Choice is your weapon. Oh guns too.

Alpha Protocol and why ‘fun’ is obsolete

Recently I watched Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon . Set in a rural German village in the years leading up to First World War the film unflinchingly examined the various sociological and psychological footholds that enabled the Nazis to rise to power decades later. It used effects that wouldn’t seem out of place in a film actually made between 1910 and 1914 presenting scene after scene of implied torture murder assault incest sexual assault and physical abuse. So it didn’t exactly encourage the compulsive consumption of popcorn and Diet Coke in the same way as say Iron Man 2 . Difficult as it was it was a fascinating movie and one I’ll be devoting plenty of idle thought to for years to come. Iron Man 2 not so much.

I also played Alpha Protocol recently and though its faux-Tom Clancy plot line is more Matt Fraction than Michael Haneke there’s a useful contrast here — one that has more to do with the audience than the product in question. No film critic — lest they risk a dismissal from a discerning cinephile audience —would attack a Haneke film for being an ugly and inaccessible. On the other hand when video games fail to provide an immediate serotonin rush they’re eviscerated by the gaming press.

Such was the case with Alpha Protocol a spy-themed role-playing game built on the same technology as Bioware’s Mass Effect games. Its combat system which was an awkward hybrid of action game and traditional RPG was criticized for its immersion-breaking puzzles and its surfeit of technical issues. But at the end of almost every review it was praised for its narrative and dialogue design; players could meaningfully impact the outcome of events depending on how they approached a given situation (“suave” “professional” and “aggressive” are the three general options). Though the mechanics of the action remain identical throughout there are so many different story variables that it’s unlikely that any two players share the exact same experience.

And that’s the game. Not the clumsy low-rent shooter that drew all the critical fire. AP is about subtly manipulating world events seeing how your actions play out on the whitewashed mainstream news watching the way different characters squirm or open up around you—it’s all dependent on the choices you’ve made up to that point. Not to downplay Obsidian’s failure to craft a compelling action game — which to the reviewers’ credit occupies the most of play time — but if it hadn’t pandered to their fun-junkie audience it might have had room to flesh out the narrative design as the game’s primary component. Hey it worked for Planescape Torment— and that’s a game AP’s head writer Chris Avellone is still venerated for to this day.

Here’s the problem: any game costing millions of dollars to develop — and $70 to play — creates expectations for adrenaline-drip pacing. And it doesn’t help that the box art features men with plus-sized weaponry and women with little clothing (and likely self-esteem for that matter). Historically the easiest way to meet expectations was to give players a cover-based pop-n-drop shooter in the vein of Gears of War or Uncharted . Sure AP adopts that formula but it couldn’t be more tonally dissonant with the best parts of the game. And that stuff isn’t a “high-octane thrill ride” or a “thrill-a-minute” — nor any other mind-numbing cliché.

Here’s another way of looking at it: if The White Ribbon tried to deliver white-knuckle thrills alongside its social commentary even Haneke lovers would have a hard time reconciling with the contrast.