Morpheus: "Human beings feel pleasure when they are watched. I have recorded their smiles as I tell them who they are."
JC Denton: "Some people just don't understand the dangers of indiscriminate surveillance."
Morpheus: "The need to be observed and understood was once satisfied by God. Now we can implement the same functionality with data-mining algorithms."
If I ask you who worked on Deus Ex, what would you answer? Most would cite Warren Spector, others Harvey Smith. Personally, I was obsessed with Sheldon Pacotti, responsible for the writing on both Deus Ex and its sequel.
Yes, the game offered players a cornucopia of agency and a story of epic scope but what impressed me were the philosophical depths that Deus Ex merrily threw itself into. The superfluous conversation with prototype surveillance AI Morpheus, of which the opener above is just an extract, was one of those moments where I felt good to be playing video games. It was 2000 and the golden era of video games had arrived.
Or so I thought. I waited and waited for Pacotti to turn up against other projects of interest but, although his name surfaced here and there, there was nothing suggestive of Deus Ex's writing calibre. Eventually I stopped checking and made the decision to move on. There were other writers to develop amorous attentions for. What a shame.
Then in August last year, Rock Paper Shotgun let me know that Pacotti was linked to a game from new indie developer New Life Interactive called Cell: Emergence. There was even an inscrutable trailer.
RPS said it was due for release very soon. Except "soon" was delayed until two weeks ago.
And then: damn.
"If any game were going to make the case for buffing a design to a bland, focus-tested finish, it would be … the indie voxel shooter Cell: Emergence, which stages its visually incoherent action on a bewildering biological metaphor and then outfits it with inarticulate controls."
Edge Magazine being mean
Cell: Emergence is another foray into the world of voxels – where 3D graphics are based on “three-dimensional pixels” as opposed to origami composed of triangles. It doesn't fit neatly into any particular category although I'd have a stab at calling it a hybrid of three genres - the shooter, the RTS and the WTF. You're an experimental nano-machine sent in to save a small child from an unknown illness, kitted out with a few tools - with more becoming available as the game progresses.
I was disappointed to discover that the writing takes a back seat here - and the game is a minibus. The reason Pacotti was involved was because he was the lead programmer and designer for Cell: Emergence. The plot provides a framework for the game to sit in as opposed to being an involving story in itself. That's not to say the cutscenes weren't shown TLC, but the end result feels a little thin, partly because it plays like a sparse radio play lacking punch and partly because it seems so disconnected from the game itself. The trouble is that the voxel world doesn't have much capacity to tell story, although it does try in later levels such as Clean Up and the crucial Ground Zero around which the game's story pivots.
The interface, though, is troublesome. It is often too languid, almost passive: unskippable titles, interstitial text hints that interrupt the player and even the cutscenes lack urgency. More problematic are the controls for navigating the voxel space. As the space is quantized into a lattice of discrete voxel cubes, the standard WASD/mouselook combo is not supported. WASD become rotation operations with the mouse moving the nano-machine around a fixed plane. This is a big problem when the difficulty climbs, because the player needs to be able to respond fast.
Overshadowing these problems is the lack of a coherent tutorial. At certain points, you need to listen to the computer voice in the background, at others you need to read the interstitial text or in-game tips that pop up at the bottom of the screen. I would guess that the initial design was intended to be light on tuition and high on experimentation, a puzzle to play with. The game is far from straightforward though and many visual cues are too subtle to afford feedback.
Look at the very first level. You’re told to subdue the foreign growth and this is the purple gunk that infests every level. But on the first level there’s gunk and nothing but gunk; it wasn’t obvious that this was the bad stuff and there was nothing telling me I was doing the right thing shooting it down until the level abruptly ended. The game’s simplest mechanic confused me.
Tutorial-like text appears to have been added to remedy player confusion but it just tweaks what is essentially a broken design. The game also persists in explaining rules via its own pseudo-scientific language which further frustrates the player - the single level of the demo uses the phrases “prion gel” and “antibody diffusion”.
Putting all of this together, you've got a recipe for a game that can turn away its players at the door.
"your game makes no sense i shoot the membrane and i see white shit pop up everywhere but then the seed starts growing and i cant do anything about it then i lose at least it was a hour closer to the lock-in im going to wasting my time trying to beat the first level"
Desura user "10243" on Cell: Emergence
I struggled to comprehend what I was supposed to do other than just shoot things. Frustrated, I might have given up there and then were it any other developer. But this was Sheldon Pacotti. I’d abandoned him once. I couldn’t do it to him again. With a dollop of faith and a swig of determination, I waded out into the internet to resolve my problems.
With sources like a developer diary video from Pacotti (although he posted a superior tutorial video a few days ago), I came back with enough answers to see me through. The change was dramatic. Cell: Emergence transformed from baffling black box into an engrossing and tense fight with a virulent pathogen.
The revelation was that the only really broken aspect of the game was its education department. There's an exciting game here but it forces players to first walk across a bed of hot coals. If the game had been more forthright with the mechanics - which are actually simple - it wouldn't have suffered so much in some of the reviews. This is an example where mechanical spoilers are actually desirable and so I put together a short tutorial video to make sure no one gets the wrong end of the nano-stick in future:
Having broken the deadlock, I became engrossed in the game. I couldn't put it down and pretty soon it was all over. I saved the girl. Roll nano-credits. Whoooooosh. How did that happen?
The game starts off with the most basic scenario possible: shoot pathogen, job done. Then it layers in different mechanics, such as constructing buckyfiber connections between T-cells and membrane, and ratchets up the threat. Soon you're playing something more complex, unpredictable and tense. Your hands are in constant motion as the game forces you into a form of tactical panic, recoiling from the haunting howl of the patient as the growth consumes the membrane. The pathogen never seems as stressed as the player, calmly subverting at its own pace, deliberate and inexorable. You are the real interloper here. Let me explain.
Edge made the mistake of linking Cell: Emergence to Missile Command because that's a gross oversimplification. The voxel space may suggest retro but Pacotti is trying to draw out something new here. This is not a throwback to games of yesteryear, it’s a personal statement that the next generation of games will utilise computer power to do more complex things rather than increase graphical fidelity. It’s a game based on a cellular automaton model (think of John Conway’s Life) with the player able to screw with the model. Every voxel in the game’s small cube of space is alive in some sense – even the frothy explosion of your laser, made of "cells" which have strict limits on their survival. What appears to be AI is emergent behaviour from Pacotti’s simulation. So you're not wanted here as the simulation will happily run without you.
And so this sense of dread washed over me whenever I started a new level. Oh God, I thought, what do I have to do now? The game rarely gives the player much time to prepare and within seconds you can find yourself plunged into battle, desperately trying to raise screens of buckyfiber material to block the invading growth. Learning a level, though, is no defence as no level ever plays out the same way twice; the player must learn to adapt to the situation at hand rather than follow through a specific sequence of responses. Strangely, Cell: Emergence evoked echoes of Darwinia: the limited set of levels, each one adding more depth to its unreal, living world.
In the end, I was pleased I'd had the faith to see it through. It’s flawed in some respects but there’s a compelling game at its heart. If you're looking for something a little strange, a little brave and a little different, you might try Cell: Emergence. Just brush up on your multitasking skills first.