Wot I Think: The Fall

By Alec Meer on June 20th, 2014 at 7:00 pm.

The Fall is a game in which an incomprehensible and bad-tempered Mancunian drives an infinite parade of session musicians into despair.

No, sorry, that’s wrong, The Fall is a game in which Gillian Anderson adopts an almost impeccable English accent and tries to catch a serial killer while uttering cryptic and/or highly assertive bon mots at dipshit police officers.

No, sorry, sorry, The Fall is a sci-fi point and click adventure with shooty bits in which a fancy survival suit’s AI tries to overcome the three laws of robotics in order to progress through a dangerous facility and save its injured human occupant. I spent a great deal of time swearing at it, but I loved it anyway.

Usually, a game protagonist saying or doing the opposite of what I would say or do in their place is a source of frustration – the game’s creators ripping control away from me in order to ensure my adventures can only really be their adventures. We’ve seen games play with this concept, either laughing at its absurdity (The Stanley Parable) or spinning it into allegory (BioShock, or the abortive attempts at it in Far Cry 3), but The Fall experiments with another way to own this innate restriction. You’re playing as a robot.

You have to follow rules – protect and never harm humans, don’t lie, obey hard-programmed protocols. So when you run into a problem that free will would overcome – telling an untruth in order to pass a ridiculous test, for instance, or removing the hand from a corpse in order to activate a fingerprint scanner – it’s a little different from the standard “I can’t do that” or buzz-click error noise. You can’t do that because you are programmed not to do that. The Fall’s question is, then, can that programming be overcome?

Relying on its own version of Asimov’s three laws of robotics makes for an excellent get-out-of-narrative-jail-free card, but this is not to say that The Fall’s elaborate puzzles always cleave to a strict internal logic. Very often it tumbles into the old ways of adventure games, where the character arbitrarily refuses to interact with an item because the game knows it’s not relevant to a puzzle, so you have to experience the cognitive dissonance and implied fourth wall demolition of your character silently knowing exactly what’s required.

An example of this is a puzzle which requires repairing a piece of wire in order to turn a room’s power back on and thus scare away light-resistant space-slugs. You have a wirecutter in your inventory, you’re surrounded by pieces of disused machinery and electronics which surely contain any number of wires you could snip out and patch into the generator, but no, you can’t interact with any of that stuff. Instead – spoiler alert for one puzzle here – you have to shoot out a ceiling tile, from which a corpse tumbles, from whose pocket a solid gold coin falls, which after a pretty lengthy trek can be hammered into a wire-like shape at the workbench, which then be popped into the generator. Lights, slug-scaring, action.

It’s a well-designed puzzle which requires using much of what the game’s taught you to that point – non-combat uses of the gun, combing the environment carefully for tiny but vital items, memorising the location of potentially useful machines, the slugs’ photophobia – but it’s completely undone by the fact you have a wirecutter in your pocket and there’s a dangling but mysteriously untouchable cable mere footsteps away from the broken generator switch.

I’m sorry to have spent so many words talking about one puzzle, but it’s too highlight what most frustrates me about a largely pretty damn brilliant game – it’s gone to great lengths to come up with ingenious and thoughtful puzzles, but is so hung up on such precision and lateral thinking that it closes the door on straightforward logic. This isn’t a comedy game with an incorrigibly foolish protagonist – this is a game starring a being of pure logic. There’s another one where you have to take a shower in puréed fish guts in order to deter another fish from attacking you, rather than just carry the fish said guts came from with you.

Similar folly extends to many puzzles being dependent on tiny visual cues – e.g. a briefly sparking bit of ceiling – which are easily missed and result in a complete dead end until you find them. Several times I found myself combing Steam forums for hints, and not once was my reaction to finding them “Oh, what a fool am I.” This is because I am the cleverest man in existence and could never be a fool no matter what, but it is also because of haphazard signposting, an element of pixel-by-pixel searching and too much dependence on arbitrariness.

That’s four lengthy paragraphs of moaning, which would usually mean I’m headed towards a conclusion which details how poorly I think of the game in question. In this case, not a bit of it. I might have turned the air more shades of blue than a Smurfs vs Avatar vs Braveheart vs season 2 Tobias cosplay convention while I was playing, but I don’t regret a second of it.

The Fall does remarkable things with atmosphere and minimalism, and implication rather than preaching. The persistent darkness and emphasis on sinister silhouettes adds to the uncertainty and danger conveyed by the moderate amount of well-done dialogue, while the single-mindedness of an AI protagonist who believes it is doing the right thing even while doing some terribly, terribly wrong things to achieve them is powerfully destabilising. There’s a pervasive nastiness to the setting and to your actions, but it’s realised in a way that’s quietly and cleverly unsettling rather than outright gratuitous. Meanwhile, enough of the puzzles are defined more by ingenuity than frustration, and by being in keeping with the game’s theme and plot (i.e. finding the dividing line between a machine’s duty and a machine’s self-interest), that the determination to push on and see what it asks of you next is absolute. Some of the pay-offs are great, too.

The shooting bits don’t succeed quite so well, although their inclusion does help keep the pace sparkier and the tension higher. They’re just one way in which The Fall reminds me of the old Blade Runner game – fascinating, pacey explorations of identity and AI into which fiddly action scenes didn’t quite fit. The controls are still and unwieldy, a cover and stealth system feels under-developed, and the checkpoint save system meant frowns when I had to repeat long sections of rote droid-shooting. On balance I think the game’s better for having that stuff, but given this ends on a slightly maddening To Be Continued… I’m very keen that the gunplay is more fleshed out next time around.

I’m even more keen that there is a second time around, as by the time this first act ends, we have a fascinatingly corrupted hero, a stack of tricky questions and a setting and theme rich with dark potential. The Fall drove me spare, but I highly recommend it.

The Fall is out now.

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30 Comments »

  1. disconnect says:

    CLICKER CONSPIRACY

  2. Saarlaender39 says:

    Ah,…the wonderful Mark E. Smith.
    I actually like some of his songs.

  3. DrollRemark says:

    Any time The Fall gets mentioned, I can only think of this:

    http://i4.photobucket.com/albums/y136/StrangerInAStrangeLand/fallviz.jpg

    • noom says:

      I often accidentally call Mark E. Smith Mark E. Moon. I think I may be confusing him with Ban Ki-Moon, who I’m relatively sure hasn’t been in the Fall.

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        Xantonze says:

        I call him Mark E. Mark, so there’s that.

      • unit 3000-21 says:

        Maybe you confuse him with Television?

        • noom says:

          Well, seeing as the extent of my familiarity with Television comes from listening, ironically enough, to former Fall member Marc Riley’s show on 6 music, this is a distinct possibility.

    • Artiforg says:

      Whenever the Fall are mentioned it reminds me of this:

      Curious Orange from TMWRNJ

    • The Random One says:

      I just think of Warren Ellis’ weird police comic Fell.

  4. jonfitt says:

    How do the shooty bits compare to Gemini Rue? I thought that was a not bad implementation of shooty bang in an adventure game.

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      G-Lord says:

      If you take cover (and you should) it actually feels quite similar to the Gemini Rue shooting sections. It’s a bit more action oriented though, relying on good aiming.

    • AyeBraine says:

      For me shooty bits were just a well-paced, organic interludes for the uninterrupted quest experience. They are fluid, good-looking, easy, and very satisfying. When it came to one particularly bad character, I actually kept stuffing him with bullets, just out of indignation, when he was already dead. That’s a good sign, I think. Or blind-fire when you rush ahead in a mixture of fury and confusion, just sorta roleplaying it unconsciously.

  5. Chorltonwheelie says:

    Incomprehensible only to fools.
    Bad tempered with those who deserve it.
    Good luck if you meet any band members after calling them ‘session musicians’.

    “I spent a great deal of time swearing at it, but I loved it anyway” ah, sorry you’ve met Mark.

  6. Convolvulus says:

    Why would “light-resistant space-slugs” react to the power being restored? And isn’t this game about a stunt man in a convalescent hospital who befriends a little migrant worker with a broken arm?

  7. Dog Pants says:

    I’ve been enjoying this. Despite the looks, it feels very much like a point-and-click. I can’t add anything else to what Alec has written, I agree on all points.

  8. MuscleHorse says:

    Haha, RSS readers still show Alec’s more aggressive attack on fans of MES. I was outraged-ah.

  9. wldmr says:

    Totally off-topic but could Gillian Anderson’s “almost impeccable English accent” be in any way connected to her having grown up in the UK?

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    SuddenSight says:

    I loved the intro, but was sad that my first association (the surrealist tribute to stuntmen and lying to little children) was not included.

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      All is Well says:

      Sadly, nor was the season or any reference to Jens Lekman, who popularized the whole concept of being confused about the fall.

  11. His Divine Shadow says:

    Sadly, “the fall” is way too generic to pun about, but I’ll comment anyway, as I’m off put by the mention of the checkpoint scarcity.
    Really, unless cheap artificial forced-replay difficulty is absolutely important to the game design (e.g. Dark Souls), not having manual saves is simply disrespectful to the players. Yes, it’s not a glamorous feature, and is pretty hard to program and test comprehensively, but it’s just as important as, say, supporting mouse controls (e.g. Dark Souls)

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      tigerfort says:

      I didn’t think the checkpoints were too bad, personally (and speaking as someone who has perma-ragequit more than one game over bad checkpointing). Although I only died a couple of times, so I might have missed a lengthy one. Definitely got far more frustrated by a couple of the logic-resistant puzzles (notably the one Alec mentions where you can’t simply take wire from the surrounding dead machinery) than the checkpoints.

      • His Divine Shadow says:

        thanks for the info. I’m still unsure about whether I want to play it, but it does sound like, while potentially a bit sparse, checkpoints are not too big of a problem overall, and to be frank, despite what I said, I mainly commented to make a pun (which was admittedly a bit too obtuse)

    • AyeBraine says:

      Did you actually die in this game?

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    soulblur says:

    “I am now covered in a sticky substance that smells like fish innards”.

    Yeah, me too mate. Great Friday, what? Think this belongs in S.EXE.

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    fupjack says:

    I read the intro paragraph part about the actual game – robot suit with injured occupant, and for some reason remembered the now-20-years-ago comic The Coffin.

  14. GernauMorat says:

    Reminds me of the Banks short story Descendant

  15. fenriz says:

    back in the days we never cared about such a cold logic, we never QUESTIONED it. we “trusted” the game because every game has its own logic. Who cares as long as i can click on stuff. Why do you do it today? How did we get so whiney?

    Who cares that you think you can do something in your own, simpler, logical way.

    Going nuts about a puzzle is gratifying, and that’s all that matters, it’s more important than following a frigid logic.

    Accepting illogicity as a different logicity was really mind-broadening(don’t judge other ppl, try to understand their pov, be humble), that’s what was good about 90′s “graphic” adventures.(among other things ofc), that you could only click and try to understand its madness by obliterating your identity, you had to bend yourself not the spoon.

    But no. I want to do things my own fucking way, wah wah.

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      Harlander says:

      I’m pretty flabbergasted by your contention that complaining about stupid adventure-game puzzles is an new phenomenon descending from some latter-day failure of moral character.

      So befuddled that I temporarily lost the ability to use short words

  16. AyeBraine says:

    I must say that I didn’t utter a single bad word while playing The Fall. I was too busy falling into my own head, because this game found a way to produce a compressed version of basically every human drama (love vs duty, life’s goal vs principles, conscience, self-deceit, internal change and all of the other tricks in a writer’s book). Moreover, in AI-speak, every teary-eyed cinematic finale (“I couldn’t save her!!!” — “Yes, and for that I will kill you and eat you”) fits into a couple of terse, brutal sentences. Heavy stuff. Mind blown, all of the best heartstrings plucked, thoughts seeded.

    As for gameplay itself, I found it very rewarding. I think it’s much closer to Another World (where you learn the game mechanics but every situation is different), a story-driven experience.

    And I am quite BAD at puzzles (though i love quests), but I solved everything myself. Except for one thing with red liquid, that’s a strange puzzle. Whenever I was stumped and running around, it added to the perversity and eeriness of the experience. I am sort of a jaded and impatient gamer (grown a little tired of “just” playing and overcoming challenges, in for scripts and atmosphere mostly), but there wasn’t a moment where I was mad at the game.

    So I heartily recommend it to anyone who emphathizes with the tragedy of the very fact of robotic existence. Era of evil AIs who are just people-who-talk-funny is coming to an end.