We all like game characters we can relate to, especially protagonists. We want to be able to take control of a like-minded individual and guide them through obstacles, whatever they may be, to ultimately see them succeed. It’s not all fun and games, though. Witnessing a character we’ve grown to like as he or she struggles is never enjoyable. However, it makes overcoming that inevitable challenge that much more rewarding, especially if it happens under your control.
Having said that, sometimes you don’t want that kind of character. Sometimes you just want to control a character that is better than yourself. One that’s stronger, faster, more intelligent, more able and faced with challenges that far exceed those we encounter in our everyday lives. I love science fiction, I love cyberpunk and I love games that toss you into a world full of cybernetic enhancements that can impact the gameplay experience and make you feel just a little more powerful. Sometimes it’s just fun to be the hero.
A while back, I wrote about crafting the perfect superhero video game. In short, it’s all about providing the player with the right amount of abilities, control and openness that allows them to feel like that hero. But it’s not limited to just masked vigilantes. Just take an original character and give him cybernetic legs. Now he can run faster, jump higher and punt someone over a tall building. Cybernetic eyes give him the ability to see through walls and possibly detect if someone is lying or not. There are many possibilities here, both in terms of pure gameplay and also as a method of character study.
Creating a character that is all-powerful simply because he’s all-powerful is a bit of a cop-out; it becomes harder to attach to “super tough person who can perform spectacular feats just because he has large muscles.” Give that person cybernetics and explain their abilities through the story, even if those explanations are a bit silly? It’s a much easier pill to swallow. It may not always make sense, and not every use of cybernetics in video games will be a winner, but it’s a cool, (usually) acceptable way to create a seemingly unstoppable character without compromising actual character development.
In terms of gameplay, let’s look at a recent release: Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. While the game plays quite differently than any Metal Gear game before it, it manages to stay within that realm of ridiculousness. It follows Raiden, a cybernetically-enhanced warrior who wields a blade that can cut up just about everything imaginable. From the very beginning of the game, you are made to feel extremely powerful, slicing foes into ribbons and tossing walking bipedal tanks like they were a bag of garbage. While the game limits the things you can do thanks to its linear nature, it’s easy to see the potential.
It’s safe to say that based on principle alone, playing a game as a ninja is cool. They’re trained to be the ultimate assassins, with immense speed, agility and strength at their disposal. Give the ninja cybernetic body parts, and you have someone capable of laying waste to any and all that get in their way. The sense of speed you feel, combined with the abilities you have at hand, make Raiden seem godlike in nature, even if it is easy to get trounced due to human error. Not every development studio can create action as well as Platinum Games, but Revengeance is a perfect example of how to make a believable character that can perform impossible feats thanks to the crazy, technologically-advanced world in which he lives.
While this doesn’t exactly fall under the cybernetic enhancements category, Crysis 3 (and the Crysis series in general) manages to make you feel all-powerful in a completely different way. You can approach scenarios with guns blazing if you so choose, and there are powers made available to you that exist for that purpose, but the real meat of the game comes from stealth. Your nanosuit allows you to enter a stealth mode, giving you ample opportunity to sneak around foes or take them out quietly, which can be almost as gratifying as Raiden’s movement speed and “slice everything” blade.
It doesn’t last forever, but the nanosuit’s cloak takes what could have been an ordinary shooter and turns it into something that requires a little more patience (assuming the player has it). As I said, the option to deploy a shield and attempt to take out all of the enemies in your path is there, but it doesn’t take full advantage of the cybernetic possibilities the same way the stealth approach does. Not only is entering and leaving an area full of soldiers without being noticed plenty enjoyable, but so is toying with them, which is made all the more easier thanks to your faster running speed and sliding maneuver. Sometimes it can be easy to forget you even have guns to begin with.
And then there’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the third game in a series that has dealt with cybernetic enhancements in terms of both gameplay and narrative. Human Revolution may not be as well-loved as the original, but it surpasses it in many ways and is the best example of a multi-faceted RPG that also takes full advantage of its cybernetic nature. It’s not as fast-paced as Revengeance or Crysis, but its RPG mechanics make it a more in-depth and memorable experience. And not only do the mechanics demonstrate perfect examples of how to handle cybernetic enhancements through gameplay, it also focuses a lot on creating a compelling character study.
The game’s protagonist, Adam Jensen, may not have asked for this, but his journey explores many facets of the nature of cybernetics and how they impact human beings. There are those whose bodies can’t handle the enhancements, forcing them to rely on drugs to deal with the changes, ultimately leading them down a dark path. Or the people who rely so heavily on cybernetics that they lose what little humanity they have left. The game sometimes hits you over the head with these themes, but it’s usually done rather well, especially with Jensen himself. In Human Revolution, you are shown the downside of cybernetics. You might dream of one day having robot legs, but maybe you should reconsider it before taking such a huge risk. I mean, seriously, don’t be crazy.
One of my favorite moments in the entire game demonstrates exactly what can go wrong when you rely a little too much on these enhancements to survive. Near the end, you are given the option to go to a medical facility to get a new biochip installed. You can completely ignore it as it’s an optional objective, but I felt like it seemed dumb not to. I had no idea what it would do, but it couldn’t hurt, right? Oh, how wrong I was.
Eventually you encounter a boss fight that requires use of your cybernetics in order to get the upper hand. If you did get that biochip installed, you quickly find out you were set up. It handicaps many of your cybernetic enhancements making the ensuing battle a more difficult one in the process. It’s a small touch, but one that showcases a simple notion: cybernetics can be used to turn ordinary people into soldiers, but you can just as easily handicap those soldiers, basically reverting them back into ordinary humans. This isn’t something that happens often in games that involve cybernetics, but it should, giving the player a new obstacle to overcome if they were so used to relying on them for a majority of the game (like I was in Human Revolution).
I’m not sure there are many directions you can take the cybernetic theme in games beyond where Deus Ex has already gone, at least in terms of a character study. And it’s not something I want to see overused in games, as some developers have a tendency to find an amazing idea and milk it for all its worth. But there is a lot you can do with a very basic concept such as this without compromising a main character that, otherwise, players simply cannot relate to. These are just some of the many examples where the use of these augmentations can not only enhance your character, but also your experience with a game.
At least until we all have cybernetic arms. That will be cool, right?