Monday, January 5, 2015

Iron Helix

In my time playing video games, there have been a lot of games I've played that were...forgettable.  They weren't bad games.  Bad games are actually pretty memorable.  I've played the Nintendo Entertainment System Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game, and it was awful.  I played King of Kings: The Early Years and I'd easily rank it as one of the worst games I'd ever seen.

I've also played BubsyAero The Acrobat, and the first few Bloody Roar games, and even though the last one was a tournament fighter where people would turn into giant animals partway through the fight (spoiler alert: whoever turned into the beast form first usually won), if the game actually somehow came to life and murdered someone, I wouldn't rely on my being able to pick it out of a line-up.

"Sorry, Detective, but that could be any game where a cat girl punches another girl transformed into a giant bunny."
Now, there are some pretty mediocre games I've played out there that I remember fondly.  Usually, though, they have a gimmick or plot twist or something unique in game play that stands out for me.  For instance, I have fond memories of both Oni and Bloodrayne, but they weren't exactly "the best games of the year."  Or even close.

Then there's Iron Helix, a game that probably very few people remember, but one I've held on to for years past my ability to play it on any PC I've owned, simply because I loved playing it so much.

Let me start to tell you about the game, and tell me when you figure out how you play it.

"Okay, the game is called Iron Helix, and-"

"It's about Russia and genetic super soldiers that you have to fight, right?  DNA, helixes, all that?"

"No.  Anyway, in the distant future, there's a cold war-"

"Is it about Russia at all?"

"No.  There's a cold war between humanity and a group of aliens called the Thanatosians.  They-"

"Oooh, they must be scary monsters with a name like that.  It's a space shooter where you kill aliens in a war, right?"

"No.  Anyway, during a routine target practice on an uninhabited planet, a spaceship called the O'Brien, carrying a super-weapon, somehow becomes infected by an alien virus.  Th-"

"You have to get on board the ship and shoot all the mutants.  It's Resident Evil in space, right?"

"No.  See, all of the crew are mutated, and the security drone on board the ship can no longer identify them as human, so it starts exterminating the crew."

"Ooooh, so you're one of the just-infected and you need to escape a bunch of robots on a ship to get to the computer core to shut it down while looking for a cure?"

"No.  The crew being wiped out, the ship's computer calculates that it must have been an act of war, and winds up picking a nearby peaceful planet named Calliope as the target of the weapon it has on board, the Iron Helix, a device that can exterminate all life on the planet.  It starts heading towards the planet to launch the weapon.  If the planet gets exterminated by a military ship, the war will go hot and billions will die."

"So you're essentially Commander Shepherd from Mass Effect, building up support, gaining allies, and attacking/boarding this ship while fighting killer robots and whatever mutants managed to hide."

"No.  You're on the scientific exploration ship Indiana, and you're the only ship nearby that can possibly do anything.  You're essentially a VW Bus, but you're the only hope against a spaceship the size of at least four aircraft carriers."

"So you go on board the ship and-"


"No?  It's a space shooter?"

"No.  You can't board the ship without possibly being exposed to the virus.  Instead, you control a small robot meant for zoological studies and send it aboard to try to shut everything down."

"Does it have weapons to shoot enemy robots?"

"No.  In fact, any time your radar shows that the security drone is nearby, all you can really do is run away.  In certain areas you can trigger traps to destroy the drone, but then you only get five minutes before another drone is launched to hunt you down."

"So it's a stealth game.  You can simply avoid the drone the whole time."

"No.  Activating certain controls will alert the drone to your presence, and it will immediately leave the area left behind to follow you into the new area."

"So, uh, it's puzzle solving, then?  Redirect vents, get elevators working, jump gaps?"

"Not really.  You have to explore the ship until you find the sleeping quarters of specific crew members.  Their DNA and access codes give you the ability to explore deeper into the ship and open doors that require specific clearance to open."

"Well, it's a video game, so you probably have all the time you need, right?"

"Nope.  There's a time limit that represents how much time you have before the O'Brien reaches the planet and launches the weapon."

"Well, then it's probably like most games these days, and you have unlimited probes you can launch into the ship."

"No.  There are three robots you can control, and you can only launch them and control them one at a time.  Fortunately, if you get the data from one robot, the information is then stored in your master computer so any other robots you need to launch has the same information."

"So you're a scientist.  Who controls these weaponless robots.  To explore essentially an empty ship and avoid a security robot so you can gather DNA, listen to video and audio recordings to get access codes, and, what, try to cause the ship to self-destruct?"


"At which point you're a hero?"

"No.  At which point you return expecting a hero's welcome but instead get thrown into an interrogation room by the military official who's been giving you orders this whole time in order to find out how much you learned about their super weapon."

"And then the game ends?"


"But, it's 1993 graphics, so it must at least be like Descent where you get a neat full screen view of everything an-"


"Yeah, most of the screen was filled with the buttons telling you which way your robot could move.  All six of them."

"That game could never survive in today's market."

"No, it couldn't."

Okay, conversations with imaginary people aside, here's what I loved about this game.  It didn't rely (much) on twitch-controls, pressing buttons quickly in order to blow up everything around you without being scratched.  It was an almost literal game of cat and mouse, where you had to explore an area, and if your way was blocked by the "cat" then you had to figure out a strategy for getting around it (or through it) without putting yourself in too much danger.

I know people acclaim Dead Space as being a great "atmospheric" game in space, but once your character has a gun I think a lot of video games lose their "atmosphere."  If I can shoot the terrible thing hunting me in the darkness, then it's not as scary.  Moving through an empty spaceship, knowing that if you fail a peaceful planet dies and a galaxy goes to war, that's enough pressure on its own.  Throw in creepy empty hallways on a "sterilized" ship (I put that in quotes since you technically are collecting DNA samples, so it's not bleached clean or anything) and listening to the voices and watching the videos of the people who previously lived there before they were transformed and destroyed...

Well, that's atmosphere.  It's you against an otherwise unstoppable force with only the ghosts of its former crew being your means of stopping it.

This is the game I was hoping Alien: Isolation was going to be when it was announced.  Just you on a ship, listening to audio logs, watching video logs, and trying to get through security levels while an unstoppable murder machine actively hunts you.  Then they threw in some combat and I sighed because, well, in today's world nobody would buy a AAA game if there wasn't the ability to shoot a gun.

But I'd still love something like this to be made again.  Just you, your wits, and a goal as you wander through the belly of a space dreadnought, with no tools of self-preservation, only your head and the ability to use the things around you as tools.  Something in the darkness is tracking you, attempting to kill you, unaware of your goal and not carting at all about it, just doing what it does out of its own nature.

Who would have thought putting a ray gun as long as the Burj Khalifa is tall would be an issue?
That would be an outer space survival horror game.  Put the emphasis back on "survival," leave out the "bang bang kaboom splat" bit.

Here's my pitch.

Your name is Murphy.  You and some friends of yours managed to win passes on board the maiden voyage of the Quetzalcoatl, because you can't just always name ships after American stuff.  The ship used to be a huge military transport/station, but has since been converted over for civilian use once a major war came to an end and new technology replaced old technology.  The station still has a military presence on board, but it's like how Deep Space 9 held a lot of banquets and had a lot of civilians on board.  Or that the Enterprise was sometimes used to shuttle around dignitaries and civilians, but was often called in to war.  It's if Carnival Cruise Lines bought a Nimitz-class craft.

During the maiden voyage, the ship is suddenly attacked by separatists of, well, either your own side or the enemy's side who feel the peace treaty was unjust and that the other side still needs to be punished.  The military forces on board are killed, but during the fight old security systems are enabled.  A series of lethal machines are unleashed and they start exterminating everything on board that they don't recognize as being part of the original crew.

You, fortunately, are found by the commander of the friendly military forces and he shoves you into a storage locker before being killed by the machines or the enemy or something.  A couple of days later, an explosion rocks the ship, freeing you.  The commander's long range communicator crackles as someone is trying to contact the ship.  You answer, and learn that the ship has picked up from its last mission, which was to resume attacks on enemy strongholds, but the nearest one has long since been scrapped and is now a major tourist destination.  In fact, the reason the station chooses it is because the ship was already scheduled to stop by to drop off passengers and pick up new ones.

If the ship gets there, it could use the weapons systems that are slowly coming back online (both from its own attempts at repairs and the remaining separatists attempts to claim the ship and activate the systems they want) to cause the deaths of untold numbers of people before any other ships could get there and stop it.  It could easily start the war over again.

Oh, and the ship has disabled all communications, so you can't just call out for help to warn anybody.  Any time the station gets hailed, the AI on board simply broadcasts out a "nope, everything's fine" message.

You need to get to several places: the command center, the computer core, and the engineering levels.  You need to sabotage them with the help of the voice on the other end of the communicator.  You're able to use the commander's ID and credentials to get past the first door, but an encounter with hostile forces causes you to lose them.  You get to the next door, only to be told that security is denied unless you have an ID card of people of a certain rank.  You find a machine willing to make new ID cards, but it requires a voice sample and DNA sample to authorize the card being made.  You have to start exploring the ship, finding diaries, voice mails, and anything from hairs on a comb to an old bandage in a trash can to start rebuilding ID cards allowing you to move on.

As you go, you have to avoid the separatist forces and the machines hunting anything still alive.  You can pit one against the other, possibly by luring them into each other.  This will lower the number of forces you need to deal with, but will leave them on higher alert.

And no, you can't just take one of the enemy's guns and start shooting it.  Why?  Well, because it's the future.  The guns are keyed into...I don't know, brainwaves or fingerprints or something, so only the intended person can shoot it.  Like how Judge Dredd's gun can't be fired by anybody who isn't authorized.

All you have with you is a small robot "toy" you're able to give crude instructions to.  It's the newest craze among kids, so there are some scattered through shops on each deck, but there aren't an unlimited supply.

As you move through the ship, you're able to figure out crude tools and devices you can cobble together in order to distract or (if you're lucky) take out some of the forces.  A fire extinguisher system designed to seal off a room and remove all air will help deal with some separatists when you're able to use a remote control to turn up the speed on a piece of exercise equipment, cause a short, and have smoke emerge from it to trigger the alarm.

A security droid can be lured to follow you into a room with a tram, at which point the toy you set up can be remotely triggered to activate the propulsion system and crash the tram into the security droid.  However, the noise will alert other nearby forces (living or robotic) to come investigate.

And of course, as you explore, the voice on the other end of the communicator coaxes and encourages you, and seems to know more about the ship than it should.  It knows where computer consoles are located.  It knows when you need to run and when you need to hide.  In fact, it's almost like it can see you...

Of course there would be a huge plot twist partway through because you can't create a AAA game without one of those, either, and I'm already taking away the ability to shoot guns, I can't take away the ability to try to predict how I'm going to pull the rug out from under you.  However, I'll keep that plot thread to myself for now.

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