Next Stop, The Uncanny Valley
I vividly remember the afternoon in 1997 on which I first fired up what was, at that point in my life, the most compelling videogame I’d ever played. It began with a train rolling into station and immediately seized the player with its gripping narrative, one that led the protagonist on a journey of discovery and self-discovery that culminated in saving all known civilization from a meteor about to plop right out of the sky. I’m referring to Final Fantasy VII — not GADGET: Past as Future, which happened to be released in Japan that year. On a superficial level their stories and use of multimedia shared a few intriguing similarities, but GADGET: Past as Future was no wannabe; it was an overhauled re-release of the original GADGET: Invention, Travel, & Adventure, which pre-dated Final Fantasy VII by four years.
By all accounts GADGET was truly the 2001: A Space Odyssey of the videogame world — a product that becomes more and more difficult for general audiences to appreciate with each passing year, yet staunchly defended for its influence on media that came after. Now NTT Resonant has repackaged GADGET: Past as Future for an iOS release as iGADGET (Out Now, $4.99), giving us an opportunity to see how this blast from the past performs in today’s videogame landscape.
iGADGET sinks the player into the shoes of an anonymous and speechless operative in the employ of a vaguely autocratic regime. This person’s mission: to find a rogue scientist who has earned both the government’s derision and a small following for his belief that a comet is about to strike the planet with disastrous consequences. It seems a certain titular gadget has helped the scientist reach this conclusion, and the game’s plot turns on the question of whether the scientist has uncovered truth or if his mind has simply been warped by the gadget, as the protagonist’s employers appear to believe. To unravel this mystery the protagonist will be doing plenty of hotfooting – or, rather, riding – along a central railway, pumping lots of people for information at each stop and undergoing the occasional hallucinatory experience firsthand.
There’s no question that iGADGET‘s plot sounds completely awesome on paper. That’s what makes its failure in execution so tragic. I would wager that most players who pick this up for the first time will sense the same flaw I did during my playthrough: the story so focuses on minutiae and trying to keep the player guessing that it neglects to build a world that draws the player in and leads him or her to feel a personal stake in the plot’s outcome. This is no fault of the script’s textual quality per se — other than a strange dearth of punctuation the prose is well penned. Rather, it’s the result of an off-putting detachment between the player’s experience in the game world and the protagonist’s own experience.
This complaint deserves further explanation, as it touches upon a facet of videogame storytelling I never appreciated until getting a good dose of iGADGET. Even silent protagonists should have strong motives to participate in whatever’s happening in a videogame. The game’s ability to draw a player along for the ride indeed hinges on this motive, and it’s worked like a charm ever since Princess Toadstool’s mushroom retainers first informed Mario that he’d gone off and walked into the wrong castle. Whereas a non-mute protagonist may freely spout off on his or her own motives, in a game such as this, writers must answer the obvious challenge by tagging NPCs with the responsibility of informing the player what’s up — both as to the nature of the game world and the player’s/protagonist’s joint role within that world. The great flaw I find in iGADGET‘s storytelling approach is that NPCs do a fine job of the former, but not so much the latter.
One never gets a good feel for what’s motivating iGADGET‘s main character other than that this investigation is somehow his job. As for odd events that begin piling up the very moment he steps outside his hotel room at the beginning of the game, the player is left with precious few clues to help sift those that happen to be ordinary in his experience as a spy apart from those that happen to be unordinary. Just as unsatisfyingly developed is the question of exactly how the protagonist’s allegiance evolves as he gathers testimony from fellow undercover agents and the scientist’s followers. All this adds up to an eerie cognitive dissonance that might be the literary equivalent of the “Uncanny Valley” effect so often invoked to describe instinctual repulsion toward objects that seem almost human, yet not quite human. In the same way, iGADGET‘s plot is almost an organic story, but not quite.
That’s not to say iGADGET‘s story is devoid of highlights. These come in the form of some really, really far-out visual sequences for which the term “psychedelic” doesn’t sound the least bit tacky. Perhaps not unexpectedly, these are the only parts of the game during which the player can be relatively certain he or she shares the protagonist’s perception of events. They also add tension to the plot by raising the possibility that, yes, the scientist the player’s after really is just a drugged-up Chicken Little. Lacking a sense of where the protagonist fits into all this, however, the dramatic tension comes in too late, and too little to make an appreciable impact on the player’s enjoyment. In the end, evaluating iGADGET‘s plot would be a little like evaluating the famed “numbers stations” radio phenomenon without benefit of knowing the Cold War history attached to that oddity; yeah, it’s weird, and it’s sort of cool, but why should it matter to me?