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Platforming and Politics in Shadow Complex

I finally finished Shadow Complex, getting 100% of the map and items. I enjoyed it a fair amount, though it does get samey after a while. The game is, in the end, more similar to Metroid than I first thought. While it begins like Out of This World or Flashback in terms of exploration and combat, it steadily becomes more like Metroid as your character becomes powered-up with various sci-fi gadgets. Running on water, triple-jumping--you name it. By the end you're zipping around the 'shadow complex' like a super-bouncy rubber ball, spraying bullets in all directions and punching people into oblivion with your bionic fist. Environments blur past. And although the gun-based combat is still at its core very un-Metroid-like, the super-powered-ness of your character eventually causes it to blur past as well.

The way Shadow Complex gradually morphs from a tentative, tactical exploration game to a run-and-gun shooter is interesting, though it betrays the fact that its visuals are not ideally designed for either style. As I mentioned in my previous blog post Shadow Complex's environments seem mostly designed to be taken in slowly, with lots of localized detail. Yet as the game gets faster the carefully nuanced nature of each screen becomes easily ignored, causing most environments to leave the same gray/brown impression. I had to constantly check my map in Shadow Complex, since often that was the only way to tell where the hell I was.

I never had this problem in Metroid, which always manage to separate each chunk of the game world with nicely distinct visual styles. Shadow Complex's more "realistic" visual aesthetic may look cool and more 'next-gen' than the 2D games that inspired it, but the net result is geographic distinction eventually stretches into incoherent mush. This is something nearly every other Metroid-inspired game does better than Shadow Complex. All the recent 2D Castlevanias, for example, have very clear environmental differences between map sectors. Leave it to the Japanese, I guess, to understand the value of iconic visual design and how it supports gameplay as a user feedback system. This is something that our Western obsessions with poly-counts and dynamic lighting get in the way of frequently, and it's one of the main things that, I think, separates Shadow Complex culturally from other Metroid-clones.

As for the story, I have to admit I was somewhat disappointed that the right-wing ideology I was bracing myself for didn't come off as strongly as I'd hoped. The only real evidence of it is fairly subtle, based on a few lines of dialogue you overhear at one point. It is between two enemy soldiers talking about "The Restoration", which is what they call their secret plan to take over America. The first step apparently involves "liberating" San Fransisco and New York, which one soldier says makes sense because those are two big cities "with governments that will want to hop on board as soon as we surface". The soldier goes on to explain how the rest of the country will probably have to be conquered by force, but that they first want to be seen as liberators and win some popular support. While most reviewers of Shadow Complex seem to have either missed or ignored this small detail (most people seem to think that The Restoration wants to nuke San Fran, for some reason) I took it to mean pretty obviously that The Restoration is some group of left-wing extremists, for whom the full cooperation of left-wing American cities (such as San Fran) is a foregone conclusion.

Unfortunately, none of these hinted-at politics fully surface in the end. Instead the game retreats to a highly generic characterization of its villains which feels more like a grab-bag of rotten politics both the (American) Left and Right can agree on... rather than anything which could coherently be called a political point of view. At the end, when the main bad guy gives his Big Speech, he rattles off a bunch of hogwash about America falling from grace and that it will be a great country again, thanks to The Restoration. He makes several references to imperial Rome and says America will be a great empire after they take over, sounding--and looking, thanks to the black uniform and red armband--more like a Nazi than anything else.

My first impulse is that referencing Nazism so heavily represents a retreat from any anit-liberal stance the game might have... though considering how both the Left and Right in the United States have appropriated Nazism to attack the other side, my assumption may be misplaced. Shadow Complex could easily represent for conservative players a typical right-wing fantasy scenario: the heroic fighting off of a left-wing conspiracy to take over the country in which the Left, finally, shows their true totalitarian colors. There is certainly nothing in the game to contradict this.

Hold on...

I just read the Boston Phoenix review of Shadow Complex, and listen to this...

There's not much to say about the paper-thin plot, but I should mention that Shadow Complex takes place in the world of Orson Scott Card's Empire series of books, a bizarre critique of the dangers of liberal political thought. Its antagonists are part of a left-wing organization called the Progressive Restoration whose aim is to overthrow the government and, it would seem, institute a policy of mandatory gay marriage and strict recycling laws.

Well well. Hardly politically neutral, is it? I'm quite disappointed, actually, that Shadow Complex couldn't have been more out-of-the-closet, so to speak, in terms of its right-wing ideology, even if it is merely inherited from Card's books. I think I would have been tickled to death by playing an unabashed right-wing Metroid-clone. That, at least, would have been less boring.

What bothers me more than anything is the seeming inability of commercial video games to address any political controversy head-on, to be upfront about advocating any political point of view. I mean, why not come right out admit what The Restoration stands for? Why tip-toe around what the book doesn't? Are they worried about alienating liberal gamers? They didn't alienate me. I still played it. I got 100% items, for godsake, and I had a ball killing endless streams of lefty no-gooders. Hell, if Shadow Complex taught me anything it's that the Left have some seriously cool robots, and that socialism is, apparently, functional enough to fund a terrifyingly advanced techno-army.

Even the most rampant homophobe would have to admit that shit is pretty badass.

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