Man, Jade Empire is like premature ejaculation. Just as you’re starting to enjoy yourself, BAM! It’s all over. At least the credits had some funny bonus dialogue.
So, I saw Inception last night. Great movie, though I shant waste space here doing a review of it. Do check it out though–the premise is kind of like Psychonauts meets Oceans 11. The execution is more akin to Persona 4, and that’s the game I want to talk about.
You’ve heard of Persona 4, haven’t you? The shockingly popular PS2 RPG that proved that not only is the system not dead, but is still releasing games superior in quality to many of the big, next-gen titles in the same genre. Persona 4 ranks among my favorite RPGs–it tells a startlingly good story, has incredibly addictive gameplay, and–as any good sequel should–it takes all of the flaws of the previous game and fixes or removes them. Now, on the surface Persona 4 is a murder mystery RPG, plain and simple–but in case the title didn’t clue you in, the game really has more to do with Jungian Psychology than with murders.
Similarly, Inception has more to do with mind games than with corporate espionage (which is ostensibly the goal of going into people’s minds in the film). Once you’ve broken through the initial set-up, both stories involve a search for truth amidst lies and illusions constructed by the hidden desires of the psyche. They even feature similar themes and elements–Inception has a character who stalks the various protagonists through the mindscape in a murderous frenzy. This character is actually a semi-sentient mental projection that has grown out of Leonardo Di Caprio’s obsession, and only he can reign it in, but is unable to. The concept of facing aspects of yourself that you are afraid of or otherwise do not wish to face is a core conceit of Persona games, especially Persona 4.
Now, I’m probably going to do an in-depth essay or two about the Persona games, so I won’t spend too much time on Persona 4, though anyone who has played the game will get a double-kick of pleasure out of Inception. Instead, I’d like to talk about the concept that both it and the movie explored–that is, the idea of exploring a person’s mind. It’s a surreal notion, one explored many times in films, television, books and, of course, games. I mentioned Psychonauts before as a good example, but there’s plenty out there to feature delving into people’s unconscious minds. Its really ripe, interesting territory, and I would love to see it explored further.
Let’s have a little mind experiment. Let’s try to imagine what making a video game adaptation of Inception would entail. Now, without spoiling the film, this would be pretty difficult to do if we were just adapting the story of the film into game form. Instead, let’s do the smart thing, and take the premise, world, and setting, and see what we can come up with. Ready? Go!
If I were going to make a game of Inception, I’d do it in the style of the Hitman games. Each level in the game would be one mind, in which you are attempting to locate and acquire information hidden away. The movie demonstrated several ways of finding out where this information is hidden, and that variety would be the core of the gameplay. You’d have several possible routes you could take to acquire your objective–you could be stealthy, and sneak around undetected, ultimately trying to kidnap your target and squeeze the information out of him. You could be more aggressive, outfitting yourself with loads of weaponry and attempting to brute-force your way through a level (though the more destruction you cause, the more difficult it becomes, as more enemies would flood the area, just like in the movie.). Or, you could take the con-man route, and attempting to use charm, wit, and trickery to acquire information you desire.
Now, this is all well and good, but we’ve seen it before. It’s nothing new to be afforded multiple solutions to a single problem. Fortunately, our source material is rich enough to provide for all. In the movie, the Extractors (dream-thieves) don’t just enter a person’s maze–they actually build a labyrinth inside his or her dreams, to confuse their subconscious projections and to make it easier for them to navigate. So, why not make that a core gameplay mechanic? Before every mission, after learning what you are trying to steal, you have to construct the level from the ground up, drawing your own maze–a maze that takes more than a minute to solve. Building the level is almost as important as running through it–you have to account for the possibility of your cover being blown, of something going wrong, of having to pursue your target or avoid pursuers yourself. Later levels will include intense mental security which will require you to build in safe houses as well as environmental hazards to slow down your pursuers.
Then, the time limit. Time is an essential aspect of the movie–mainly, how much or little of it is left. The deeper into a dream you go, the slower time moves. So, levels would operate under a strict time limit. As you progress in the game and have to create more elaborate dreams–dreams within dreams–the time limit will change depending on how deep you are. You’ll have to balance between different characters, different timers, and different layers of security.
Of course, I doubt they’d do anything nearly as clever for a movie tie-in game, which is a shame. The games one can play in the mind are far more engaging than any others. It’s a pity we have yet to truly begin to play.