Friday, February 4, 2011

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

Raven Software's Singularity is technically an original IP. But playing through the game, as I did this week, it's difficult to call it anything other than pastiche.

That doesn't mean I didn't enjoy it, of course. For a paint-by-numbers FPS, it was entertaining enough, with some nifty animations and satisfying, if unoriginal, action. It was quick and fun and utterly familiar, a Hershey's Kiss of a game.

What should be unique about Singularity is its core mechanic: manipulating time. The setup in brief: Your American soldier, abandoned in 2010 on a Russian island home to a secret experimental facility that went supernova back in the mid-50s, acquires a Time Manipulation Device (TMD), powered by unobtanium E99, a mysterious element found only on the island. With this Power Glove he can age or "revert" objects, people, and the requisite vestigial mutants inhabiting the facility. Fire at a soldier, for example, and he'll age to dust before your eyes.

Now you're playing with power, indeed.
The TMD is also handy for solving environmental puzzles, which are generally so simple and repetitive as to be laughable. Revert a collapsed crate to its unbroken state and use it to jump up to the ledge above you. Collapse the crate again, grab it using the TMD's gravity-manipulation power, and squeeze it through a small crevice so you can use it in the next room. Rinse and repeat.

The problem, as I'm sure every review has pointed out, is that the TMD only works on certain highlighted objects. That makes sense - you wouldn't want to fall through the floor every time you accidentally tapped the bumper - but it does lead to some incredibly constrained puzzle design. If I was stumped for more than a few seconds at any point during Singularity, I don't recall it. The level design is not so much bad as just remarkably uninspired. The ability to manipulate time should be a selling point, allowing the player a wealth of creative opportunities. Instead we get the same tired set of interactions over and over. So I suppose time is being manipulated, in the same way it was for Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.

Naturally, you'll do your share of time-traveling throughout the course of the B-movie story, and there are a few neat little setpieces along the way. Nothing that'll make your brain hurt, but some cool, if way too familiar, sci-fi flourishes.

That's the thing that defines Singularity: like Bill Murray's bedraggled weatherman, we can't help feeling like we've been here before. And with good reason: Singularity steals from other recent high-profile games with such brazenness and regularity that it's actually quite endearing. It's so obvious about its thievery that in a few instances, it even confused Mrs. JPG into thinking I was playing a different game.

There's the ghostly figures echoing through time, for example,


which are reminiscent of the "bleeding effect" between Desmond and Ezio in Assassin's Creed II. And even casual observers can see the similarities between "time rifts" in Singularity and the orange portals from a certain Valve blockbuster:


They even use light blue and orange as visual cues for reversion and aging on the targeting reticule. You know, like a certain Aperture Science Handheld Device?


Of course, there's the question of how much of the theft was intentional. I don't know a thing about Singularity's development cycle. It's possible none of these elements were purposefully nicked, but given the very obvious Borat reference found in a late level, I doubt the designers weren't aware of what they were doing. To quote my favorite composer, Igor Stravinsky, "Good composers borrow. Great composers steal."

I happen to like pastiche every so often. Maybe there's some part of me that craves the familiarity of the known quantity. There's something oddly comforting about Singularity in that way; you know it's retreading the trodden path, but it's nice to find yourself in familiar surroundings.

Below I've collected some of Singularity's more egregious and enjoyable thieveries. What else have I forgotten? Let me know in the comments.

Singularity                                                  BioShock                                           
Giant tape recorder audio logs                      Giant tape recorder audio logs
E99 Tech                                                         ADAM
Bio-Formulas                                                  Tonics
Augmenter                                                      Gatherer's Garden
Encourages scavenging                                  Encourages the crap out of scavenging

                                                                       Dead Space
Chrono-ping                                                  Holographic pathfinder line
Reverts                                                           Necromorphs
Giant monster boss fights                              Giant monster boss fights
TMD gravity manipulation                            Kinesis

                                                                       Halo
Phase Ticks                                                    Flood parasites

                                                                       Fallout 3
Seeker slo-mo animations                             VATS death animations
Hero Perks                                                      Perks
Alternate 1950s future tech dystopia             Better alt. 1950s future tech dystopia

                                                                        Half-Life 2
"Interactive cutscenes" w/ NPCs                   Better "interactive cutscenes" w/ NPCs
TMD gravity manipulation                            Gravity Gun
TMD gets supercharged at end                     Gravity Gun gets supercharged at end

4 comments:

  1. Singularity is one of the most linear games I've ever played. The chrono-footsteps that point you in the direction of your next objective are the most useless mechanic I can imagine, since I never once felt lost, sidetracked, confused, befuddled, or anything other than completely certain of the direction I should be heading at any given moment. It was like nothing so much as a haunted house ride—one of the ones where you strap in, sit back, and hang on 'til the end. I think I really could have shut my eyes and held down the trigger button if I'd been scared. Unfortunately, haunted houses with cars on tracks are not the kind I prefer (where I live now, we've got a haunted cornfield instead, which offers slightly more freedom of movement and pacing).

    There's a real conflict between Singularity the game—the bulk of which is a corridor shooter with mediocre-feeling weapons and a few tricks up its sleeve—and Singularity the story. The story is a campy, creepy work of genre fiction that draws equally on Cold War-era sci-fi tropes and modern twist-a-minute series like Lost to create something that is, if not exactly great, then definitely solid B-grade fun. The game is… well, a combination of the games that you identified, but one that somehow amounts to far less than the sum of its parts. Honestly, who thought it was a good idea to marry this inflexible gameplay and narrative structure to a story about time travel? It makes no thematic sense to me.

    The game itself is fun, as shooting galleries go. The setting is interesting, and I found myself exploring the few areas that exist outside of the critical path (diverticuli?) for the inevitable loot. The puzzles, as every single review points out, were fun the first time I encountered them. That they grow tired is a sin given the potential of the mechanics; what wasted potential!

    Most of the audio logs are dull and contribute little, and I often found myself tapping my foot impatiently as I waited around for them to finish. The lack of subtitles was a serious oversight. The most interesting aspect of the plot—the relationship between the two scientists who begin as colleagues but begin to suspect and fear each other—existed mostly in my imagination, since the game can only be bothered to draw it in the most cursory manner right at the end of the game. The most interesting part of the story as it actually exists in the game is probably the canon/stock ending, where you re-watch the opening of the game as it plays out with a single significant variable shifted in the timestream. This is the only point at which I felt like the game lived up to the potential of time travel stories, in which charactes can and should see the rules of reality rewritten around them (PKD again, natch).

    Overall, I have little to say about this game except as a product. That's damning, in a way—I aim to look deeper, but that's only possible when a game has depth. Singularity is a game that I enjoyed, but not enough to keep, as I do with single-player games that I truly love. Instead, I'll treat as a rental, trading it back on Goozex as soon as I can… but I'll never forget our time together. 10% of it, anyhow.

    ReplyDelete
  2. "where I live now, we've got a haunted cornfield instead, which offers slightly more freedom of movement and pacing"

    You know you've been thinking about games too much when you start saying stuff like that. :)

    "There's a real conflict between Singularity the game—the bulk of which is a corridor shooter with mediocre-feeling weapons and a few tricks up its sleeve—and Singularity the story."

    Agreed, and isn't that true for the bulk of FPS games? I mean, besides the Half-Life series, Far Cry 2, Deus Ex and a few other notables, isn't that nearly always the case? Even BioShock had its issues there. I wonder if that's just an inherent pitfall of the genre.

    Everything about Singularity screams "safe" to me, which, as you said, creates a tension between the subject matter and the mechanics.

    "The game is… well, a combination of the games that you identified, but one that somehow amounts to far less than the sum of its parts."

    Yeah, isn't it funny how there's this sort of reverse synergy going on? I don't think there's anything wrong with stealing from other games, as I said, but to not assemble those elements into a meaningful whole is a shame. Hence your point about seeing Singularity as a "product" rather than as an "experience." (I feel the same way.)

    "Most of the audio logs are dull and contribute little, and I often found myself tapping my foot impatiently as I waited around for them to finish."

    Wait, you didn't want to hear the 37th guy in a row talk about how they'd run out of supplies and he didn't know how long they'd last?

    "The most interesting part of the story as it actually exists in the game is probably the canon/stock ending, where you re-watch the opening of the game as it plays out with a single significant variable shifted in the timestream. This is the only point at which I felt like the game lived up to the potential of time travel stories, in which charactes can and should see the rules of reality rewritten around them."

    Well said, and totally agreed. Did you get all three endings? The one you identified is easily the best one; the others are cosmically dumb.

    Time-travel stories are difficult for even experienced writers. Not that I'm saying there wasn't talent at Raven, but like any game studio not named BioWare, writing probably wasn't their primary strength. Where I was hoping for more was really in the puzzles, since that's where game designers excel. P.B. Winterbottom did more interesting things with time puzzles than Singularity, which says a great deal about how invested in the time travel concept Raven was.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I did get all three endings, partly out of curiosity and partly because I'm getting addicted to those sweet sweet 'cheevos. Kill me now.

    I agree on all counts, except with your point about the conflict between gameplay and story being inherent (or inherently more serious than in other kinds of games). There's room to play with mechanics in even the most calcified genres, and developers can write any story they choose, if they have the guts and creativity. There are all sorts of interesting confluences still to be discovered between mechanics and stories—even between shooting mechanics and stories about tough guys. In this case, it seems like the guts and creativity were lacking.

    Anyhoo, I felt I had been a bit harsh in my initial comment, and I fleshed out my thoughts slightly at http://boomculture.blogspot.com/2011/02/unserious-game-singularity.html

    ReplyDelete
  4. Unfortunately for those at Raven, everything I've read about the game (including this article) screams: "wait to play". The only problem? New games I am far more excited to play are always coming out, meaning this game will keep getting shoved down my "to buy" list, let alone if it ever gets on my "to play" list.

    That said, if Raven lends a little time-travel to the next CoD (which they are rumored to be working on), that could be quite interesting. Black Ops has major flaws, but it was one of the more interesting campaigns in that franchise's history.

    ReplyDelete