down. The tenth anniversary of this interactive experience has brought us some celebration allegedly given blessing from the creator(s) themselves. And whilst you may think this has made the community joyous – the opposite has been the case.
The name of it was as vague as the subject matter itself. Project Yume Nikki has been teased and the internet was adorned by it… until the eventual reveal of its contents. Those included a Vocaloidalbum, a light novel and a manga, all retelling the events of Yume Nikki. How can you retell something which has no story, you ask? That is the same question the community has had on their mind at the time. The pieces worked around that by claiming to be “interpretations” of the original subject matter. They ended up being quite controversial as, at least the Western part of the Yume Nikki community tends to be pretty defensive over their own ideas and theories. At the same time, even they cannot decide if what they love so much has a defined story or not. Some people speculate based on the previously mentioned imagery and manyreferences to Japanesemythology. Others claim that “Everything is “kind of just there” in Yume Nikki, that’s the whole point of the game.”
As terrible as it sounds, this is what I think made this interactive experience what it is. It has popped out of KIKIYAMA’s hands right into the wide world of the internet and from there, it has been adopted by like-minded individuals who gave names to characters and wrote stories about them. Sometimes it is hard to even say if titles still belong to their creators, or the people who keep them afloat.
Yume Nikki would not be a topic of conversations over ten years after its release if it wasn’t a memorable experience at least to some devoted individuals. It wouldn’t be relevant if not for a multitude of fangames created in its image – sometimes ending up being as popular as the original. The same can be the said about The Binding of Isaac. It’s the let’s play culture that will keep the game alive. That, and the recently introduced modding tools and Steam Workshop support. Once the creator is done with its piece, it is time to give it to others. This is what I’m doing right now, leaving you with gateways to experience these titles for yourselves.
Hitman isn’t the only game I pay a lot of attention to. I take great interest in the gaming industry and am a fan of many franchises. I enjoy taking part in unique experiences and try not to get boxed in a single genre. I also love exploring the legacy and culture of video games and frequently play catch-up to learn about older titles. This is how I’ve grown to love American McGee’s Alice – a horror-themed 3D action platformer loosely based on Lewis Carroll’s creations. The game has never received a sequel at the time I first played it and a continuation wasn’t even planned. This has obviously made Past White truly saddened as they carried on without a hint of hope towards either an Alice 2 nor Hitman 5. Both of these are titles which will be discussed in this piece as, even though very different, present similar flaws in execution. Join me, as I will tell you a tale of missed opportunities and misunderstandings in this “what the hell has happened here?” type of article!
First though, we have to get at least a basic overview of the victims of our analysis. I highly recommend you play some of these games for yourself (and trust me, you’ll know which ones I’m talking about). Unfortunately, this particular one isn’t available digitally and pretty tough to get a hold of otherwise but I trust you will manage. After all,
“Only a few find the way, some recognize it when they do, some don’t ever want to.”
American McGee’s Alice has been released in 2000 by a company called Rogue Entertainment. The game’s title was branded with its creator’s name – Mr. American McGee – but this choice was made by the publisher – Electronic Arts – to differentiate the franchise from other works based on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This version of Alice was unlike any others. It definitely did not look even remotely similar to Disney’s. It was dark, edgy, almost putrid. Madness has been presented as a realistically scary concept instead of rooting itself in goofy clumsy characters. Alice was also the first Electronic Arts game to have received a rating of 18+ or, in case of American territories – Mature. The letter M was previously given to such titles as Mortal Kombat, DOOM or Resident Evil – all of them thematically far from a colorful world of Wonderland. That is because this Wonderland also was not full of joy. It was a place of misery, created in the protagonist’s mind.
Taking place after the events of both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderlands and Through The Looking Glass;American McGee’s Alice shows us the continuation of Alice Liddell’s life. The brunette (yes, Carroll’s Alice was, in fact, brunette!) is a troubled young lady introduced to us in a short FMV scene. From said scene we can learn that she is the last surviving member of the Liddell family as her parents and sister died tragically in a house fire presumably caused by their pet cat. This traumatic experience has lead to Alice blaming herself for the fire and become mentally unstable causing her to get locked away in Rutledge Asylum under the care of Dr. Heironymous Q. Wilson. We can find his notebook in the manual of the disc release of the game (remember game manuals?! Also, don’t you find weird that the other series in focus also has a casebook written by someone calling themselves a doctor?).
Alice was comatose for almost a year. She’s been recovering from her wounds quite well but she’s delirious, has severe memory issues and responds poorly to outside stimuli. Her only possession is a toy white rabbit which she deeply cherishes (more similarities between the franchises!? What are we going to do?!). As her physical and mental state were both in a dangerous territory, Dr. Wilson has decided to use her for the final evaluation of his experimental serum. But not before testing it on other patients. Alice has heard their agony-filled screams many times at night and began putting blame on herself for their pain and mistreatment. She was seen as completely insane and with little chances of getting back into society. In truth, Alice was alive and well, only on a different plane of existence. She was stepping into the backdoor in her own mind – the only home she was left with: Wonderland.
In there, she has lived accompanied with creatures like Cheshire Cat or The White Rabbit. She began drawing those characters in the real world as well and Dr. Wilson noted that the cat in her doodles is barely like any cat he has ever seen. Alice was muttering words and describing places which could only be of Hell. The experimental treatment has begun and soon the girl was acting either dormant and still or belligerent and destructive. She now has willingly been taking her next doses, presenting the staff with even more images of nightmarish places filled with abominations. She spoke tales of chess, rabbits and tea parties. When there’s no pencil in sight, she turned to poetry instead. She started mentioning particular details: a blade she’s supposedly carrying, a place called the Fungiferous Forest and a demon by the name of The Red Queen. Dr. Wilson soon realized that it’s Wonderland Alice was stuck in. The Red Queen was the one who has bound her there and will only let her escape once the girl slays her.
“I wait for the day when she claims victory over the Red Queen and her minions, when Wonderland will be restored.”, he claims. “Perhaps by this Alice will cure herself, regain her balance and leave this place of her own volition.”
This is how the backstory of Alice paints itself in this version of her adventures in Wonderland. Although the tale of the game itself isn’t very sophisticated and comes around to a classic “do this, get that” idea of video game objectives, the writing is still absolutely amazing. And you only need one character to prove it. The Cheshire Cat.
Of course, The Cat isn’t the only character with outstanding lines. All of them speak in distinct patterns and have unique personalities attached. The supporting characters are all native creatures of Wonderland. We briefly see The White Rabbit, The Catterpillar is a major figure in the quest, The Mock Turtle is a helpful ally, The Duchess is one of the first antagonists Alice has to face and even the fabled Jabberwock appears acting as the protagonist’s Pyramid Head. And those are not the only familiar faces either.
Alice herself isn’t the naive, clumsy cliché girl protagonist we’ve been taught to expect. She is fierce and determined even though she realizes the risks (“I am destined to battle The Red Queen. The outcome is uncertain.”) but also has visible character flaws. She takes blame for every bad thing that happens around her (“Everyone I love dies violently. I’m cursed. Why go on? I’ll just hurt others.”) and ends up being quite rude to others that try to guide her on the right track (“Or, perhaps, there’s more than one way to skin a cat… if you pardon the expression.”). Her wits and drive definitely make her a likable and somewhat relatable character and you end up rooting for her not minding all of the horrible mutilations she commits with her range of weaponry.
And those are many. You will need to use your whole arsenal to deal with variety of enemies placed in clever positions throughout the levels. This game is brutal, especially on higher difficulties. It knows it offers a Quick Save feature and makes players use it frequently as it does not checkpoint at any point except for major location changes. It also doesn’t matter that the enemies all drop Sanity (health) and Will (mana) refills (Meta-Essence). They hit hard and later encounters often have to be played strategically to balance Alice’s HP and MP. A great example of that is the first boss battle in fact. The Duchess hits like a truck and even though refill pickups are dotted around the room, you don’t want to run through them once you end up without a Will to fight. You are better off leaving them until you need to get back your Sanity instead. This can lead to Vorpal Blade kiting and sniping battle pretty quickly as you dodge The Duchess’ projectiles and worry on survival until the pickups respawn. The Blade is the only weapon which secondary projectile attack does not use mana. This makes it a reliable tool to switch to on the fly even in later parts of the game. American McGee’s Alice does a fantastic job in making you want to use all of the weapons available. They all have two types of attacks and serve different purposes. They are also amazingly balanced. Some have homing projectiles but are weak so you might want to leave them to deal with more annoying yet more fragile enemies whilst using a higher speed projectile weapons for more dangerous opponents.
Remember how I mentioned the game plays off the Quick Save feature? It isn’t afraid to be difficult or even straight up unfair at times. Everything leads you into dangerous situations, even The Turtle takes you through every single bit of every single room in the underwater section just so Alice can get her toes bit by a few piranhas on the way. Her tools of the trade aren’t the only aspect with variety. Much care have been put into the design of enemies as well. Both visual and gameplay. The opponents are threatening. They not only do loads of damage. They look ferocious, too. From classic Card Guards to flying beetles, ants and even demons – each enemy is distinct in their looks, animations, sound effects and actions. The game places them in locations unfavorable for the player for an even bigger difficulty curve. The beetles hover around Alice dropping explosives during a semi-automatic leaf-riding section. The ants can easily pick her up and throw her off great heights. The Boojum are often encountered in already tough platforming levels and their one screech is enough to fling Alice off her course.
This title understands pacing. Not just in storytelling but gameplay-wise, too. It isn’t just wave after wave of opponents to beat. For example – after an enemy gauntlet, we are presented with a pure platforming level. Then, an intense boss battle followed by a story cutscene. Speaking of platforming sections… American McGee’s Alice isn’t as unforgiving as it may appear. It offers some help in form of a visual representation of player character’s jump length and hidden pickups. One of them can temporary turn Alice into a demon-like creature and up her damage output. Interestingly enough, Alice does cry in pain every time she uses said pickup, further signifying how terrifying and agonizing this experience is for the protagonist.
The game makes great use of the theme it carries. Every single detail makes sense in the world. You could already notice that as soon as I mentioned Sanity and Will. The environments are beautiful. They still manage to carry the feeling of Wonderland albeit broken and deranged. The motives such as clocks, chess and mirrors are used for minor puzzles dotted around the levels and the game makes a great deal out of everything appearing dangerous and eerie. Major antagonists are introduced well before their respective boss battles and the player learns to despise them. Not only because we are told that some of the characters are villainous. The environmental storytelling does its job, too. The Jabberwock, for example, uses Alice’s greatest fear – fire – to hurt her, and the battle with it takes place in a burned building. We can also see Mad Hatter’s twisted creations and realize for ourselves why he must be stopped. If American McGee’s Alice can portray simple roses or chess pieces as life-threatening danger, it must be a sign that it is doing it right.
I cannot stress enough how important it is that it does things right. The game deals with themes of depression, trauma, delusions and extreme loss of sanity. It never makes a single joke out of mental illness and it never glorifies it, instead treating it with utmost respect. It uses imagery and atmosphere to make its statement on the importance of mental health and I honestly think it’s doing a remarkable job. It is mature because it has to be. It doesn’t simplify or disregard Alice’s issues. It takes its themes and runs with them and it is exactly why I fell in love with it.
As you can see, a bunch of aspects featured in American McGee’s Alice mimic the ones of my absolute favorite franchise of all time – Hitman. I fell in love with Hitman because of its maturity. I adore how it shows death in a different sense that we’re used to in media. Yes, it is still a silly video game about putting laxatives into the virtual food of polygonal figures but it’s so thought-provoking in its narrative and atmosphere. That I believe I have proven in my previous pieces. Silent Assassin is the greatest example. 47’s moral journey is the point the game is centered around. Pairing that with religion, guilt and arising sense of revenge in our protagonist is absolutely brilliant in my opinion. Playing Silent Assassin and noticing those tiny changes in Mr. 47’s behavior is a thrill as the experience gets enhanced, the tension gets higher and peaks when the player returns to the Gontranno Sanctuary for the very last time. Same can be said about Contracts in particular but there are definitely some of those moments also present in Codename 47 and Blood Money.
Time has passed as I was lurking the online forums hoping to see a glimpse of another entries in my favorite franchises. The rumors were spreading and thriving, as it happens so often on social media. 2009 brought us a vague announcement of “The Return of American McGee’s Alice” complemented by a steampunk-inspired concept art. But it was the next year that officially announced the sequel to Alice’s adventures.
Alice Madness Returns – claimed the title card at the end of a dark and moody CGI trailer. First interviews with the series creator also have started to appear. American McGee spoke highly of the fans of the original Alice, saying that the game became sort of a cult classic in a sense and definitely assuring that the team is going to do it justice with the sequel.
“This is a natural sequel, a narrative sequel to the first game. So we get back in there and people who know the first game are going to have a lot of reward in terms of seeing locations that they may have seen before, characters that they knew from the first game.”,
he said setting up a framework for Alice’s return to madness. It appeared that the creator is on the right track when it comes to analyzing the success of his product and wants to play off those even further:
“The first Alice was actually EA’s first M-rated game. We are trying to seek common horror — not that it’s simple or expected, but instead of being that in-your-face cliché horror, we’re trying to go for a much more psychological, deep, disturbing horror. The kind that would juxtapose something like the blood and the teeth and this beautiful girl to try to create — that is a dissonance that you’re trying to pull up.”
“Whatever she sees or experiences in Wonderland has to be derived from something that she might have seen or experienced in real life.”
The team, albeit a completely new one, knew what they had to do. According to American McGee, the basics of Alice was to create a solid platformer with memorable art and story. The latter was accomplished thanks to R.J. Berg who was confirmed to be on board with Alice Madness Returns as well. This focus was what guided the development of the sequel: American McGee wanted to create a satisfying platforming experience in a gameplay sense but also to be on par with storytelling, art design and puzzle elements. This image of Alice Madness Returns ended up rooted in fans’ mind during an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit:
“The first game is often knocked for being both too difficult and too simplistic. It’s sad to hear when people loved the game but were unable to finish it because it impossible to get past some stage or enemy. Fortunately, we’ve made sure to address all those issues with the new game.
The first game was much like I imagined it – but I never expected the sort of response I received.”
The comments have already noticed the fact that this difficulty is a big part in what made American McGee’s Alice such a memorable and thrilling experience. None of us were expecting that the creator’s words were to end up being a double-edged sword, however. Or, I guess, in this case, a double-edged blood-sprayed Vorpal Blade…
CGI trailers tend to be misleading, although they often give out a fair assessment of the product’s atmosphere and general theme. This, as well as the fact that Spicy Horse – the studio responsible for Alice’s sequel – has hired Ken Wong to direct the art style of the game, cemented the idea of a dark, mature title. Why was Ken Wong such a big deal? He was previously a fan of the original American McGee’s Alice and was so inspired by the art design that a fanart of the protagonist appeared in a doujinshi fan book. From there, he was contacted directly by the series’ creator himself to work on returning Alice to her state of madness. Weirdly enough, however, albeit still quite beautiful and unique, the environments shown in the first gameplay trailer weren’t even close to moody scenes featured in those three CGI teasers.
Here, we can catch a glimpse of the cutout animation style that was then used in the game itself to deliver greater story aspects. Speaking of story, this framework is also being set – Alice is heard having a conversation with, presumably, her psychiatrist whom we’ve not heard of before, admitting that she is trapped inside her own mind once again. The trailer shows us major locations featured in the game before shattering the screen as our protagonists mentions Wonderland being destroyed.
This wasn’t the only gameplay trailer however, as we can easily dig up a video full of beta content. This, in addition to analyzing concept arts and going through leftover files of Alice Madness Returns, can give us a pretty good idea as to what the game was going to look like if not for various cuts and changes. Before we can take a look at those however, let’s see how the final product turned out, just so we’re on the same page.
From the very first seconds, the tone is already quite different. We are introduced to Wonderland by Alice herself during one of her many sessions with a man whose voice we’ve heard in the trailer. Doctor Bumby guides her through a peaceful day spent having a tea party with The White Rabbit before the world starts shifting and disrupting its balance. Alice wakes up in Bumby’s office in London and we hear a sad violin soundtrack accompanying this Victorian setting. In addition to the main Wonderland portion of the environment, we can also run around the English capital city itself, although it appears merely as filler content between the five chapters of Alice’s adventure. Yes, the game is split into five different chapters, distinguished by five major Wonderland locations. Each of them is approximately two hours in length and every time, Madness Returns throws the player back to London to present a quick inside into the life of actual physical self of Alice Liddell. Unfortunately, there isn’t much gameplay during these parts. They all come down to mindless running through linear levels with few instances of “interactions”. I say that in huge quotations as said “interactions” are simply boxes of text featuring Alice’s thoughts.
It’s a shame that London isn’t used for any meaningful gameplay segments. The feeling of melancholy is captured perfectly. The art style and the choice of colors represent exactly the mood I’d imagine in a Victorian London setting. Conversations we can overhear mostly during our first visit could have easily be improved upon to paint a better picture of how the outside world sees our protagonist, though. There are bits of dialogue that touch on said subject and honestly, I was expecting there would be more emphasis put on physical Alice in addition to the expression of her mental self. Especially because there is one surprisingly clever detail never clearly explained in the story and it’s a real treat for the player once they piece it together themselves. I’ll give you a hint – it’s about Alice’s hair length.
As it is, England isn’t seen much and isn’t very memorable – a missed opportunity considering the ending which heavily revolves around merging the physical and mental interpretations of reality. We do see the London streets gradually twisting around Alice and the same thing is true for Wonderland but those changes are never as drastic as to be notable. In fact, those scenes are so forgettable I catch myself thinking “oh yeah, that happens” every time I replay the game.
How does the game play, you ask? It is as close to the original game as it is far away from it. The framework is quite the same. That, once again, being a 3D action platformer with puzzle elements. It features a storyline revolving around a troubled young woman dealing with mental issues and finding her solace in escapism. Much more focus was put onto combat this time, as the game borrows heavily from titles such as The Legend of Zelda and incorporates a lock-on system to compliment much faster pace of enemy engagement. You can see how Alice Madness Returns wants to be a hack’n’slash in addition to all of the other genres it tries. Unfortunately, if you decide to cram all of the video games inside one product, none of it will end up competent and this is the main issue with this sequel.
Every time I play Alice Madness Returns(and I truly wish this is the last time I had to), I start it off thinking that it can’t be as bad as I remember it. The first few chapters aren’t horrible, albeit they definitely overstay their welcome. The problems start arising as the game progresses though and you notice small annoyances, non-polished mechanics and segments which are straight up lacking any meaning or content in the long run. Those, unfortunately, include most of the present storyline.
Remember how I mentioned that American McGee’s Alice grounds itself in the most cliché of “go and do that thing cause you are the hero” video game logic? The sequel does it to extreme by making the protagonist do chores for side characters in order to “progress”. Again, I use that word in huge quotation marks as it never feels that way. The first couple of chapters are waves of fetch quests, often asking the player to receive three items or rescue three characters. Honestly, if I wanted to go on such a quest, I’d just pop in any game in The Legend of Zelda franchise instead, as the experience Alice Madness Returns offers in this regard isn’t the most exciting or, again, remarkable.
Let’s stop wording things nicely – major portions of Alice Madness Returns are straight up boring. There are long gameplay sections with no story progression, as the player runs around from person to person. None of them say anything meaningful or further the plot. They simply give you another random objective so you can traverse further into the world. There are no satisfying conclusions to conflicts, either. There’s a suspicious lack of end chapter bosses even though certain characters are clearly set up to be large-scale antagonists. Dormouse even goes as far as to say “Battle time, missy!” before a massive robot rises in front of Alice and is immediately shut down by The Mad Hatter. This happens multiple times throughout the game, too. Chapter 4’s The Executioner would be a perfect late game boss if only you could actually fight him head on. In place of this imaginary encounter, Alice promptly states that the opponent is too powerful to combat him and the conflict is resolved later in a short cutscene. Thankfully, an ending boss does exist and I’m not going to lie, the fight is quite clever thematically, but at that point, the player simply expects more.
Maybe it’s for the best that we didn’t get those big boss battles though, as combat in Alice Madness Returns is a bother. The enemies are varied but they often only have one way of dealing with them until you get your next weapon or upgrade after which it feels as if you are simply swatting waves of flies. Weapon array has greatly diminished. Instead of presenting you with a new toy to play with, the game wants you to spend imaginary currency to improve said toys. Those tokens being teeth; a common dream sign often interpreted as an extreme symbol of fear. The sequel to Alice still plays fairly well with the themes it features, but strays further and further from the original concept of Wonderland, instead focusing on the concept of memories. Those are mostly prominent in the storyline itself as well as the title’s collectibles.
Don’t know about you but I do enjoy secrets and hidden rooms in video games. Everything to break through the monotony of a linear level design and make me feel as if the world is a lot bigger than in reality. Alice Madness Returns features a variety of collectibles, ranging from classic concept art unlockables, additional pieces of dialogue portrayed as the protagonist’s lost memories, bigger secluded areas which include challenges rewarding you with the game’s idea of TLoZ’s Pieces of Heart (thematically brainy though as those are vials of red paint used to turn white roses into red ones akin to the subject matter) and, of course, the pearly or gold variants of the game’s currency. Those are usually uncovered by peppering a Pig Snout – or, in simple terms, using your ranged weapon to activate a trigger. Again, I have to admit that I do like how Pig Snouts have distinct sound effects that help you with locating both them and the secrets themselves. There is also a shrink button which allows Alice to squeeze into tiny mouse or key holes to uncover hidden rooms. The game of hide and seek in Alice Madness Returns is rather impressive and even though I came close on every occasion, I still haven’t managed to 100% it.
The problems start arising once you notice how it disrupts the natural progression of the game. The shrinking ability makes you realize how many invisible walls are scattered throughout Wonderland, therefore breaking its illusion. You end up picking up so many teeth throughout your adventure that the game economy feels lackluster and it is revealed how short and linear the game becomes once you decide to skip going out of your way to pick up imaginary items. Which you are encouraged to commit to. The weapon upgrade “mechanic” is introduced as early as in Chapter 1. Here we meet up with our friends Quotation Marks once again, as it is simply boosting your weapons’ damage output and adding another attack to its “combo”. This allows the player to be able to press A even more times than the regular combat demands it. Not only the enemy engagements are quite boring to begin with and Alice does not have many tools in her arsenal to make them more interesting, the combat itself revolves around hitting a button… a lot of times. There are no multiple button combinations to test out player skills. Alice is equipped merely with her four weapons (two melee and two ranged), an umbrella used for deflecting projectiles and the most compelling of all – the Clockwork Bomb: a tool for both puzzle solving and distracting opponents. She also has an ability to dodge and you will be doing this as often as hitting A. All of this may be compared to the system popularized by the Batman Arkham series, but somehow even more simplistic in its execution. It’s mind boggling how a game heavily featuring combat makes it feel bothersome. Not only that, the player is required to fight as Alice’s sequel borrows from actual spectacle action titles such as Devil May Cry or Bayonetta by locking progression until you clear out a room of enemies.
The shallow nature of AMR’s gameplay only becomes more prominent because of its terrible pacing. The first three chapters drag on forever, featuring fetch quest after fetch quest. Those are filled with either basic platforming segments or lengthy combat sequences, none of them being particularly enjoyable. There is no penalty for dying so there’s never any feeling of danger. Not even from the enemies’ looks as it was the case in American McGee’s Alice. This time, the opponents are much more cartoony and even barely threatening on some occasions. There are also just a few variations of them if you really think about it as most of the basic melee enemies act in similar fashion and Bitch Baby is very close to being a rehash of a previous ranged baddy. I often point to the case of Menacing Ruins – an unfortunate name as its design is a bunch of smaller enemies mashed together and it takes a considerable amount of time to do its counterable attack… in a counter tutorial.
The other big portion of Alice Madness Returns is its platforming sections and those aren’t the best either. It can often be fiddly due to weird collisions, mostly seen once the game starts adding obstacles between the platforms themselves. The player character has an ability to clear long gaps thanks to multiple jumps, twirls and hovers but that also makes it hard to judge the distance you can actually reach. This, in addition to invisible platforms – the other downside of the shrinking “mechanic” – and many other gimmicks piled on top of each other creates a frustrating experience furthered by instances of fixed camera angles in certain rooms and the last big focus of the title…
I mentioned how the title wants to be many genres at once and does none of them well in the end. In fact, every time I play Alice Madness Returns, I think of other games I would rather play that do what Alice’s sequel attempts. I dream of those that do 3D platforming, cutout aesthetic 2D sidescrolling sequences, rhythm games, 2D shooting portions, ball rolling and barrel mini games, quizzes, chases, chess puzzles, sliding puzzles, actual slides, giant character setpieces, theme and glitches better than Alice Madness Returns does and I am sure I forgot at least one other gimmick. Chapter 2’s ship is slow and janky as the game wasn’t made specifically for it. Chapter 4’s chase levels are uninteresting as there are no obstacles in your way and the only thing you do is mash the dodge button to make it go faster. If you end up wanting to cram every genre into your product, you will never polish any of them. This is the reason as to why swimming sections in video games are so dreaded. Titles that feature them never focus on those segments specifically so the controls and physics aren’t designed to be used under special conditions. Chapter 4’s giant Alice level is a fine setpiece but it is boring and clunky and I think someone didn’t get the memo regarding rhythm minigames. Those are usually fun because the player hits buttons to the song’s rhythm, not seemingly at random. And don’t even get me started on the ball-rolling minigames in Chapter 5. The physics do not compliment such gameplay mechanics and neither the ball nor the camera want to do their thing. I truly wish there was at least an ability to skip those frustrating segments like you can do with chess or sliding puzzles. There is no penalty for skipping those, in fact, the game prompts you to do so. Why then does it require me to play through sequences that are clearly broken instead?
Once you make your way through the first few chapters, it does become quite apparent that the game was never truly finished. Chapters 4 and 5 are notably shorter than previous ones. Granted, this actually does Chapter 4 a favor as it feels better paced in result. Chapter 5 however features segments beginning and ending in an abrupt fashion and The Infernal Train is a set of huge empty rooms, cutscenes and loading screens. All of this for a major portion of the story being thrown at the player at the last possible moment instead of maintaining the tension throughout the entire adventure. In fact, the dialogue in early chapters sound like a filler, especially if you consider that most of it is trying to explain vague connections between level themes and the storyline. I already mentioned how the game strays from the subject matter of Wonderland and you can clearly see it in the environments. Granted, the art style is beautiful and if there is something positive to be said about Alice Madness Returns is that its world is simply gorgeous. The fairytale feeling is definitely there. The game is colorful and bright, the character design is clever and stunning (origami ants come to mind) and some portions even feel like the original American McGee’s Alice!
…That is because most of the title unfortunately doesn’t. Only Queensland, with its grotesque imagery truly makes the original Alice come to mind. Every other location is held together thematically by strings of dialogue hidden as glorified audio logs.
The biggest offense to that is my beloved Vale of Tears which changed from being desaturated and visibly miserable to cheerful and twinkly instead. Mad Hatter’s Domain still remains as a place full of half-broken machinery and robots. Chapter 2’s Tundraful is a stretched reference to Through The Looking Glass. Deluded Depths and its Barrelbottom makes you seem as if you’ve taken the wrong bus albeit the Dreary Lane Theatre is absolutely beautiful. Chapter 3 features Oriental Grove inspired by Asian territories… I guess because Spicy Horse was a company based in China. And Chapter 5’s Dollhouse is there because… porcelain dolls can be creepy? As much as I love the art design of all of these locations, there are way too far from the unique American McGee’s Alice aesthetic and come closer to Disney’s version of Wonderland – something that strips the character out of the series and makes it forgettable as a result.
So what about the storyline, you ask? It’s nothing to write essays about, as I’ve already said. The major portion of the game revolves around fetch quests as Alice blindly trusts everybody even though she clearly knows better, questions their loyalty and they end up double crossing her every single time. The writing itself took a huge dip in quality. We could point at The Cheshire Cat during our look at AMA and we can do the same here, as I honestly have no idea why The Cat is even featured in the sequel. He serves no practical purpose and his quotes aren’t witty or smart. Some are repeats from the original game and he ends up stating the obvious on more than one occasion. Let’s compare some of The Cat’s quotes from the original game and its sequel, as I don’t think I have to say anything more once you see it for yourself.
As for the rest of the plot, Alice Madness Returns does the worst thing a sequel can do in my opinion. It is basically a huge retcon as it is revealed that the events leading to Alice’s condition actually happened quite differently. It also introduces an entirely new character which ends up being the original antagonist as well. This renders American McGee’s Alice meaningless, highly diminishes the value of the original game and thus, can be seen as almost disrespectful. I personally think this is the biggest crime the sequel commits, especially seeing how it had a chance to bring the series back to its former glory and present it to the new generation of video game enthusiast. What it ended up as was a half-broken lackluster forgettable product which did not have its own personality and instead was a subpar platformer with bothersome combat system and an gameplay identity crisis.
This is where we come back to the aforementioned beta as it portrays a much grander and fuller experience. Cut content would not singlehandedly save Alice Madness Returns but it would at least make it seem like a finished title. A lot of the problems definitely come from the fact that the development team working on the sequel was derived from people mostly new to the franchise, in fact, it was the same team which worked on American McGee’s Grimm – a fairly simplistic episodic title. A major portion of the Alice assets were outsourced and even then, the studio did not meet the deadlines and throughout the development cycle, the creator’s role in the project was slowly changing from actively working on the product to merely supervising. During another AMA session, American McGee says it himself:
“(…) we knew the game was uneven and bloated as we got towards the end of development. I asked for more time (a month or two) in order to trim and polish. That request was denied. I think if we’d been given the time we could have made the game an 80+.
Now, the reason I put “” around “blame” is that I can’t honestly blame EA for denying a request related to our team’s failure to deliver what we’d promised in the time we’d been given.
And yeah, we had internal problems. “Too many chefs” problem, “ambitions bigger than abilities” problem and more.”
The PC version got shafted as a result. An even bigger punch to the face is the fact that additional dresses (altering gameplay and absolutely gorgeous mind you) which were later sold as DLC, came with the PC version. They were just disabled and required simply changing the value of one of the strings from False to True. More importantly, though, instead of being properly optimized, the game got locked to 30 frames per second. The framerate can easily be unlocked by changing a few strings in the configuration file and the animations look and feel great once you do it but the screentearing is almost unavoidable.
“I didn’t personally lock the FPS to 30 on PC, but I imagine the engineers did that as a function of the console build being locked to 30 FPS and not having enough dev time to optimize the PC version in any way. We were pretty constrained at the end of the dev cycle”, the creator states once again.
All of that is still not enough to save Alice from herself as it seems like there was no clear focus for the gameplay. There was much more pressure put on the themes, the story and overall presentation which can be clearly seen in the final product. The plot is the main culprit here, as originally, it was much more fleshed out. If you remember, Alice Madness Returns was also supposed to be an M-rated title. Just like the first game. The team struggled with deciding on the level of violence they wanted to feature but the breaking point of the Mature rating was to be the plot itself. As it is now, the biggest reveal is only briefly being mentioned in hidden audio logs and the story feels like it’s missing at least a few lines explaining what has truly happened before the fire which killed the Liddell family.
That was indeed the case. Digging through the game’s files uncovers its true story. Not only it was supposed to be paced throughout the entire adventure, it was also to feature a lot more active involvement from the player rather than sections of walking simulator in form of the streets of London. Starting from the tutorial, which was meant to be a police escape, Alice would find herself most likely violently killing people in the real world whilst fleeing to Wonderland in her head. The beta trailer shows off these escape sections and various existing moments of the story point at this being the case as well. Specifically, Alice’s meeting with Doctor Radcliffe and most of her sudden faints. London itself was meant to be used for so much more. In the same video, we can clearly see Londerland coming to life and being actually playable instead of having its role stripped to merely last segments of the narrative. There were multiple characters scrapped during the development – namely someone called Jack and Mr. Payne, whom Alice mentions once and he’s never heard of again, as well as talking chess pieces – and, of course, the entire point of the overall story which would push the game to receive the Mature rating. [Spoiler warning – Doctor Bumby being in love with Alice’s sister which then led to his obsession, causing him to rape Lizzie and set the Liddell family house on fire.]
We can only speculate if that was done in order to keep the image Alice Madness Return was blessed with during its marketing cycle. As you can remember, the actual first gameplay trailer was quite different thematically from the three CGI videos. The horror inspirations were gone and with them, the uniqueness of American McGee’s Alice’s Wonderland was, too. Putting blame on the marketing side is what the creator has stated himself and this was the origin of controversies back in the day:
“What was frustrating was how EA Marketing interfered – telling STS [Shy the Sky – the company responsible for the first three CGI trailers] from the start that ALL creative direction and final say would come from them, not from us (the developer/creator of the story/tone). That resulted in trailers that were much darker and gorier than the game … and that was a calculated disconnect created by EA. They wanted to “trick” gamers into believing A:MR was a hard-core horror title, even though we refused to develop it in that tone. Their thinking is, even if the game isn’t a hard-core horror title, you can market it as one and trick those customers into buying it (while driving away more casual customers, like female gamers, who might be turned off by really dark trailers). It’s all a part of the race to the bottom EA, Activision and the other big pubs are engaged in. Expect to see it get worse before it gets better.”
He later apologized and backed down on his words, saying that “tricked” gives out a bad impression but it is not the only time he blamed the marketing side of the gaming industry for his misfortunes. In fact, American McGee’s Grimm would probably succeed in the creator’s mind if not for the way it was marketed and distributed. Same with the platform which allowed the episodic nature of Grimm – GameTap. The consumers are also to blame. “Games aren’t special and they aren’t exempt from the forces of that shape business and commerce.”, he has said on the topic of downloadable content in fully released titles. There are continued mentions of American McGee not believing that people will pay for entertainment, as his company’s focus was on creating Free 2 Play titles and it’s next (and only) major game was Akanairo – again, a title with amazing art style but not much substance gameplay-wise – before moving to mobile platforms and closing its doors with barely any explanation given in the second half of 2016.
Before the latter happened however, there was another Alice-branded project in works. Alice: Otherlands was the name of a Kickstarter campaign launched in July 2013. The pitch was to gather enough funds to purchase an Alice movie license, in addition to creating a couple of animation shorts to present to the higher ups. Interestingly enough, the concept of Otherlands was originally for a third game in the series but Electronic Arts was not in favor of funding it. The next idea was to crowdfund the project (concept arts were presented and the game was to be a Massively Multiplayer Online title) and release it independently after getting the rights to the Alice franchise. That portion of the Kickstarter itself was successful – it has received $222,377 – but the game never came to be. In fact, this was the only aspect of the campaign which wasn’t rid of problems, as those were gradually rising until the breaking point.
In the end, only two out of ten animation shorts were created. “Somehow” the goal wasn’t high enough and the company had to spend 105% of the funds. Most of it was on physical rewards for backers, instead of the actual animations which were the promised product. There were long periods of silence and continues delays. The physical reward aspect was problematic and lead to being unsatisfactory for a lot of backers. The plans to buy rights to the Alice movie were unsuccessful and once the shorts came out, they were heavily criticized for the subpar quality. American McGee’s retaliation was to say“You don’t like the style of the Otherlands stuff? Don’t watch it.” and disregarding people’s complains by claiming that the original pledge was to pay for the film license. Once again, the blame was put on communication between the creators and the consumers and I suspect it will not be the last time it happens.
To finish this segment on a lighter note, let’s see what Alice Madness Returns could have been if not for many of its unfortunate cuts:
The beta trailer shows of sections of swimming in Chapter 2’s Deluded Depths as well as London police escape sequences and a playable Londerland. Concept arts present us with a bigger arsenal of weapons and combos, featuring a fan favorite Ice Wand returning from American McGee’s Alice. In fact, the weapons were to be based around Tarot cards and Alice’s dresses were to change color depending on the tool she was holding. This was later changed for her style to compliment the location she was in and the dresses themselves were an homage to fans. Since Alice fanatics loved to cosplay and draw the protagonist in various clothes, the creator also wanted to give them more material to work with.
Rabbit was to play a bigger role in the story, guiding Alice throughout Wonderland. There were clearer objectives given to the player both in Wonderland and London portions of the adventure. The locations were supposed to be bigger and more distinct, as the Oriental Grove had an East and West sections. A lot of memories were either removed or rewritten, same with multiple characters’ dialogue – most notably Cheshire Cat’s and The Red Queen’s. And of course, there were cut enemies and locations which did not appear in the final product. We do not know if the game would succeed if those were in place. Maybe it would still suffer from subpar quality and overextending it’s boundaries to every video game genre it can think of. And after following the series for such an amount of time and witnessing the return to Wonder-, Londer- and Otherlands, I honestly don’t think I still wish to know…
At this point, I am pretty sure all of you coming here strictly for Hitman content might have closed the page but if you are still here by some chance, we’re now onto talking about my favorite franchise of all time! …Unfortunately, that meant I had to dabble into the unspeakable as this time, we’re are taking a look at Hitman Absolution.
Just like Alice, the sequel was long overdue. I fondly remember my excitement every time even a slight hint to a mention of Hitman 5 appeared in the wide sea of the internet. Those were, of course, fished out by the most diligent of fishermen of the HitmanForum community. Lack of proper news led to overextending as much as it was possible and multiple actions were then required to stop rumors floating around the murky water. It was 2007 when Xbox Magazine published an article with a so-nicely-looking word and number combo of “Hitman 5” but after that, a silence worthy of the Silent Assassin himself was in place.
This might have been because of financial problems of Eidos – the published of many titles now known under the banner of Square Enix. That is because the Japanese company bought out Eidos after an unsuccessful attempt to restructure the business plan by laying off old Eidos management and making entry for SCi Entertainment – a British publisher responsible for, more notably, Rally Championship, Carmageddon and the Futurama video game. Their regimes did not go as planned and after cutting ever more losses – closing off Rockpool Games for example – they accepted an offer of over 84 million pounds and became a part of Square Enix.
It was 2009 when more rumors resurfaced. In an interview with Gaming Indians, Ian Livingstone – the appointed “Life President of Eidos” – revealed that Io-Interactive is actively working on three projects. Those being a sequel to a third person shooter Kane & Lynch, a fifth entry in their beloved Hitman franchise and, surprisingly, a completely non-violent kids game by the name of Mini Ninjas. There were also mentions of the story being partially related to the then-soon-to-be-released movie (funnily enough, this has happened on both occasions when a Hitman movie was coming out) and Rocksteady Studios helping with motion capture (a mistake made by an actor working on the project). 2010 brought us David Bateson confirming his role in the new installment and swiftly removing the statement from his website, more opportunities for the phrase “Hitman 5” to appear due to new people adding the title to their LinkedIn profiles, a fake trailer which was revealed to be an April Fools joke, a fake poster created for the artist’s portfolio and having nothing to do with the game itself (although looking at it now, some story/thematic connections can be made), Peter Peter confirming that Hitman 5 is, indeed, in the works as he has contributed his skills to the audio department of the game, more interviews with Mr. Bateson and suspiciously quick responses by the spokespeople of Io-Interactive and even more fake concept art and rumors!… phew.
But all of this wait was to be worth it as April 2011 was the birth of the greatest Hitman-related picture there ever was. And it was a photograph of caster sugar sprinkled donuts.
“Mmm, doughnuts.” ~ Nick Price, Io-Interactive, February 14th, 2011
Valentine’s Day could not get any better in 2011 but the fans were understandably suspicious. We have witnessed so many leads going nowhere. So many rumors and fake assets floating about. Why should we suddenly believe a random ad in, what ended up to be, the Sundance Film Festival catalog? Barcodes are quite common and the box of donuts has nothing to do with the bald assassin. Still, there was hope. And a handy tool known as e-mails. Not expecting anything to come out of it, a virtual letter has been sent to the project manager of an advertising company called Faircount Media Group.
“You are on the right track” was probably more than on the nose. Even more-so was an image attached to the e-mail. I think I can claim that this hand is probably the most famous of hands ever featured on the HitmanForum and what a handsome hand it is! …There’s also everything else beside the hand, like, for example, a giant barcode and a page straight from some sort of a script. Almost as if they are working for the CSI, the fans have started to grab every piece of possible data from this simple image. You don’t need any fancy IT-work however to notice the speaking character’s name in the script.
This is my last gift to you.
There are also mentions of a strange NECKLACE, the Hitman himself, a “beautiful girl”, a BAR CODE, of course and a key word “Gameplay” at the bottom of the page. What came next was (after an intense period of indescribable excitement) analyzing each scribbling and detail. That led to connecting Nick’s posts (“Interesting doughnut fact: In Denmark, we call this kind of jelly doughnut a berliner. They can be filled with jelly or custard. They tend to be covered in caster sugar and we hold contests where you have to eat them without licking your lips until youre done. Its surprisingly difficult but lots of fun.”) to the only text in the return e-mail’s body. “Greetings from Berlinale.” Another film festival. This time, held in, you might have guessed, Berlin.
The donuts were hinting at something else, mind you. Fat Thursday was coming up soon and with it, the Game Developer Conference 2011. Yet another big event and yet another photograph. Similar premise once again. Scribbles, barcodes, a storyboard featuring the Hitman insignia and, most notably, a glimpse at the famous hand. Feminine hands were about to click on the huge “ACTIVATE” button on the laptop screen in-front of them and I can only presume it was to fuel another wave of excitement on the HitmanForum.
Thankfully, not all of the fans have lost their minds at that moment. One of the yellow sticky notes shown on the photograph was full of seemingly random numbers. Those ended up to be coordinates leading to the Toronto Direct Energy Center. This meshed well with the other set of seemingly random numbers from the first picture as those were a Canadian phone number. Even more-so, the Direct Energy Center was a home to the 2011 edition of Comic-Con. I guess the track was right.
And so it was, another picture, right from the CN Tower in Toronto. No hand this time, but you might have noticed that each of the photographs shown had something in common. A barcode. The numbers were slightly changed in each one and after looking at them closely and comparing them to the original barcode sitting on the back of Mr. 47’s head we can deduct a date of June 7th, 2011. What else than the date of Electronic Entertainment Expo, better known as E3! …But that was not it, as there was something more hidden in the shadows. The metadata guided the fans to another picture. Confirming for the last time that they are on the right track. Not a photograph this time, but a peak at what’s to come. A CGI hand! A moving CGI hand, as it was revealed by the first Hitman Absolutionteaser trailer!
The first trailer for the game has indeed show up during the 2011 edition of Electronic Entertainment Expo. (My personal memory of it is that I was about to head to sleep after watching all of the conferences which was around 4AM my time and was checking the HitmanForum one last time. The trailer was just leaked and I managed to sneak a peak before it was removed. Best 4AM ever. Suffice to say, falling asleep failed after that.) It wasn’t void of controversy among the fanbase. The trailer documented 47’s infiltration of Diana Burnwood’s mansion, featured heavy focus on action although the overall atmosphere felt right for a Hitman title (at least in my honest opinion). Before all of that, however, a few concept arts came to the light of day. One picturing a rainy night, the other showing our protagonist leaping from a ship. A slew of media was thrown into the hands of the HitmanForum, as a few members already playedAbsolution during a community event in Copenhagen. The mission they experienced was “Run For Your Life” – the same one which was then shown behind closed doors during E3 itself. A consensus was made that the game has shifted into more of a third-person stealth action genre rather than a 3D environmental puzzle title the series was known for. New phrases appeared, wanting us to pay attention to them. Gameplay mechanics such as “Instinct”, “Point Shooting”, “Cover system”, “Subduing”. Names of “Glacier 2”, Tore Blystad, Marsha Thomason, Keith Carradine. Mentions of a more personal story, using performance capture technology to put emphasis on the human emotion, advanced AI, combining classic gameplay features with more modern additions to the arsenal and more. Hitman was back after spending five years in the hidings. He was new and fresh, developed on an original Glacier 2 engine which took all this time to be fleshed out. And yet the waves of excitement spreading across the HitmanForum have hit the shore and what remained of them became simply a muddy sand.
The fans were not keen to the approach presented by the title. Yes, it was dark and mysterious, akin to my beloved Contracts but maybe a bit too gritty for some, as 47’s facial expression brought a particular cat meme to mind. The Inception-inspired sound cue and what we’ve seen from the 90-second excerpt of the Run For Your Life presentation, paired with killing the character of Diana Burnwood and getting rid of David Bateson as 47’s voice actor (a “reason” given by the Lead Producer Hakan Abrak being the studio “creatively moving into another direction”) meant bad things for the series. Some wanted to justify the changes, others were enraged by them. Petitions were created to have Mr. Bateson back on board and were successful at that. Diana’s voice actress though – Vivienne McKee – was still gone. The credits were instead filled with “better known” names such as previously mentioned Keith Carradine, Marsha Thomason, Steven Bauer, Vivica A. Fox, Powers Boothe, Shannyn Sossamon, Jon Gries and others. Bad news also came for the Hitman soundtrack enthusiasts as it was confirmed Jesper Kyd will not return for Absolution.
A big concern was the freedom of choice, as the presented level was quite linear in its structure. Learning that Absolution will take place around the United States was a letdown. One of the important hooks of the Hitman franchise was that it featured multiple cultures and settings, giving out a feeling of traveling the world. The new gameplay features also seemed aimed at a very different target audience than the core Hitman fans. The Instinct especially was criticized for being an easy mode (or “noob gamer features” dubbed by some meaner fans), showing the players enemy paths and silhouettes akin to Batman Arkham’s Detective Mode. In truth, it was a substitute for the classic map screen, as the devs were of mind players need a good tool to deal with the AI advancements. The stealth aspect of the series seemed pushed to the side, as all of the materials presented a lot more action this time around and the developers cemented it in interviews. There were many mentions of how the player might feel overwhelmed and discouraged from the title if they cannot break that initial wall of learning the locations and game mechanics, so a lot of focus was put on creating a feeling of empowerment. The player needed to be able to get out of a troublesome situation, instead of having to restart the mission. In turn, the artificial intelligence got a huge boost, allowing non-playable characters to communicate between each other and react accordingly. Once the player enters combat, the enemy will try to flank them and do their best to contain the situation. The pressure has been put on improvised weapons as well, as tools and items are now scattered around the levels in more quantity than in previous installments. 47 can also take out NPCs with his bare hands, completely nullifying the need of weaponry. The comparisons to the 2010’s Splinter Cell Conviction were more than plentiful, as the fans drew conclusions based on the limited amount of content they were presented with. They also blamed Square Enix for this change in direction as this was the first Hitman title after the acquisition of Eidos and, in turn – Io-Interactive.
“That was only a small section of the game, showing this ‘hunter being hunted’ scenario that we’ve never done before. Throughout the game, things will turn into the more classic Hitman scenarios you remember from the past.”,
Tore Blystad said in his interview for Spong.com. Every time an action section was shown, it was immediately tried to be brushed under a rug with words of assurance. Some slipped through the cracks however:
“One of the things we are very focused on is to make the game even more hardcore in certain areas… but we believe that we have something for everyone – our spectrum is much broader than before.”
“This time it’s not hard to be a good assassin. Instead, it’s hard to keep the situation under control, and hold yourself back from going berserk. We’d rather try to tempt the stealthy players to go into a more action-oriented direction. “
Going onwards, the marketing for the game was all over the place. I specifically remember waiting for each and every Friday, as 2PM brought a new video onto the Hitman YouTube channel. This was part of Io-Interactive’s plan. A new community site was launched, called The Barcode Society, which featured a media vault and a developer blog. Unfortunately, as the fanbase already had an established outlet, the site was closed down and is often forgotten. Marketing practices were many, some more controversial than others, like the highly offensive Facebook app allowing people to tag their friends for an imaginary hit because of reasons such as “hairy legs” or “small tits”. The app did not even last a day before it got pulled.
Not all of the pre-release marketing was bad, though. Pre-order bonuses were, are and most likely always will be seen as damaging for the consumers and Absolution featured those as well in form of additional virtual firearms for 47 to play with. The good side of the coin was Sniper Challenge – a standalone semi-arcade title featuring a classic sniping hit on top of a huge skyscraper. A benchmark worthy of the fresh Glacier 2 engine. The game was graphically impressive, had solid gameplay and featured multiple objectives and easter eggs which unlocked content to use in Absolution. It also brought us my favorite of Mr. 47’s outfits but that is maybe a bit less important… I particularly enjoyed the Absolution companion mobile app as well, mostly for its lore content. Unfortunately, the lore vault was never completed and the app was discontinued.
Trailers continued to feature high action scenes and the bar was raised to the extreme once a set of new characters were introduced. Attack of The Saints was the classic Hitman fan’s biggest nightmare. It borrowed from flicks directed by Quentin Tarantino. Beautiful women dressed in skimpy nun outfits and carrying heavy weaponry wasn’t what the series was known for. Curiously, almost half a year before said trailer was released, Tore Blystad was asked this question during an interview with Rock Paper Shotgun:
RPS: Trailers. How hard is it to do a stealth trailer without making it really boring? Tore Blystad: (laughs) It’s very hard. We have in-house group of people doing trailers and ideas, and it’s getting out to the PRs; “more action, you have to have these big set pieces.”
If Attack of The Saints proves anything is that they never figured out how to come out of this problematic situation. It wasn’t just the fans, either. After having spread to media outlets, they accused Io-Interactive of playing on controversies akin to how Rockstar does it with their Grand Theft Auto series. The marketing materials for Hitman Absolution were showing a massacre happening in an orphanage ran by nuns as well as oversexualized women dressed in tight outfits and yet the latter “wasn’t supposed to be a sexist trailer.” Apparently, the level the trailer was based on was later modified following the media outcry (albeit, a tiny bit too extreme in some cases). Whether that was the case or not, we may never know but the changes were obvious and many, as we will discuss later on.
“If we knew it would get such a negative reaction we would have done it in a different way.”
Let’s keep this quote in mind as we go forward and look at what Absolution ended up as.
Absolution released on November 11th, 2012 and I fondly remember the day when I had to call the post office for them to bring me that huge Professional Deluxe edition box as the courier “did not feel like it” that day. (If there’s anything good that came out of Absolution [disregarding Sniper Challenge, as even though it’s a great game, it was a pre-order bonus…] it would be the statue included in the Collector’s Edition.) It appears that the fans weren’t necessarily in the wrong in their assessment of the pre-release material. The title was definitely a step in another direction. It switched the core mechanics from, what has been previously dubbed as, social stealth – i.e. using disguises to gradually uncover more and more of the location – to a typical third-person cover stealth gameplay. There was no more of the sandbox-style design which was in its prime in Blood Money. Instead, the levels were shorter and a lot more linear. This might have been due to technical limitations of the seventh console generation. In addition, most of them did not have a target to eliminate. The goal was merely to get from point A to point B either without getting seen or after a terrible bloodbath as, yes, action was a viable option this time around.
Even though optional, using Instinct was encouraged as being stealthy rewarded the player with filling up the magical glowing meter which was a part of a huge Heads-On Display plastered on the screen. The only way to turn off those UI elements (without the use of mods) is to play on the highest “Purist” difficulty. This gets rid of every visual player feedback, such as ammo counters and suspicion meters. It also disables the tutorial at the beginning of the game even though the Purist difficulty is available from the start, leading more ambitious players (*cough* such as myself *cough*) to not have major gameplay mechanics explained to them until they released how much they needed them… having already played twenty hours of the game. Coming back to Instinct – it was quite unclear as of how much of it was “noob gamer features”, as it also offered interesting stealth mechanics. Our main hero could briefly hide his face to avoid being seen which I personally thought was quite clever and it is a shame it wasn’t reused in the 2016’s HITMAN. As obvious as it would be for 47 to cover himself facing situations he ended up in and how much I think it’s absolutely adorable, it is still a case of a panic button – something hardcore players disapprove of in fear that the franchise will turn to the more “casual” crowd of video game enthusiasts. It streamlined the gameplay, by allowing players to fix their mistakes. I personally think there is nothing wrong with giving different people different options, but maybe not if those options hold back the enjoyment of the franchise’s main fanbase.
Point Shooting – another feature of Instinct – was a big leap into the action-oriented gameplay as it allowed the player to freeze time for a brief moment, tag enemies and then watch how Mr. 47 eliminates them in a truly cinematic fashion. The game still featured highly scripted scenes such as the “Run For Your Life” helicopter setpiece even though it was promised that those would not be the case if a player chooses another approach. The tone wasn’t right to begin with. The atmosphere felt gritty and angry, akin to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. It was also filled with stereotypical crude characters. None of them were likable and there was no-one to really root for as the main damsel in distress was uninteresting and quite annoying. None of the characters were developed in any fashion and the title ends on the same note it starts meaning the entire adventure was meaningless. Every character in this game is simply flat. Even Travis and Dexter could be actually great characters if they had proper development. If characters are stuck in one place, it takes the story with it. Travis starts and ends in the same point. Dexter does that too. Victoria gets a small action scene, yet then goes back to being a vulnerable child. 47 never develops either. He never grows out of the “I killed Diana” phase. The game focused on the storyline – an idea that’s not bad on its own. The thing is, Absolution sacrificed the core design philosophies of Hitman and built its gameplay structure to compliment the story which was pretty simplistic and non-enjoyable to begin with.
The cast of characters lacked motivation and backstory – another aspect which was promised and not delivered in the final product. The entire storyline was based on one simple concept stretched to its limits. It featured obvious holes as some segments ended in an abrupt way. It had a ton of potential to be a truly thought-provoking plot about a protagonist having to cut ties to the only thing he truly had in life. It was supposed to be a personal story filled with regret, empathy and harsh decisions only to be ruined by stereotypes and juvenile humor. It missed its mark trying to present 47 as a man wounded both physically and mentally. The worst part is that the franchise has already managed to do this successfully in Contracts. A good example would be to compare the scene happening right before Terminus to any cutscene in Contracts.
Contracts was all about showing us 47’s mind. He was hurt, he was vulnerable at the time. He was having fever dreams and horrifying nightmares. But was it ever shocking? No, it used the environment as a storytelling device. It understood how flashbacks “work” and pictured the protagonist’s mental struggles in a respectful fashion. Contracts has managed to stay classy. Absolution went all out to shock players. It was an over the top action flick in a series known for its subtlety. Most importantly, it diminished the value of the previous installments in the franchise by immediate dropping everything that linked the protagonist to his past. The story did not take its time to properly introduce or establish any characters and killed off Diana Burnwood way too quickly for it to have any effect on the plot. It feels as if it was supposed to be a truly powerful moment in the franchise yet it is completely disregarded at the end of the adventure and means nothing in the long run. If you need a more in-depth retelling and analysis of the Absolution storyline, these are the two links you should probably follow.
All of the characters are used only as tools to further up the mindless gameplay. It never feels as if there’s anything important going on in the background. The already mentioned damsel in distress trope overstays its welcome. The new sidekick character ends up being just a mild inconvenience throughout the story. Yes, he does push it forward by leaking more and more intel yet this seems like the easiest, most laziest solution the writers could think of. It’s a case of “you have to go there now, cause you are a main hero in this video game” kind of a story and an enormous amount of potential that has, unfortunately, gone to waste. Imagine if this sidekick character (Birdie) was used throughout the adventure to contrast the relationship 47 had with his longtime handler Diana to the one he develops with Birdie himself. Imagine if the damsel in distress (Victoria) decided to not trust the protagonist after he clearly barely cares about her and dumps her in the orphanage. He is only protecting her because of Diana’s last wish and some vague relation to his own past anyways. What if she ended up blaming 47 for Diana’s death for the entirety of the game and this was why he is having such hard time with coping? Instead, we are left with characters that never develop and a frustrated writer who is lamenting about this for the third time in their pieces…
So let’s go back to the gameplay side of things. Although there is not much more to talk about as Absolution is a basic cover-based stealth title. The linearity and small scope of the levels mean there isn’t much freedom left for the player. The game does feature some missions akin to the traditional Hitman design philosophies and those are probably the highlights of this installments. Unfortunately, there are few and far between meaning most of the time, the player will simply traverse the grounds in his quest to defeat the hardest end boss!… and by that I mean, open the door leading to the next cutscene or chunk of the location…
The game featured collectibles in form of meaningless intel, as well as disguises, weapons and unlockables. These were not available in the main adventure however, instead having their role in the (seemingly as important as the campaign, as we’ve discussed previously) online component of Hitman Absolution: Contracts Mode. It was developed as an homage to the fanbase by letting them create their own hits inside the main story locations and challenge each other online. To compliment said mode, a scoring system was devised instead of the traditional rank-based rating used previously. This gave Absolution a more of an arcade feeling although it only ends up being confusing to the majority of the players.
I have to give credit where credit is due, though. The art style and graphical fidelity are fantastic, especially at the beginning of the game. The entire Chicago portion feels to me like what I’d love a modern rendition of Contracts to look like. Once the story moves forward to Hope, the country vibe and Texas inspirations can be noticed and the title can also be atmospheric when it wants to. The Death Factory is the greatest example. And it doesn’t just look well. It plays well. It is definitely a great product on its own but not a Hitman title in the slightest. It lacks important elements established in the Hitman franchise and effectively renders the previous installments meaningless because of that. It fails as a game structured on its story by delivering a plot with so many holes and cuts it is difficult to keep track of it. It doesn’t have a satisfying conclusion, instead blatantly setting up a sequel. It starts and ends its acts in an abrupt fashion and uses shock factor to create seemingly memorable moments instead of taking liberty to develop them. But at least it is a better product than Splinter Cell Conviction…
You thought we were done talking about Absolution’s promotional materials? There are still a few bits and pieces left but they relate to the cut content we are about to discuss. As the game was meant to be focused heavily on the main protagonist’s personal story, an “official prequel” was released in form of a novel. The piece was written by Raymond Benson of James Bond novelizations fame and Metal Gear Solid novelization infamy. You can read about it in detail in my Part 6 of the original Storyline of Hitman write-up as I don’t recommend digging into the novel itself. It is worth mentioning however that it was supposed to be a link between Blood Money and Absolution. An explanation to the events that followed Blood Money’s ending was a hot topic back in the day and Hitman Damnation was supposed to answer all of our questions. It also had a goal of introducing new characters – Benjamin Travis, Jade Nguyen and Birdie – as well as provide a backstory to Diana’s supposed betrayal of the International Contract Agency. As you might expect – the book does a horrible job at any of these tasks, constantly breaking characters and ending up as something I’d call being worse than some of the worst fanfiction I’ve ever read. And that’s mostly because it seems like the author had no idea about the Hitman franchise and instead, tried to fit 47 as an international spy instead… why does that sound familiar?…
The second piece of marketing material we skipped was another alternative reality game. This time focusing on the character of Cosmo Faulkner – a police detective determined to catch “The Hitman”. His only lead at the moment is a mysterious “Birdie” person and he needs to find his location ASAP. Unfortunately, the IT team hasn’t been successful in the search and sources have been drying fast. He’s been stuck in his old ways for far too long. Something even his boss is telling him to change. To help with that, Faulkner starts up a digital journal using the power of social media. This allows him to document everything he’s found so far and get help from other people. Looking at his Google+ profile can reveal how this relationship between the detective and Birdie could link into the game itself. Instead, Birdie’s involvement with the police case is barely mentioned and only used at the end of the story to set up a followup. It’s interesting how one of the most prominently featured characters in the pre-release materials only appeared in a few scenes in the final product. As most of the first act takes places around Terminus and we know Cosmo Faulkner has specifically mentioned taking interest in the hotel, there was more to the connection than what we’ve ended up with.
Focusing your title on its story may lead to difficult choices. Building a universe is important and it was a big part of Absolution’s marketing as well. A huge chunk of the trailers came in form of “the ICA files” to establish major characters of the plot. Interestingly enough, a bunch of info featured in said videos are not even mentioned in the final game and some details can clue us into what the storyline could have been. Most notably, in the trailer featuring Benjamin Travis, we can clearly see 47 shooting through his hand – a reason as to why it has been replaced by a mechanical one and then never mentioned in the game itself. This has been confirmed in the Hitman Absolution Full Disclosure app. Originally, the entire scene of getting Victoria out was meant to end at the last confrontation with Benjamin Travis, leading 47 to shoot him as his last “no” to the Agency.
A lot of what ended up in the game was started in early concepts. From the very start, the title was supposed to explore a more emotion-driven side of 47 and feature him on a run. That has also led to changing the gameplay structure to compliment the main character cutting ties with the Agency. All of this is detailed in the previously mentioned Full Disclosure app so it you are curious, I’d recommend you take a peak. I’ll simply focus on the most important details.
It seems like all of the major setpieces and vistas were to show off the power of the new Glacier 2 technology. Many of the chase scenes presented in the concepts are still part of Hitman Absolution – the train station and hotel comes to mind – but thankfully, the game did not go fully Splinter Cell with a light/shadow mechanic. From the beginning, it was supposed to be a cinematic experience, often going as far as focus on the dreaded Point Shooting mechanic.
Showing 47 physically and emotionally drained was a big part of what the title was meant to be. This is something we can still see in the controversial Attack of The Saints trailer. It starts by giving us a good look at 47’s naked wounded and scarred body as he’s cleaning himself up. The CGI also focuses on the back of his head – the barcode has been slashed and the protagonist’s head is clearly bleeding. First, the idea was to set up Blake Dexter as an antagonist by making him cut 47’s barcode off the back of his head. Whether or not you think this is a better choice than the self-harm scene we ended up with, it is good to mention that originally, the cutscene happening before Terminus was quite different. A lot more aggressive and over the top. This has been toned down significantly in the final product, albeit I’d argue that some of the removed features were a better representation of 47’s state of mind. I talked about this in my character analysis if you are curious. The disconnect from the Agency was in a spotlight leading to more creative decisions being made. Instinct symbolized the main character having to rely on his own skills instead of the ICA support. Improvised weapons also showed how he now had to take care of himself. Not just 47 was meant to be given an emotional background. One of the bad guys of the game – Clive Skurky was to play a more significant role. His role in the story was to smother Victoria with a pillow which would lead to 47 following him to his home where we would learn about Skurky’s personal problems.
And now for a RARE-style character parade featuring all of the mentioned cut characters of Absolution: the crazy bum guy was supposed to be one of 47’s friends. Anna was a name of a girl 47 was emotionally invested in. After her death, he ends up getting a tattoo in memorial. Babble was a private eye related in some way to Diana. He was also to be a sidekick character for 47. All of this sounds as if the concept was later reworked to become Birdie himself. “Ma” or “The Nosy Neighbor” – a favorite of the development team was to appear in the Hope section of the game as a unique enemy type. Fei Zhu was to play a more significant role as one of Birdie’s people. Various witnesses of 47’s actions which would be explored in Cosmo Faulkner’s substory. We first see a glimpse of The Saints in an early concept, still inspired by Grindhouse and rock’n’roll culture. This is also where the snake comes from – an underdeveloped yet heavily marketed theme of Absolution. Originally, Victoria was meant to be a little girl instead of a teenager. Full Disclosure features a concept art showing us what the first meeting of 47 and Victoria could have looked like.
There is also a ton of cut locations such as an enormous warehouse, a hotsauce factory, a supermarket, a literal Burning Hope – the town was meant to be set in flames during the course of the storyline, the previously mentioned house of Clive Skurky, a bowling alley, Diana’s mansion being a cottage placed in a mountain setting, an antique radio shop, a high action airplane setpiece ending at a busy freeway, a bigger-scope train station, Ort-Meyer’s training grounds as part of 47’s flashbacks, open nature locations, a moving ship and probably more.
I wonder if you’ve made the connection between the two big titles featured in this post yourself. As I stated at the beginning, there is a reason as to why I decided to compare those, very different yet so similar games. Both are disappointing sequels, developed after a long period of silence and meant to bring new generations of video game enthusiasts to a respective universe. They both decide to focus on a wider target audience whilst trying to evolve the aspects that made the originals great. In both situations, it ends up doing them more harm than good as they attempt to fit it concepts which clearly do not work in their specific scenarios. They feature amazing art styles and are their chosen theme is a focal point. They decided to go for a storyline-heavy approach but multiple cuts and incompetent writing proved that it was not the right choice. They are also victims of marketing and a lesson to all of us – do not trust everything we see unless we are sure it comes from a neutral source. I’m sure you can find more pieces coming together as you explore the history and analyse both of those titles for yourself. If you wish – this is your homework for this time. I have done mine. After all, in Cosmo Faulkner’s own words:
“Evidence is everywhere if you know how to look for it.”
Thank you for my beloved Patreons for making this piece possible.
Empathy is a strange ability to explain. Technically, all of us should possess the power to express it yet it seems like over the years, said skill have been slowly diminishing across the mankind. Myself? I seem to have been gifted (or cursed, depending on the point of view) with a surprisingly strong ability to gather energy from outside sources. Whether it’s other people or works of media, this is definitely the cause of yours truly being able to see otherwise unseen reasons and over analyze literally everything about a video game character…
We all have those fictional characters we feel we connect with in a strange, almost magical way. It might be because of our personal experiences or the similarities in their personality. For me, it’s because I can feel their point of view. I can put myself in their shoes and see the world with their eyes. After all, even though the character is fictional, their characteristics, both physical and mental, are very much real. Their struggles and adventures aren’t limited to their imaginary universes either. They are based on the “real world” equivalents even in the most extreme of cases. Yes, maybe Skyrim’s Dragonborn wouldn’t be able to really possess the power of Dragon Shouts as our “real world” lacks the magical creatures required to do so, but their story would certainly be a one of escaping a difficult situation and overcoming challenges in order to discover their true self.
I have been given a lot of flack for over analyzing video games in the past, especially when it comes to Hitman. I was also praised for being observant when it comes to 47’s character and presenting the community with details they might have missed during their playthroughs. I have been criticized for going to far with my viewpoint on Blood Money’s story or laughed at because of my theories on the ongoing storyline of HITMAN (H6). This is simply how I use my power of empathy to experience works of fiction and seeing how said power is slowly fading in others, I have decided to share bits and pieces of it with you, so you can see the true magic of fiction and, as it goes hand in hand, my love of Hitman.
With a bit of deduction and if you’ve been following me for a while, you might now answer the question I’ve been asked more times that I can count in the active Hitman community: “Why does White adore Contracts so much?!”. Think about it. A major portion of my love for Contracts came up within my analysis of Mr. 47 as it’s a story that literally takes place inside the mind of our main character. Not only that, that game oozes atmosphere. And it does that from the very start. It is enough for the player to simply launch the game to be immediately taken into its dark and foreboding world. Beginning with a harsh tone of the white noise coming from an unreliable television screen and then distorting our vision of reality as it switches rapidly through various channels. It stops to inform us how handguns operate, successfully setting us up for a story about not only a person that uses weaponry in their daily life but also a one that has just been a victim of said tool. That followed by a loud gunshot, the sounds of panicked screams and a white flash is enough for me to put Jesper Kyd’s “White Room and Main Theme” on loop as I continue writing this piece.
I always listen to music as I’m writing. It’s often either video game soundtracks or pieces of ambient work as, again, it allows me to travel to other worlds and become embraced by their atmosphere. Music is a pure expression of emotions. Sounds are daily occurrences in our lives. We trick ourselves to fall asleep by putting on relaxing noises created by rain or the waves of the sea so we can at least partially be in this world and forget about our “real” struggles. So what was the music I was listening to before I totally fangirled on Contracts once again and will now be looping its main theme at 6 AM in almost complete darkness and only a cup of warm tea, a bar of chocolate and the harsh white-blue light coming from my laptop screen as I’m writing this piece? The recently released official soundtrack to H6. As you can see, it did not hold my attention long enough to not become easily replaced by the wonderful works of Jesper Kyd.
I have been criticizing H6 for over a year now. In fact, I had an idea for an exact piece like this one back when we were given an access to the Prologue during its beta days. Back in February 2016, the community’s major issue with that portion of the game was that it lacked the “Hitman atmosphere” and instead, became more akin to the world of Ian Fleming’s James Bond. This can be called more than simply an inspiration as the Prologueliterally takes scenes from the 2012 movie about this classic character – Skyfall – and uses them in the supposed Hitman universe. Even the premise of said scenes is the same: the main character of the story is being tested and observed by the higher ups as they don’t believe he can take on the task at hand. A man with a mysterious past which is being actively researched and profiled on his personality. The goal is to present the viewer with an easy to swallow version of the lore before diving deeper into the proper storyline but as it takes place literally at its beginning, it is a subject to first impressions. This is why having a setting clearly taken from a spy movie flick just isn’t the right choice in my honest opinion. Especially because, as I consider myself a pretty big fan of the franchise, and H6 is majorly targeted to an outside demographic who only begin their journey with Mr. 47, a scene from Skyfall sets up a misleading framework of the already established World of Assassination.
But even though these are one of the first scenes the player experiences once they begin to play the game, it is not the first thing they see. Remember how I mentioned the very beginning of Contracts? How it grabs the player into its hands immediately once they boot up the application? There is a lot that goes into first impressions. A lot of factors people simply overlook. Have you ever wondered what is the point of pressing Start when the game prompts you too as your input? Obviously, one of the reasons is to recognize the controller used to properly operate the virtual environment but there are also others. If you’ve been following the gaming industry, you might have noticed that those “PRESS START” screens are often used whenever products are in their introductory, often incomplete stages. It’s all part of the marketing and an attempt to win over the potential consumer. This is the first image you see and it has to be a perfect representation of the entire product. (As well as a good way of showing off new technology, in case of Super Mario 64 for example.)
Take a look at this screenshot of the Super Metroid title scene. Are you not immediately brought to its world – dark and mysterious as only few of the elements on the screen move and those are the flickering of futuristic monitors and some unusual alien creature? The ambient tones in the background only enhance this feeling of being lost and, most importantly, alone in this foreign universe.
What about The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time? A new dawn rising as we see the fields of Hyrule and a figure riding on their horse to a great adventure? Mirror’s Edge with its minimalistic white and red aesthetic, presenting us with the harshly cold and sterile environment paired with soft ambient music – perfect representation of the freedom of movement Faith – the protagonist of the game – possesses with her skills at parkour. Psychonauts has a very cartoonish huge human brain suspended in vague imagery and its main character Raz as the player interacts with the main menu and accesses the proper game by walking through doors into the brain itself. Portal with its futuristic sounds and the very first room of the adventure – a locked chamber with transparent walls and a timer which counts down using its huge red glowing numbers. Similarly – Portal 2 – picking up where Portal 1 has left us with an image of the well-known antagonist lying on the floor of the destroyed and overgrown facility. Quick, simple and subtle – the original Mass Effect and its ambient alien sounds and a view looking out to space – a look at the Mass Effect franchise pretty much in a nutshell.
As you can see, the examples are many and you can analyze every title screen in this very way. One of my personal picks (and a childhood favorite) is Rayman 2: The Great Escape as it captures the fairytale atmosphere perfectly and gives us a glimpse at the strange creatures living in the Glade of Dreams. And even though I grew up with the PC version of this 3D platformer classic, I can definitely say I prefer the PS1 title screen featuring the game’s universe creator Polokus in his natural habitat.
And now let’s go back to Hitman, as it is the main victim of White’s over analyzing efforts this time around. Both Codename 47 and Silent Assassin’s menu screens are very similar yet subtlety different. Both use the whiteness and fog to create the sense of mystique as well as: present the beginnings of 47’s journey in, appropriately named, Codename 47, or the clean nature of our contract killer protagonist in, also appropriately named and centered around the theme of, “Silent Assassin”. The differences come from the music and 47’s appearance on the screen. In Codename 47, what we’re hearing is a lot more dynamic and electronic, more akin to a danger-filled adventure with a hint of mystery. Silent Assassin’s background music brings to mind a lot more mature and serious tone with religious undertones and the main character of the game is looking at the camera with his signature Silverballers in both hands – a setup for a story about revenge with a scent of religion.
My beloved Contracts has the already mentioned atmosphere-oozing “White Room and Main Title” and a very different menu screen to the previous installments. This time, we are not presented with the cleanliness of the very basis of colors. Instead, we are instantly thrown into the hotel room number 306, where the majority of the game takes place. Similarly to Portal – this is the place where the protagonist is trapped at the beginning of their adventure and the entire premise is to escape. And while Portal’s Chell only has the luxury of having to physically flee her starting room at the Aperture Science facility, 47 has to also overcome his mental struggles to be able to leave room 306. This is why we might assume he is shown to us pondering during a stormy night accompanied by his trusted sniper rifle and a very clever easter egg I already mentioned in my “Overthinking, overanalyzing – 47” piece.
Blood Money takes its menu screen a bit further when it comes to setting up the framework of the upcoming adventure. The title screen changes based on the players progress in the game itself. It starts out in an empty church which fills up with familiar faces depending on the completed missions of 47’s adventure. Eliminated targets then show up in the glass building as guests of this unusual funeral which is at the end revealed to be our protagonist’s. It is all a part of the big ploy played by Blood Money’s narrative. We are to believe 47 is dead and this is, in fact, the end of the great Silent Assassin (which, honestly, looking at the following titles might as well be the case for a certain portion of the fanbase). This is a similar case to, released two years later, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots’ title screen which was from the very beginning designed to be the last of the series and the one ending Solid Snake’s story – therefore the player is shown said character substantially older than in previous installments of the series and at the graveyard with his mind clearly wandering.
As you can see, all of these, although very different, have something in common. They all place 47 in focus even if they don’t explicitly say so at first (Blood Money’s final title screen is a straight up shot of our protagonist lying in the coffin). Absolution’s changed that format by instead going in a very action-oriented direction with its menu screen. It is obvious that the side mode of the game – Contracts Mode – is just as important as the main story as it is given to the players as a choice immediately after they launch the game and the storyline’s menu plays dynamic scenes from theE3 2011 Debut Trailer. A stark contrast from the usually static screens of the previous installments. One thing I have to admit though is that, even though Absolution’s menu isn’t as memorable as Contracts’ or Blood Money’s, I approve of the main original music theme as it captures the darkness and the feeling of threat. That is, of course if the game decides to not play the abysmal “Black Bandanna” song or the other ambient soundtrack featuring cartoony Texas-inspired samples.
And yes, I did not mention Blood Money’s “Ave Maria” because it was honestly ruined to me by the fanbase and the already played to death (ironic?) references to it in literally every other Hitman media that came out after 2006. But if you want to read my thoughts on that, I redirect you to my “Class of the Cross” H6 Bangkok opinion piece. Now that I mentioned HITMAN, I guess it’s a perfect time to look at it in the microscope.
Launching H6, one of the first things we see is a notification that the online connection is almost mandatory to play the game… which sets up a clear expectation in our minds, doesn’t it? The “PRESS START” screen is minimalistic – the redesigned logo sits boldly in the center of the screen, pressed against a blood-red background which appears to be a map. Again, the game isn’t based around the character of 47, so we don’t see him at the title screen. Instead, attention is given to the nicely sounding PR term of “A World of Assassination”, therefore said World is the focus of the main menu.
Again, I actually quite enjoy the music theme as I feel it brings out some form of a mysterious tone even though it is basic and maybe a bit uninspired (like the rest of the soundtrack). It does start out slow and quiet and builds up overtime giving the feeling of power and rising danger. We will come back to the music aspect of Hitman in the later portion of this write-up however.
Once we press Start, we are then brought to the main menu which gives out a clear impression once again. This is a product designed to be a platform for adding content. There are tiles advertising new added missions everywhere and I imagine, this can be almost overwhelming to a player just arriving at the World of Assassination. Especially one that has no idea what an “Elusive Target” is or why it has a big timer underneath his image. With all this criticism though, I do approve of the visual design of the menu. It is one of the only things I’m seriously impressed with when it comes to H6. It is pleasant to look at and quite atmospheric for what it is. But when we press it against the previous installments, we can clearly see the differences in the core ideas. Just as the main menu, the storyline of H6 takes its credit in an attempt to fit new ideas in the already established universe rather than stay closely to the character of 47 as he almost seems like simply a point dotted on the huge map of the World of Assassination.
Of course, the main menu screen isn’t the only one we can look at and analyze. We can do the same with briefing screens, “Load Game” menus and literally everything else we can think of. I’d argue that briefing screens are the most interesting out of those in the Hitman franchise and we could have a bunch of fun with them – for example: notice how in Codename 47, much focus is put into keeping every screen in-universe. The equipment menu, maps and virtually every other in-game menu except for the options screen is placed against an ICA-branded background of Mr. 47’s laptop seen during one of the first cutscenes of the game. Right before “Kowloon Triads in Gang War”, we can observe our protagonist getting up, looking through a window and then sitting in front of the screen of his computer. We are then brought to the same image he is seeing. Brilliant!
This is what I love about analyzing media. Those little details you can notice and appreciate the work of art even more than you were already. Going out of the bounds of the Hitman series, I would like to present you with some of my favorite screens in video games. Maybe to sparkle your interest or simply to share my love for other virtual universes.
The Binding of Isaac’s main menu is completely devised out of pieces of paper and child’s artwork. In fact, all of the tabs take the player into simply the next screen on the same huge map of drawings. Even the death screen is Isaac’s last will, scribbled on a poster and signed with a sad “I leave all that I own to my cat Guppy” before listing off all of the items the player has picked up during their run.
Silent Hill 2 has a peculiar save screen which basic idea was then reused in Silent Hill 3. 2 brings us the image of the main character – James Sunderland – bathed in red. Red is also the color used to signify save points in the game universe itself and is theorized to be connected with a central item – a letter seemingly written by James’ dead wife which brings him to the town of Silent Hill. In 3, the screen also shows the protagonist – this time a teenage girl going by the name Heather – and a foreboding symbol. During the course of the adventure, the player learns the meaning of said symbol and is able to make a connection of why it appears on Heather’s face. An interesting detail is that both of the characters express feeling especially lightheaded as they come around their respective save stations.
Metroid Prime is a great example of a game going full force in keeping the player in its universe. The world itself is hugely atmospheric and the title seems designed to be best enjoyed as an immersive experience. So immersive in fact that all of the in-game menus are shown as parts of Samus’ visor software but my absolutely favorite little detail is her own face appearing briefly as a reflection if she gets knocked by an enemy in certain situations. In-universe menus aren’t anything new though. Multiple games have used this immersion trick, most notables being Doom 3 and the Dead Space franchise. The latter going as far as placing the health bar on the player character model itself.
HITMAN does not go out of its way to involve the player in its infamous “World of Assassination” other than by what the environments have in store. The menus, although beautiful and simple, lack that special “something” that would make them memorable. That’s not to say the previous titles were better at it. Besides Codename 47 and Blood Money, none of the installments had anything interesting going on with their menus and Absolution had decency to put huge Heads-On Display over the impressive graphical fidelity of the, then fresh out of the press, Glacier 2 engine and the marvelous art direction in the Chicago portion of the game.
H6 gives out a different vibe. It definitely does its job at presenting itself as an episodic experience. In addition to the already mentioned main menu screen, the story tab shows us missions and cutscenes laid out in a way that brings to mind a season of a TV show and Escalations and Contracts Mode tabs also show that off perfectly – although we might argue it becomes a showcase of inconsistencies in quality once enough of the content has hit its imaginary shelf. That is probably one of the biggest issues I have with the game. The hit and miss quality is so obvious when playing the game, it is hard to get immersed in the experience and therefore, in “A World of Assassination”. Even the most interesting of TV shows have to be consistent as once that falls apart, the player’s projection of the universe crumbles with it. None of the other Hitman games had this problem as none had to face it – they were all released as standalone titles and in their fullest. They were all complete experiences in their own rights. H6 does something different and bless it for trying but I am personally of mind that it didn’t accomplish its task in a way that would satisfy me as a consumer and a fan of the franchise. But there is a lot more to this argument as we go further.
You already know my opinion on the H6 story and how it doesn’t feel like a Hitman story at all. We’ve touched on that on multiple occasions and in many of my previous write-ups going as far as distinguishing the previous Hitman titles as psychological thrillers and the new game as a spy flick. The picture H6 is painting is getting clearer now as we’re literally pulling all of the pieces apart, doesn’t it? Not only it doesn’t focus its story on the psychological aspect of our protagonist – so it also does not have to include him on the title screen – it effectively hides him behind a plot of espionage and mysterious intelligence agencies.
If you are about to make the “But White, Blood Money–!” argument, stop now, as I already answered this in my “Tomorrow is Never Enough” opinion piece. You are on the right track though, as we may as well look back at Blood Money. It also lacked a distinctive atmosphere and was pretty close to going full Bond with its plot about the ICA and The Franchise rivalry. The hook with Blood Money’s story wasn’t the interactions between the organizations however. It was between the characters. I showed you multiple times how many little details are hiding beneath the seemingly obvious factors of Blood Money. Whether it’s how the characters react to certain topics or how their body language speaks louder than their words. Even though a person who we’d technically call the game’s antagonist – Alexander Cayne – is clearly visible from the very beginning of the game (in fact, he appears as the first person in the church featured on the original main menu), there is a person hidden in the shadows. A person I always called the true protagonist of this story but at the same time is both a major threat and a major help to our beloved Silent Assassin.
What’s important and beautiful in Blood Money’s story telling isn’t the main plot. It’s everything that’s in the background, hidden from view. I was often criticizing H6 for showing off faces of its characters when it really doesn’t need to. Giving Diana Burnwood a proper face was controversial from the very first time it happened – in the Hitman Absolution E3 2011 Debut Trailer– and even though it is almost six years from that day as of when I’m writing this piece, I still believe such a reveal to be a bad decision. Same goes for continuously featuring more and more of the ICA facilities and the inside factors of the organization. Especially if those factors aren’t even well thought-out or understood by the writers themselves. Take the series of Absolution ICA Files Trailers for example. Have you noticed how the ranks of specific individuals make no real sense? I researched this extensively trying to find anything that might have served as an inspiration and even asked the developers if they have any clue of how the ranks work inside the International Contract Agency. The only real explanation I can think of as to why The Saints have a completely different set of ranks assigned to them is that Benjamin Travis simply decided that is going to be the case. …And knowing the writing of said character and Absolution’s as a whole, I would not be surprised if that was indeed what happened.
Everyone in the World of Assassination has a face assigned to him. And, if they don’t, they are only briefly mentioned before getting killed off-screen in a truly suspicious airplane crash. There is no mystery and no room to let your mind ponder about the possible resolutions for the plot. The best stories – not only in video games – are created by leaving some windows open. Once a tale is done, it thrives on its recipients. The Harry Potter franchise left its mark on the world by creating a new one and painted Hogwarts as a place every kid wanted to go to.
Silent Hill approaches storytelling in a clever way of specifically hiding major elements of its story behind themes and leaves breadcrumbs in forms of enemy and room design. This has led to oh so many fan theories and picking the game apart in order to know the true meaning of every single little design detail. As I mentioned in my “Overthinking, overanalyzing – 47” write-up, this is something Contracts does surprisingly well, too. Playing around with themes and motives is what visual media does best. Movies are often criticized for taking away from the experience by eliminating the need for imagination but is this actually the case? In fact, what is most interesting is what is not clearly seen. Mentioning Silent Hill wasn’t just a one-off thing. Horror and horror-inspired titles offer so much when it comes to battling with player’s imagination. They use the darkness and the unseen to turn cogs in our minds. The most memorable example of this in recent video gaming history would probably be Amnesia: The Dark Descent’s water monster but it is also the entire basis upon which a tiny indie game Slender managed to build up its success.
Hitman games also heavily used the concept of the unseen to create mysteries and subsequently – its atmosphere. In Codename 47, we barely got to see Otto Wolfgang Ort-Meyer before Meet Your Brother. Always in the shadows like the cartoony evil scientist he was. We see him clearly only at the very end of the game, in the last room, as he hides behind his army of 48 series clones. But let’s over analyze this just for the pure fun of it – look how much this silly video game concept of giving the player a wave of enemies before the final boss can serve as a storytelling mechanic. Ort-Meyer was never specifically shown to us, he was always around other people more powerful than him. His friends were drug lords and famous terrorists. And The Professor himself? He always stood in the shadows, deep inside his secret facility, hiding from the outside world, using a contract agency to do his dirty work so he can stay in his lab guarded by his ongoing creations. This is how much you can get out of a minor detail if you think of it in uncounted quantities.
Silent Assassin introduced us to our unseen in the very first scene of the game. Even right before the main menu screen, the player is shown a cutscene featuring the antagonist of the story as well as a person without a face nor name, dubbed “Mystery Man” or “Mr. X” by the fanbase. This character has become infamous in the community as questions about him pop out every now and again even though it’s been years since the original release. How is it that this character is still remembered by the fans and someone like Lei Ling is barely getting mentioned? She was featured in way more Hitman titles than Mystery Man ever was. She is also not a very interesting character, only thriving on one concept instead of having something to offer to players’ imagination.
This is also what Blood Money has over H6. It is full of the unseen. The biggest plot point of the series bases itself on this concept. H6 has nothing to hide, maybe besides the Providence vault which, to be frank, isn’t that intriguing with limited information on what Providence is or does. The most memorable storyline moments of H6 involved me scouring the game world to find information about the targets themselves as they were the focus point of the missions. At the end, they were nothing more than names on a cork board and the knowledge I gained by playing detective did not feel rewarding in terms of the overarching story. That, honestly, is a big shame. Do not get me wrong – I was never against target characterization. In fact, I was and still am largely in favor of it as it gives much needed context to the arcade feeling of the new, more sandbox approach to level design of Hitman. The issue I’m having is that I do not feel rewarded by picking up the clues and spending my time on uncovering those stories. You could argue that having this information is a reward in it of itself but since it ends up being meaningless put against a greater picture – what is even the point in putting it in the game in the first place?
This next argument I am going to bring up might seem tiring to a lot of you as it’s been debated countless times on various message boards during the pre-release stages of H6. I wonder if based on that one sentence you already managed to guess it’s about 47’s character model and, specifically, his face. H6 presents us with a much younger-looking perception of the protagonist even though it takes place at the end of the timeline. It was said to be because he’s at his prime and that he has changed multiple times across all of the iterations of his player model throughout the series. That is correct but never so drastically. I can definitely understand the need to show off 47 as a powerful character. He is the Silent Assassin after all. Yet I think there are simply better ways of doing it than pressing his face against the front cover and having him walk towards the screen in the same way all of the other video game protagonists are doing lately. I talked about colors and shadows back in my “Let the show stop and the sky fall” opinion piece and I still hold what I said back then. Having an older-looking main character isn’t specifically bad. It also means more experienced and in the oh so dangerous World of Assassination, looking like a rookie seems like a bad idea overall.
There are many details like these that have come up over the course of the first season. There were countless times when people criticized the developers for overusing certain, notable voice actors and the lack of foreign culture in places where said culture should shine. Hearing a different language in the sea of words you can easily understand is a wonderful feeling. As we’re dealing with a product heavily focused on the idea of travel, I cannot see a reason as to why the presentation of folklore was mostly limited to visual aspects. Older titles had a brilliant idea of NPCs conversing in their native language and at the end, H6 started doing a similar thing. It also ended up featuring some appropriate background music, especially as the player walks through cramped streets of the Marrakesh marketplace. Still, a lot of work can be done to make those locations feel more like the places they are based off of. I already mentioned how I feel the apparently iconic Hitman setting – the hotel – never felt fully utilized in my opinion but I honestly feel the same way about every location in H6. This is, again, why I’m in favor of smaller, more focused levels. The Final Test or Situs Invertus look so much more complete to me than a bigger scale location like, for example, Sapienza.
I did briefly mention music multiple times in this piece already and I guess this is when I should finally address that topic as well. Music is not something one can be truly objective about however so bear with me. I personally think that H6 is bland and uninspired, based mostly on generic action movie cues which are way too loud for a title about a Silent Assassin. Adaptive soundtrack is a wonderful tool which video games can use but it can go wrong pretty fast. Another side of this deadly coin is that the player may also never hear the music offered by the composer because of his preferred playstyle. This is the reason as to why I never even knew Absolution had any music in it, except for the godawful “Black Bandanna” song. I just never heard any.
Previous titles had the pleasure of being a home to folklore-inspired background themes composed by Jesper Kyd. I’ve done an experiment once and let a completely non-Hitman person listen to the music outside of the game. Then, I’ve asked them if they can pinpoint an area which was the inspiration for the piece. They managed to accomplish this task in most of the cases. This cannot be said for any of the tracks on the H6 OST though as the closest thing it can be associated with is a typical Hollywood flick. Sound design is as important as visual design when it comes to creating atmosphere and I think it would be of much benefit if we were truly given the experience of a foreign culture as we roam around the virtual World of Assassination.
It almost feels like it’s all about the details. After all, details are what people latch onto. It’s understandable that not every studio has the same budget and therefore 47 eating an apple in Absolution wasn’t as impressive as Nathan Drake doing the same thing in Uncharted 4 but you don’t really need expensive technology to make the world feel more immersive. A lot of people mention Metal Gear Solid 2’s Tanker chapter as one of the most memorable moments in video games. They remember being in awe of the atmosphere as Solid Snake jumps down the George Washington Bridge and onto the ship itself. The rainy night probably wouldn’t be as profound if not for the attention to detail. Raindrops falling on top of the camera in first person view has already become a staple but what about wet footprints left by Snake once he enters the inside portions of the ship directly from the outside? What about the rain bouncing off of solid surfaces? And the player character making obvious ripples as he runs? And the cardboard box getting wet if you sit in it in the rain? All of these add so much to this very simple concept and made it look unique against all of the other rainy nights in fiction.
And have you ever thought about all of the little details going into designing combat in video games? The visuals and the auditory feedback needs to be just right so the system feels satisfying to the player. I am particularly fond of the notes sound effects introduced in The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker but the most famous trick would probably be a tiny slowdown before connecting hits in God of War. There are reasons as to why we usually use big badass swords in video games and the fact that weaponry in H6 looks like toy guns definitely doesn’t help, especially if you take into consideration my next point…
There is another big factor I feel is missing from H6. In fact, it was already missing in Blood Money – a game that was a huge inspiration for the direction H6 headed into. The level of threat is nowhere near as intense as in the previous installments. A lot of that comes from the switch to more sandbox level design as the player no longer has to traverse linear corridors that lead to the main objective. A good example of that would be Silent Assassin’s Tubeway Torpedo which has 47 literally hugging walls in order to sneak past the Russian soldiers. I am obviously not advocating linearity in Hitman. I dislike Absolution for the same reasons you all do. It’s not about the level design however. It’s about the stakes. And the small design details like the freedom to run anywhere you want without the suspicion meter going out of control in the corner of the screen. That concept was introduced in Blood Money and was carried over to H6 (although footstep noise detection was later added back in the Professional mode difficulty). Granted, with H6’s huge maps, having to walk everywhere would be a nightmare.
Thematically however, the Hitman series always carried a level of high stakes when it came to 47’s targets. The man is one of the bests of his job – he is the Silent Assassin after all so him receiving important and hard contracts is a given. Codename 47 had us killing well-known terrorists and triad bosses. Silent Assassin made us travel all over the world in order to eliminate established military leaders, yakuza and cult leaders. In Contracts, the heavy atmosphere was enough to enact a level of threat but we cannot forget missions such as Rendezvous in Rotterdam where most of the other character models seem twice as large as 47 himself. Dangerous-looking enemies were also the reason as to why I still whimper thinking about sneaking around the Absolution’s ICA army even though lore-wise their existence makes zero sense.
Blood Money was the first to drop this level of high stakes, as the first mission we get to experience is a hit on a troubled man and all of the other NPCs around the tutorial are simple goons. A high-class opera house, a well-protected target arriving at the casino and the White House itself are pretty much the only instances where I felt danger in any way and yet that was quickly negated by the fact I could just hold the sprint button one hundred percent of my playtime. H6 also has its moments. The Final Test, Freedom Fighters and Situs Invertus all carried a level of pressure. A lot of that comes from the storytelling point of view. As the stakes were getting higher on the protagonist’s front, the game also got tenser. Previous missions also carried a hint of danger, whether it was about the Ether virus or the riots in Marrakesh but I never felt like I care enough about the matters of the World of Assassination as a whole.
Maybe this is why I never felt like H6 is a Hitman game. It completely dropped the concept of telling a story centered around the Agency and 47 instead focusing on the idea of “A World of Assassination”. The plot itself seems to want to reestablish the entire universe all at once, too and maybe that is a bit too much for my tastes. We naturally root for the main characters in the story which is why centering it around 47 himself was such a good idea in the past with bits and pieces of other world building sticking through his personal struggles. Even though the protagonist is an antihero, you can still build interesting stories without making him a cliché good guy. This is what is wonderful about 47 and why I’m so intrigued by his character. He carries a level of class that is severely missing from the newer installments of the series. It seems it’s not about respecting and differentiating life from death like in Codename 47, Silent Assassin and Contracts. It is instead about going about shooting at random gang members to get to some slightly more powerful guy of the bunch in the very flat and fairly boring “World of Assassination”.