Manhattan is burning. The streets are filled with crushed cars, dead men and the virus. There are outcroppings of resistance and control, both exercising their share of both. Neither side is worth fighting for, but then, neither is the side I’m on, if there even is one. I was forced under the delusion that I might be able to stop it, slow the spreading, but I’m just as useless as the military, and just as deadly as the virus they fight. I’m not sure who I am any more, or if I ever was anyone at all. It’s all gone to hell, and I’m the one that sent it there.
Prototype is Apocalypse in action. There’s no wasteland, no survivors desperately eking out their existence in a world that’s forgotten them. This is ground zero, where it all begins. It’s refreshing to finally be there when it happens, rather than the dozen or so recent games where you’re around years afterward. Refreshing isn’t apt, though. It’s more horrifying than anything, and that’s mainly because it seems as though it may just be all my fault.
Guilt in games isn’t a new concept. It’s not usually a scripted event, but whenever your men die in an RTS because you did something stupid, or your party members in an RPG die because you didn’t really assess the situation properly, it’s there, eating away at you. You can just reload, and often that’s the best thing to do, but Prototype doesn’t allow you such an easy out. Every time you fight, in the calm after the storm you’re presented with an ‘Operational Report’, a quick run down of four things; how much money in military assets you just destroyed, how many military personal were killed, how many infected were killed, and chillingly, how many civilians were killed. To begin with I thought all this was my doing, directly, that I had killed thousands upon thousands of civilians during my fights. Then I realised it wasn’t quite as horrendous as that, these were people the infected, military and I had killed, during out scuffle.
At first it didn’t bother me. The numbers were low, and the civilians tended to be pretty stupid anyway. They ran out in front of my tank. They were running screaming in the infected areas, even though there was safety just a few blocks away. Then, the numbers began to escalate, even though the infection rates were rising. 50% of the population were infected, and while the numbers of infected killed each fight were going up, the number of civilians killed were going right up with them. At least a thousand dead each time I had a major battle, and even though I hadn’t taken each life myself, if I hadn’t intervened they would presumably still be standing.
Prototype is an interesting game, in that it should be just about the pure, unadulterated fun of it. You’re a man who can turn his body into a living weapon, and consume the memories of anyone he killed, meaning flying helicopters, driving tanks, and firing guns are all easy to do. The problem is it takes this overly serious tone that’s utterly at odds with the violence on display. This should almost be a comedy, or at the very least a tongue-in-cheek look at the overly security conscious nation across the Atlantic. But instead you’re pushed into the body of a man who has no qualms killing anyone he thinks may have something to do with his predicament, even if it means killing harmless civilians who are just wandering down the street. By the end of Prototype I was feeling harrowed, and not just because the final boss is a crime against gaming.
If you want to get metaphysical about it, it’s a commentary on the increasingly frivolous attitude games, and more specifically gaming protagonists, have towards human life in games. It’s there, allowing you to be this obscenely powerful being, and then it’s slapping a sticker on your back telling you what a horrible person you are for playing the game the way it wants you to play. It’s the devil on your shoulder in cahoots with the angel, giving you a wonderful time, then telling you why you’re such a horrible person afterwards. It’s like a personal trainer giving the fat kid a cake, then forcing him to go weigh himself and realise what a horrific person he is.
By now, you’ll realise that I’m not going to be discussing the pros and cons of Prototype’s control system and side quests. The game has been out long enough for there to be any number of conventional reviews out there. Yup, everything that makes a game is there, and yeah, it all works to a certain extent. Some of the side quests are boring, and unnecessary, but hey, they’re there if you want them. The story makes little sense, and the graphics are a little shoddy. More importantly though, is that this game is fun, just not if you pay too much attention to what it’s perhaps trying to say.
The facts of how Prototype gets a message across make it all the more ambiguous. Radical have placed this game in the serious overtones of a conspiracy drama, along with the hyper violence and B movie climax. Mixed up in all that are various different themes and undertones that can be read into any which way, and may be entirely incidental, meant only for a cool number up on screen, or just filler between missions. My English teachers always used to ask me what the poet intended when writing the poem, but that was only to try to put us in a certain frame of mind; once the poem is out there, it only means what you take it to. Games are the same way, albeit oversaturated with developer coverage and hype telling you how to receive a game. That I’m taking Prototype to be an exercise to illicit player guilt is merely because that’s the reaction it got from me. Prototype made me feel guilty, and any emotion is better than none.