May 292009

Because we constantly interact with each other, we often forget that human beings are absurd, freakishly huge creatures. Of course you and I and any four-year-old can reel off the names of a dozen or so animals that are even larger, but that’s misleading. The earth is inhabited by trillions upon trillions of animals, and almost none of them grow larger than our own hands. These creatures inhabit a world we can barely recognize, the objects we find familiar made exotic by the transition of scale, and yet their lives have drama and tension more than equal to our own. Deadly Creatures successfully sets up this atypical viewpoint, but falters because its narrative and gameplay adhere strictly to a human perspective.

You might expect a game about a tarantula and a scorpion to look like a National Geographic special, but Deadly Creatures eschews the crisp brightness of magazine shots in favor of a muted palette more reminiscent of the Metroid Prime series. The comparison seems even more apt in light of the almost alien character the desert landscapes take on, not just because of the changes in scale but also because of the variability of orientation. Deadly Creatures doesn’t just put you in a scaled-up version of a pickup truck; it forces you to explore that space using every conceivable surface as a floor. The game also seems to share Metroid Prime‘s obsession with ruins, though here they are scaled down. The leftovers of human civilization — a cast-off boot, a broken lawn gnome — have become the homes of your dangerous enemies.

The comparisons go deeper than the aesthetics. Deadly Creatures comes across as a game of exploration, using the tiny grubs like Metroid Prime‘s copious power-ups to encourage you to see everything it has to offer. While it lacks something in variety, this approach fits relatively well with the game’s fiction. Additionally, Deadly Creatures loves to return you to previously-visited areas with new abilities that allow you to take alternate routes across and out of them.

Where this comparison begins to break down is in the way the game tries to guide the player towards goals. Metroid Prime makes the player a dynamic actor in a relatively static world and lets him go where he will, his access limited only by the abilities he has acquired. While the player is not exactly free to choose his objectives, the motif of restricted access makes them feel like an organic part of the game’s intrinsic fiction. Deadly Creatures artlessly blocks off particular exits with clouds of flies in an effort to push the player along in a set story arc.

The story itself is the most obvious example of the game’s key failing, because it concerns human beings operating with specifically human motivations. Billy Bob Thornton and Dennis Hopper do a wonderful job with voice roles that simply don’t fit in this game. What does buried treasure have to do with a tarantula and a scorpion? The game never bothers to make this clear, but it gives the player objectives that force him down a path towards confrontation. The goals may bee sensible to me, as a player who understands what the human characters are saying, but it’s not clear why the deadly creatures of the game would choose to do these things. Unlike in Metroid Prime, the game’s goals are not organically integrated into its universe. Here, the fiction of the narrative seems to be fundamentally divorced from the intrinsic fiction of the game world.

This also comes into play with respect to combat. The tarantula and especially the scorpion fight with a few simple attacks and elaborate (motion-based) finishing moves reminiscent of God of War. While motion detection is not ideal for some of these, the core mechanics of combat are suitably engaging. The problem is that they are repetitive, and this is a problem not only because stinging a rat in the brain stops being interesting around the fifth time you do it, but also because the number and organization of the enemies conflicts with the game’s intrinsic fiction.

Combat is too frequent, your enemies attack in waves, and they never attack each other. There is no recognition here of the dangerous line predators tread with respect to energy expenditure, or the flight instinct that protects most prey. Even the weakest beetle is always up for a fight. Nor is there any consideration for the idea that territorial spiders are not going to attack as an organized body, and even if they managed it they would be at least as likely to attack each other as the nearby scorpion. No, the heroes of Deadly Creatures must fight their way through an army of opponents in exactly the same way as you could see in any standard 3D brawler. The encounters and enemy AI are informed by human sensibilities, right down to the heartbeat sound that warns you of low health.

The game posits that the deadliest creature is man, and so the scorpion, at least, must confront him. Of course, arachnids are actually rarely endangered by direct encounters with humans, because they mostly have the good instinct to hide. Deadly Creatures breezes past this reality, and discards essentially everything worthwhile in its combat system, so that we may end the game on a low note with a boss battle marred by nonsensical mechanics and out-of-place toilet humor. Even if I’d found it funny to sting a guy on the nuts one time, repetition would have drained the exercise of its joy.

If geography is a matter of scale, then our absurd dimensions must deny us many of the world’s most amazing vistas. They exist at a size we cannot reach, in a world we can barely begin to experience. Deadly Creatures walks up to the edge of that vast uncharted space, gazes longingly upon it, and then spins on its heel and returns to the map of tried-and-true conventions. The game turns its back on the powerful fiction implied by its setting in order to embrace a story about humans, enemies that operate with human sensibilities, and objectives that make no sense for its protagonists. Deadly Creatures does not ask the player to be a scorpion or a tarantula, it asks the player to be a dude on a couch controllinga scorpion or a tarantula, and that is how a fantastic idea becomes a merely passable game.

  6 Responses to “Here there be dragonflies”

  1. I quickly became disenchanted with the combat and have let the game sit for some time. Now that I know there is no narrative payoff, I think I'll go ahead and send it back.

    My guess was that they were being controlled by the spirit of the character Billy Bob was on about in the intro, but if that's not explicitly confirmed, I'm better off not continuing to irritate myself with it.

  2. The character Billy Bob is going on about is the Dennis Hopper character. The intro actually becomes rather confusing partway through the game, because the plot takes a turn that makes the intro somewhat incompatible with the game world.

  3. Yeah, I got to where they found the treasure, so I know what happened then. And from my understanding of the ending, I figured the voiceover meant that the events of the game were happening in the narrator's past.

    It's interesting to me, however, your assertion that it's a game that asks you to be a dude on a couch controlling a scorpion, as that's the exact same vibe I was picking up on. How much better would it have been for them to incorporate that into the game narrative?

  4. I suppose they could have run with that, but I think such an approach would largely end up emphasizing the parts of the game that I found to be least interesting.

  5. I had about the same reaction to Deadly Creatures. However, if you've never played it, Bad Mojo really pushes the weirdness of human artifacts viewed at the scale of an insect. Granted, it doesn't do anything towards embodying being an insect, as you are a person transformed a la Kafka.

    Still, if you've never played it, it's solid and has aged pretty well.

  6. That looks really interesting. Thanks for mentioning it, Nels.

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