My favorite games of the year were Bastion, Skyrim, and the Witcher 2. Wow, that was easy. And hey, I already wrote extensively about allofthem. Convenient! So, for the next few days, I'm gonna discuss some of 2011's lesser-known greats. First up, the PC version of BioShock 2's ages-in-coming story DLC, Minerva's Den. Oh, and I'm also gonna go ahead and slap a Big Daddy-sized SPOILER WARNING on this one -- just to be safe.
I shoot first and ask questions later. I'm not much of a talker. I just do what I'm told. Who am I?
Give up? OK, fine, I'll uncover my nametag. Yep, that's right: “Hello, my name is... Every First-Person Shooter Main Character Ever.” Yeah, my parents had an odd sense of humor. (If you think that's bad, you should meet my brother, Racist 14-Year-Old's Xbox Live Gamertag.) Anyway, I have a teensy bit of a problem: My entire existence makes no sense.
Main characters who communicate almost entirely through cricket chirps and whatever sound a tumbleweed makes have always been something of a silly conceit. Yes, we as players are supposed to become the brain our scarecrow of an avatar sings showtunes about, but it's only possible to suspend your disbelief for so long in the face of complete silence. On top of that, it's generally pretty boring -- especially in the context of highly scripted, otherwise character-centric stories where everyone else acts like you're Mr/Ms Charmer McCharisma.
Don't get me wrong: If Gordon Freeman ever speaks, I'll hold the world's entire supply of crowbars hostage until Valve's act of sacrilege is nothing but an unpleasantly unholy memory. However, as a general rule, I don't want to be the disembodied brain manning a floating gun. I can be me any time. Games give me the chance to think and act like anyone else.
And yet, the main character of Minerva's Den is one of my favorites of all time. He never speaks a word.
That's because Minerva's Den is the silent protagonist perfected. It creates a story in which a non-speaking main character makes perfect sense, and then it turns the whole thing on its head entirely.
I'll admit that I was initially skeptical. Incredibly so,in fact. The game unceremoniously sealed me inside the diving suit of some random Big Daddy, and chattering voices in my ear told me everything short of when I should draw my next breath. Translated from Big Daddy whale sounds, that's about as close to “Hi, I'm Every First-Person Shooter Main Character Ever” as you can get.
But, as I slowly unraveled the story surrounding a Rapture-running AI called “The Thinker,” I also sipped on a gradual trickle of information about the machine's creator, Charles Porter. I picked up plenty, of course, as present day Porter ordered me from place-to-place in an attempt to liberate his creation from Rapture's increasingly insane depths, but the more interesting tidbits -- as per usual -- came from audio recordings scattered around the crumbling undersea utopia.
Porter was a brilliant man. Incredibly ambitious. A pioneer of technology. But he wasn't just another top-of-the-heap, bottom-of-the-barrel Rapturite. Folks pointed out that he -- as a black man living in a time of heavy racial persecution -- refused to “splice white” for better chances of success. Meanwhile, he didn't merely want The Thinker to be a giant, talking calculator. He attempted to give it a crash course in humanity -- for better or worse -- while his closest colleague advocated adapting it for increasingly criminal acts. Ultimately, though, Porter used recordings that he made with his wife to give The Thinker an identity.
But then, Andrew Ryan's pesky case of homicidal madness struck, and Porter got hauled off under suspicions of treason – which, in post-craziness Rapture, translated roughly to “being alive.” But why kill a man when he'd make a perfectly good Big Daddy? And then, in that brief moment, it all made sense. Porter wasn't Porter. I was Porter, post-Daddification. The Thinker was only guiding me by reproducing a “familiar” voice: my own. Big Daddies, after all, aren't so big on sophisticated thoughts beyond “Help Little Sister” and “KILL EVERYTHING.”
In essence, I'd spent the whole game learning about myself. My avatar was – like me – completely in the dark about the circumstances surrounding the situation. So we had the exact same “Holy sh**” moment. My jaw dropped, and so did Big Daddy Porter's helmet grating... thing. His state of mind mirrored mine. Confusion. Amazement. Shock. Understanding. Grief.
Mostly the last one. After I toppled my/Porter/Big Daddy's arch-nemesis, Minerva's Den slid a final ace out of its sleeve. I picked up one last audio recording. It was Porter testing The Thinker's newly completed personality replication function. The subject? His wife. “No,” Porter's recording sputtered and cracked upon hearing her voice. “This isn't right!” “What's wrong, Charles?” Thinker-emulated Pearl replied. “Don't you still love me?” Then the recording came to an abrupt halt.
I walked forward. Eventually, I reached a wall completely coated in newspaper clippings illuminated by a nearly endless row of flickering candles. Also featured: a picture of Pearl smiling serenely while Porter held her close. And an apology note. Porter – long before he grabbed the nearest bathysphere to Rapture – had buried himself in his work, leaving Pearl all by her lonesome in London. There was also another apology – from the desk of Winston Churchill. Pearl, it explained, had died in a Nazi bombing of Britain – just before Porter had the chance to set things right. I may have been in a city under the sea, but I couldn't shake a sudden sinking sensation. My stomach felt like it had just consumed a thousand chocolate bars and then ridden an equal number of rollercoasters.