Friday, September 25, 2009

Take a Break, Space Marine

He's too self-aware. Ever since man first gazed up at the stars, he’s been fascinated with space.  It is, as you may have heard, the Final Frontier.  Books, movies, and music have been dealing with the world beyond our planet for quite some time now.  Games are no different (see Spacewar!).  But there’s something unique to gaming that isn’t quite so pronounced in other media: the Space Marine.

According to Wikipedia, the Space Marine first cropped up in E.E. Smith’s Lensman series and received the moniker proper in Robert A. Heinlein’s 1939 story “Misfit.”  Some fifty years later, gaming would see one of its first in id’s Doom.  Of course, Doom’s protagonist wouldn’t be the last.

Have we reached a Space Marine Saturation Point in games?  Did said S.M.S.P. already arrive eight years ago

The nature of single-protagonist videogames dictates a certain type of superman.  A man (or woman, but probably a man) capable of bearing the weight of the universe – and the narrative – on his too-broad shoulders.  Hence the current Space Marine cliché: a brawny, monosyllabic skull-thumper defending Earth/Mankind/a proxy for Earth/truth, justice, and the American way from an invading evil.  He is revered, feared, and idolized.  He’s also getting stale.

Halo’s Master Chief is a prime example of the good and the bad for which the Marine has potential.  He’s the perfect empty vessel for the faux-interactivity of the big-budget videogame narrative.  The player has no control over the plot, only the blow-by-blow stories created each time M.C. headshots a Brute.  And the Chief doesn’t mind.  He’s silent, stoic.  His prestige and ability empowers the player, emboldens him against insurmountable odds.  A perfect science-fiction fantasy.

masterchief But the one-dimensionality of M.C. is also his greatest drawback.  The story of the franchise’s main trilogy wears its influences shamelessly: Heinlein, Card, Cameron.  This would be fine were there a character driving the action.  But the Chief’s personality makes no effort to be seen.  We him by his actions only: how many weapons he can carry, how well he can pilot a hoverbike, how high he can jump.  In fact, the height of the jump has become a hot topic in previews for Halo 3: ODST.  Can your ODST, supposedly less-powerful than the genetic masterpiece that is the M.C., jump as high?  Apparently not.  Is this not alarming?  (Not the jumping thing.)  Unable to distinguish them by their swear word of choice or signature swollen veins (a la Gears of War and the More is More school of game design), we’ve been reduced to telling Space Marines apart by their vertical leap. 

Can they not possess more engaging characteristics?  Not if you’re going by the Doom, Quake, Killzone, Timesplitters, etc. model.  These examples are notable mostly for the legs of their franchise.  But their Marines are separated only by palette swaps or the guns they carry.  It’s led us down a derivative rabbit hole (see Andrew and Rob’s recent discussion re: Section 8).  If we’re going to get some mileage out of this gaming trope, we’ll need to view him from another angle, control him a different way.

Check out my hot space armor Allow me to work Mass Effect into the conversation.  The player-created protagonist, Commander Shepard, manages to be a Space Marine while remaining highly malleable.  His ability is never in doubt.  In fact, it’s his exceptional leadership and combat prowess that’s warranted him special attention.  But the character doesn’t stop there.  The player actually exercises control over how Shepard interacts with other characters, and plot points hinge on the relationships formed by these conversations.  A character – his views, actions, and history – are built by the player as the narrative unfurls.  One does not simply steer a featureless Übermensch from plot point to plot point.  Furthermore, Shepard’s constant interaction with three-dimensional characters diminishes the stereotypical Space Marine aura.  It’s not one man versus the universe; he’s got a trusty crew.

There can only be so much water in this well.  With multiple sequels on the way for Mass Effect, the inevitable Dead Space sequel, Section 8, the recent drop of ODST and the forthcoming Halo: Reach (and I’m sure I’m missing others), we’re in for a Space Marine deluge.  And if ODST’s attempt to break free of the Chief is any indication, the traditional, over-powered Marine is wearing out his welcome.  I welcome any designer hell bent on giving me control of a magical wolf, an ambitious little prince, or some other as-of-yet undiscovered delightful protagonist.  Anything to give the Space Marine a break.  He’s tired.