A Singular disappointment
July 16, 2010

Singularity is a game with a great premise: what happens to the present when someone makes a change in the past. Michael J. Fox squeezed three Back to the Future movies out of it, and the first two Terminator movies built a franchise out of it too, so the writers at Raven definitely had room to do something special with the plot. And for the most part, they did well. The plot is genuinely interesting. Our protagonist travels to a mysterious Russian research facility in the Pacific to find that time itself is unraveling on the island. We have no idea what's happening, but early on, we're sucked back into 1955 and we make a decision of significant consequence while doing what seems right: saving an NPCs life. When we return to the present, the US has been defeated by the Soviets, and that seemingly innocent decision led to the death of millions of people.

Oops. Our bad.

Turns out, we saved a scientist who has some pretty dark thoughts on how to properly use a mysterious element found on that island. Like say, weaponizing it and blowing up half of America. This is one bad motherfucker. He's blown up half the world. You can imagine that someone with such ambitions would do everything he personally could to stop someone trying to change an outcome that made him the greatest conqueror in human history.

You know how many times we encounter this guy over the course of the game? When we save him in the beginning and twice toward the very end of the game.

Along the way, we hear he's chasing after us. We hear he's getting close. We hear his men are closing in on our position, that things are desperate, that we need to hurry. Or he'll get us. But he doesn't show up. He's not there to face us. All he does is throw an endless pile of meatsacks at us to pump ammo into, over and over. All this nefarious, world-conquering evil doer can do is send one small wave after one small wave of soldiers at us. Never mind the fact that he has armies at this disposal that conquered all of Europe. And China. And North and  South America. And Africa. We never, ever confront the bad guy. By the end of the game, he barely matters. It's hard to even believe that he did all of the stuff that set the game's plot in motion considering how inept his operation appears.

This isn't a complaint about difficulty. I've been dissatisfied with the presentation of enemies, particularly antagonists, for a while now. My beef here is, I don't believe the writers. I want to fear my villain, and I think you do too. We want him to antagonize us. We want him to petrify us. We want to go through the whole of the game worrying that we're not up to snuff to take him down because he is to be feared (or her even, but that's another discussion). This isn't done by playing on nightmarish difficultly or throwing more goons or making upgrades scarcer. This is done through presentation. And first, the villain should show up.

Singularity tells it's story primarily through the use of notes, voice recorders and random video footage we find through the game. It's all very period authentic. We'll suspend our disbelief for a second and ignore the fact that all of these are in English in a Russian facility. But this is really the only way the story is told. We're in contact with a couple of NPCs, but all told, that interaction lasts for probably 20 minutes of a game that I clocked 8 hours on. The rest of the time, the plot is being pushed forward by these random objects you uncover and it just isn't enough.

For starters, most of the voice messages and notes were supposedly created while the island was in chaos. Putting aside notes for a second, let's focus on voice messages. Remember that the events we're investigating first unfolded  in 1955. In 2010, I've got a pocket-sized voice recorder. It's about as small as a cellphone. It's digital. It would make sense if someone died today and had one of these on them and recorded messages onto it because it is extremely portable. They didn't have these in 1955. They had magnetic tape, on reels. Players of said reels were big and bulky, even their "portable" form. At least, that's how their presented in Singularity. Assuming this is the historically accurate, someone explain why a dying man fleeing for his life from radioactive, flesh-eating mutants would carry several of these bulky, ultimately worthless pieces of technology around with him when they could fill their satchel instead with something like food or water? Why carry several and scatter them around the world when you could just as easily carry one and some extra tapes and save space?

Let's consider the notes: how is it that our character, 55 years into the future, happened upon them in perfect chronological order? We're on a pretty big island. The research facility is pretty big, too. It's also suffered a lot of damage. So how is it that, as we're playing, we're finding one note after another, in perfect A-B-C order? And after all these years, how is it that they've all survived, with no degradation, no gust of wind blowing a few away away, no mutant feces making one illegible, no water damage, no fire, etc.? And just how did these notes, most journal entries, wind up in strange places like a storage area in the basement of a building? Why would someone be so casual with notes that reveal important secrets?

A problem with relying so heavily on this form of storytelling is simple: it doesn't make any sense if we actually stop and think about how the story is being told to us for, I don't know, half a second. Another is it doesn't give you an opportunity to develop a legitimate relationship with any other character. You could come into my room and read my notebook and check out my movies and games and notice my color choices and you might be able to figure a lot out about me, but would relationship be meaningful? How many people have you liked on first impression and come to hate? And how many did you dislike and come to like as you got to know them through interaction?

Relying on audio logs, diary entries, etc. for character development presents the player with merely circumstantial evidence of who someone is and doesn't serve as a proper relationship. We need to see and interact with our enemies. So many video games are robbing us of meaningful relationships with our foes simply by not presenting them well and Singularity is particularly disappointing in this regard. I think what has bothered me the most is that Singularity really could have been a classic. Instead, it falls short simply because the team at Raven working on the game relied all too heavily on a weak plot device, forcing us to collect accounts of other's relationships with someone instead of forging our own.

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