Wot I Think: Family Guy - Back To The Multiverse
The Meg of gaming
It's something of a Herculean effort that has seen me get far enough through Family Guy: Back To The Multiverse (you can tell how proud people are of this - there's no official site, and developers Heavy Iron don't mention it on their site) to be able to let you know wot I think.
I like Family Guy. I enjoy it very much, in fact. I enjoy the process of being shocked or offended (sez the middle class white straight guy), knowing that the deliverers of the gags almost certainly hold no such unpleasant values. But I do wonder how we'll perceive the programme when we look back on it in twenty years time. Will we still see its non-stop roll of racist, sexist, homophobic and disablist jokes as self-protectively ironic, as arch commentary, or will it end up looking as archaic and embarrassing to us by then as 1970s sitcoms like Love Thy Neighbour do to us now? If anything helps highlight the fine line on which the series walks, it's seeing it done poorly. And yes indeed, Back To The Multiverse is it done poorly.
That's perhaps not too surprising - it's not as if there's a tradition of TV show-turned-game being anything other than abysmal (although we all desperately hope Obsidian's South Park RPG breaks this rule). But it is odd to see the pretty well protected Family Guy franchise being allowed to see release in such a state. Essentially a third-person shooter, it's obviously a wildly inappropriate genre for portraying a domestic TV show, a muddle reminiscent of those 1980s movie conversions that would see ET or whatever become a side-scrolling platform game. Taking its inspiration from one of the TV series' best episodes, Road To The Multiverse, once again Brian and Stewie use the transdimensional remote control to skip through various universes, this time in pursuit of Stewie's arch nemesis, Bertram.
Why they're chasing him I'd forgotten about two hours into the game. He's dead by the TV show's canon, but this is a version from another universe, trying to get revenge somehow or other. So the dog and baby team have to pursue him through the multiverse, allowing the game the chance to wildly change locations, while making it feel ever-so-slightly less weird that the characters are endlessly killing people. So you begin at a universe where everywhere is a frat party, and there murder college students, before moving on to an Amish community, where you naturally murder bearded Amish people. And by the third level it's a world where disabled people have taken over...
Where Family Guy throws away an offensive gag, your role is to wince, possibly laugh, and shake it off in time for the next one. Where Family Guy's game includes an offensive gag, you're required to be complicit within it for as long as the level lasts. So while the TV show may be able to get away with referring to a dimension where disabled people got "so much special treatment" as a momentary shocking thing to say, as a level in a game it's just uncomfortable. It would also be a lot more bearable if it were especially funny. Instead, without any humorous motivation, you're shooting people in wheelchairs and on crutches (admittedly made of rifles) with a shotgun, watching them slump dead in their chairs, or topple to the ground. Now, I'm all for greater representation of disabled people in gaming, but when these are people depicted as struggling to walk, shooting at them makes you feel a bit of a dick. And this takes place in streets covered by banners and signs for the "CRIPPLED PRIDE PARADE". Er, if disabled people are dominant in this society, why are they having Pride? Do the writers of this game think gay people are the majority in our dimension? At least make your weakly attempts at offensive jokes make some sense.
The game doesn't make it worth struggling through for the few jokes that are there. The enemy AI is just insultingly poor, the kinds of things I haven't seen in a long time, enemies running on the spot into pillars or walls, standing on the spot facing you doing nothing, and endlessly spawning in mad crowds that bang into each other. It's utterly pathetic. The interface is similarly poor. 360 controls, for which it's clearly designed, feel clunky and frustrating, while mouse/keyboard hasn't been thought through at all. It's hideously poor at reacting to clicks, especially when pulling up the weapon menu, meaning you'll likely get killed a few times because you were holding the wrong weapon type and it wouldn't let you change. And while the game claims to reward you for headshots (more money to spend on the almost entirely pointless extras, which can be maxed out far too early on), it is absolutely dreadful at recognising when you've done one. And there's something horribly, horribly wrong with the graphics. The characters have these weird ghostly outlines, broken and cheap-looking.
You alternate between controlling Stewie or Brian at will (or if you can sucker someone into playing in the same room as you, make it two-playered) - and no, they don't even bother to try writing AI to control the second character for single player - instead they're just offscreen and uninvolved until you swap them out. The only reason to ever need to is for the unutterably tedious sequences that require a special weapon. Sniping with Brian is the least dreary, but Stewie's explosives prove the game's most abysmal challenges. You're supposed to throw them via an arching targeting arrow, but it's so hideously coded that it doesn't recognise solid objects in its path, and your angle of view is so low as Stewie that you'll likely not be able to see to aim anyway. So it's just brilliant when the game asks you to take out the same sets of turrets to blow up a tank you've already done three times in a row. Most levels are dragged out by similar repetition, each feeling Sisyphean before they finally relent and reward you with a boss fight that inevitably involves nothing more than repeatedly shooting at an enemy until his health bar goes down.
I've just looked up how far through I've gotten - seven levels of ten. I've no intention to carry on any further. Every minute spent playing this game is hurting my enjoyment of the TV show too much - were I to carry on I'd resent it so much I might even consider watching The Cleveland Show instead. Yes, it's that serious. I was making note of all the groups the game tried to make offensive comments about as it went along, but someone else will have to complete that for me now. I had: Greeks, Armenians, Jews, Hispanics, the Amish, Mexicans, women, the disabled, and gay people. Although I'll say this for it - so far no rape jokes, and only one appearance of the whistling pedo, whose comments barely made sense. So there's that. But at this point the game seems to have even given up with that - the last level was about sodding pirates, and this one is about Santa. Snoooooorrrre.
That's perhaps what's actually offensive here, beyond how inept it all is: the multiverse offers such amazing opportunities. The TV episode gave us so many wonderful cartoon references, not least the exceptional Disney sequence:
Maybe it brings out some vaguely novel ideas in the last moments of the game, I'm buggered if I'm going to find out. But when they have most of the regular cast, including Seth McFarlane recording lots of original dialogue (even Adam West and Adam Carolla show up, as well as the excellent Wallace Shawn as Bertram), it's just idiotic that it was all used for such shamefully mundane levels. This could have been a chance to pastiche gaming in the same way as Road To... pastiches cartoon. It could have been an opportunity for brilliant inventiveness and inspired extremes, alongside all the shocking comments you'd expect from Family Guy. But you get the Amish and pirates, and not a single original thing to say about them.
It really does seem that one of Family Guy's secrets is the brevity of its gags. Trying to drag any of them out into a full level forces them to ring hollow, and either become just plain unpleasant, or more commonly reveal themselves are damned boring. The fantastic 2009 episode on which this is all based lasted for 22 minutes, firing dozens and dozens of gags. Here most levels drag on for much longer than that, and each has scant few attempts at laughs, let alone successes. On face value this is a dire game, both mechanically and imaginatively. But worse, this is such a blown opportunity on such a massive scale - the huge talent of the FG voice crew, and the foundation of that wonderfully explored relationship between Brian and Stewie, and every last moment of it is utterly wasted. Well, apart from the bit where Lois says, "Any of you boys ever finish on a C-section scar?" Apart from that one line, utterly wasted.