In last week's podcast, Jorge and I tried to wrap our minds around examples of "B," kitsch, and camp games. It started me thinking about games that, while not necessarily "bad," try to do some interesting things and wind up coming up short. It seems that the middle ground between Broken Pixels and GOTY is a sparsely populated one, so I wanted to elaborate on one of my favorite "splendid failures:" Geist.
Three big concepts that Geist swung at...and missed:
1. The Story
The Swing: The game's silent protagonist, research scientist John Raimi, suddenly becomes embroiled in a sinister plot in which secret scientific experiments are being used to unleash demonic beasts from another dimension into our world. Raimi battles his way through extra-governmental troops as well as creatures of the occult. It is refreshing spin on the traditional "space marine in an alien universe" story.
The Miss: Unfortunately, Gordon Freeman robbed the game of some of its novelty in 1998. And again in 2004.
2. The Possession System
The Swing: After an unfortunate run in with the game's mad scientist/resident occultist, Raimi becomes separated from his body, turned into an ethereal being invisible to the naked eye, and gains the power of ghostly possession. This ability opens up intriguing and novel gameplay scenarios: Raimi can posses people to glean information from their memories or employ their skills. Animals can also be possessed and utilized in solving puzzles or navigating environments closed off to humans. Possession of inanimate objects is also possible, and over the course of the game Raimi possesses everything from an shower heads to turrets.
The Miss: The possession mechanic becomes its own undoing by fostering the player's imagination. While the player seems to be in command of a possessed person or object, the effective control that can be exerted over the host is extremely limited. When possessed, most humans have similar skills and identical controls. The prospect of possessing a rat is fun initially, but the sheen wears off when it becomes apparent its main powers are to run and squeak; no biting or clawing for these gentle rodents. Because of technical limitations, Raimi can only possess certain objects in any given room. While it is neat to take control of an old TV and blow it up, the game's narrative suggests that Raimi could just as easily take control of the coffee table holding it up. Unfortunately, only certain items seem susceptible to Raimi's ethereal powers. It was a noble attempt, but the hardware running the game (and the GameCube was no slouch!) simply did not have the power to convey the interactivity necessary to back up the game's concept.
3. The Identity Crisis: Shooting or Sleuthing?
The Swing: The game alternates between standard first-person shooter gun battles and adventure sequences in which the player must determine how to use the environment to scare someone, thereby making them vulnerable to possession. The gun battles range from fighting human military forces to hellish monsters and include a variety of fps tropes like turret sequences, escort missions, and timed battles. In the possession sequences, the pace is slowed and the player must determine how best to terrorize potential hosts by utilizing objects in the environment.
The Miss: While finding objects with which to scare a person is fun, it soon becomes apparent that there is only one solution to each puzzle. As discussed in the aforementioned section, a very limited number of objects can be possessed. Even if it would make logical sense to scare a person by possessing some books and hurling a few at them, if the books are not the key to the puzzle, they are not interactive and the player is out of luck. While inventive, the limited puzzles are jarring since they exist in what seems to be a perfect environment for testing the ingenuity of the player. Instead of fostering creativity, many challenges degenerate into using the "examine" command on every object in a room until the glowing one appears.
The shooting, while serviceable, does not set the game apart from high budget smash hits like Half-life or Halo. Some wonky aiming, cheap AI, and questionable frame rates add frustration to mundane missions and inspires more longing for non-existent in-depth possession puzzles.
Despite all of its shortcomings, or more accurately because of them, I admire this game. The sci-fi story, possession mechanics, and gameplay variety all show that both N-Space and Nintendo were looking to put out a bold, inventive title. The game provides fun in the form of short bursts of ingenuity. There are some gruesome monsters, and playing poltergeist is entertaining.
The game fell victim to bad timing. It was just released before the developers could sort out the balance between adventure and gun play, before Nintendo could provide the audience necessary for a new intellectual property to succeed, and before consoles could make possible the kind of interactivity necessary to support the game's story.
With Geist, it is clear that the spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak.