Sunday, August 1, 2010

Captain Blood (Atari ST)

Here's one of the best god damn things I've ever seen in a video game:

Never mind that most of the activities beneath all this surface detail are standard dialog trees and fetch quests. Conversations in Captain Blood are accomplished through something like a text parser merged with a keyword list. The system is referred to as UPCOM, a means of communicating in a language called "Bluddian," and all exchanges must be encoded to/decoded from sentences assembled from Bluddian glyphs. This isn't presented in the game's fiction as an abstract system for speaking naturally; the interface the player uses is the interface set into Captain Blood's console, the cursor is Captain Blood's hand, and the ship's computer is speaking to the aliens by proxy.

Contrast Captain Blood's approach with that of Mass Effect:

Captain Blood's fiction contains an idea of proxies nested within proxies. The computer speaks as the proxy for Captain Blood. Captain Blood is, curiously, proxy for "Bob Morlock," a designer who's been transported into his own video game. This unseen character, "Bob," is proxy for the player.

There's no such remove in Mass Effect between the player and Shepard; the intent is that the player feel as if they are in direct control of this character's actions and destiny, yet the options offered to the player during dialog are limited to short lists of responses that only paraphrase what Shepard will actually say. Expensive graphics and adopted film aesthetics are intended to lend Mass Effect a veneer of audio/visual verisimilitude, yet its conversation system is less complex and far less verisimilar (in terms of correlation between player and character action) than Captain Blood's was 19 years before. Captain Blood successfully integrates its interface into the fiction of the game. Mass Effect's dialog interface is a pop-up menu that floats over the action like a health bar or any other HUD element, grating against the game's "cinematic" presentation.

Low-rez sprite art lends simplicity, abstraction and ambiguity to characters and environments; Captain Blood provides a verbal equivalent to this effect.
The UPCOM system narrows the range of possible player inputs (as opposed to the full range a traditional text parser would allow) and holds alien speech to the same limitations. Each conversation in Captain Blood is a translation from spoken Bluddian to glyphs on the UPCOM console, which in turn are decoded by the player into their native language. Every exchange is understood to be an approximation of what is actually being said. The game was written in broken French, translated into broken English. A character might say:




while he twitches through a half-dozen or so frames of animation. The design and fiction of the game impress upon the player that this is a mere sketch of a conversation due not to limitations of the programmers at ERE or the Atari ST hardware, but due to limitations of UPCOM as a function of the techno-organic system Blood himself employs; this is a complete attempt at representing a world that is, by its nature, unknowable to the player.

Having laid out its entire toolkit in the form of UPCOM, the game performs a kind of transparent magic trick by deftly characterizing its various aliens using a vocabulary of fewer than 200 glyphs. Emotional states are frequently indicated by emphasis through repetition; a terrified character might output the glyph for "FEAR" multiple times, but among more coherent statements this reads not literally as


but as an outpouring of emotion that the ship's translator can only summarize; a partial representation of the actual, unknowable event. Captain Blood ventures frequently into these extreme emotional states; most aliens are preoccupied with personal vendettas or desperation, genocide, extinction, war. The player is cast more or less as the most powerful being in the universe, arbiter of life and death with the ability to incinerate any planet or disintegrate any individual with the press of a button.

Fractal-generated landscapes are devoid of structures or flora. Every alien waits alone in a barren wilderness, supplicant before God in the person of the player. These are intimate exchanges. Captain Blood contains moments of dark comedy, but it's just as frequently creepy or tragic. The titular character's mission is to assassinate and vampirically consume his escaped clones. It's villainy, but it's the only means of survival.

This dark tone is just the result of making a game where the most significant actions available to the player are massively destructive. A system like UPCOM is a license to play with the effects of broken language. Its application could yield radically different results in a setting removed from Captain Blood's moral abyss.

When volumes of natural English dialog are difficult to produce, it's possible to create an alternative.