'Believe me, honey, I've never been afraid of a little gas.'

Waiting for breakfast

leave a comment »

[Spoiler warning: this article discusses significant parts of Anachronox’s story, including big reveals, so it’s really only intended for people who have played and finished the game, or people who don’t intend to. If you do plan to play it one day, here’s the spoiler-free version: Anachronox is excellent. You can still read about halfway down before getting spoiled, and there are some more warnings before they arrive.]

In a way it’s a bit hard to reconcile a love of Deus Ex with a love of Anachronox. Despite being made by the same company, albeit different studios in different cities, they’re very different. Deus Ex is one of those wonderful immersive sim things that values player freedom and expression while Anachronox is a console-style RPG with the linearity and low interactivity that usually implies. The design philosophies behind Deus Ex are what I think video games should be all about, while Anachronox is something else.

And yet. Tom Hall’s Anachronox is something very special. This game haunts me. Ten years after its release I still think constantly about its story, setting, characters. It’s a story about a timeless struggle between advanced civilisations, about strange planets and stranger inhabitants, about a space adventure and personal struggles, about comradeship and loss and redemption. It’s a game with eccentric men and dangerous women, with a self-aware robot and a shrunken planet, with an alcoholic superhero and a reincarnated secretary. It’s hard to describe and at the same time simple: it’s brilliant.

What must strike any player most strongly is the game’s uninhibited playfulness. It’s written and designed with creative abandon, and the result is a game with a sense of humour, an irreverence and a whimsicality that can only be produced in labours of love. And that’s exactly what it is. If a game has unofficial patches released by one of its programmers in his spare time after the studio has closed down, or has a standalone movie spliced together from its cutscenes by the cinematic director, you know it was a game made with love. You get that feeling every minute you play.

You can see the playfulness in the minor NPC names, like Brazz Tunkle, Taine Paradox, Dim José, Fazz Burbleman, Finian Paloo and Whackmaster Jack.

You can see it in the dialogue: the back and forth between characters, the creative euphemisms, and the many, many insults. In just the first couple of hours Boots is called a rude jerk, a monkey, a bum, a downtrodden bastard, moron, frowzy, poser, punk, smartass, schmuguggle, squab, butt steak, and an infirm bag o’ loose change. The many cutscenes feature some of the best voice acting this medium’s ever seen, but otherwise the dialogue—and there’s a ton of it—is all text. It communicates the voices of the rundown Bricks residents with shortened forms like wanna, gotta, gettin’ and lookin’. Sometimes the text boxes are moved around the screen to emphasise the tone, and often the interactive nature of the text boxes is used to deliver a punchline on its own screen for extra effect. In short, Anachronox embraces its form. It’s aware of what it is and has great fun with it.

That’s why it can click with someone like me who usually has no love for this particular genre. Anachronox plays with genre conventions, such as in the side quest to collect TACOs: Totally Arbitrary Collectible Objects. To get a nice item for one of your party members, PAL-18, you need to leave him in one location for literally hours. There’s a crazy NPC preaching on a soapbox about everyone’s horrifying existence in which they just repeat the same lines over and over. There’s another NPC you need to click on over four hundred times to reach the end of his dialogue, at which point he blinks out of all existence in disgust, taking all your money with him. Anachronox knows how silly it is.

[Small spoilers begin here.]

You can see the playfulness in the design of the planets and other locations you visit during the 30-plus hours the adventure lasts, like the planet Hephaestus which advertises itself as a religious pilgrimage but is in fact a tourist trap. One of the more memorable planets is Democratus, a farce of a place that embraces the principles of democracy to the extreme. At least officially. Everyone has a voice, everyone’s voice is heard. But as you explore and speak to the inhabitants it becomes evident that everyone’s most concerned with following the crowd. It’s an incisive critique of democratic systems, and it doesn’t stop with just one visit. Out of gratitude to Boots and co for helping them out, Democratus’s rulers shrink the entire planet down to person-size and it joins your party.

The miniplanet makes itself useful later when you’re captured by a comic book villain. Because that’s what happens. On your way to what what’s shaping up as the climax, the game takes an elaborate detour and deposits you on a spaceship belonging to the supervillain Rictus from planet Krapton, and this segment is told through comic book conventions with plenty of POWs and SMACKs.

When someone hits the Emergency Parole Button (i.e. the airlock) in Rictus’s prison Democratus inflates to full size to save the party being sucked into space, and instead they’re scattered across the planet’s surface. If you happen to have Stiletto in your party at that point, you can play through a parody of the Endor moon from Return of the Jedi, where the Ewoks are evil and routinely terrorise the poor stormtroopers.

Before you reach these more bizarre places, the game opens on the comparatively normal Anachronox, a city-planet with a mysterious history, strange gravity effects, and huge structural plates that seem to move of their own accord. Boots introduces it to us by wandering out into the Bricks, getting beaten up by a thug, taking a look around, and muttering ‘I hate this place.’ It’s a great opening to a fascinating and unsettling location. The storytelling in the first few hours on Anachronox has elements of noir, and as Boots follows leads and meets the bizarre residents of the Bricks, the game plays out like hardboiled detective story as comedy. Early on you’re tasked with tracking down an unfortunate soul who had half his foot amputated in an industrial accident and asking him for his stinky, pus-filled sock. So you can give it to someone. Who likes to chew things. All this just so you can get past a door and finish what seems to be an innocent job for a grumpy old man.

[Mega spoilers begin here!]

From these humble beginnings we start learning about the artifacts called MysTech, and the game broadens out—really, really far. To explain how far we need a word that describes something bigger than the life of a universe. That’s the scale Anachronox deals with. It’s remarkable, then, that a story that tackles events on a universal timescale is memorable for at the same time focusing on something far smaller: people.

What ties Anachronox together is not the grand scale war between Order and Chaos, the Vyre and the Chatagra. By the end of the game that story is not finished. We get the impression it’s only just begun. And despite what desperate fans might say, it doesn’t end on a cliffhanger. It ends at the close of Part 1. What ties Anachronox together are the stories of the varied companions Boots recruits along the way, and by the end his and their arcs are complete. Each one of these characters has challenges or ‘poisons from the past’ to overcome, and somehow this ragtag bunch of losers manages to solve their problems through their unlikely and serendipitous relationship.

Rho Bowman and Grumpos finally learn the secrets of MysTech, PAL-18 learns to deal with becoming a self-aware and agentic being, Paco regains his confidence and powers, and Democratus … Well, Democratus might be a lost cause.

Boots finds his redemption in becoming the universe’s saviour (as you’d hope) and the help of Fatima and Stiletto, the two women he loves, is crucial in that. This trio’s story is tied to the game’s most identifiable villain, Detta. He is a totally necessary character in this tale; the Order and Chaos conflict remains a little too abstract for most of the game, Chaos’s servants a little too mysterious. If Anachronox is really about the characters, the villain is Detta. He started out as a street kid maybe even lower in status than Boots before making it big ‘from a bloody cocktail of blackmail, extortion, and violence’, and now he commands respect through crime, fear and intimidation, loaning money to down on their luck schmucks like Boots and thereby, in Detta’s words, owning them. Fatima’s death and Stiletto’s life are both intimately tied to Detta—and the guilt that Boots confronts is the knowledge that Stiletto’s kidnapping and Fatima’s death are both his fault. Boots taking out a loan from Detta to pay for Fatima to be converted into a LifeCursor (a touch of genius that allows the player’s cursor to be an actual character) shows how much Boots cared about her and how much he’s lost. He can’t let her go but, given his own guilt, her presence must be a constant torture. These revelations, revealed as the plot progresses, add some extra tragic and poignant motivation to the characters.

Learning this past history through flashbacks complements the game’s structure. There are often return trips to planets previously visited, where a new companion or mastered ability can unlock new areas or secrets. Return trips are often rewarded with new information too, best demonstrated by the subplot of Detective Rukh and his trailing of a killer who’s been offing Tetra dealers, and who turns out to be linked to the universal events. It’s a story very easy to miss, or which will remain incomplete, if players don’t take every opportunity to explore.

There’s a consistent echoing of concepts and themes as the game progresses.  The idea of a ‘poison from the past’ is reflected in the character arcs, the threat of Chaos destabilising the universe, and the history of Anachronox itself. Long before we learn the true nature of MysTech, we’ve been exposed to it in Grumpos’s collection, in the MysTech tunnels and MysTech Museum. Each time we return to Anachronox or Sender Station we learn more about an underground revolutionary movement planning to topple Detta. We’re rewarded for a second, third, fourth play by catching glimpses of the Dark Servant presence before they’re fully revealed. This recurrence lends the game a familiarity. Locations become known, characters become friendly faces. Instead of presenting a brief slideshow of places and people, the ones in Anachronox deepen each time.

Aiding the familiarity are the memorable visuals and audio. The voice acting is top quality, with theatre actors Bruce DeBose and Raphael Parry the standouts as Boots and Grumpos, and the soundtrack is a perfect complement to the epic science fiction tale. It’s a beautiful game in the way all artistically consistent games are. Those unfamiliar with it might scoff at the Quake 2 engine graphics, but it has a confidence and consistency that absolutely works, and now it’s impossible to imagine Anachronox looking any different. Ion Storm ran with the low polygon and low resolution limitations: in Jake Hughes’s cutscenes the camera never shies away, never tries to hide anything. It zooms in close to the characters, it puts objects right in our faces, and we quickly understand that this is precisely how it’s supposed to look. And despite being a decade old, the engine manages to convey a wide range of emotions convincingly. Boots’s sceptical raised eyebrow is a signature, a cheeky grin is infectious, and one particular occasion when a character wrinkles his brow in sad regret is agonising.

It’s that gamut of emotions that makes Anachronox so easy to love. It manages to be hilarious and heartbreaking, serious and absurd. It’s a wonderful game in the most literal sense: it’s full of wonder.


Written by John Pike

10 August 2011 at 5:18 am

Posted in Games, Uncategorized, Writing

Tagged with

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: