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Wot I Think: The Fall

Totally rewired

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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