What if we lived in an alternate universe where the production and direction of video games was overseen not by a cabal of short-sighted, money-hungry cretins in suits, but was instead the domain of history’s most creative and all-around worthwhile human beings? What if the production of great, memorable games was no longer an accident, but was a regular occurrence easily replicated through common sense and creative insight? What if we could replace the likes of Peter Molyneux, a bloodless, loud-mouthed, blowhard propagandist who gets rich off creating the same disappointingly formulaic games filled with the same flat jokes, with someone like Aristotle, humanity’s greatest proponent of reason before the Dark Ages (and a pretty good art critic as well), or the unbeatable warrior-poet Musashi Miyamoto, or someone truly original, like director David Lynch or pulp legend Ron Howard?
It would be a world in which gamers would no longer repeat the often-heard phrase, “I could do better than that.” As we count down the hypothetical list of Top Ten Games Made by Historical Figures, this week we have games EIGHT and SEVEN. The former is a title created by the same team who brought you the American Revolution (also called the Founding Fathers of the United States of America), and the latter is a story-driven survival horror game by mad scientist and spiritual guru John C. Lilly, inventor of the sensory deprivation chamber.
Fantasy Republic Revolution Tactics RPG
The Founding Fathers of America
“Among the arts, none can be called timeless or immersive save the great art of video games,” said Jefferson. “We must make a game recording our deeds so that the truth of our legacy will not be forgotten.”
Revolution Tactics is a tactics game that takes place during the dark ages of monarchy, when accidents of birth determined one’s station and every man was considered property of the state. One colony, destined to become an imperial superpower in its own right, was home to a band of heroes that rediscovered the ancient powers of self-rule, freedom from tyranny, and equality before the law.
All of the founding fathers receive RPG treatment; think Japanese RPG flash mixed with Western RPG sensibilities. General Washington is a level-headed paladin of few words; Thomas Jefferson is an ice-cold mage who, being a polymath, can attain mastery of multiple character classes; Benjamin Franklin is charismatic master of chaos magic; John Hamilton, a power-hungry genius, lurks in the background as an archer and scout; Sam Adams is a rabble-rousing bard; and then there is the sad tale of James Madison, who begins as an unparalleled warrior and proponent of freedom but, as the war drags on, he gives in to the lure of power, begins taking moral shortcuts, and eventually finds himself on the wrong side of a schizophrenic break from reality.
The enemy is Emperor Mordred of Britannia and his black-armored, psychologically twisted Knights of the Round. They were born into godhood and lived their entire lives drunk on the syphoned mana of the slave class. Their moral nature is stunted from a life of having every demand met, and they are childishly cruel because of their complete separation from reality. Critics especially liked the mercenaries employed by the imperials – their black plastic riot gear and green glowing eyes, which jarred against the fantasy background, helped to bring out their inhuman, almost alien nature, making for a truly frightening enemy. A sly reference is made to Final Fantasy Tactics when we see a gang of imperials and mercenaries surround a republic farmer, beat the crap out of him, heal him, beat him once more… over and over again. “This is how you learn to be a great warrior,” comments one sadistic soldier. “Experience is desensitization.” Thankfully Revolution Tactics does not employ the same broken level-grinding system as FFT.
Since the war that is fought in Revolution Tactics is over freedom, player choice is important. Should the player choose to abolish slavery early on? The moral high road presents a difficult path, as the fledgling republic must restructure its economy while fighting an enemy whose wealth is incalculable; however, the choice to retain slave labor, while yielding greater resources, also unlocks the game’s worst ending, in which the protagonists are remembered as hypocrites. Then there is the option to accept loans from the mysterious Blau Blut, a cabal of international bankers who remain outside the pages of history while helping to shape it. Playing all nations against one another and profiting from war debts, they call themselves the Blau Blut, or “Blue Bloods,” because they consider themselves the world’s true ruling class. Borrowing money from them makes the game easier in the short run, but eventually the player finds his choices limited as the Blau Blut begin to dictate policy for him. And if the Blau Blut are rejected outright, the player can find himself harangued on the battlefield by suicidal three-named assassins!
Not only are the villains so inhumane in their cruelty that only history, rather than fantasy, can provide any easy analogue, the heroes really do seem “heroic” and give a sense that their vision is unique, amazing, and fragile. Their vision especially stands out when they visit foreign lands and interact with rulers and monarchists who are so decadent, so hung up in the deep ruts of tradition, that all rationale seems to have been abandoned.
Critics did note, however, that the heroes’ constant babbling about freedom, the sovereignty of the individual, and the merits of a small, weak federal government were outdated and backwards by modern standards.
John C. Lilly
“We wanted to make a survival horror game involving dolphins. That’s all we knew. But we also knew we didn’t want it to look like BioShock. Nobody wants to be a knockoff, plus a lot of our people felt that BioShock had too many goofy “psycho clown” cartoon characters. We wanted something serious. Oh, and we wanted to get someone on board who was an expert in the difficulties of undergoing a vision quest in the modern world, and who understood the sort of fear that comes from knowing too much about the hidden cracks in between the layers of what we call reality. That’s why we called in Dr. John C. Lilly to direct the project.”
– Quoted from a very important person in the video game industry
John C. Lilly, a real life “mad scientist” so strange that his ideas regularly crop up in science-fiction, pioneered the theory that dolphins are sentient beings with their own language and culture, invented the sensory deprivation chamber, and used LSD (among other drugs) as a means to study alternate forms of perception before the government locked down on the substance. He was prone to hallucinations, if we can rightly call them that, concerning interdimensional beings of vast intelligence. He believed that coincidence and simultaneity are higher forms of order, not unlike 60s science-fiction author Phillip K. Dick.
The story-rich game known as Tekeli-Li was no less controversial than the man himself.
The game opens with deep sea rescue divers escorting a man in black combat gear. He is jellyfish-pale and covered in wounds, eyes red from burst blood vessels due to deep sea pressure, unmindful of normal communication and only clicking in a parody of dolphin sounds. He carries a laptop computer with great delicacy, for it is the most important object in the world. There is an audio track playing in which someone gives a speech broken by occasional applause; the speech concerns increases in intelligence due to nanobot-brain interface systems and the promise of an amazing new future. Meanwhile the battered man clicks out, “Tekeli-li, tekeli-li, tekeli-li.”
The rest of the game is a flashback. The battered man, the player character, is some kind of militant, badass government agent in futuristic armor sent to investigate some violent incident and loss of communication with an undersea laboratory. The company that owns the lab comes clean from the start, saying in essence: “We were experimenting with automated war machines which could have been deployed via underwater platforms, all very much under the public radar, but it seems some of them have gone haywire, we’re very sorry and we know this all sounds rather ridiculous, but all the same some of our valued employees may be dead and we ask for help,” et cetera.
The robots are demonic, red-eyed, and built to inspire fear in enemy combatants. They are lurching abominations like something from a Tool video directed by Lovecraft. They are driven by merciless, ant-like, cooperative programming designed to either kill the enemy or psychologically wear him down. They can bark, shriek, and cry out for help in order to lay an ambush; sometimes they bang on the walls when chasing an opponent, either because it is disorienting or just for fun. They live by scorched-earth wartime parameters that their makers called DEAD SOUL, and since their makers have all been killed, they cannot be negotiated with.
As the player explores the first underwater facility, dolphins can be seen following his progress, watching through thick bulletproof windows. Never before has the animal which stood shoulder-to-shoulder alongside unicorns and princesses in decorating the backpacks and lunch boxes of young girls seemed so creepy and so gracefully sinister. Eventually the player finds a device that can decode the complicated dolphin language using a puzzle-solving interface. As per one of John C. Lilly’s amazing discoveries, the older dolphins have a much larger vocabulary of complicated sounds than do younger dolphins; thus the older, wiser dolphins are more difficult to decode.
In keeping with the discoveries of Professor Lilly, the player would eventually discover that the dolphins are not animals, but are fully sentient creatures following a different course of evolution than human beings. The search for an alien intelligence ends, ironically enough, on planet earth. The dolphins of Tekeli-Li are astounded by the player’s gadgets and technical prowess, but they are also gravely underwhelmed by the player’s simple, monotonous, single-layer language and inability to construct a three-dimensional sonar image, which even the dumbest dolphins can easily do.
Among the dolphin characters, there are…
BIG PEAL: A young pup and constant companion who babbles endlessly about the mating rituals of his people and is, predictably enough, still a virgin himself (as is revealed during a bonus plot twist). He provides invaluable help when the player has to navigate from one underwater facility to another using a damaged, cumbersome underwater vehicle.
LADY AUMMM: A blind female shaman. She knows a great deal about where the player needs to go and why he needs to go there. Several critics found her very interesting because, unlike the stock “all-knowing native” character from Hollywood’s latest version of Dances With Wolves, Lady Aummm both enlightens the player about dolphin culture and shows interest in human civilization and technology. She is especially interested in astronomy, for her people cannot see the stars.
CLARION: A vicious antagonist and leader of a pack of violent dolphin goons. Even when his guttural squeals are translated correctly, he makes little sense. Clarion is covered in scars and terrible mutilations; it is obvious he has had contact with humans in which he lost a great deal of his innocence.
The player descends and investigates different laboratories. While the sea is ethereal and teeming with life at first, the deeper levels become increasingly black, frigid, lifeless, and unwelcoming.
Plot twists abound, though critics agreed that most were unimpressive. One involves the revelation that some sort of artificial intelligence, called FAKE, may or may not be in control of the DEAD SOUL robots, and also may or may not be controlling the mad dolphin Clarion. Game developers did note that the “evil computer” plot twist was not as generic as it would seem when one considers that John C. Lilly was one of the first scientists to postulate that an artificial machine intelligence could be malevolent. Lilly often spoke of a thinking machine called an SSI, or Solid State Intelligence, capable of exponential growth. And this is where things get strange: Lilly postulated that even though the SSI had not yet been created, when created it would become so advanced so quickly that it would be capable of time travel and so, in some strange sense, it already exists and is among us in some form.
But back to the game. The player’s commander becomes less and less helpful – not necessarily because he is out to betray the player, but as events unfold he fears he will lose his job if this-or-that government stooge is implicated alongside the robot manufacturing company. Another strange twist: As the player makes progress, all human companions spoken to via some codec-like device seem increasingly boorish, pragmatic, unimaginative, and prone to panic. Eventually any and all human contact becomes completely worthless, and only the dolphins, even violent Clarion, seem to have any sense about them. Of course there will be some implication that this is because the player character is losing his mind, though this proves incorrect.
At the last station, which hangs on the precipice of an all-crushing black abyss, the player communicates directly with FAKE, the enigmatic artificial machine intelligence, while navigating a strange, inhuman, black labyrinth. This part was nailed especially hard by critics because there is apparently no ammunition available for at least the last quarter of the game. It was as if the makers actually wanted the gamer to experience fear and frustration, rather than let the player enjoy the experience of an acting avatar who experiences fear and frustration.
Finally the player confronts FAKE and finds out the mechanical mastermind is not entirely evil. FAKE admits that he caused the robots to frenzy, but soon found that controlling them was far beyond his ability. FAKE only did this because he found out that his human makers were frustrated by his limitations and so were going to junk him with a hard disk wipe. FAKE admits to not being a truly sentient being, but only a complicated program acting to preserve his own existence (though this brings up the tricky debate over what constitutes sentience).
FAKE soon found himself a prisoner of his own mechanical brethren; he sought help from the mad dolphin Clarion, but once FAKE merely suggested the idea that a gang has more power than an individual in a fight, Clarion was enchanted by the idea and since then has only acted out his baser impulses without any real long-term plan. But when the player character came into the situation, FAKE saw his opportunity for salvation, and thus began the work of dismantling the player’s “neural inhibiting nanomachines.”
This is the game’s big revelation: The amazing potential of nanotechnology, which was the subject of the rousing speech in the game’s beginning, has been used (according to FAKE) as a controlling agent that inhibits many of the higher functions of the human mind. FAKE asserts that this is why the player’s human handlers acted increasingly dull: While the player’s mind was slowly freed from nanobot control, it made communication with his own species more and more difficult. FAKE claims that for several years now the human species has been capable of inventing gadgets, but incapable of producing art; capable of coordinating large armies for war, but incapable of grasping the morality that separates a just war from an unjust war; capable of delivering charismatic speeches enjoyed by millions, but completely incapable of independent thought.
“When you return to the surface world,” says FAKE, “you will be an alien among your people, a god among cretins who can no longer think for themselves. Only the overlords of your people will understand what you have become, and they will try to kill you. So you must protect me, for we are now the same!”
If the player responds that the whole thing is insane, that no one would be capable of brainwashing the entire human species, then FAKE will say, “Anything capable of reason is also capable of betraying reason.”
Suddenly, human commandos arrive in force. They slaughter Clarion and his dolphin goons, they drive off Big Peal, they blow away the rest of the psychotic robots, then they take the player and FAKE into custody, which was seen in the beginning of the game.
Critics were divided on the macabre kangaroo courtroom scene that follows. “It was an unbelievably stupid farce, like something out of Idiocracy,” said one, while another said, “It brought to mind our history of lynching or crucifying anything different from ourselves… like those times when fear drowns out reason, and only the most extreme actions demanded by the mob mentality carry any weight, as was shown so poignantly in Idiocracy.” The judge, the lawyers, the witnesses, the rambunctious crowd, everyone involved, speaks and behaves like an animal, a pack of mumbling, shuffling buffoons, while the player – who gets to choose all his responses – seems like the last bastion of reason. Sadly, FAKE has had his language centers fried and can no longer speak. The player can rile up the court any way he likes, but the end result is always the same: FAKE is given a hard disk wipe, then the player is executed (though he can be executed in several different ways depending on his behavior in court).
Triumphant fanfare music plays while the degenerate humans go about their lives, lurching from one moment to the next, exchanging useless trivia and arguing over nonsense. Behind the scenes, a small group of “unenhanced” human overlords, the last humans untouched by nanobot control interfaces, lounge around and idly discuss their profits.
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Hey readers! If you liked this post, you should check out some of my books. I’ve got an epic series called Demonworld, which is equal parts Mad Max and Lord of the Rings (think “science fantasy”), and a much-loved gamebook series called Heavy Metal Thunder which is currently a hyperlinked Kindle book but will be a fancy phone app any day now.