Thoughts on the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex PS2 game

Major Kusanagi jumping in the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex PS2 game

Kusanagi being Kusanagi.

A new Ghost in the Shell game, the multiplayer shooter First Assault, is due in the near future. And of course we’re all awaiting the new movie, with Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi, (justifiable whitewashing accusations aside, I have to say Johansson’s perfectly cast for the role). Perhaps it was all this that inspired me to give the old Stand Alone Complex PS2 game a go, having not done so at the time of its release. Here follow some thoughts on that game.

The GITS SAC PS2 game alternates between two playable characters, Motoko Kusanagi and her second-in-command Batou – the obvious choices. While their missions are separate, the two are both working to solve one case; a typically GITS story, packed with complex corporate-espionage/terrorism/cybercrime. These characters are in communication with the others whom we know and love, and the Tachikoma tanks make appearances (indeed the Tachikoma is a third playable character, albeit for one brief mission alone). The GITS feel is captured superbly through the cast and the tale, with the use of voice actors from the TV series adding to the effect considerably; and while it can be hard to follow the complicated story initially, let’s not pretend that isn’t something to which GITS has often shown a slight tendency.

The graphics are – well, the graphics must have looked great back in 2004, so, I’m guessing that gives an idea of how they look today. But this shooter’s not overly old-fashioned in terms of gameplay; it doesn’t have the highest sophistication in terms of targeting etc, and some aspects of the controls are perhaps a little awkward from time to time, but overall it does much of what more modern shooters can do. On normal mode, I wouldn’t have minded a little more difficulty – at any rate, highly advanced players should certainly select hard mode. I’d also have liked more boss fights, or at the least more diverse enemies, as taking out increasing numbers of the same-old low-level types can become repetitive. That said, the makers do find other ways to introduce variety. The use of two main characters is important to the gameplay even more than to the story, each favouring a different approach due to their different areas of ability; I won’t go so far as to say that Kusanagi’s missions require stealth play, but her low strength/high agility compared to Batou rewards more emphasis on strategy. Though I did tire of the fiddly jumping challenges which Kusanagi’s missions involve, as it took me quite a while to acquire the knack for these. The option of ghost-hacking enemies also lends a little diversity (but in later missions I personally found hacking tediously tricky).

Overall I’d recommend this game to the GITS fans out there, the ones who didn’t play it at the time – I doubt the game’ll mean much to non-GITS fans, to be reasonable. But to those who are fans of GITS already – in particular the TV show GITS SAC – this work’s an essential addition to the universe. The characters and story do convey the GITS atmosphere accurately, and furthermore the game’s a fun little shooter (if not a wholly flawless one). It’s pretty cheap these days, given its age, so grab a disk on Amazon, or get the game on Steam; what have you got to lose?

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Haven’t read Alfred Bester’s 50s sci-fi? Then read it – here’s why

Alfred Bester The Stars My Destination Galaxy

The Stars My Destination was serialised in Galaxy.

Alfred Bester: less and less of a household name. Acclaimed though his two first sci-fi novels were in their time, I seldom meet people my age who’ve heard of these, or who’ve read them, at any rate. Yet the novels – The Demolished Man, published 1953, and The Stars My Destination, published in 1956 – are not only key developments in science fiction’s history, but are compelling works of literature which have retained at least some of their relevance. (Bester carried on numerous careers besides that of a novelist – including comic-book writer, radio scriptwriter, and journalist – and after this pair he published no more sci-fi novels for almost two decades, before producing some not-so-influential works starting in the middle seventies.)

The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination each feature their own one main radical advance in human ability; in each case an advance which is sci-fi ostensibly, though it in fact borders on fantasy. In The Demolished Man this is telepathy, while in The Stars My Destination it’s teleportation through mental effort alone (both developments which have had extensive impacts on their respective societies). The Demolished Man shows us the efforts of a wealthy antihero, owner of a successful company, to succeed at murder in a world in which his thoughts are read frequently. The Stars My Destination has an antihero too, an initially uncivilized one; he’s driven by a long search for revenge to increase his knowledge, rising above the quest which impelled him in the first place. As he states: ‘I went beyond simplicity. I turned myself into a thinking creature.’

Though Bester’s novels predate the New Wave and cyberpunk movements within science fiction, they contain elements of both of these. These aspects are particularly apparent in The Stars My Destination (alternative title Tiger! Tiger!, incidentally). Indeed, I’d consider this second work to be in most respects the more developed of the two. New Wave sci-fi left behind the pulp origins of the genre, being characterised by its literary and frequently experimental quality and often also by its political sensibility. The Stars My Destination’s visual experiments with typed text to depict synesthesia, bordering on shape poetry, are especially noteworthy; so also is its social point, underlined by its conclusion, with the protagonist putting power in the hands of the people in a most literal sense. And in terms of Bester’s influence on the cyberpunk movement, Neil Gaiman observes in his introduction that The Stars My Destination ‘contains such cheerfully protocyber elements as multinational corporate intrigue; a dangerous, mysterious, hyperscientific McGuffin (PyrE); an amoral hero…’

Of course, the novels have dated to some degree. The New Wave and classic-cyberpunk elements which made these books so ahead of their time have themselves dated by the present day, and this is perhaps applicable to cyberpunk particularly. And progressive as the novels are in some of their political attitudes, they remain rather stuck in the 50s in other senses; I refer especially to the female characters, who at least in The Demolished Man suffer from a certain two-dimensionaity and ineffectuality. This work’s three main women are ‘the virgin seductress’ Duffy Wyg&, who follows after antihero Reich with such invitiations as ‘Punch me around a little’; Police Prefect Powell’s companion Mary Noyes, who follows after him professing her adoration and pleading for marriage; and lastly Barbara D’Courtney, whose love-at-first-sight relationship with Powell strains the credulity, in view of her childlike half-catatonic condition at the time (she calls Powell ‘Dada’ mostly).

But although in some aspects these books show their age, they remain worth reading – for their historical significance of course, but not for that alone. In particular, the antiheroes at these works’ centres still fascinate; they are the type of characters who fascinate eternally. To quote Gaiman on The Stars My Destination once more: ‘Gully Foyle, the obsessive protagonist who dominates every page of the tale, has not dated a moment.’ And I’d recommend The Stars My Destination, at any rate – to sci-fi fans, and more than that to readers out there generally.

Five great spec-fic games

Uh huh, this list has Metal Gear Solid in it.

I’ve sometimes mentioned the snobbishness occasionally encountered by science fiction and fantasy. Yet that does decrease continually, at least in terms of spec-fic works in media with widely-accepted artistic validity. Games, however, are unfortunately far too often excluded from these favoured media. Entertainment’s of course every game’s main purpose, just as it’s debatably most works’ main purpose; this has no bearing on the medium’s ability to demonstrate artistic qualities, among them innovation and intelligence.

So, getting straight to it, some great games in the sci-fi and/or fantasy genre. Games which, besides being a lot of fun to play, are first-class works of speculative fiction too.

5: Final Fantasy VII universe.

Let’s start by getting Final Fantasy VII out of the way. This much-loved 90s RPG has become legendary – it most often appears at the top of lists like this one. And given its great influence historically, and the continued appeal of some aspects today, it does merit some mention in this article. That said, as a younger gamer for whom it lacks nostalgia value, I have to say a few aspects of it have aged awfully.

Final Fantasy VII has always been acclaimed for the vast complexity of its world and story. While by present standards its format’s a limited one, it still retains some of that sense of epic size. A setting of corrupt corporations, eco-terrorism, different peoples, varied places. An emotional tale which includes dramatic staples like fallen heroes and tragic heroines, touches on some modern themes such as mental health and environmentalism, and throws some mindbending twists in there too. But it becomes a bit of a mess, this sprawling story, admittedly. Plus the graphics can look unbelievably dated to us spoilt players of the present day. The first part of the game, in dark urban Midgar, I really did enjoy. But, after departing the city, well, there’s only so many blocky representations of forests I can cheerfully take.

Later spin-offs – Dirge of Cerberus, and Crisis Core – got me into the franchise. And I’d recommend these to the others who struggle with older technology. They allow this beloved universe to realise its full potential with their less old-fashioned graphics etc. Hopefully something the upcoming FF VII remake, to which I look forward, will also do.

4: Beyond: Two Souls.

This interactive drama’s as much movie as game in a sense. I refer to its focus less on action than on narrative, as well as to its extensive use of motion-capture. (Beyond: Two Souls shares a designer, and similarities in format, with the also-excellent – but not spec-fic – Heavy Rain.) Initially, Beyond: Two Souls‘ story can sound a bit on the naff side. To summarise, it consists of non-chronological scenes from the life of a girl psychically linked to a ghostly entity. The aforementioned danger of naffness aside, the concept develops in interesting ways, a tale told and acted thoughtfully.

Some missions are more engrossing that others are; personally I preferred the special-ops stuff, shutting down condensers, to that lengthy sojourn among the Navajo. And choices lack considerable impact until towards the end of the game; this is emphasised by the to-ing and fro-ing in time, letting us know our future in advance. But, overall, Beyond: Two Souls is a pretty fine piece and a pretty unusual piece. (There’s also an extra element added by a two-player feature, which lets the second player take the part of the heroine’s entity.)

3: Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

Cyberpunk, cyberpunk, cyberpunk. Did I mention the cyberpunkness of this one? Seriously, if Gibson novels were games, Deus Ex is what they’d be. Corporate intrigue, high-tech and low-life, neon-lit cities filled with hookers and hackers and cybernetically-enhanced people. And it’s not only Deus Ex‘s world-building which is worthy of praise, but also its innovative playing style. It mixes the RPG with the stealth-shooter, combining open-world sections with more linear stealth missions, and it is to a fair extent interactive. That free chip upgrade that seems too good to be true? Spoiler: it is, take it from me.

Granted, the main corporate-espionage storyline perhaps isn’t fully compelling until it comes together eventually (which, come to think of it, is a characteristic of a lot of Gibson novels too…). I’d also have liked to see more of my weighty final choice’s consequences. But these are quibbles beside Deus Ex: Human Revolution‘s impressively-realised vision of a future impacted by advanced technology, and beside the originality of its gameplay style. I tried the previous Deus Ex games after this one; it left me keen for more. Sadly, I thought these two early 2000s games pretty primitive even for their time. Guess I’m going to have to wait for the next one, Mankind Divided, which looks from its trailers as if it won’t disappoint me.

2: The Last of Us.

As I start to describe The Last of Us – as a zombie-apocalypse tale, as a man’s reluctant redemption through a child’s love – I realise that this superb game doesn’t even have a particularly unique premise. What it has is storytelling and character development of a sophistication to which most works merely aspire. Though it might not have a wholly original premise, its detailed characters are indeed unique, depicted with real emotional intelligence. We become invested in the story, and are left truly torn as it concludes; we’ve longed for Joel to feel an affection for his charge, but when he does so he vindicates his earlier survival-conscious self as he risks far more than his own life.

In line with the story, the gameplay’s not showy, but is simply of solid quality. And the balance between stealth and shooter, with the scavenging for ammo etc, is so managed as to genuinely give a sense of some guy trying to stay alive in this harsh post-apocalyptic place. (Sometimes failing to stay alive. Prepare to see clickers tear your throat out, a lot.) The Last of Us stands as an example of what attention to narrative’s importance, and to craft, can achieve. It’s a game which affects you as a good novel can do; it’s what such a lot of games ought to be, what so few of them are.

(I’ve decided not to discuss both The Last of Us and The Walking Dead by Telltale Games in this article, given their – coincidental? – similarities of content and themes. But I’ll take this opportunity to recommend The Walking Dead series too.)

1: Metal Gear Solid franchise.

Metal Gear Solid, from Japanese designer Hideo Kojima, can occasionally have more violence – and can often have more blatant ‘look, boobs!’ sort of stuff – than some Western games would dare to include. MGS also has far more erudite discussion, far more politics and philosophy, than frankly any Western game would dare to include. Anime lovers, perhaps, will have some sense of the sort of mix I’m attempting to describe here. (I should stipulate that I’m talking MGS 1-4 in this article; MGS 5 does remain something I’m meaning to play, but I always preferred Solid Snake’s stories to the Big Boss prequels honestly, besides this latest instalment looking a tad Assassin’s Creed for my personal taste.)

MGS is set in a sci-fi alternate history, with mecha and cyborg ninjas and massive organisations which work behind the scenes, and tells a staggeringly complicated political story encompassing about half a century. (Some would call it over-complicated; a complaint that’s not completely unjustifiable, at least in terms of MGS 2‘s exceedingly lengthy sections of expository dialogue.) The simultaneous societal influences both on individuals and of individuals are one major theme throughout the franchise – there’s much mention of memes, in the word’s older sense. There’s also a lot of meditation on war; a subject games seldom address seriously, central as war is to many.

MGS shows continual self-awareness, with a whole lot of breaking-the-fourth-wall in there. So in MGS 2 the Colonel messes with the minds of both the player and the protagonist; I have a friend who actually fell for his instruction to turn off the console, no joke. In the (pretty cool) hack-and-slash spin-off Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, the doctor on your team’s keen to chat with you about the psychological reasons for these hack-and-slash games’ popularity. MGS is also bursting with idiosyncrasies and Easter eggs and humour – from ketchup-based escapes, to those cardboard boxes.

Of course, I can’t close without some discussion of MGS‘s gameplay. It’s been claimed, with slight exaggeration, that this franchise invented the stealth game; certainly it popularised the genre almost singlehandedly. Its self-described tactical-espionage-action style – focused on avoiding rather than killing foes, on taking down even bosses through not strength but strategy – was a new idea at the time. MGS games are still excellent examples of this now-extensive genre. Unavoidably, the earlier games have dated to some degree (particularly the first one, though I’d still consider it a fine game, and this comes from somebody whose minimal patience with 90s technology you might have noticed already). But MGS 4, my favourite one, needs no allowances made for its age, despite even this one having come out half a decade ago. To those out there who haven’t got into the MSG games already, let me recommend this franchise wholeheartedly.

M. John Harrison and his K-tract trilogy: space opera meets cyberpunk meets almost everything else

M. John Harrison, though not a particularly well-known author in any sense, is perhaps best known as a writer not of sci-fi but of fantasy. Throughout the first part of his career he was preoccupied principally with the Viriconium sequence, which consists of three novels and numerous short stories. While Harrison’s Viriconium works aren’t a personal favourite of mine, I’m interested to observe the shift between the first novel and the last one. The author moved from The Pastel City, slightly Arthurian large-scale epic fantasy, to the final novel In Viriconium, a work which centres on the riff-raff of one area. This writer’s skill with words is evident throughout the series too, especially his penchant for that aptitude that makes you feel simultaneously like you’ve never seen it that way and like you’ve always seen it that way. (Have you ‘Watched two clouds close a slot of blue in the winter sky, so that you felt as if something had been taken from you forever?’) From this Harrison went on to novels such as Course of the Heart and the excellent Signs of Life, novels best described as magic-realist in style. His recent Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, published 2002-2012, is Harrison’s major foray into sci-fi to date (his only one since an early – 1974 – effort, The Centauri Device, loved by some critics and loathed by himself, still to be read by me).

Light, Nova Swing, and Empty Space make up the K-tract trilogy. The three are linked by some characters’ recurrence, and by the sense of transcendence with which each book closes, and by the constant overshadowing presence of the Kefahuchi Tract singularity. But all three also stand alone, though the last to a slightly lesser degree than the other two. The first is a space opera told from the perspectives of a (psychopathic) researcher somewhere around the present day, a far-future space captain who forms part of her spacecraft, and an ex-space-explorer who’s addicted to virtual reality. The second – perhaps my favourite – is a noirish crime story set in a weird town where scientific laws don’t apply thanks to the K-tract singularity (Nova Swing has a more-than-passing resemblance , as it recognises with an opening quote, to Roadside Picnic by the Strugatskys). The last book, Empty Space, blends space opera and detective tale and more, and creates a fitting conclusion to the trilogy.

This genre-bending is one of the joys of Harrison’s K-tract sequence. I’ve used the term space opera a couple of times; the space-ships / aliens / intergalactic warfare are there in plenty. Yet these works focus less on epic conflict than on low-life, and are in fact more cyberpunk in their sensibility. The series is sci-fi; but soft sci-fi, and its loose semi-metaphorical explanations of phenomena can mean it borders on fantasy. Consider the ubiquitous algorithms known as shadow operators, who can run on human bodies ‘as shadow boys full of crime and beauty and inexplicable motives’, but who tend to cling in corners ‘in loose temporary skeins like cobwebs in the folds of an old curtain… biting their thin, bony knuckles.’ In its veering between sci-fi and fantasy, and in its often-dreamlike quality, the series can be described as slipstream at times. This dreamlike quality occurs even in the present-era parts of the narrative, and it is contributed to by the characters’ tendency to behave obliquely – to an extent everybody resembles the minor cast-member Sprake, his motivations ‘a dialogue so internalised it could only be inferred, partially and undependably, from the sum of his actions.’

Whilst it’s difficult to further convey, at least without giving too much away, this is a first-class sci-fi trilogy. And, more, it’s just a first-class trilogy; it’s one of the most memorable works I’ve happened upon in the last year or so. Aside from his imaginative scope, Harrison possesses a technical ability that most writers in any genre can only envy. This is evident in his plotting and pacing, in his movingly convincing characterisation, in the minutiae of each sentence in every story. To use the words of that other superb speculative fiction writer China Miéville: ‘M. John Harrison proves what only those crippled by respectability still doubt – that science fiction can be literature of the very greatest kind.’