Dammit, You're Not Bioshock!

by Alasdair Czyrnyj

Singularity is the platonic ideal of a paint-by-numbers shooter.
~
I suppose I had this coming.

The warning signs were all there. This was a game published by Activision, a company views its games it the way blacksmith views his nails, minus the pride in craftsmanship. It's also a game developed by Raven Software, a studio famous for producing aggressively average shooters (though I did like Star Trek: Voyager - Elite Force back in the day). It's a liner shooter that is not being marketed as a triple-A title, which immediately raises suspicions that the developers have happily sleepwalked through the design process. Finally, it's a shooter whose main gimmick is time manipulation, a gimmick that, like spiritual possession, few developers have managed to pull off.

Still, I went out and bought it last year. It has alternate histories and the Soviets. What can I say? We all have our weaknesses.

The story of Singularity kicks off sometime in the late 1940s, when a bunch of Soviet geologists digging on a remote island in the Bering Sea find a weird new transuranic element they dub "E99". Unlike the actual element 99, E99 turns out to be quite a useful actinide, capable of combining with organic and inorganic matter and of producing controllable temporal effects. Stalin, while not a man for the hard sciences, knows a war-winner when he sees one, and authorizes a massive R&D project to the erected on the island, soon known by the monokier "Katorga-12." Unfortunately problems arise, shit goes boom, and by 1955 the island is abandoned and Moscow seals the records of the project. Fast-forward to 2010, and strange energy emissions from the island prompt the American government to thoughtlessly violate Russian sovereignty and send some Marines in to take a look, with you in the role of Marine captain Nate Renko. (Yes, it would've made more sense for you to play a Russian soldier sent in to take a look at the island, but that would've required gamers to imagine themselves as not American; what a concept!).

Anyway, after the par-the-course chopper crash, Renko stumbles about the ruins for a bit, then is promptly smacked in the face with a time wave that sends him back to 1955. While continuing his drunken ramble, he does a good deed and saves a Soviet physicist from a burning building. Unfortunately, said physicist turns out to be the Russian version of both Hitler and Einstein (Hitlersteinov?), so when Renko gets back to 2010, he's shocked to discover that said physicist managed to win the Cold War for the Soviets by blowing the American east coast clean off the map with E99 weapons, and has been ruling the Soviet world state for the past four decades (meh, it's no "use a psychic telephone to mind-control the crews of America's missile silos and command them to lock the silo doors and destroy America's entire nuclear stockpile on launch", but I suppose it'll do). Oh, and Katorga-12 is now infested with shambling humanoid horrors and big glowy bugs, thanks to a giant E99-powered "singularity reactor" said physicist completed that went blooey in the mid-1950s. Fortunately, you make some new friends, and you're given the job of...um, stopping something for some reason.

When playing through this game, it becomes clear that the devolopers liked Bioshock. A lot. There's audio diaries to find, weapon and ability upgrade stations, and whole alternate weapon system strapped to your left arm. The problem, however, is that Bioshock was, as Arthur pointed out, a used a simplified version of the mechanics of System Shock 2, leaving Singularity feeling like a photocopy of a photocopy. While disappointing, this is not in of itself a game-breaker; Dead Space happily stole from Bioshock too. Singularity's is that it steals from other games and doesn't do anything interesting with any of the things it steals.

It's a problem that seeps into every aspect of the game. You get audio diaries in the form of giant reel-to-reel tape recorders that people apparently carried around all the time in the 1950s, but about 80% of the diaries are just various of "'Ah good, we escaped the monsters.' 'Rarrr!' 'Oh no!' 'Nom nom nom.'" You can upgrade your weapons, but all you can upgrade are the magazine size, damage output, and reload speed. In any case, you're only ever going to use four weapons, so it's not like you're going to have to knock yourself out finding the upgrade briefcases.

And as for the alternate weapons system, the creatively named "Time Manipulation Device"? While it does have its uses in combat, it is a thin broth compared to the sumptuous banquet of Bioshock's plasmids. All you can do with the TMD is make stuff older, younger, fire off an area-of-effect energy blast, do gravity gun tricks, and create a small stasis bubble. You get a few "puzzles," but they're entirely of the "move boxes around" variety, rather than anything that makes more use of time travel mechanics (For a good if frustrating example of this, take a look at the Unreal mod Prometheus).

Even the setting feels phoned-in. Admittedly I am far pickier about this sort of thing than the typical gamer (not only from my schooling, but also from playing games made by actual Russians/Ukrainians with period settings), but the setting didn't feel all that "Soviet" to me. There are a few instances where the game tries, particularly in the earlier levels which are set in worker's domiciles that do look vaguely like period urban residences in the Soviet Union, but most of the time the developers are content to throw some red bunting and gratuitous Cyrillic on some generic mid-century industrial sites and call it a day. Naturally, there's a whole lot of minutiae that is messed up; the propaganda posters use far too much Braqueian cubism, a style that derided by the Soviet cultural authorities at the time as part of a general "anti-formalist" campaign, and you come across several cutesy American-style cartoons that playfully hint at the bad stuff that's happening on the island (The correct Soviet procedure for this sort of situation was, of course, to tell no one what's going on, even the 9/10ths of the workforce that are actually doing it). The game crudely references Russian and Soviet penal systems with the name "Katorga-12" and with references to the humanoid monsters infesting the island as "zeks," but the game never bothers to do anything with these references. Then there's the really obvious things, like the random German names and titles that pop up for no reason, the maps that label the contemporary Russian Federation as the USSR, and worst of all, the use of Cyrillic letters as Latin ones. Seriously people, it's not cute or exotic; it just shows that you have no idea what the hell Cyrillic actually is.

The use of German is perhaps appropriate, though. At heart, all this game is is a reworking of Raven and Activision's 2009 title Wolfenstein, the game that famously moved Yatzhee to poetry. To be fair, it does improve upon Wolfenstein: the stupid pseudo-sandbox elements are gone, and "money" is much easier to scavenge (though Singularity does have a few odd moments where the game's soundtrack is telling you some big dramatic chase is happening while you're scrounging for goodies in some guy's office). Otherwise, most of the environments and insect monsters could be swapped between the games without much of a difference made to either of them.

As for the plot? Well, you end up getting told what to do by various people; first a Alyx Vance knockoff who disappears for about 70% of the game, then by another Soviet physicist you save after a short jaunt back to 1955. Again, there isn't much done with the time travel aspects of the story (say, by having characters reference events you don't remember after you change the past). There is a nice bit where you continue to find messages from yourself in previous time loops warning you that you current plan of action is doomed to failure, but the game blows any potential that idea has by running on more rails than a rack-and-pinion locomotive. There is a small glimmer of free will at the end of the game, however, when you are given the opportunity to choose between four endings, none of which, for once, end with all being right with the world once more.

In, short, if you're bored and have some pocket change, Singularity will keep you amused for an evening. Otherwise it's not worth your time.

(As a footnote, it should be mentioned that Activision took Singularity's failure to heart by laying off a fair chunk of Raven's staff and setting the rump developer to work on a new project: making map packs for Call of Duty: Black Ops. Much as I've razzed on Singularity here, my heart goes out to Raven. No one deserves to end up like that.)
~

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~
Comments (go to latest)
http://webcomcon.blogspot.com/ at 21:45 on 2011-03-24
Sorry for off-topicality, but this is the most recent article about FPSes and I wanted to ask some questions inspired by the Playpen discussions of XKCD, Penny Arcade, and Duke Nukem Forever.

There seems to be a consensus in the Playpen that in FPSes, you won't get any emotional mileage out of telling players about the backstory of the people they're killing because they know they're not real people, and so there won't be any pathos from an XKCD-style mod. Alisdair in particular said that FPS enemies are mostly equivalent to action figures.

But we're certainly very outraged that Gearbox is being very offensive with Duke Nukem Forever and that Penny Arcade is being very blithe in their dismissal of this offense. Of course, the woman in Duke Nukem Forever is a virtual blob of pixels and AI subroutines, just like the soldiers in Singularity or Prototype or Call of Duty.

What is it that makes the Duke Nukem Forever business so much worse than the general violence enacted by video games? Does it come down to the widespread social recognition that violence and murder is very wrong in real life, but a general ambivalence on the matter of sexual violence and misogyny? Are the Penny Arcade folks being outrageous because they fail to recognize how offensive the politics of Call of Duty actually are? Why, exactly, is virtual sexual harassment so much worse than virtual murder?
Dan H at 21:53 on 2011-03-24
What is it that makes the Duke Nukem Forever business so much worse than the general violence enacted by video games? Does it come down to the widespread social recognition that violence and murder is very wrong in real life, but a general ambivalence on the matter of sexual violence and misogyny?


Broadly: yes.

Nobody thinks it's okay to run around with a handgun shooting people for fun, therefore it is okay to do it in a fictional environment. A lot of people *do* think it's okay to slap women around if they're getting above themselves, therefore it is not okay to do it in a fictional environment.

It's actually more complicated than that of course, but that's the basic size of it.
Dan H at 22:03 on 2011-03-24
To put it another way, it's rather like that line in the History Boys: I didn't lose family in the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

I don't know anybody who has been torn in half by a genetically engineered alien killing machine. I do know quite a lot of people who have suffered various forms of sexual abuse.
https://profiles.google.com/Iaculoid at 00:45 on 2011-03-25
I guess another thing to consider is that a majority of violence in video games is either retaliatory or pre-emptive - you're killing them because if you don't, they're going to kill you. Is smacking this lady on the backside going to be a necessary survival strategy in order to prevent a Game Over screen in which she molests you all the way into ten years of therapy?

Likewise, does DNF have an ass-smack option for interacting with guys? If not, why not? I mean, it's supposed to be sending up cheesy Eighties action movies. Isn't the barely-concealed homoeroticism part of the package for those?
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 01:24 on 2011-03-25
Sorry for off-topicality, but this is the most recent article about FPSes and I wanted to ask some questions inspired by the Playpen discussions of XKCD, Penny Arcade, and Duke Nukem Forever.

No need to apologize. It's not as if there's much of anything else to say about Singularity besides "it doesn't try very hard."

@Iaculoid

I guess another thing to consider is that a majority of violence in video games is either retaliatory or pre-emptive - you're killing them because if you don't, they're going to kill you.

Quite true. Of course, different types of violence are appropriate in different contexts, depending on the setting and the themes of the game. I get into that a bit in that review of Homefront/Freedom Fighters in my discussion of how each game treats its setting. As you may have guessed, Homefront went into some fairly extreme territory, which combined with a poorly-handled plot to become voyeuristic rather than emotionally engaging.

Likewise, does DNF have an ass-smack option for interacting with guys? If not, why not? I mean, it's supposed to be sending up cheesy Eighties action movies. Isn't the barely-concealed homoeroticism part of the package for those?

Heh, I like that idea! Heck, the homoerotisism is the most memorable part of Commando.
Wardog at 09:33 on 2011-03-25
Isn't the barely-concealed homoeroticism part of the package for those?


There should totally be more of this in these games!
Arthur B at 10:42 on 2011-03-25
I would totally play a Commando video game. But they'd probably make all the really cool bits like "I Lied" and the pipe toss lame quicktime events.
http://webcomcon.blogspot.com/ at 02:56 on 2011-03-27
Eurogamer has a pretty good article about the Duke Nukem Forever and why the Penny Arcade dismissal is "stupid and disingenuous". It's good to know there are people clearly articulating the problems with this and the problems with attempts to whitewash it. Let's hope that Gearbox changes things, and let's hope the issue doesn't get bogged down in an asinine controversy over censorship and how supposedly oppressive the supposedly-supposedly free United States actually is. (Pet peeve: People who respond to things like the ESRB requesting a change in the Dead Island logo with comments about how the USA isn't really all that free anymore, as though the ESRB were a government agency rather than a trade association.)
Melissa G. at 05:02 on 2011-03-27
@webcom

Sadly, the people in the comments section pretty much all disagree. T_T I don't know why I slog through all these bullshit comments. It just makes me upset. The article was nice though. Thanks for the link!
Melissa G. at 06:11 on 2011-03-27
I'm playing "sexist apologia bingo"!!

*My girlfriend/sister/wife/mom doesn't think it's sexist so it's not! (Check!)
*Some girls intentionally try to be treated as sex objects! Saying it's sexist denies those women the right to express themselves! (Check!)
*It's a game! Don't take it so seriously! It's meant to be "ironic"! (Check!)
*You're dismissing any dissenting opinion by calling it sexist! You're not willing to listen to anyone who doesn't agree with you! (Check!)
*What about the menz!?!?! (Check!)

BINGO!!!!

Hehe, sorry, couldn't resist. It's the only way to keep my sanity. ^_^
https://profiles.google.com/Iaculoid at 07:32 on 2011-03-27
^^comments section

Welp, there's your problem.

Sorry, but it's a truth universally acknlowedged on the Internet that you do not read article comment sections if you value your sanity. Sites like Ferretbrain are very much the happy exception.
Melissa G. at 07:34 on 2011-03-27
Welp, there's your problem.


Haha, I knew what I was getting into. I have this weird masochistic relationship with internet comments.

Another add to the bingo card:

*There're not *real* women! (Check!)
https://profiles.google.com/Iaculoid at 09:03 on 2011-03-27
Haha, I knew what I was getting into. I have this weird masochistic relationship with internet comments.

Fair enough. Far be it from me to dictate what consenting adults get up to in the privacy of their own homes. ;)
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