****WARNING - SPOILERS FOR BIONIC COMMANDO (2009) FOLLOW****
In a previous blog post I explained why I felt Grin's Bionic Commando was a well-designed 3D update of an old school classic, in spite of getting a bum rap from critics. Now that I've finished the game I feel like defending another aspect that's gotten pummeled by the gaming press: the story. While I'm not about to claim the story for Bionic Commando isn't silly, I don't find it to be nearly as random or meaningless as critics have claimed. While it seemed disappointingly slight for most of the game, I have to confess that the ending--while abrupt--did have a certain, unexpected dramatic logic that put the rest of the plot in perspective.
I had read several reviews that cited the ending as being sudden, stupid, and meaningless. So I was preparing myself. Although I disagreed with most critics about the gameplay, the criticisms of the story as being adolescent, techno-futuristic military nonsense didn't seem so off. A certain level of kitch was undoubtedly intentional (this is a sequel to a game that featured purple Nazi's and an undead version of Hitler, after all), but I can't say I cared for the overtly and seemingly un-ironic tone the game was striking as a macho power fantasy. It's hard to use kitch as your alibi when your protagonist is constantly screaming like a roid-raging jock ("Yeah, suck on that!") in a way that is obviously meant to be a "reward" for the player. That's never how I imagined Spencer when I played the original NES game as a 12-year-old, so playing Grin's update was a mixture of pleasure at seeing the world and characters extended but also frustration at seeing them fall victim to modern video game stereotypes. It also didn't help that the actual plot seemed to involve very few meaningful events and in general advanced very little over the course of the game. Basically the whole game boils down to you finding and stealing this weird canister that Super Joe wants, and then being betrayed by Joe who defects to the terrorists and uses the canister to initiate some weird master plan--called Project Vulture--which is never really explained.
Given the thin narrative set-up and obnoxious protagonist I wasn't holding out for a very satisfying ending, but I found myself liking it. It was indeed abrupt and the twist with Spencer's wife was goofy, but... I dunno. I guess what I liked was how the game built up to a simple, emotional moment and then just ended. I was thinking the whole game that the plot seemed strangely in the background, like there was all this complex stuff going on but it never really seemed to manifest in any coherent way. Although I'm sure lazy writing and a "game first, story second" development mentality probably contributed to this feeling, it all suddenly seemed to make sense given the climactic final moment.
If you look at Spencer as someone who really doesn't care about a goddamn thing except finding out what happened to his wife--not about what Project Vulture is, not about who the mysterious sniper is, not about Mag, not about saving the country--then the final sequence, where he chases Joe into the sky for apparently no other reason than to force him to explain his wife's death, makes a certain amount of sense as a narrative climax. The fact that Emily was somehow "used" to create Spencer's arm had been obviously hinted at, and in light of reviews I'd read I expected the reveal of this plot point to be a big, cheesy display. But it wasn't. I liked how Spencer screams at Joe to tell him what happened, how Joe refuses, and how Spencer smashes his face into putty and crushes the mysterious canister in a selfish rage, causing a massive explosion. You get the distinct impression Spencer killed Joe and wiped out his army not for any greater good but because of sheer personal hatred. It's an unexpected moment that almost makes the goofy story feel character-driven.
I like how they never say straight out what happened to his wife, and I like the implication that, in the end, Spencer knows but doesn't want to face it, which is why he kills Joe. One of the reasons this seems like an interesting ending, rather than a cop-out ending, is that it isn't twisted into some feel-good Hollywood resolution. The only resolution is Spencer finding out what happened to his wife and then losing his mind as a result. It's not even clear whether or not he lives in the end. The final shot is of him falling silently to earth, assumedly not caring whether he lives or dies anymore. For such a macho game, which tries so hard to ape the feel of hyper-masculine Hollywood cinema, the sudden nihilism of the ending is striking. Most video game badasses don't end up being consumed by their own hatred and committing suicide an instant before the credits roll.
If I were to give the writers more credit than is due (and I probably am, but what the hell) I'd say that Spencer's relationship with his bionic arm--and the player's relationship with the arm--is intended somewhat as an expression of his relationship with his wife. One thing that stood out for me was how Spencer's characterization in-game was different than in cut-scenes. In cut-scenes he's always sullen, but in-game he's always screaming his pleasure any time he does something amazing with the arm. For a guy who hates his life he clearly loves to swing around, take giant leaps, and soar through the sky. The first time he sees the arm he smiles, suggesting that--even though he doesn't give a shit about Joe or the mission--the thought of being with his arm again is enough to win him over. As both the cinematics and gameplay constantly remind you, his arm is the only thing that makes him feel alive, which, in light of the final plot twist, appears to be a subtle kind of foreshadowing.
I feel moderately embarrassed defending the narrative and thematic virtues of Bionic Commando. On the surface the story is both slight and silly, and the game's muscle-bound macho-man attitude is not something I'm a fan of. However, I do think the ending is weird enough, and the story decisions probably deliberate enough, that it's fair to take the story (just like the gameplay) on its own terms and accept that perhaps there's a method to its madness. I'm not arguing for it being art so much as I'm arguing that the story and themes are not devoid of logic or purpose, as many reviewers have suggested.
I think, ultimately, what I liked about the ending is how, in its overwhelming of gameplay logic with dramatic logic, it hearkened back to the original Bionic Commando, moreso than Rearmed did. Rearmed was a great remake in many ways, but one thing I didn't like is how it turned the emotionally-fueled finale of the original into a series of "proper" gameplay challenges. The original Bionic Commando's ending was great because it wasn't hard, but because it gave the player a series of easy challenges that seemed motivated by nothing more than the dramatic momentum of the story. Destroying the Albatross, killing Master D, and escaping the complex were all easy, hence there was nothing to distract you from the dramatic feeling of the moment. The final sequence of the next-gen Bionic Commando, with you soaring into the sky after Joe, dispatching winged goons on the way in marvelously epic fashion, offers the same sort of dramatics-over-gameplay thrill. There is no "proper" last boss fight in Bionic Commando like there (disappointingly) was in Rearmed. There is just the final confrontation with Joe, in which all of Spencer's pent up angst--quite literally--explodes.
One last thing: the stuff with Spencer's wife's brain (or brain pattern--it's kind of unclear) being "used" to make his bionic arm is indeed silly, but I suppose I don't find it as shatteringly dumb as some people do because it seems derived from the metaphysics one often finds in Japanese science fiction (remember, although Grin is a Swedish developer, Bionic Commando is originally a Japanese franchise, and Capcom was involved in the production). Specifically it reminded me of an anime I saw a long time ago called Roujin Z, about a medical robot "possessed" by the dead wife of the old man it is caretaker of. The notion of the mind, the self, or the soul being embodied in a machine and connecting with another person's "soul" through some technological interface is common in anime/manga sci-fi. It's the entire basis for Ghost in the Shell, the seminal Japanese cyberpunk that Grin's Bionic Commando owes more than a little to. I'm not claiming that it's brilliantly written, but this plot twist does not seem like random bad writing to me so much as a symptom of the East-meets-West genre cross-pollination that, in general, makes Bionic Commando more interesting and quirky than your typical Western action game.