Rage 2 Part 5: Theme Park

By Shamus Posted Thursday Feb 20, 2020

Filed under: Retrospectives 135 comments

Before we go any further with this series I want to back up and talk about themes. The term “theme” has a couple of different meanings when applied to stories. It can mean an idea that the text brings up again and again, or it can mean something that the author is deliberately trying to say through the workPreferably without saying it explicitly..

We don’t need to draw a hard line between these two. For our purposes a theme can be thought of as a thesis or a message. Perhaps a zombie story tries to show us that “consumers are the real zombies” or perhaps “the survivors are the real monsters”. That’s close enough for our purposes.

Themes Are Critic Bait

The examination of themes in BioShock is about the depth of a high school paper, but the game racked up a ton of awards because it was still more incisive than the majority of shooters.
The examination of themes in BioShock is about the depth of a high school paper, but the game racked up a ton of awards because it was still more incisive than the majority of shooters.

George Orwell’s themes were – by design – forceful and obvious, while other stories have proven harder to pin down over the years. James Cameron’s Avatar had a theme that was blunt to the point of being vaguely insulting.

A lit major might jump in here and chastise me for playing fast and loose with the definition of theme and how it applies to fiction. That’s fine, because it doesn’t really matter in this game. Rage 2 is an action adventure power fantasy shooter, and in this realm the rules of fiction are incredibly lax. Like, just having a theme in your game puts you ahead of most shooters, even if that theme is muddled and poorly executed.

Jaded game journalistsThat is, journos jaded by playing a huge number of games. This doesn’t apply to people who might be jaded for other reasons. and story nerds like me will jump at any game that aspires to say something. It doesn’t even have to be deep or profound, it just needs to be coherentUnlike some games I could mention.. You just need to make your story go deeper than “You defeat the bad guy at the end because you’re the hero.” It’s not just people who write about games, either. While plenty of gamers fit the stereotype of fast-shooting cutscene skippers, there are lots of people out there who are hungry for something to think about while they’re sniping dudes or casting fireballs.

The game is about family or loss or whatever.
The game is about family or loss or whatever.

Best of all, it’s not hard to create a theme! In the realm of broad action stories, constructing a theme is mostly an exercise in alluding to an idea multiple times without contradicting yourself. If your protagonist is supposed to be motivated by the death of their spouse / sibling / parents, then make “family” your theme. Have your bad guy motivated by a desire to please a cold, distant, and now-dead parental figure. Make your good guys be mostly isolated people like orphans, widowers, divorcées, and outcasts, and then have them coalesce into a makeshift family as they become allies. Have the bad guys enforce loyalty by calling their organization a “family”, but then have the good guys notice or point out that their concept of family is false because it isn’t based on love.

Is this a brilliant theme? Who cares! It doesn’t need to be. Maybe this minimum-effort approach wouldn’t get you very far in a creative writing class, but in this genre the bar has been set incredibly low. In the world of the bland, the one-idea writer is king, and in the land of video games anyone capable of grasping and executing a basic theme is in line for Game of the Year. Mass Effect 2 was praised as a brilliant story despite its many narrative shortcomings. BioShock is regularly held up as one of the best stories in gaming, despite the fact that its theme isn’t any better or more coherent than the shallow bullshit I just made up about “family”.

(For context: The above was written before the release of Borderlands 3, which did almost exactly as I suggested. That game has lots of conversations about family and both the good guys and bad guys are shaped by their familial connections and discuss their relationships in terms of family. It’s a good example of an obvious, lightweight theme that makes the work feel like it’s saying something.)

Themes are “Free”

While the bar has been set pretty low, I do think you need to do better than THIS.
While the bar has been set pretty low, I do think you need to do better than THIS.

It’s 100% true that an action story can perform just fine without a theme. I’m not going to claim that this game needed one, or that this game would have played better if only the writers had given it a theme. But themes are good to have, they’re not hard to pull off.

Well…

Okay, I’ll admit it is kinda hard. Devising and successfully executing a theme is tricky, but it’s WAY easier than programming your rendering pipeline or scheduling art asset loads over dozens of artists so all the work gets done before the ship date. It’s hard, but it’s not harder than any of the other stuff development teams need to do. Like doing anything else in gamedev, the first step is to make sure you’ve got someone on the team that knows how to do it.

The best part about having a theme in your story is that – assuming you’ve got someone who can do it – it’s almost free! You just need to nod in the direction of an idea, occasionally refer back to it, and not contradict it.

So What was the Theme of Rage 2?

Walker, you're the favored child of the leader of a military dictatorship, voyaging out into the wasteland to murder desertpunk bandits. You're not fighting the authority, you ARE the authority.
Walker, you're the favored child of the leader of a military dictatorship, voyaging out into the wasteland to murder desertpunk bandits. You're not fighting the authority, you ARE the authority.

I think you’d have to look very long and squint very hard to find a theme in this game. The writer certainly didn’t create one on purpose. But I think there’s lots of stuff to hang a theme on if we wanted to.

The game has this rebellious punk vibe to it. The promotional art is filled with purple mohawks and bare-chested screaming nutters with baseball bats. The game is called RAGE. The bad guys are called THE AUTHORITY. This game should probably be about rebellion, individuality, smashing power structures, or something along those lines.

But the main character is an enthusiastic member of the military from a city that’s run by (apparently) a military dictatorship. Walker isn’t a rebel punk, she’s a disciplined footsoldier. Walker doesn’t rebel against anything. Instead she does what she’s told by people in positions of power.

The fight in this game is between two military forces, but then you spend 90% of the game wandering the map and blowing away wild wasteland desertpunk bandits. Walker isn’t fighting to destroy authority, she’s just fighting to support the authority she likes best.

Again, this is nominally fine for a shooter. I didn’t fault DOOM 2016 because it didn’t have a clear theme or explore the inner workings of demon culture. But since themes are kinda free-ish to create and they’re so effective when done right, there’s no reason not to throw one in.

If I was allowed to make big changes to the plot, I’d have Walker and friends be normal wasteland settlers instead of second-gen arkists. That’s a FAR better direction to  go and there’s lots of stuff you can do with that. But that sort of sweeping change of premise goes against the spirit of this series, so I’m going to keep the idea that Walker grew up in a military fortress and was raised by a drill sergeant. Let’s see if we can find an idea to stretch over the plot we’ve been given…

Rebellion vs. Order

The town of Wellspring, one of the few civilized towns in the game.
The town of Wellspring, one of the few civilized towns in the game.

My idea is that wasteland society is caught between the techno-fascism of General Cross’ Authority and the savage anarchy of the bandits. We need to find a  balance between these two extremes where humans can live.

Walker begins as a loyal citizen of Prowley’s fortress in Vineland. In my story, the older generation represent the Old Ways. Prowley, Marshall, Hagar, and Kvasir are all stuck in their thinking. Their towns are stable, but the downside of stability is stagnation. They need to grow. To take risks. But they’re too cautious, too stuck in their ways, and too complacent to make changes.  If they want their cities to survive, then they need to embrace a little of the chaos outside their walls.

We could have dialog like this:

Marshall: I’m grateful you took care of those muties for me, but picking a fight with an Authority convoy? That’s a whole different thing.

Walker: You don’t need to worry. I’ll be the one doing the fighting.

Marshall: You don’t understand. Things are calm right now. I don’t wanna stir things up. We’re not ready for a war with the Authority.

Walker: That war is coming, whether you’re ready for it or not. If your plan is to do nothing, then you’ll wind up just like Vineland.

And then maybe later we get another mission like this:

Loosum sends Walker to recon a Wastelander outpost. Once Walker sees the place is a giant fueling station for raiding convoysThese locations already exist in the game as open-world busywork map markers. I’m just putting one of them into the story., she decides to just blow the place up and shoot all the screaming bandits guarding the place. Once the final fuel tank explodes in a massive orange fireball, we get this dialog:

Loosum Hagar: Walker, you are pure chaos.

Walker: From where I’m standing, I think you guys need a little chaos right now.

Loosum: I hope you’re right. The Gearheads aren’t going to let this go.

Walker: That’s fine. I’m not against killing more of them.

As Walker’s adventure continues, she discovers she needs to go a little native. If we’re willing to burn a little budget on this, then we could even do this visually. Walker starts the game with pristine Ranger armor, but as she applies upgrades her suit and her car take on a more “wastelander” vibe of rusty spikes, chrome skulls, and red paint. Either way, in the end she would represent these two worlds in harmony: The stability of the old world with the dynamism and adaptability of the new. She’s here to tame the bandits and break the old leaders out of their rut.

I hope I’m not making this sound deep or grandiose. We’re mostly talking about changing dialog and journal entries. This is all background noise. The player is busy shooting stuff and we don’t need to waste their time with excess dialog or hit them over the head with a message. I’m just saying that a quick coating of themes and ideas is an easy way to smarten a game up.

Where is the Authority?

SO MANY MAP MARKERS.
SO MANY MAP MARKERS.

I want to end this entry with one last gripe. The map of the Wasteland is big. Ubisoft big. There’s a lot of map markers out there, and most of them involve you going in and killing:

  1. Bandits: The pink-haired wastepunk freaks I mentioned earlier.
  2. Mutants: Basically the ghouls from Fallout, except more interesting to fight and less interesting to think about.
  3. Shrouded: Techno fetishist scavengers. Imagine Star Wars Jawas crossed with Sand People, except they all look like Isaac Clarke from Dead Space.

You’ll notice that THE AUTHORITY doesn’t appear on this list. For whatever reason, our main villain and the supposedly encroaching threat of the plot doesn’t seem to have a foothold in this vast open world. We have story missions where we invade Authority bases and shoot a few dozen of their dudes, and then we piss off back to the open world and shoot hundreds and hundreds of guys with no relevance to the story. I have no idea what the deal is here.

We should at least tuck a few Authority outposts in the high-level zones. This will add some variety to the world and it will sell the idea that the Authority are the top dogs in terms of power even if they haven’t taken over yet.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Preferably without saying it explicitly.

[2] That is, journos jaded by playing a huge number of games. This doesn’t apply to people who might be jaded for other reasons.

[3] Unlike some games I could mention.

[4] These locations already exist in the game as open-world busywork map markers. I’m just putting one of them into the story.



From The Archives:
 

135 thoughts on “Rage 2 Part 5: Theme Park

  1. pseudonym says:

    Is there a less intrusive way of notifying you that the entire article is on the front page? Sice you keep an eye on the comment feed, this is probably the fastest way, but I really don’t like recording these small oversights in the annals of history. Especially not as the first comment.

    1. GargamelLeNoir says:

      It’s a tradition, just comment that it’s all in the front page and call him “boss”.

      1. Higher_Peanut says:

        If we lose “whole post is on the front page” from the drinking game our hypothetical livers could become dangerously close to functional.

        1. pseudonym says:

          Don’t worry there is always the ‘Mass Effect is mentioned’ drinking game on twenty sided.

          *drinks*

          1. BlueHorus says:

            Don’t forget drinking every time there’s a play on words. It’s part of the pun!

            1. pseudonym says:

              Puns + mass effect + drinking game == empty glass effect?

    2. Olivier FAURE says:

      But I like those comments!

      1. Mistwraithe says:

        They are the only ones I read.

  2. GargamelLeNoir says:

    I don’t know about Doom 2016 being devoid of theme, almost all the cutscenes were dedicated of the evil of being obsessed by “The Greater Good” like Hayden was.

    1. Hector says:

      *THE GREATER GOOD!*

    2. Shamus says:

      You know, that’s a really good point.

      1. epopisces says:

        The Really Greater Good point.

        (I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist)

      2. Cerapa says:

        I think it’s also a good example of the protagonist having agency instead of following orders all the time. There are several instances where he is visibly angry at what is being said to him by an “ally”, even as a silent protagonist, and others where he deliberately ignores what is being said to him.

      3. camycamera says:

        Hayden mostly represents “the greater good” portion. Also, the good ol’ “Power corrupts” thing, and “the pursuit of power with the sacrifice of others is evil and bad” (both represented by Olivia Pierce).

        Oh, and “big corporations with unlimited wealth/power and no regulations and accountability are evil and should be punished”, of course. Which also has stuff of exploitation of employees, the dangers of corporate culture, peer pressure… The stuff with employees “ranking up” to become sacrifices and being encouraged to be torn apart by demons is hilarious.

        I recently replayed and 100% the game including reading all the lore notes you get, it’s actually pretty entertaining lore for a game and totally worth the replay.

        1. Basic Themes says:

          Hayden doesn’t represent the greater good at all. He killed the entire population of the base for profit, despite being rich enough to literally create this base, and his physical form being impervious to harm.

          He represents self-interest in a profit motive above caring about the greater good and the harm caused to other people.

          Other than that, I largely agree. It’s just “The greater good” is just an excuse for what they’re doing for profit. “Hell Energy could power the earth and that’s good for all of us” Says the guy who literally owns the source of hell energy and sacrificed thousands of regular people to demons.

          1. Sartharina says:

            Could you imagine the catastrophe that would occur if even modern-day global civilization lost all electricity and fuel?

            Hayden’s motive isn’t strictly profit – it’s powering the world.

            1. beleester says:

              Realistically, If you have the spacelift ability needed to build a Mars base that size, you should probably just put up some solar satellites instead. The sun puts out several trillion times more energy than Earth currently uses, and with considerably less risk of unleashing the hordes of Hell.

              Yeah, this is sort of fighting the premise a bit – if the writer tells us that there’s an energy crisis that can only be solved by hell energy, that’s their right – but it does make it much harder to judge if Hayden has a point or if he’s as blinded by power as Olivia is, just in a different way.

          2. beleester says:

            Hayden is also the person who ensured that the Slayer’s tomb was found and brought to the base, just in case the worst happened and they needed someone who could just slaughter all the demons.

            He’s not particularly happy that you’re burning his gazillion-dollar Mars base to the ground so that nobody can access Argent energy again, but he never lifts a finger to stop you either, because he knows that you’re the only hope to stop the invasion. He’s ruthlessly capitalist in both good and bad ways – he picks the route that he thinks will pay off and immediately switches tracks when it stops working.

    3. Basic Themes says:

      Yeah, felt the same. Like, the game literally has holograms in areas where they don’t spawn enemies talking about how basically the entire thing was created by corporate greed, it’s a standard Alien/Aliens “corporations don’t care and will take drastic risks because they aren’t on the frontlines” shown LITERALLY by Haydn (Who’s name is meant to remind you of Satan (His name is S. Haydn, aka SATAN, it’s not subtle thematically at all), someone who is infamous for making people make deals, or to tempt them, into poor decisions, in both the bible and wider culture), who at the end of the game Is revealed to have never given a shit about you or your decisions, and is using you for his greater ends, which, STILL involve harnessing demonic energy EVEN THOUGH doing that caused basically the ENTIRE WORKFORCE of the base to become either zombies or FULL ON DEMONS and poses a risk to the ENTIRE HUMAN RACE for PROFIT. He DOESN’T want to cut off hell. He wants to calm down the situation and then go back to business as usual, THE SAME THING THAT CAUSED THE DEMONS TO MURDER EVERYONE AND PUT BLOOD ON HIS HANDS.

      Like, if you are not seeing themes there, you are not paying attention my dude. That’s on you, not the game. To quote Shamus right here, to contest his reading “In the world of the bland, the one-idea writer is king, and in the land of video games anyone capable of grasping and executing a basic theme is in line for Game of the Year” and corporate overlords using the working class while not caring about them while simultaneously risking the human race for an extra zero on their bank account despite being basically richer than everyone, is literally in so many games, that are just lifting from Alien or Robocop. Did you finish the game? The ending twist is really easy to see coming and confirms this. It doesn’t need to talk about demon culture. The demons are in writing terms “The Other”, defined by opposition to norms we hold dear. They torture and kill and rip innocent people apart. They are an external threat we know are harmful, and the Doomguy understands this and straight up opposes this, because it is OBVIOUSLY wrong. Trying to learn more about them is stupid and besides the point-that’s what the Doomguy, the guy who knows what’s going on as far as Demons go, understands. If you try to understand the demons, or use them, they’ll kill you for your hubris and laugh as they pull your legs off. The thing is, he’s also taking instructions from Haydn, who also wants him to “Save the equipment that is used to harvest Hell Energy, despite harvesting Hell Energy causing a “Hell-on-Earth” (But not on earth) situation, which the Doomguy rejects, because he knows that the demons are not something to collaborate with.

      What the Doomguy doesn’t understand, is that not everyone understands that, and some are so insulated from the risk (Our villain is basically a near indestructible robot, and who knows if his physical body is really the seat of his consciousness?), that they are willing to spend the lives of scientists, labourers, even him, to make just a little more money.

      Haydn is the ultimate villain because they aren’t like the mutated demonic scientist lady. They are willing to essentially aid the demons, just for profit. They haven’t even declared allegiance to an ancient evil, they just provide material aid to them in service of their own goals.

      It is not a new theme, nor a particularly smart or meaningful one, but it is there and 100% competently executed, it literally bashes you over the head with it in the same way that Bioshock does. It reminds me of people who can’t see the obvious themes in Starship Troopers (The film, not the shitty books) “Service Guarantees Citizenship” (We see those who signed up get brutally ripped apart because the promise given to them by their fascist government is a means of social and population control). “Would you like to learn more?” (We see it’s pointless fascist propaganda, having kids stomp cockroaches doesn’t stop the “Bug”, the “Bug” are not even RELATED to cockroaches, they are just indoctrinating children into seeing a foreign enemy so they will unconditionally support the government).

      It’s really basic high school level literature analysis. These things are really blunt, in their really obvious themes. Doom could be considered a great case-in-point that an obvious, overdone theme, done competently but not well, serves to bring the story together. It’s easily a C+ in the themes department. Don’t know how it gets missed, you literally have to ignore the guy talking in your ear the entire time to do so.

      1. Basic Themes says:

        To be honest, I feel like Games criticism is in the same infancy as music criticism still. A basic education in English Studies would do a world of good, because people miss things that are WAY obvious, and then think to critique them.

        Understanding the basic surface reading is beyond so many who want to critique story, narrative or meaning, by people who understand the mechanics of dialogue and plot, but who have not the faintest about “What it means”.

        God forbid they realise that there are many different ways to interperet the text, and a competent analysis can come from any direction, and may take an entirely different perspective, and that a good critic can see the meaning from many lenses, and many of those lenses may produce contradictory results, because they can’t even see the basic authorial intent when it’s inspired by stories they are VERY familiar with.

      2. Preciousgollum says:

        So, basically, Hayen is the Robot Devil who reclaims his instrument back from the main character… OH HOW DELICIOUSLY IRONIC!

  3. Asdasd says:

    A lit major might jump in here and chastise me for playing fast and loose with the definition of theme and how it applies to fiction.

    No, that’s about the rigour with which we apply it too. :)

  4. Higher_Peanut says:

    The low bar in video game storytelling is kind of depressing. It’s fine in story light games, but the industry (at the top end at least) spends a lot of money chasing a “cinematic” experience. We end up with a bunch of 2-3 hour stories stretched over many more hours of gameplay. Which then get held up as examples of great storytelling when the story wouldn’t cut it as a movie and they don’t use the medium to help tell the story either.

    1. Asdasd says:

      Big true. The extended periods of wheel-spinning that happen to most video game plots to make room for the gameplay are such a momentum killer. I can’t stand the increasingly prevalent plot where the evil superbad’s threat to the player/world is established right at the beginning, and then they vanish into thin air, so can you spend hour after hour doing {{{unrelated chores}}} for [[[differing factions]]] instead of being able to take direct action against them.

      At least with ‘the princess is in another castle’, Mario’s response was to proceed to another castle so he could check if the princess was there. In the Breath of the Wild you could run straight to confront Ganon, although your chances at success would be slim. In Baldur’s Gate 2 you have the choice to pursue Irenicus by the most direct route at your disposal, although if you’re anything like me you’ll be unable to resist dicking about in Athkatla while Imoen rots in a cell (sorry Imoen).

      I’m not at all adverse to taking the scenic route through a story, but the writers need to manage their impetus. The player should always have the means to pursue whatever the story establishes as their most pressing concern – especially when said story makes a big dramatic song and dance about it. Even if you’re planning on throwing a bunch of obstacles in their path, and you almost certainly are, you have to convince them that the line from A to C has good reason to pass through B, instead of shrugging and railroading the player to B because.. because.

    2. Biggus Rickus says:

      This is why I despise cinematic games. They tack gameplay onto a movie I wouldn’t watch, or if I did, wouldn’t enjoy very much. The Last of Us is held up as a masterpiece of the genre, and I’ll grant that it has a pretty solid opening sequence. It gets very, very tedious almost immediately after that.

      1. Echo Tango says:

        But if games don’t have shiny cutscenes, what am I spending my money on?

    3. Kylroy says:

      I feel that this is because providing a compelling story is generally at odds with giving you the freedom to play a character. It’s hard enough to write an interesting story, and it’s functionally impossible to write a story that remains interesting as it forks off in infinite directions (a hypothesis Quantic Dream seems devoted to proving).

      My theory on why Bioshock is so well thought of is that it worked videogame plot linearity *into the narrative itself*. Which is a neat trick, but something that very severely limits the kind of stories you can tell.

      1. Eric says:

        I’m inclined to agree with you about BioShock. Everything about Ayn Rand, classism, and everything else was window-dressing. The game straight up telling you during the climax that you never had a choice at all is the lynchpin that holds that story together. “Would You Kindly” blew my 20-year-old mind.

        1. Ninety-Three says:

          Bioshock wasn’t about Ayn Rand though, not even in the shallow “we have nothing to say but we are going to keep remind you we’re about this topic” way that Mankind Divided or Detroit: Become Human were about race. How many Objectivist things can you name about Andrew Ryan other than his hatred of taxes and the redistributive programs they’re spent on? If his name wasn’t halfway an anagram of a famous author, I don’t think anyone would have ever made the connection, because nothing about Rapture as we’re shown is particularly Objectivist and the downfall of the city is caused by defective mind control drugs driving everyone crazy, completely orthogonal to any kind of politics. They didn’t even have a character do some kind of moral-of-the-story lecture where they blamed the events on politics.

          This really just emphasis Shamus’ point:

          Jaded game journalists[2] and story nerds like me will jump at any game that aspires to say something.

          Bioshock wasn’t coherent because it wasn’t even saying anything but jaded game journalists still jumped at the excuse to go “Ah yes, Objectivism. As a refined intellectual who reads the books without any pictures in them I of course know what that is, and let me tell you, Bioshock does an Objectivism.”

          1. ccesarano says:

            I’m wondering if Ken Levine had a bad habit of exploring too much in his games, though. I feel like the biggest issue with Bioshock: Infinite was because it had so many ideas in there that it became muddled. It’s one of those games I’ve been meaning to make a video about and therefore am hesitant to discuss too much, but I feel like one of the big things he was trying to approach with that game is the nature of the first-person shooter to solve all problems through violence. Or perhaps video games as a whole. Regardless, by doing this he creates a protagonist whose only solution to problems is to kill, which he then extends to practical application: what happens when you solve (perceived) problems through violence? You lead others to solve problems through violence.

            However, it gets caught up in so much other crap happening in the game, and especially the race war that occurred within the game, based on real attitudes of a prior era, and a current hot-button topic, and you start to get more noise than signal not only in the game, but in the critic and audience reception. Even then this is just one corner of the ideas the game was exploring, because then you have the dimension-hopping cause-effect stuff that sort of help work for that central idea of violence but then overcomplicates the setting, and by time you’re seeing a million and one lighthouses I’m trying to figure out if Ken Levine is back on that “games are linear” shtick by pointing out how no matter how many players experience this game and no matter how many decisions they make it’s always the same outcome.

            Again, too many ideas. The original Bioshock’s strength, if anything, is that it’s playing with a lot of ideas but at least feels more focused and restrained as a result.

            1. Olivier FAURE says:

              I feel like Bioshock Infinite’s theme of video game protagonists only being able to solve problems by shooting them would have a lot more impact if it weren’t overshadowed by the theme of “Bioshock Infinite’s engine can only handle ally NPCs and enemy NPCs, and cannot deal with multiple factions”.

              Seriously, just check any walkthrough. From the moments the Vox Populi turns on you, you never see them fight the government again. It kinds of takes away from any “violence begets violence” point the game could have had when every single person in the damn city seems to want to kill you, and only you, even after they start having to step over the piles of bodies you keep leaving behind.

              (the “game wants to make a point about violence but it’s really weird how much people want you to kill them” problem isn’t unique to Bioshock 3; The Last Of Us even has Troy Baker as the angry violent main character who learns to be a father over time)

              1. ccesarano says:

                I’d actually disagree on the final part of The Last of Us. The ending recontextualizes the whole game away from the “Learning to be a Father Again” point it was designed for you to believe it was.

                The whole purpose of the ending, and the only thing that really redeems the game away from being a typical post-apocalypse zombie story in which the mechanics are meh, is the fact that Ellie doesn’t view Joel as a father figure at all. Joel has not let go of the old world, which is why he’s such a grumpy nasty pants. It’s why he doesn’t want to let Ellie use a gun or why he says to put down the dirty magazine. He sees her as any adult would in today’s world, but not in the world she was born in. Ellie doesn’t know that world. She lives in a more dangerous, awful time. Her friend (and girlfriend) was killed. She’s already lost friends and loved ones. Ellie may have been the same age as Joel’s daughter was when she died, but Ellie was mature beyond his daughter’s years due to the environment she grew up in. That’s why, reading that old diary, Ellie’s reaction is “This is what girls thought about?” It’s so alien to her because it seems so immature and unimportant. Joel could never see that, and as such he doesn’t see Ellie as herself, but as a replacement for his daughter. Which is why he makes an awful choice at the end, and why we really aren’t supposed to like Joel.

                …until they decide to make a sequel and now I guess we’re supposed to like him?

          2. Matt says:

            If his name wasn’t halfway an anagram of a famous author, I don’t think anyone would have ever made the connection, because nothing about Rapture as we’re shown is particularly Objectivist and the downfall of the city is caused by defective mind control drugs driving everyone crazy, completely orthogonal to any kind of politics. They didn’t even have a character do some kind of moral-of-the-story lecture where they blamed the events on politics.

            I don’t agree. While I’m not a huge fan of BioShock or its thematic content, I think it’s pretty clear that the writer(s) intended the straw-man Objectivism they presented to be the source of Rapture’s woes. Ryan’s world was an unequal one, as Fontaine points out: “someone still has to scrub toilets.” The inequality between the haves and have-notes bred resentment and opportunity for someone nefarious, like Fontaine, to weaponize the destitute by showing them charity and building an army . Some redistribution to the poor would give them a means to live and a stake in society, preventing unrest.

            The “defective mind control drugs,” in addition to exacerbating the unrest caused by the situation above, further critique Objectivism because a government could simply ban them for the people’s own good. Ryan is unwilling to do this, despite their addictive nature, so people hurt themselves and others. In fact, his reluctance is considered cruel, akin to suggesting that an addict “just stop doing drugs,” instead of providing them actual clinical help. It’s also potentially analogous to the gun control debate – he’s willing to let people walk around with the means to commit mass murder at their literal fingertips. Of course society collapses!

            Finally, that Ryan himself resorts to using the drugs means that he’s ultimately a hypocrite. When push comes to shove, he cannot resist the temptation to become a tyrant himself, including secret police. I think it’s a pretty common critique of Objectivism (and many philosophies) to say that, “Not only is your belief system wrong, but you don’t actually believe it in your heart or follow it as stringently as you apply it to others.” Sort of like criticizing the Politburo for living in luxury while their people starve.

            1. Ninety-Three says:

              It’s also potentially analogous to the gun control debate – he’s willing to let people walk around with the means to commit mass murder at their literal fingertips. Of course society collapses!

              But that’s not actually what went wrong in Rapture. The problem wasn’t plasmids generally, it was that Andrew Ryan had his scientists add mind control drugs to the plasmids and that’s what drove everyone mad. Rapture didn’t fall because of overly libertarian attitudes on metaphorical heroin, it fell because some idiot decided to do MK-Ultra on the entire population. This is like a version of the gun control debate where society collapses because a witch cursed all the guns to be possessed by demons: it’s not really about the guns any more.

              You could argue it’s a critique of Objectivism that Ryan was able to pull that off, but it’s not like “a mad scientist can poison the water supply” is some unique failing of Objectivism, you’re pretty much committed to anprim (“there should be no scientists, and also no central water supplies”) if you want to use than as an objection.

              Finally, that Ryan himself resorts to using the drugs means that he’s ultimately a hypocrite. When push comes to shove, he cannot resist the temptation to become a tyrant himself, including secret police.

              The problem is that, as I mentioned above and you haven’t objected to, there’s barely anything Objectivist about Ryan besides his ranting about parasites, which is far from unique to Objectivism. Ryan isn’t a hypocrite because although Objectivists would hate his tyranny, all Ryan complained about was taxes and eminent domain, neither of which Rapture is shown to employ. The man is entirely consistent, and not very Objectivist. If they’d instead named Ryan after someone else with a totally different philosophy that shared Objectivism’s distaste for welfare, the game critics would be sagely nodding that Bioshock is a scathing critique of that other philosophy.

              1. Biggus Rickus says:

                I think you’re kind of talking around each other. The difference seems to come down to what Objectivism actually is and what Levine thinks Objectivism is. I haven’t played Bioschock, but I suspect that the Objectivism depicted is his misunderstood or half-informed version of it. How well that works for you in the story depends on how much you know about Objectivism.

                1. Matt says:

                  I think you’re right. As I said, the writers were critiquing their perception of Objectivism, which could be called a straw-man of the philosophy by an adherent or someone with a firmer grasp of its specifics. Ryan isn’t a “true” Objectivist, he’s just Levine’s interpretation of one.

                  1. Ninety-Three says:

                    My objection isn’t just that Bioshock gets Objectivism wrong, it’s that it gets it so wrong that, as I originally said, If [Ryan’s] name wasn’t halfway an anagram of a famous author, I don’t think anyone would have ever made the connection.

                    Like imagine a game where the villain really hates landlords. That’s his only defining characteristic. Then the writer names him Marl Karx and pseudo-intellectual journalists everywhere say the game is about communism. Even if you really strawman communism, there are more prominent anti-landlord philosophies than that: the only reason to bring up communism is because you’re well-read enough to have heard of Karl Marx, and badly-read enough not to notice this isn’t communism.

                    1. Kylroy says:

                      That was pretty much what happened in Bioshock 2.

              2. Matt says:

                But that’s not actually what went wrong in Rapture. The problem wasn’t plasmids generally, it was that Andrew Ryan had his scientists add mind control drugs to the plasmids and that’s what drove everyone mad. Rapture didn’t fall because of overly libertarian attitudes on metaphorical heroin, it fell because some idiot decided to do MK-Ultra on the entire population. This is like a version of the gun control debate where society collapses because a witch cursed all the guns to be possessed by demons: it’s not really about the guns any more.

                That’s fair, though Ryan admits there are problems with plasmids before that: “There has been tremendous pressure to regulate this Plasmid business. There have been side effects: blindness, insanity, death.” At any rate, I think they exacerbated the problems caused by the inequality, as stated in my opening paragraph. Once the violence began, the plasmids made it a lot worse and Rapture had no legal means to control it.

                The problem is that, as I mentioned above and you haven’t objected to, there’s barely anything Objectivist about Ryan besides his ranting about parasites, which is far from unique to Objectivism. Ryan isn’t a hypocrite because although Objectivists would hate his tyranny, all Ryan complained about was taxes and eminent domain, neither of which Rapture is shown to employ. The man is entirely consistent, and not very Objectivist.

                I don’t think Ryan is a good, nuanced, full-understanding depiction of an Objectivist, but I think he is the writer(s) interpretation of it and it’s ideals. While Ryan does rant about taxes and eminent domain, he also talks about opposing the censorship of art and supports a free market, cornerstones of Objectivist belief. He abandons those before the fall of Rapture, ordering critical artists silenced and outlawing/seizing Fontaine’s businesses. “Is there blood in the streets? Of course. Have some chosen to destroy themselves with careless splicing? Undeniable. But I will make no proclamations, I will dictate no laws. The Great Chain moves slowly, but with wisdom.” In the end, he’s holding public executions. I think it is quite clear that he is a hypocrite.

                1. Ninety-Three says:

                  I don’t think Ryan is a good, nuanced, full-understanding depiction of an Objectivist, but I think he is the writer(s) interpretation of it and it’s ideals.

                  I’m prepared to believe that Ken Levine glanced at the first bullet point of the Cliff’s Notes on Objectivism, and thinks Bioshock represents it accurately. I contend Levine has done such a bad job that Bioshock can be described as at best, a critique of not having welfare or dictatorships in general. If Tommy Wiseau told us that The Room is actually a film about loss, well authorial intent doesn’t make it so and The Room is not about loss by any conventional definition of “about” and “loss”.

                  1. Matt says:

                    There’s probably some distinction between “not really critiquing Objectivism because the writer did a bad job” and “the writer did a bad job critiquing Objectivism,” but I think we agree more than we disagree.

              3. eldomtom2 says:

                The game is fairly explicit that it’s plasmids themselves that are the problem, not Ryan modifying them to make their users suspectable to pheromones.

            2. BlueHorus says:

              Agreed.
              My impression of BioShock was that Ryan started out as an Objectivist*, but started abandoning the ideals when it stopped being convenient, usually because people weren’t doing what he thought they should do (a classic problem with granting other people freedom).
              Like people smuggling in bibles that he thought they shouldn’t have (causing him to crack down), he was fine with Objectivism until it cost him something.

              Once Fontaine turned out to be smarter and more successful that him, Ryan abandoned his ideals bit by bit, becoming more of tyrant than anything he’d fled on the surface.
              To me the message was ‘People love the idea of personal freedom (or any principle, really) when it benefits them, but when it doesn’t…’

              No, it’s not an amazing insight, but it’s still better than a lot of games out there.
              (And ‘Would You Kindly’ is a neat twist, well delivered.)

              *Well, maybe. I haven’t read Altas Shugged or anything, so maybe it’s not an accurate description.

            3. Erik says:

              I think it’s a pretty common critique of Objectivism (and many philosophies) to say that, “Not only is your belief system wrong, but you don’t actually believe it in your heart or follow it as stringently as you apply it to others.” Sort of like criticizing the Politburo for living in luxury while their people starve.

              I think this is the key to the whole picture. Very few critiques of Objectivism actually critique the benefits or costs to the system – they focus on the issue that like virtually all ideologies, it breaks down when actual people are involved. Leaders become corrupted by power; followers get disheartened by poverty. When people are faced with a choice of difficult adherence to ideology or easy opportunities on other paths, very few actually adher to the ideology.

              This is the core of Bioshock’s theme: not that the particular ideology is inherently bad, but that ALL ideology fails. It’s just much edgier to point at an ideology (objectivism) that is followed by a significant part of a modern political party than an ideology (communism) that has had no actual political presence (actually elected state or national officials) in the US during the lifetime of any of the players, most of their parents, and even many of their grandparents.

              1. beleester says:

                Yes, all ideologies break down to some extent, but the nature of the failure states can differ quite a bit. Democracies require a large number of people (ideally, >50% of the population, in practice it may be less) to agree on a bad decision before things go wrong, Rapture only needed one person to fail – once Andrew Ryan decided he wanted to be dictator, there was no mechanism to stop him.

                It’s not a mistake to bring up “How badly your ideology breaks down when it’s implemented by actual people” when criticizing an ideology – indeed, I would say that’s the most important thing to focus on.

          3. Geebs says:

            The clever bit that everybody liked in Bioshock was “would you kindly”. As far as objectivism goes, it’s not exactly a particularly deep philosophical system, is it? I think, given the material it had to work with, Bioshock did a pretty good job wringing out as much of a story / setting as it did.

            1. Matt says:

              As far as objectivism goes, it’s not exactly a particularly deep philosophical system, is it? I think, given the material it had to work with, Bioshock did a pretty good job wringing out as much of a story / setting as it did.

              I think that’s up to interpretation and debate. It’s certainly among the more reviled philosophies in popular understanding. In my opinion, BioShock’s criticisms are on the same level as asking a libertarian, “But what about the roads?” Believe it or not, there are clever folks who have considered that objection and offer cogent rebuttals. That doesn’t mean the libertarians are necessarily correct, just that their philosophy has been considered for more than five minutes.

              1. Biggus Rickus says:

                My own thoughts on it are that it’s like pretty much every 20th century -ism: Utopian and myopic. The world is a lot more messy than any of them allowed. I do find it odd that, broadly speaking, it’s more reviled than something like Marxism.

                1. Matt says:

                  The endurance of Marxism is, I think, because it is considered “to have its’ heart in the right place,” and all the gulags, civil wars, and famines are just failures in implementation. We miserable humans aren’t worthy of the lofty ideals to which it aspires. Meanwhile, Objectivism openly advocates against altruism.

                2. Shamus says:

                  Interesting discussion, but we’ve strayed too far into politics. Let’s move on.

                  1. Biggus Rickus says:

                    I wasn’t going any further with it. Any further and I was going to have to pick sides. That leads to the problems that brought on the rule.

                    1. Bubble181 says:

                      “Pick sides”? Come on, it’s very clearly Duck, not Rabbit. That’s just plain self-evident. Or, what, are you one of those degenerate Rabbiteers?!

            2. Ninety-Three says:

              As far as objectivism goes, it’s not exactly a particularly deep philosophical system, is it?

              A lot of people would say it’s not a particularly smart philosophical system (not going to get into that, no politics rule), but it’s definitely deep in the sense of “having lots to say”, and most of what it says is either absent or outright contradicted by Bioshock.

          4. Basic Themes says:

            Except it’s literally about a group of the ultra rich who leave the rest of society behind, something Ayn Rand’s works were intended to threaten the world’s population with (Like we need them, like their worth is because of something inherent to them, not just what the social contract deems “They Own”), and discovering that their little Gulch doesn’t actually work and that you still need someone to clean the toilets, and that if you have no rules about what the rich can do, that stratification results in the exploitation of the poor, and that deregulation results in the spreading of dangerous products.

            1. Kyle Haight says:

              I have to point out that if you actually read Atlas Shrugged, the population of the Gulch explicitly included people who were not ‘ultra rich’, and there were multiple ultra-rich characters among the villains. If you think the division between the good guys and the bad guys in the novel is a class economic distinction you missed the point entirely.

              Overall, though, I agree with the person who said the real theme of Bioshock is not so much an attempted critique of Objectivism as a critique of ideologies as such. The sequel makes this clearer. In the first game you have Andrew Ryan, with an ideology based on reason, selfishness and capitalism, and it ends in disaster. In the second you have Sofia Lamb, advocating altruism and collectivism, and it also ends in disaster. The message is that trying to live by abstract ideas — any abstract ideas — will lead to disaster. Ideas, in this view, are simply not possible to live by consistently no matter what they are.

              1. Fizban says:

                And in the third game, the main character lives by no ideals- and dies like the last two anyway. Though that could be in response to what he’d do if/when he did devote himself to an idea.

      2. Ninety-Three says:

        While we’re talking Bioshock, I have to complain that the twist everyone loves (which is really the entire narrative, the rest of the game is just you murdering your way through a series of plot doors) doesn’t make sense. Why did Andrew Ryan commit suicide-by-player? Thirty minutes before that he was yelling about how he’d crush you and RAPTURE WILL RISE AGAIN with him at the helm. Then you break down his door and for no reason he suddenly wants to die. There was an interview where they asked what Ryan’s motivation was here and Ken Levine didn’t answer, which I take to mean “There is no answer and I was cheating to advance the plot”.

        1. BlueHorus says:

          Huh? Seems simple enough…

          The mind-controlled Supersoldier that he’s been trying to stop for a while now has finally caught up with him. He’s been outclassed and outsmarted by Fontaine since more-or-less day 1, despite Ryan tearing apart his own utopia to try and stop it.
          When the player arrives, he finally admits that the only thing he can do is die on his terms.

          Also, that’s not the big twist? The big twist is Would You Kindly, which I thought was revealed by audiologs.

          1. Ninety-Three says:

            When the player arrives, he finally admits that the only thing he can do is die on his terms.

            Thirty minutes before that he was yelling about how he’d crush you and RAPTURE WILL RISE AGAIN with him at the helm.

            Ryan is ranting defeating you and how Rapture is fine actually while the player is literally on his doorstep. He changes his mind in the time it takes the player to open his door. I guess he could have had a crisis of faith in that short amount of time, but if you’re going to have the villain reverse course right after making a speech about it you need to at least show it happening.

            1. BlueHorus says:

              People do that, though. Particularly proud and arrogant people. They won’t – or can’t – admit defeat until absolutely the last minute or they’re forced to.

              While Ryan’s ranting about Rapture rising again, it is quite literally falling apart around him. It’s arguably long gone, given the way the population are either dead or insane. You could even say it died during his struggle with Fontaine, when he abandoned his ideals to make a secret police or use mind-control on the people.

              Still, doesn’t stop him ranting desperately about how he’s definitely going to win, any day now – just you wait and see…

              1. Ninety-Three says:

                People do that, though. Particularly proud and arrogant people. They won’t – or can’t – admit defeat until absolutely the last minute or they’re forced to.

                But that’s just it, Ryan’s not forced to! You walk in and he slaps you with a mind control whammy. He could have had you kill yourself, locked the door and gone back to writing grandiose speeches. He is Starchild At The Mass Effect 3 Ending levels of “surrendering for no reason”.

                1. BlueHorus says:

                  Oh yeah, that’s right! I’d forgotten that.
                  Same as the way Fontaine, when he’s done with you, doesn’t just kill you but activates ‘SLOW AVOIDABLE DEATH MODE’ that you can undo and then shoots up loads of Plasmids all at once so that you can have a boss fight with him.

                  The player’s Plot Armor gets in the way.

                  1. Sleeping Dragon says:

                    So it’s been a long time but isn’t Ryan’s “suicide by protagonist” related to the fact that he (don’t remember how to be honest) recognizes him as their son and perceives that as both his personal, and possibly philosophical, failure? Like, if not only Fontaine can defeat him with a slave but additionaly that enslavement can make his own son strike him down it’s not really worth living? Or possibly he was hoping that revealing the programming would make the protagonist fight against it and break it. I mean, there are issues with this, like why would a son he didn’t even know about care one fig about him, or why would they follow the same philosophy valuing their own free will above all else (in other words does the fact we’re being forced to be the executioner somehow absolve Ryan of his crimes or at least offers him a stay of execution). Though at least the latter could be explained by Ryan believing that this line of thinking is obvious and self-explanatory.

                    Also, Fontaine does try to “just kill you” by using the codephrase, by that time it’s been disabled and he has to use a backup, and even that is somewhat lampshaded by stating that this effectively tells your brain to stop your heart and the body does not like that instruction and tries to fight against it.

                    1. Fizban says:

                      I seem to recall that the logs suggested to me Ryan actually did care about his son- like, wasn’t it actually a clone of him he specifically had made, which was kidnapped? Could just be that when he saw who it was he changed from “crush enemy” to “save son,” or at least “spite my true foe by doing whatever I can to reverse this.”Though the evidence you find right before the confrontation would suggest he knew longer before that, but I also don’t recall just how vitriolic his ranting was specifically at the PC before then.

                      In any case, I felt like the scene said Ryan had decided to confront the PC and either make them overcome the mind control or die trying, and enough soup of potential motivations for it to work.

                      Edit: no, scratch that, it was Fontaine that had the PC made/concieved, wasn’t it. . . eh, still got a break mind control or die trying vibe.

            2. Basic Themes says:

              And?

              He also created a place that didn’t work, descended into a mess because of his decisions, and then he’s willing to sacrifice it all just to die on his own terms because he doesn’t care for all the people he’s responsible for (Literally the entire population of Rapture) because he’s selfish, and doesn’t believe in the social contract (Despite that being the only reason he can be said to “Own” anything) and only cares about himself.

          2. Matt says:

            Also, isn’t the player character Ryan’s own son? Perhaps after he realizes that, he no longer has the will to fight him.

            1. Geebs says:

              Ryan knows he’s going to die but is still unable to give up his belief in his own superiority, so he makes it his choice. Hence all of the “a slave obeys” stuff.

              1. Hector says:

                This doesn’t work because Ryan has the control code. The player character and Fontaine can do nothing about as far as we see, because the very thing Frank F used to manipulate you was now in Ryan’s hans as well.

              2. Basic Themes says:

                Exactly. It doesn’t matter if the player kills him or not. There is no order in Rapture, the place had torn itself apart, and he only made it worse. If you don’t kill him, a slicer would, because nobody has any reason to follow him, because there is no social contract there bar-you can take what you can get.

                Ryan was dead long before you stepped into his office, because his entire wordview created a world where he couldn’t maintain his position, out of pride, and he’s willing to make it worse, just for him.

                It’s dramatic irony that the things he’s done that make things worse for other people, also destroy any hope of him surviving and restoring things to normal, and that his selfishness can’t win out on it’s own. If you don’t owe anyone else anything, there is nothing to stop someone else, who you feel no kinship with, killing you and taking it all.

                Continuing in grand irony, Ryan is killed by his son, someone who he literally made and created. What Ryan did kills him, LITERALLY.

                1. Preciousgollum says:

                  It is a subversion on the natural idea that children are expected to outlive their parents. Neurotic parents see this process as a form of ‘killing’ the parent. My grandmother, who is 95, is convinced in her belief that both her daughter, grandson, and grandaughter are eroding away her ‘immaculate’ life, despite us pointing out that she has likely lived to 95 as a result of our efforts to sustain her life, at expense to ourselves. She actually taunts us at times with the proverbial concept of her own death.

                  Blade Runner has the sequence with Rudger Hauer’s Replicant killing his own father figure, because replicants have 4 year life spans and are designed to die before their creators. In doing so, the Replicant character has outlived the father figure, and ‘become his own man’. Then later on you get the ‘tears in the rain’ speech.

                  Same goes for Alien: Covenant. The android, David, who is expected to outlive his creator, and is programmed to be gay/asexual, but who cannot create, finds a way to make an alien sex monster in the form of the Xenomorph. But David is also programmed to serve his master, the Weyland corporation, so it is all manner of confusing over the nature of free will and responsibility. The Xenomorph is frightening, but it doesn’t fit the criteria of ‘vengeful’ or ‘hateful’ that defines ‘villainy’.

                  Jack, aka the Bioshock protagonist, is an engineered baby, and seen by Andrew Ryan as being a Robot instead of a successor, and merely a mockery of himself. From the POV of Ryan, it is like the creepy side of the uncanny valley, and like a human-puppet there to haunt him.

        2. Higher_Peanut says:

          The twist never worked for me when I played it. When I got the first call for help on the radio my first thought was “screw you buddy, I just fell out of a plane. Deal with it yourself”. But it’s a videogame therefore I knew I was bound to help him from the start. So when the big reveal happened instead of a big revelation it felt more like “yes I am playing a game and therefore have no agency. Up until now you were kind enough to my suspension of disbelief not to mention it.”
          I appreciate using the interactivity of the medium to make a point but they never went anywhere with it once it was explained.

  5. Joshua says:

    Weird typo: “That is, journos jaded”

    1. Warclam says:

      When I see a typo that weird, I tend to look it up, in case it’s a perfectly normal contraction. Which is this case, it turns out it is.

    2. Syal says:

      “In the realm of board action stories”. Should be “bored action stories”.

      1. Shamus says:

        The typo is even worse than you gave me credit for. It was actually supposed to be “broad action stories”.

        Anyway, thanks for the heads-up.

  6. Christopher says:

    If nothing else, having a theme means better odds that youtube critics will make a video talking about your game.

  7. Syal says:

    I gave a bit more credit to the “Aug Lives Matter” sign once I finally played the first one and saw its “I Regret My Augmentation” sign. It’s carrying on the tone they had from the first game. Presumably it got more backlash because the first game was a solid revival of the franchise so the politics were ignored, and maybe the second one hit closer to “live” topics.

    1. Naota says:

      I think it goes a little deeper than that – it feels like the first game thought up an interesting social problem that could arise in a budding transhumanist world, and then included it as texture for the setting. That it had parallels to the real life divide between the rich and poor/traditionalists and progressives was probably intentional, but the connection felt incidental. You could draw those conclusions yourselves, and the issue stood on its own as a believable piece of the setting.

      Then Mankind Divided second took this idea and tried to directly equate it to real-world politics. Hard. Regardless of how obvious, how preachy, or how poorly the ideas fit.

      On its face it never made too much sense that Augs were the underclass, but it was something justified by some well-planned inclusions in the lore. But no matter how hard they push, no amount of lore is going to convince us that people with robot arms and spinal implants are a race, a class of society, or an oppressed cultural minority.

      They were just invented and you can take them off again! Normal prosthetics still exist!

      1. BlueHorus says:

        I also love Yahtze Croshaw’s comment on the story: ‘If there’s a brewing war between normal people and people with hydraulic pistons for arms, count me in on Team Piston!’

        The key feature of this kind of metaphor is that the oppressed are a minority, eg weaker, outnumbered, and vulnerable. But augmentations in Deus Ex give people a massive combat advantage. Any self-respecting and smart would-be tyrant would WANT Augs, as soldiers.

        1. Matt says:

          Even leaving aside the combat utility of augs, the set-up in Mankind Divided never made sense because the people with Augs would be likely to be among the wealthiest, least-vulnerable people in society.

          1. Ninety-Three says:

            The other problem is that the whole crackdown on augs is supposedly driven by the events of the first game, when a lunatic billionaire put a backdoor in everyone’s cyber arms so he could hack them to drive people insane. We should be seeing measures very concerned about hacking: wifi-enabled cyberlimbs are banned, all software has to be closely reviewed for time bombs, no more interfacing with your nervous system in a way that could be used to turn you into a ragezombie. Instead everyone is generally dickish to augs in pursuit of no clear goal.

            If I had to defend Mankind Divided, I’d ignore the obvious authorial intent and say it’s not actually about race, it’s about security theater and the TSA.

            1. PhoenixUltima says:

              Almost nobody in the game world actually knows about the hacked aug chips, though. IIRC the “official” story (i.e. the Illuminati’s cover story) is that a bad batch of neuropozine was behind the aug incident. AFAIK the only people who know what really went down are the leaders of the Illuminati (they were behind the hackable chips to begin with), Hugh Darrow (he’s the one who actually sent out the “go crazy” signal – and I don’t remember if he even survived Panchea’s collapse), Adam Jensen (he’s the one who stopped the signal), and the Janus Collective (because they’re super-hackers in a cyberpunk dystopia, which basically gives them magic powers and pseudo-omniscience).

              1. Ninety-Three says:

                a bad batch of neuropozine was behind the aug incident

                That’s so stupid. Every aug on the planet went nuts in the same instant, it would require that everyone got the same batch, and somehow the defect was such that it would manifest at exactly 3:57 PM (or whenever the incident was) regardless of when you dosed. That’s such an unlikely thing to happen at random that it basically just moves the story to “some hacker put a virus in all the neuropazine” instead of “some hacker put a virus in the wifi”.

                Heck, there should’ve been some augs who happened to be outside of wifi range (in the middle of nowhere, spelunking, inside a shielded area) and they would very conspicuously be the only people who didn’t go crazy when Darrow pushed the button. If anyone notices that, it’s instantly obvious that this was transmitted over the airwaves, and if the conspiracy can keep people from noticing then they have more ability to run the world than the people actually running the world.

                1. Dewwy says:

                  It is absolutely insane. It’s one of the most ridiculous kind of conspiracy theories that fall flat upon barely any examination. Then again, Deus Ex is at least some part “What if all the conspiracies were true? – The Game” as well as “Weak to medium hot takes on transhumanism – The Game”

          2. Preciousgollum says:

            It is also arguable that the opposite would be the case, and that people with machine-part Augs would be the poor ones, because a part of them is a product to be owned. So, if you rent your machine-arm, then that is not owned by you. The more parts being replaced erodes the concept of owning your own body. Ala Ghost in The Shell.

            In Deus Ex, JC Denton and his brother are augmented and grown on a genetic level, and so they are the few ‘elite’ Augs in a world of people who simply have metal arms and don’t own their parts. To some extent, JC and Paul Denton are different species, and that is why the plague in Deus Ex doesn’t affect them.

            So, yea, there is definitely some argument to be had for ‘Augmentations’ being seen through the lense of ‘race’ or ‘class’, especially in a dystopian setting. Race and class is itself somewhat dystopian classification.

            People with different skin colours have such a small and minute difference between human beings on a genetic level, yet ‘racial identity’ is considered ‘important distinction’ and people base identiy around it. Classes of Rich or Poor, worker or non worker are based around few variables, yet it becomes a defining feature for a massive part of life.

        2. Olivier FAURE says:

          That’s not quite accurate, but it’s inaccurate in a way the game would be unable to portray anyway.

          If we imagine a world with better-than-nature prosthetics, but no exoskeletons or Boston-Dynamics-style robots, there would be a pressure for lower class people with physical, low-skill jobs to get augments to keep their job. Lots of people might get into crippling debt to get an augmentation they don’t even want.

          So, really, you’d have three “classes” that would form: the augmented rich, people who get augments as a show of wealth rather than for practical purposes; the un-augmented middle class; and the augmented poor, whose quality of life suffers from their low-qualitys aug, and who get lumped with the rich class in TV debates.

          (that’s leaving aside the military applications and the “get augmented to go into spec ops vs get a prosthetic leg after stepping on a land mine” distinction)

          1. Matt says:

            I think that would depend entirely on the cost, nature, and abilities of the augments. If there are augments for cognitive ability or neural interfacing with computers, there will be pressure for all classes to get them. I’m not sure about the former, but the latter certainly exist in Deus Ex. None of the augments we see would be that helpful for the kind of low-skill, physically undemanding jobs typically available to the poor. Folks like miners, construction workers, and warehouse stockers might benefit, but then the augments would need to be cheaper and better than existing tools (like forklifts, which don’t require surgery to operate).

            The social dynamics also ignores what we traditionally see in real life. The poor tries to get by and does without, the middle apes the rich to avoid looking poor, and the rich tries to be novel to avoid seeming middle class. In that sense, the distribution of augs would go from the top down.

            1. Cbob says:

              IIRC in the games there was a wide range of augs available to different economic brackets. It seemed more or less comparable to cars in terms of affordability and availability. Rich people had designer or bespoke augs with ornamental casings and cutting edge tech. Middle class had decent-but-not-fancy mannequin-like augs. Poor people had bare-bones “utility only” augs that looked like cheap industrial robot parts, often with signs of heavy wear and jerry-rigged repairs.

              IIRC the cost of the augs themselves wasn’t a hard barrier: just like with cars, you could find cheap or used stuff if you really needed to. You might end up paying the difference in maintenance, but that’s the “Vimes Boots Theory” at work just like with all kinds of IRL goods/tools.

              The really harsh economy was in the cost of Neuropozine (anti-rejection drug), which was tied up in an exploitative corporate monopoly. Poor people could and did get absolutely broken by the cost of a Neuropozine prescription. This was so directly pulled from IRL pharmaceutical company controversies that it’s kind of only technically allegorical. And without getting too far into spoilers, part of the main plot of HR revolves directly around the underhandedness and viciousness with which that monopoly was protected.

              IIRC a lot of jobs that required or pressured people to get augs would pay for the surgery and the hardware (with the bodily ownership and soft indenture issues others talked about being strongly implied), but NOT for the drugs. Without the drugs the augs were worse than useless. And if the job doesn’t work out, the cost of sacrificing a limb (or more) is a lot harsher than losing a car, even if the monetary buy-in was equivalent.

              So getting augmented wasn’t an economic barrier unless you were borderline homeless, but the cost of maintaining augs created a drug pimp sort of power dynamic that any employer could legally exploit to the limits of their conscience, and which even the middle class were vulnerable to.

              In terms of game assets though: yeah, very little thought went into who had what augmented beyond whether the augs themselves looked poor and jank or rich and fancy. White collar workers who you’d think would only need skull ports would have random full robot limbs, blue collar workers who you’d think should have task-specific tool augs would just have simple human-replicating robot limbs, etc.

              1. Olivier FAURE says:

                Huh, that actually sounds kind of clever.

          2. Basic Themes says:

            If I’m in debt and I have hydraulic piston arms, and I work in essentially slavery, with hundreds of others with hydraulic piston arms, lemme tell you.

            Every manager, every boss, every capitalist, is getting a piston through their head when we rise up, which will be very soon, because we have these.

            The only solution the rich can have is oppressing the underclass using augmented soldiers, who would need to be considered a class above to actually do it.

            That’s the problem. It wants to pit the augmented against those who aren’t, instead of the rich against the poor, using augmentations as a tool. You can’t rise up against your masters as a pistonhand, if your bosses are backed by a police force with cannonhands. The idea of augs being discriminated against is silly, you want to do what the original Deus Ex did, where those with older, out dated augs, are being oppressed by a class that can afford better.

        3. Basic Themes says:

          Same problem X-Men has.

          Comparing racial and sexual minorities to people who can mind control others, are indestructible, are walking nukes, etc, isn’t really like the real world. There is no way mutants would tolerate such abuse for long enough to be oppressed like that, because “I know a little girl who can walk through walls”

          Empowerment comes up against analogy, and destroys it.

      2. Hector says:

        I also pointed out, back in the comments of the Deus Ex post Shamus linked, that the augmentations in Deus Ex are nigh-useless. Mechanically (pun intended) the augmentations have no value. We see nothing useful to most people except maybe the computer augmentations and even those are highly questionable.

        Since it was brought up, piston armies are pretty damn worthless in a world of guns and combat robots.

        1. BlueHorus says:

          Really?

          Going from the first game, there were lethal fist & arm spikes, reflex boosters, invisibility…thingies, regenerative abilities, mods to help fire guns, enhanced jumping height…
          Sure, we rarely see the enemy get them, but if I were a soldier or a despot, I’d want them.
          (I assume that they’re also in the sequel, as well as other, improved things)

          Piston arms would be good for an industrial worker, in theory. Especially in a dystopian ‘you have to get them in order to keep your job’ society like Olivier Faure suggested.

          1. Hector says:

            Well, you kinda made my point.

            None of those things is remotely useful, unless you want to go out and use your cybernetic enhancements to hurt people. And if you do, robots are better and cheaper at it. There’s simply no reason to go to the trouble of adding any of this stuff to your body unless you’re a secret agent/ninja in a dystopian cyberpunk world. Nobody in the game has anything like Jensen’s augmentations, because it simply doesn’t make sense. Also, things like regeneration or whatever is handled by nanites even according to the in-game lore, which means cybernetics are not needed.

            1. BlueHorus says:

              Oh, I’m not really disagreeing. At this point I’m envisioning a better thematic use for Deus Ex’s tech than (what I’ve heard is) Mankind Divided’s story.

              A story that explored a hypothetical ‘arms race’ of augmentation tech could be pretty good.

          2. Basic Themes says:

            100%.

            Like, what do I keep my pistonhand workforce oppressed with? Cannonhand troops, with Typhoons.

            It works as a capitalism allegory. It does not work as a race/sex/sexuality allegory, because if there’s a reason not to augment people (straight up robots do the work better) which allows you to oppress the augs, then making augs makes no sense. But if you pit augs against regular people, regular people lose, even if their boss has gold plated arms.

            It needs to be a caste system, used to demonstrate social stratification, but that’s really politically edgy, so a) I’ll leave it there and b) it is a less popular message because it addresses real work politics in a way that undermines the general understanding of the way things work. Truly radical messages are rarely produced by megacorporations.

        2. Cbob says:

          This, really.

          IRL, for physical labor and military use drones or exoskeletons are easier (and less squicky, which will/does matter) uses of the very same techs augs would be based on, so there’s no actual market for augs.

          For medical prosthesis, augs only have a market until growing replacement limbs/organs get sufficiently perfected, and IRL we’re probably closer to the latter than the former, so this is either unlikely, or would have a very narrow window of viability (like a decade at most).

          For direct brain/computer interfaces, non-invasive technologies will arrive either right before or right after wetwiring. Who’s gonna wanna get their brain cut open if you can have the same functions in a bluetooth wearable that talks to neurons in the brain via signal triangulation? The latter means the instant that even starts to look viable it’ll get way more R&D attention than wetwiring, increasing the chances of it arriving earlier.

          As enshrined as it is in pop-culture, I think cyberpunk-style augmentations are sort of like giant humanoid mechs in that they don’t actually make enough sense to become a thing, they’re just cool. Which doesn’t mean they won’t exist, it’s just… humanoid mechs will be in the monster trucks rallies of tomorrow, not the battlefields of tomorrow, and cyberpunk “augs” will be the subdermal horns and ear guages of tomorrow rather than the working tools of tomorrow.

    2. RFS-81 says:

      The thing is, if you’re making up a social problem that has no clear real-world analogy, playing mad-libs with real-world slogans is a really bad idea. I don’t know why I should give them more credit just because it didn’t blow up the first time.

  8. Hector says:

    I haven’t played Rage2, but does Cross actually have a goal? Villain writing 101 is to have an enemy who has plans beyond defeating to heroes/protagonist/whatever. Cross plans to kill everyone else, then… squat in his base watching cartoons?

    It’s possible to write good characters with empty ambitions with care, usually drawing attention to the fact with subtlety. But it is usually better for the villain to have a goal good or bad. For example, Cross might see himself as General Washington 2.0, who will rebuild his country once he’s wiped out all these miserable barbarous scum ! (Queue mad ranting that gets increasingly insane as the game goes on). You could listen in as he demands people die for his cause and be incomprehensibly confused why they won’t, contrast the protagonists actually doing heroic or thematically-appropriate actions while Cross does tyrannical stuff. Or whatever works.

    Likewise, I think it would have been wise to show a “civilian” Authority area so you can demonstrate how they treat even those nominally loyal to the cause, as I assume they aren’t literally all 100% soldiers with bucket hats. You could do an infiltration mission, which has the advantage of giving you a peek into the Authority’s view. You can show people being intimidated, loyal, terrified, controlled, enslaved or anything that helps set the stage. Plus it breaks the action with just a little diversion to try something else fun.

    1. Syal says:

      I’ve only watched the cutscenes Shamus has covered so far, but it sounds like Cross’ goal is “collect the best genetic material and create a master race”. Like The Master in Fallout, but dumber and shoutier. And the army is Super Mutants, but more generic.

      So far I do think they’re literally all soldiers. They don’t have settlements, they have prisons and graves.

      1. Hector says:

        Sure, but that doesn’t really answer the question. What does Cross envision his creations doing? What genetic material does he even want? Why are his soldiers following him, and where do they live? Do they just feed the elderly to the mutants? How do they raise children?

        I’m not asking for Fallout, but the game isn’t even up to the consistency of Borderlands, which deliberately played the entire thing as a madcap joke to boot on top. [In case anyone doesn’t recall, they actually did explain how everything on Pandora went completely loco, as well as giving important villains identifiable goals to the degree they need them.]

  9. ccesarano says:

    Not having majored in literature or actual story-telling, I don’t have any textbook definition of theme. However, I’ve begun to wonder if considering a theme a “message” or the narrative trying to “say” something is damaging to the concept itself, and perhaps perpetuates reader-response more than anything else. As someone that believes there is no one correct school of criticism (I hate “author is dead” but I do not wish to reject reader response either), I feel it would be better if we considered how a lot of excellent works don’t tell the audience something, but instead invite contemplation. How a theme can be used to either challenge the characters within a work even if nothing is directly said, or how a single idea can be explored through the characters and world without a direct message.

    For example, if I were to sum up what the first season of Jessica Jones on Netflix is “about” in one word, I’d say “control”. While there are a lot of obvious parallels between being a rape survivor and similar hot-button feminism topics, it is just one of the many ways “control” is explored in that season. Jessica herself starts out completely lacking self-control, an incredibly impulsive individual that follows her vices and even fears until the very end of the first episode. That first episode concludes with her taking control of herself and making a decision to fight. From there, we are treated to a season in which characters all struggle with control over their own lives or others. Jessica’s neighbor is a drug addict, controlled by his addiction. The upstair neighbors are an over-bearing sister that tries to control her brother’s actions. Jessica’s friend Patsy Walker is haunted by the trauma of a controlling and at times abusive mother. Hogarth craves control over all things.

    Can you say that the season says anything about control, though? Nothing clear, but it certainly explores one simple word in a variety of fascinating ways through each of its characters. Or does that make “control” more of a motif than a theme?

    I also happen to be a fan of Japanese screen writer Gen Urobuchi, often referred to as Gen Urobutcher as he tends to put his characters through horrible things and even slaughter audience favorites. Three of his works include the anime series Fate/Zero, the anime series Madoka Magica, and the Netflix Godzilla anime film trilogy. Each of these works includes similar elements of Nihilism and Nietzsche’s quote regarding “Those Who Fight Monsters” (perhaps he’s just a big fan of Nietzsche, though it was a different Friederich that “founded” Nihilism). Do his works have messages regarding these things? Not really. It’s more that he uses these philosophies and ideas to challenge his characters regardless of setting. Fate/Zero is a world in which an elite class of sorcerers wage war with one another using famous warriors of myth/history, and whose protagonist is trying to put an end to it in a violent, cut-throat manner. Madoka Magica is… well, it’s Magical Girls gone wrong and horrifying. Netflix Godzilla is far less about the monster itself and more the protagonist’s hatred towards the monster. Each of these narratives challenge its characters in different ways, but the philosophies are consistent between all three.

    I would hesitate to argue that anything is “said” in any of these works, and yet that philosophy certainly makes the stories more rich. Simultaneously, over the past decade Japan has been under-going a lot of challenges regarding its nation’s birthrate, faith in its future, confrontation between its younger citizenship and the old guard that has some parallels between Millennials versus Boomers, and some other issues. There are a lot of anime that reflect these sorts of ideas, or at least reflect some manner of perspective, but don’t seem to beat anyone over the head to declare a bad guy or a correct method. In fact, a lot of these ideas go over the heads of a lot of anime fans and viewers because they’re unaware of this stuff going on in Japan.

    In fact, let’s look at something that’s not so recent to Japan’s social climate. Both Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney and Judgment are games that tackle the lop-sided “get a guilty verdict as soon as possible” nature of the Japanese justice system. The reason Phoenix Wright seems so ridiculous and inaccurate in America is because the Prosecution has the advantage, and is in fact capable of withholding evidence from the defense (unlike America, which anyone that has seen My Cousin Vinnie should know). Because the police desire to close cases swiftly, they’ll often latch onto the first suspect available. In Phoenix Wright, you play as the Defense Attorney that also kind of acts as a detective, seeking the truth and fighting against the Prosecution in search of the truth. In Judgment, the protagonist basically gives up being a lawyer because, as a detective, he is free to seek the truth, whereas an Attorney is stuck fighting for a verdict rather than the truth.

    Yet neither game treats the justice system itself as a bad guy, and in fact Phoenix Wright uses its character of Miles Edgeworth to represent how the Defense and Prosecution can work together to find the truth. But is that a message? Is that the game’s writers declaring how the justice system should be?

    Or perhaps I’m discussing a lot of ideas that each have their own vocabulary term in literary studies and, because of my lack of education, I’ve latched onto the word “theme” to kind of describe them all. Regardless, I do think there’s a multitude of ways in which themes can be explored in a narrative, but unfortunately this notion of a “message” being how a theme is defined seems far more limiting, both in terms of studying a work and the manner in which people are encouraged to study and read those works.

    That’s my feeling, at least.

    1. Syal says:

      Generally agree on the theme stuff; a theme is a central point the story revolves around, it doesn’t have to have an end point. One issue with themes in videogames, however – at least open-world ones – is that the story already has to revolve around the player character. So the character will pretty much have to embody the theme, and characters are supposed to have consistent motivations and drives, so the theme is going to need to be more directed toward something than in a book or TV show where different characters can get equal weight.

      I will debate Phoenix not treating the system as the bad guy; the prosecutor is generally positioned as the Big Bad, and the final case usually revolves around “what should it mean to be an attorney”.

    2. RFS-81 says:

      I’ve heard before that Phoenix Wright isn’t as exaggerated as it may look to westerners. I seem to remember that there was one case where it wasn’t enough to exonerate your client, you had to present the real culprit to secure a not guilty verdict. That has to be artistic license, right? Right?

      1. Nixorbo says:

        I seem to remember that there was one case where it wasn’t enough to exonerate your client, you had to present the real culprit to secure a not guilty verdict

        That is literally every case.

        1. RFS-81 says:

          Eh, true, but I thought there was one where the judge basically agreed that your client couldn’t possibly have done it before you presented the real criminal. He’ll still convict your client if you fail to do that.

    3. Erik says:

      At some level you are correct, you are conflating several things that are separate in literary theory – theme as distinct from topic or motif or moral, for example. But at its core, what you’re *really* complaining about is BAD themes, or at least badly incorporated themes. Good themes make the story evoke the subject of the theme naturally in your head, but don’t hang the story off that – you should be able to enjoy or at least follow the story on its own, regardless of whether the theme was evoked for you. Bad themes beat you over the head with it and overwrite the actual story elements with thematic elements to the point where its no longer a story but a message delivery system.

      1. ccesarano says:

        That there is theme, motif, topic, and moral really does seem to over-complicate things, but I suppose I should start learning more about ’em as one of the things I love discussing about media is… well, all of those.

        Would it be more accurate to call it bad theming, though? Not that the theme itself is bad, but the manner in which it is presented is bad?

        1. Asdasd says:

          Remember that theme, motif, topic and moral are all abstract concepts created by people. A story doesn’t inherently contain all of them in the way that, say, an orange contains seed, skin and pulp. They are just labels applied to the parts of a work a critic wants to discuss. They’re interpretive tools and whether they are applied correctly, or indeed exist at all, is itself subject to interpretation.

          As with all disciplines, but especially the humanities, it’s best not to get too prescriptive or insistent about terminology unless you’re prepared to descend into the infinite self-generating rabbit-holes of semantic debate. Shamus has managed to side-step that hazard by keeping his terminology loose enough to be useful.

          1. Retsam says:

            I do think the “moral” vs “theme” distinction is worth highlighting – I’d say a moral is a specific subset of themes which are aimed at imparting a specific “message” to the audience. With most people, our first exposure to the idea of “themes” is in the form of morals, and they’re the easiest to identify, so I think the concept colors a lot of people’s expectations for what a “theme” is.

            So saying “Urobuchi stories don’t have a message” is really saying “they don’t have an obvious moral” which is largely true. (The depiction of utilitarianism in Fate/Zero seems borderline moralizing, but it’s certainly debatable)

            I don’t think moral inherently means “bad theming” and “no moral” is inherently “good theming”. But morals are tricky to pull off – if the message feels obvious (“kicking puppies is bad!”), it’ll feel childish or condescending, but if it’s controversial (“[political view] is good/bad”), it may alienate those who don’t agree with it. And in any case if it’s pushed too hard, it’ll get Anvilicious. (And not to mention the Space Whales)

            1. Asdasd says:

              There’s a definite moral here, and it’s not to click on a link to tvtropes just before you’re planning to head off to bed.

            2. Radiosity says:

              “if the message feels obvious (“kicking puppies is bad!”), it’ll feel childish or condescending”

              *cough* Fallout 4! *cough*

              Slavery bad, mmmkay? Basically what Fallout 4’s laughable attempts at social commentary amount to.

  10. Nixorbo says:

    That war is coming, whether you’re ready for it or not.

    So … we fight or we die?

  11. Olivier FAURE says:

    I didn’t fault DOOM 2016 because it didn’t have a clear theme or explore the inner workings of demon culture.

    Excuse me?

    It absolutely did both.

    Well, the demon culture stuff is mostly in side-content (audiologs, journals, codex entries about levels and enemies and stuff), but even in the main game there’s a pretty clear idea of “the corporation is bad because it uses evil science to make money, you’re good because you smash the evil science”. It’s introduced when you smash the screen Hayden talks to you with, then it’s built up when you smash the Argent energy things, then it concludes when Hayden puts you under and steals the McGuffin from you.

    Also there’s the part where you need to sacrifice the AI that has helped you for the entire game, and at the last moment the Doom Guy decides to keep a back-up, which I’d argue counts as character development.

    None of it is really smart, mind you, but you’re right that it feels pretty rewarding as little moments of cleverness after 10 minutes of intense demon shooting.

    1. Basic Themes says:

      The only conclusion I can reach is a) they didn’t read the side material (Fair cop, I hate backstory codexes, only read these because they were genuinely interesting) and b) They didn’t finish the game.

    2. Higher_Peanut says:

      I loved the VEGA setup. The sentient AI made from hell tech doesn’t rebel and does exactly what it was told to do, including self termination. I was fully expecting the inevitable AI betrayal.

  12. ivan says:

    So, I haven’t played the new Doom yet, but, from what I hear it wouldn’t be a gigantic stretch to call it anti-Nuclear Power. The whole start of things is tapping a hazardous energy source they have, at best, an illusion of safe control over. Then things go horribly wrong, and the cleaner in his Hazmat-looking suit has to go in and hose the place down. With bullets.

    Someone who’s actually played it rather than merely heard things about it and watched speedruns of it a couple of times, may be able to expand this theory a little, but from where I’m standing it seems sound enough.

    1. Matt says:

      Nonsense! We all know that Doom is a Marxist polemic on the struggles of the working class against their bourgeois masters. Something, something the shotgun is the weapon of the common man!

    2. Olivier FAURE says:

      I’m actually kinda pissed about that, because on one hand Doom 2016 is a great game and it having story themes is a part of that, and on the other hand associating nuclear power with demons (which is the metaphor Argent energy most obviously brings up) is terrible.

      Like, yeah, if you’re looking for easy themes for your Shoot Guy reboot which is about shooting people and sometimes punching them to recharge your life juice, then “evil science is bad” is pretty easy.

      But damn, I’d really like Earth not to be cooked into a wasteland by global warming, so cheap messages about nuclear energy being evil is kind of the last thing we need right now.

      1. Higher_Peanut says:

        Associating it with nuclear power is strange by the games own lore. They’d be using it if they could but they ran out of fissionable material along with every other fossil fuel. Earth in the setting has fully exhausted every functional energy source they have and was about to fall apart. Hayden was obsessed with what he saw as saving humanity (or at least that’s how he presents himself to others publicly) and blindly chased his goals with willful neglegance towards anything else. It feels closer to “greater good” and “unchecked corporate power” than a true nuclear analogy.

        Cheap messages about nuclear power is what made me disappointed in Chernobyl. It’s a good show but I know there will be people who will take it as a fresh reason why nuclear is bad instead of what I think it intended to say about the terrible setup that led to the disaster in the first place. Tech and safety have progressed miles beyond that point but the perception of the word nuclear hasn’t progressed with it. It’s almost a forbidden word here in NZ regardless of context. This reminds me of a semi-relevant xkcd (there’s always at least one) about log scales being for those who don’t want to commit to making a point.

        Apologies if the link breaks horribly, phone editing text is pretty awful.

    3. Basic Themes says:

      It’s anti-corporate, not anti-nuclear.

      You could extend that argument to anti-nuclear by going “Corporations don’t care about meltdowns, cancer, or the risk to the public, they care about money, and will sacrifice the lives of others to make more.

      But it’s not anti-nuclear.

      It’s like walking into a nuclear reactor in meltdown, while the owner goes “MAKE SURE TO SAVE THE PLANT, IT IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN YOU OR THE WORKERS, IT MAKES US MONEY, STOPPING THIS IS LESS IMPORTANT TO US THAN MAKING MONEY”.

      1. zackoid says:

        Exactly. The corporation makes a literal deal with the devil(s) and the employees become literal demons. The CEO is literally inhuman.

        It might suggest nuclear power but that’s just because energy is the resource, and you could change the resource without changing any of the themes.

        Also Chernobyl is about social control and hierarchy, though admittedly it’s hard to watch the worst nuclear accident in history and not feel a little concerned about nuclear power. I’m not sure what the alternative would be, though, except ignoring the subject entirely.

    4. GoStu says:

      I suppose you could spin it to make it about nuclear power, but you’d have to add in your own perceptions that nuclear power is inherently as hazardous as trying to tap directly into hell. The nice thing about when themes aren’t 1:1 mapped to some real issue is that we can have interpretations on it like this.

      From what I saw while playing it: I think I agree with the other interpretations I’ve seen here, about “if you focus too much on the greater good, you will lose yourself in the process”. From what I could pick up about the setting, Earth itself is so desperate for sources of energy that they’ll consider anything – even tapping into hell itself – to get power.

      Doom Guy is our sane man who’s upholding the “Nothing good can come of this” position (by shooting everything that came out of hell and breaking everything that enables them to), while Hayden is the “greater good”-obsessed zealot. He doesn’t care if it cost the lives of this base, it was just a regrettable unforseeable price that had to be paid in order to get the Argent Energy Earth needs.

      1. Syal says:

        Agreed. I didn’t get too far in (above comments have been spoilers), but I never got a particularly nuclear spin on the power, it’s just power.

        Not all that far off from Sentient, where they’re trying to harness energy by literally flying too close to the sun.

  13. wswordsmen says:

    All these comments and no one has brought up that the theme most “themeless” shooters has is empowering wish-fulfillment? All shooters are about how if you are good enough all the problems can be dealt with the tools you have available and your own hard work.

    Gameplay has a lot to do with theme in games and ignoring it is insulting the medium.

    1. Basic Themes says:

      100%.

      Games like Deus Ex Mankind Divided run into the issue of Empowerment of the player destroying the idea that The Player is a part of an oppressed underclass.

      It’s the X-Men problem.

      But, critics can’t even do the basic literature analysis. I’d hate to see them talk about a truly complex piece of literature. They isolate the story, misinterperet it, and crow about it. Let alone discussing the idea of what the gameplay says about the world.

    2. Higher_Peanut says:

      Telling a story that isn’t about empowerment when you have to include mechanics is extremely difficult. Very few people enjoy the fight you’re forced to lose or being undone in a cutscene but moments of powerlessness or loss of control are hard to include otherwise. It would be great to get games to attempt to reconcile gameplay and story together in satisfying ways but I feel that’s too much to ask for most. For every award winning masterpiece we’re going to get a bunch of popcorn games where it’s best to not consider the player’s actions too deeply outside of the presented story. It’s like doing a deep analysis of a C or B grade action flick. You certainly can explore what they did and how they used the medium, but at the end of the day they weren’t aiming that high in the first place.

      1. Asdasd says:

        Agreed. As Shamus points out, most games don’t incorporate theme intentionally, and if they do, they wrap it all up in the cutscenes and dialogue. Though there are games which attempt to explore their themes through their moment to moment gameplay – I liked what Brothers did for example – it would be tedious to insist that lens be applied to every game without considering whether it even passed the bar of authorial intent.

        1. Sleeping Dragon says:

          In this case I’m going to argue that maybe some types of games/gameplay are not good vessels for certain stories, unless you have the chops to do some kind of subversion.

      2. zackoid says:

        If you manage to tightly integrate the game mechanics with a (good) story, you’ve created a masterpiece. There aren’t a ton of those, but Papers, Please is for sure one. Not coincidentally, it’s not exactly an empowerment fantasy.

      3. beleester says:

        Non-empowering stuff would probably be stealth or horror games – Outlast or Amnesia being the clearest examples.

        Some stealth games do feel empowering – you can see the enemy before they see you, move unseen, and take them down with superior skill and tactics – but even then, it’s a different sort of empowerment from beating the enemy in a straight fight, and supports different themes.

        EDIT: Also note that not every game where you can kill your enemies is a wish-fulfillment power fantasy! I would not consider The Last of Us to be power fantasy, even though Joel racks up the body-count of a small war by the end of it.

    3. Olivier FAURE says:

      Yeah.

      A better gameplay for the “rising up against capitalism” theme would be the Oddworld games (at least the first two), where the gameplay puts a lot of emphasis on the fact that the guards have guns, and you don’t.

      So you defeat capitalism, not by shooting their guards (though you end up killing a lot of guards too) but by subverting them, liberating their workforce and sabotaging their machines.

  14. One of the things that I like about Dragon Age: Inquisition is that it actually does have a theme, albeit the game is so awkwardly put together in quite a few places that you’d have trouble sussing it out, but it’s actually consistent, go figure. The theme is: “How would you act when your world has been blown up?”

    The major characters, including the villain, all have had or do have huge, life-wrenching experiences and deal with the aftermath, and their good or bad choices regarding the world blowing up is what drives the plot.

    It’s not a super-deep theme, but it is consistent across all of the characters, and a very broad range of possible scenarios are on display, from Josephine almost getting assassinated because she tried to restore her families’ fortunes, to Iron Bull either seeing his team killed or losing his people, to Solas who turns out to be an ancient demi-god who blew up his world on purpose, didn’t like the result, and now plans to blow it up AGAIN. Even Corypheus, the big bad, is doing what he’s doing because he entered the Fade, found the “throne of the gods”, and it was empty, so he’s decided to replace the gods with himself.

  15. Smith says:

    James Cameron’s Avatar had a theme that was blunt to the point of being vaguely insulting.

    Which makes it all the ironic when people completely missed some of the themes. For example, the claim that Jake managed to save the day just because he was human (and, symbolicially, a white guy who was better than the Na’vi), when he actually saves the day because he manages to combine his human and Big Blue Kitty sides into something better than both.

    …There’s probably something in the Hero’s Journey about this.

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