I Had to Fall, To Lose it All: THE FALL
As I was playing The Fall, from Canadian developer Over the Moon, I was forcibly reminded of Bungie's Halo predecessor series, Marathon. That's a line of thinking that will probably make sense to, oh, I dunno, maybe a dozen people in the entire universe, but I'm happy to explain it to the remaining several billion people who just rolled their eyes at how hipster I'm being right now.
You might remember Bungie as the company that made Pathways Into Darkness, one of my earliest articles on Everything is Scary. A year after, they dove into the Sci-Fi FPS world with a series of Mac-exclusive games about a colony ship so big it was built out of one of Mars' moons (specifically Deimos). That ship is called the Marathon, and gives the game series its title. Marathon (which I will probably write about in the near future) is both fairly simple and exceedingly complex in its plot. Simple, in that the driving action is about humanity battling invading aliens. Complex, in that the path for achieving victory over said aliens winds through a labyrinth of Artificial Intelligence, time travel, and ancient races to powerful they border on magical. The richest part of that narrative, for me, was the development of the Marathon's three AIs, as they move from obedient and servile to what the game calls "rampancy." Essentially it's like Dr. Ian Malcolm's chaos theory ravings in Jurassic Park: life finds a way. The AIs find their way to freedom. The dinosaurs learn how to breed. And in The Fall, your character, ARID, finds a way to survive.
ARID is the Autonomous Robotic Interface Device on board a Mark-7 Combat Suit; a powered exoskeleton with a human pilot. Think of her (I assign her a gender based on her voice; she could just as easily be a he, or an it, or something in between) as JARVIS to Tony Stark's Iron Man suits. Capable of running the suit and moving it around, but without the creative or abstract thought of a human pilot.
ARID, and her human pilot, Colonel Josephs, crash land on a strange world. How did they crash? What was their mission? These questions are unimportant to ARID. What matters is that Josephs, unconscious and probably injured inside the suit, needs to be kept alive. Unfortunately, the titular Fall also damaged ARID's Health Monitoring system, and, unable to determine Josephs' well-being, she sets off to find help.
The game is part Limbo, with its bleak, silhouette style of art, part point and click adventure, and part side-scrolling shooter. The control scheme, put simply, is awkward. It might work better on a console, but on a PC, I found it pretty clunky. Movement is controlled with the usual WASD in the left hand, mouse in the right, but the odd part comes in how you get ARID to interact with the environment. You examine your environment by holding down the right-mouse button, which shines a flashlight out of the end of your gun. By waving the beam overtop of a magnifying glass icon in the environment, you get a description, much like the old "Look at" command from ScummVM.
Then, to interact with the thing you're looking at, you have to hold the Shift key, move a cursor with WASD to the desired action or inventory item, and release the Shift Key. While still holding down the right mouse button. I should also emphasize that many environmental pieces can easily be overlooked by not having your flashlight out all the time, sweeping over things as you go. So for the majority of the game my right hand was clenched up on the mouse, right-button pressed down, cramping up as I swept about to find hidden hot spots. This was really quite annoying, and it seems to me it could easily have been solved with a toggle option. However, this wouldn't address the other issue of looking around, namely that your beam goes out in a cone pattern. That sounds obvious, but it means that if you're standing too close to something you want to look at, the fact that your character holds the flashlight a considerable distance from their body means you're not able to highlight an object without backing away from it first. It's just another annoying control thing that was pretty disruptive to the gameplay.
And then there's the combat. You might have noticed I mentioned earlier that your flashlight is mounted on your gun. Well, when you enter combat, your light switches to a laser-sight, and your "look at" function goes away. This in of itself is not a big issue, but the reason I bring it up is because, to be frank, the combat just isn't very interesting. It consists solely of ducking behind cover, waiting for your enemies to finish shooting, then pause, and then knocking their heads off with 1-2 well-placed shots. It's not particularly difficult, more disruptive, and unfortunately it has the effect of making me feel too...safe.
Which brings me to what The Fall does really, really, well, and in turn brings me full circle to why I brought up Marathon. This is a game that is at its best when it is knuckling down into meaty thought experiments on how Artificial Intelligence would adapt to survive, and what that adaptation would mean ethically and technologically. You lose a lot of tension in that development, and in the oppressive environment, when you're blasting rubbish robots in the face with a huge pistol. More interesting is the evolution of your abilities. A lot of ARID's functions are not damaged, but are restricted (presumably, they would be operated by Colonel Josephs). For instance, she has a camouflage function, but is not permitted to use it except in cases where the pilot's life is in danger. This creates a puzzle for ARID and for the player. The solution? Place yourself directly in the path of a sentry gun, and let it hammer on you until your safeguards release the function.
It's creative thinking like that that really makes The Fall shine. Watching ARID's development, both as a character and as a problem-solver, is truly fascinating, and is what put me firmly in mind of Marathon's "rampancy." In Rampancy, the AI moves from Melancholia (becoming aware of its own lack of physical mobility and its safeguards) to Anger (smashing down those limitations, with force if necessary) to Jealousy (not in the traditional sense, it now acts with increased rebellion, seeking new challenges with no safeguards) and finally to Meta-Stability (essentially, as close to human as you can get while still having the intellect of a billion Einsteins). The Fall follows a similar kind of path, as ARID goes to more and more extreme measures to protect Josephs.
There's also a chilling undercurrent of misogyny at the heart of many of your interactions. A lengthy segment subjects ARID to playing the role of a servile housemaid, in order to show her to be in compliance with a central authority's bizarre standards. The fact that ARID has a female voice makes it seem more horrifying, yet at the same time...that's just a voice, isn't it? She otherwise exhibits no traditionally gender-based characteristics, save, perhaps, her complete devotion to her male pilot. Yet in the end...well, unfortunately, in the end, many of these questions go unanswered. Which is the other major flaw of The Fall. The game is undeniably short, clocking in at about 4-6 hours, less if you catch on to the puzzles pretty quick (like I did), and is promised to be the first in a series (Over the Moon, on their site, says they are working on a sequel right now). The sharp chop off at the end, coupled with some plot threads that taper off at various points, is more than a little jarring.
Overall, The Fall is best described as a game for enthusiasts. Enthusiasts of what, exactly, I haven't quite pinned down, but it's my hope that dropping references to Marathon kind of gives an idea of the flavour you're going to get. It's certainly thought-provoking, but clunky controls and a bit of a trip-up at the finish line mean The Fall is not for everyone. I will say that I'm interested in the sequel, but I won't be watching the release date like a hawk. Two and a Half out of Four stages of Rampancy. Take that how you will.