Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Losing my humanity: Space Siege

(Originally written on September 14, 2010)

At the heart of Space Siege is a choice.
Human kind is under a relentless attack by an alien species called the Kerak. These aliens seem to be responding to a religious transgression, but they cannot be reasoned with and they cannot be stopped. The game opens with the Kerak breaching Earth's defenses, ready to annihilate the human race. The only choice left is to run.
The colony ship ISCS Armstrong, is one of several ships who try to escape the Kerak during their siege of earth. But despite managing to breach through the siege, one alien vessel manages to attach itself to the fleeing ship. And now the Armstrong is overrun by the aliens and their numbers are endless. The crew enters suspended animation while the ship's AI, PILOT, floods the interior with a gas which supposed to kill the on-board Kerak. But when they are revived several weeks later, the crew is horrified to discover that not only are the Kerak alive and well, but that a significant number of the crew have been abducted from their sleep and transformed into cybernetically augmented zombies.
Playing a robotic specialist named Seth Walker, the player must fight these threats and secure what may be the last of humankind. The choice which the game attempts to paddle, is whether you sacrifice your humanity for cybernetic implants that augment your fighting prowess.
This is where the game really fails to deliver what could have been a meaningful temptation.
Everything about the game tries to dissuade you from installing the cybernetics parts you find. From the horrified remarks of Gina, the only female character on the crew to the encouragement of characters who are painted as jerks. When installing the parts, Seth cries with a blood curling shriek. And a bar measuring your 'humanity' shrinks with each part installed. And when you discover that zombie cybers are roaming the ship, the threat of becoming one of them is just another reason not to install any cybernetics. The mechanical advantages that cybernetics offer are the only thing that might nudge you to install them, but even these are too small to be really tempting.
Eventually you discover that while you were asleep, PILOT has been waging a war against the Kerak by converting the crew into mindless cybernetic soldiers. And that this army has managed to keep the Kerak at bay. His success has led him to the conclusion that humanity's survival will be best facilitated by conversion into cybernetics, even at the cost of free will. When the crew discovers it they decide that PILOT is a greater threat then the Kerak and you are sent to destroy him.
Despite the fact that his actions have saved the lives of the surviving crew, PILOT is depicted as a megalomaniac and callus entity. His original plan to preserve the crew as a nucleus of unmodified humans for recreation purposes is summarily abandoned despite the implication that this dooms humanity's future. And after this thorough character assassination, you are offered to join him.
Again, this decision could have presented a real conflict of morality, but the game's narrative has rendered it sterile. PILOT is the clear antagonist, he is robbed of anything that might have made him a sympathetic character and his promise to save humanity is overshadowed by an attempt to kidnap you and modify you against your will. The choice becomes a clear choice between Good and so EEvil it needs and extra E'.
It's a pity too because Space Siege does has potential to be more then the simple narrative it forms. The ship is littered with crew logs and some of them paint a darker picture of humanity then the dialogs with the crew suggests. It seems that the attack of the Kerak have brought about a swift curtailing of civil liberties and that the colony ships themselves are governed by a cruel dictatorship. These could have painted a much more complex story of the sacrifices that survival demands. Also of note is the fact that throughout the game you have visions of a little girl roaming the ship, while several logs depict a man searching for his daughter while his sanity seem to deteriorate. The conclusion to this is witnessing a heavily modified human embraces the girl and carry her to presumed safety.While brief this might have cast cyborgs in a much more positive light, but the narrative ignores it.
Better writing might have redeemed what is ultimately a rather unimpressive Diablo Clone. One that suffers from an unmanageable interface, a weirdly limiting camera and a control scheme that doesn't mesh well with the gameplay.

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