Many hours into the ambitious story of Grand Theft Auto V, Rockstar Games’ technically proficient but narratively unfulfilling tripartite-protagonist blockbuster from 2013, it hit me: I missed Claude, the totally unambitious avatar from GTA III.
Claude took the strong, silent type to the extreme: He wasn’t just taciturn, but completely incapable of communicating. He was a skin with no substance, an empty vessel for the player to possess and a foil for the outsize non-playable characters that composed the rest of the cast. It wasn’t until two sequels later, when Claude had a cameo in GTA: San Andreas, that we even knew he had a name.
As the audience matures, more games embrace the opportunity to portray “complicated” characters, some of whom are memorable and some of whom merely smolder with generic rage, but all of whom have preprogrammed minds of their own. With a lighter touch than GTA’s, this approach can work well. And yet, because games offer the user an agency that other media don’t, developers face a choice: Make protagonists as malleable as Mass Effect’s Commander Shepard, or risk producing discordant moments, times when our wishes conflict with those of our onscreen avatars.1 We don’t have to approve of all of our avatar’s choices, but we do have to condone them if we want to unlock the next level.
In recent GTA installments, for instance, the player’s actions often undermine the plot’s attempts to convey psychological conflict. Characters lurch between expressing remorse for past atrocities and, once you regain control, committing new ones without qualms.
But gaming’s most recognizable characters have also been some of its most loosely drawn — partly because they’ve been around since before the technology could convey much complexity, but also because blank slates can become iconic when the gameplay is great and the surrounding cast is strong. It’s almost unnerving, now, to return to Hyrule or the Mushroom Kingdom and find that the leads still aren’t speaking, but if Link could talk, what would he say? Is there some depth to his desire to save Zelda that can’t be conveyed with his face? What if we didn’t care for his politics?
In response to questions about Claude in a 2011 GTA III Q&A, a Rockstar rep explained that the studio decided on a nonspeaking player-character “mostly because we had so many other problems to solve and this did not seem like a major issue.” It wasn’t one. As the rep noted, “It may now seem obvious that people should all talk in games, but this was not necessarily the case in 2001.”
It’s not necessarily the case in 2014, either, especially in the lower-risk, higher-experimentation realm of indie downloadable games. Earlier this month, The Swapper and Hotline Miami, two PC successes, received PlayStation 4 ports. The Swapper, which is making its console debut on PS4, PS3, and Vita (with a Wii U version still to come), belongs to the burgeoning group of indie side-scrollers built around distinctive art design and one innovative core mechanic. By putting their stamps on a familiar and remarkably robust form, these games make for easy elevator pitches. Start with “side-scrolling platformer,” a phrase everyone understands, and tack on additional descriptors: “with hand-painted backgrounds and the ability to manipulate time”; “with a retro, pixelated look and a 2-D character in a 3-D world”; “with grayscale graphics and a world seen only in silhouette.” Most of these titles tend to cluster around a five-hour average completion time, which seems like the sweet spot — any longer and the player starts to wish the world were bigger or more varied than the budget allows.
The Swapper has a visual hallmark (digitized clay) and a core mechanic tied to the titular device, a blunderbuss-looking creation that can spawn up to four copies of the character at one time, all of whom also wield Swappers. Once placed in any open spot on the screen, the clones’ actions correspond to the original avatar’s, unless impeded by the environment. They’re the perfect Simon Says players, so committed to mimicking your moves that they’ll follow your directions to the death.
As its name implies, the Swapper’s secondary function allows the player to take possession of any of the clones, transferring consciousness and control from body to body in order to stand on switches and climb, cross, or descend through open air (or vacuum, since most of the action takes place on a derelict space station) to access otherwise inaccessible areas. As the game goes on, new wrinkles make the puzzles progressively more challenging: More clones, and more “moves,” are required to complete them; colored lights prevent you from creating or swapping to clones in certain sections; and gravitational fields force both you and the clones to flip from the floor to the ceiling.
The Swapper barely bothers with setup or backstory, asking the player to pick up plot points through environmental cues, sporadic cinematics, and text logs. Its story shares (or borrows) some elements of the Star Trek: TOS/TNG episodes “The Devil in the Dark” and “Home Soil”: The crew of an isolated installation encounters an inorganic life-form, fails to understand the nature of its discovery, and does something the living rock or crystal perceives as a threat, causing the creature to lash out in kind. The player wanders into the resulting mess and blunders forward, hoping simply to survive.
In this case, the creatures are the Watchers, a race of telepathic space-boulders who loom in the background of the largely abandoned station and communicate their Cartesian confusion via intertitle as the player passes by. Their hive mind inspires the Swapper device, which makes body-switching possible but also raises ethical concerns among the crew when they realize they can’t distinguish between the creators and the clones.
None of these themes are strictly original, least of all the ongoing, boilerplate debate between two survivors about consciousness and the nature of the human soul. But in video games, where the bar for story has historically been set low, tackling a subject that philosophers and scientists have spent centuries pondering still feels ambitious, and the interactivity drives the dualism home in a way that an introductory college course couldn’t. When we venture into virtual worlds, we expect to occupy only one clump of polygons, so when you swap to a clone and leave the body you began the game in behind, you feel some existential unease.
After dozens of swaps, that feeling fades, but the low-level guilt that comes from killing clones doesn’t. The Swapper’s depiction of death is gruesome and sad: A clone who falls too far crumples with an audible breaking of bones, followed by the haunting hiss of a depressurized space suit. You can’t help but hope that the body — which was yours to control until seconds before impact — wasn’t aware of its impending demise. This fragility forces a much closer connection than you feel in games that give you the keys to a body-armored bullet sponge.
Although the developers’ comments don’t suggest they meant to make their game a meditation on the medium, it works as one. The controller is the closest we can come to a Swapper, a device that transfers our consciousness into a running, jumping virtual vessel while our physical body, save for a few fingers, remains motionless and (let’s face it) slack-jawed a few feet away. Nameless, voiceless, and enclosed within a unisex spacesuit, with few clues about his or her identity offered until late in the game, The Swapper’s protagonist is 100 percent receptacle for the player’s personality. The avatar’s obedience forces you, the puppet master, to confront your complicity in creating those clones, which sets up an agonizing conclusion. None of this would work as well with a conflicted hero or a wisecracking space pirate/Star-Lord onscreen.
The central opponent in The Swapper is the environment, and its resistance is purely passive: I’m here. Bet you can’t get by me. Frequently, though, the Metroid-inspired atmosphere of exploration gives way to a series of puzzle rooms. These puzzles produce the desired Portal-esque eureka moments and behavior-reinforcing dopamine bursts, but in these closer quarters, The Swapper’s controls suffer somewhat from the transition from computer to console, reminding you how much easier precise movements and clone placement would be if you could point at a pixel and click. Stuck on one of The Swapper’s peskiest puzzles, my girlfriend committed it to memory, and then to the notepad below. Once we had the piece of paper, we hardly needed the game: We “played” it on the PATH train, and rehearsing solutions was roughly as satisfying as the real thing. But this was how a Watcher would play. Watching works for other media, but we pick up the controller because we crave an active, tactile role.
Hotline Miami, which was previously available on PS3 and Vita (and whose sequel is scheduled for release later this year), is far too kinetic to be contained on a page. Set in Miami in 1989, Hotline is a surreal trip through a mob underworld of which you’re the most lethal member. Like The Swapper, its story asks you to hurtle forward without knowing how your character came to be a killer. “And who do we have here?” asks a figure in a horse-head mask, seconds after the game begins. “Oh, you don’t know who you are … ? Maybe we should leave it that way?”
Each level begins with a phone call that instructs you to go to an address and kill everyone you find there. (Yes, the dog dies.) The title’s top-down stages, which are organized into chapters, consists of a series of small rooms, but unlike The Swapper’s, these rooms don’t feel restrictive. This is a game about mastery of movement, and it’s uncut arcade goodness when you get into a groove. Hotline will kill you hundreds of times, but each time you’ll know where your run went wrong, and you’ll start your next life with the goal to do something differently.2 Defeat rarely feels frustrating, except when the controls occasionally get in the way. Fortunately, deaths don’t subject the player to loading screens, let alone a lot of backtracking. There’s just a split second of screen-fade, and you’re back in bloody business.
When Edge of Tomorrow reviewers wrote that the film felt like a video game, this is what they meant. Limbo’s developers dubbed it “trial and death.”
Hotline’s combat isn’t truly a fair fight, in that you can see into all the rooms around you while your enemies are limited by sight lines. But because your avatar is no more robust than the baddies, you’re always an unvigilant moment away from restarting the room. There’s enough variability in the AI’s patterns that each instance feels fresh, allowing for some planning but not complete predictability. Sometimes, when the plan has failed a few (dozen) times in a row, you’ll cut loose and try to sprint through the level, dispensing death without creeping around corners and making surgical strikes. Occasionally, the aggressive, impatient approach works, which feels unearned but exhilarating.
Hotline Miami’s soundtrack is central to the experience, both evocative of the era and so propulsive that you’ll feel like you’re wasting its power when you listen to it during your daily routine. When the music slows between action sequences, the game gives you time to consider the crimes you’ve committed. Again, an unnamed (and mostly masked) avatar leaves us without our own mask to hide behind. “Do you really want me to reveal who you are?” the horse-head man asks. “Knowing oneself means acknowledging one’s actions.”
Still, it’s easy to make too much of Hotline Miami’s ultra-violence, which doesn’t glorify killing so much as turn it into tag, where the goal is to make this pixel touch that one. Hotline’s henchmen are low-res subroutines that ceaselessly patrol their apartments, heavy weapons in hand. Seen from above, they’re nothing more than moles we want to whack in order to access the next room. As Forbes’s Erik Kain has argued, violence in video games is often just “part of an elaborate, moving puzzle.” Maybe it says something that the puzzles are superficially blood-soaked, but so what if we do want to put on an animal mask and cede some control to our primal sides, if only 16-bit enemies are harmed? If The Swapper appeals to the superego, Hotline Miami appeals to the id. And because the protagonist is your proxy, games have to offer something to satisfy both.