'Prototype' by Radical Entertainment
After eating Person of Interest #43 in my quest for revenge, the image of a teddy bear lingered in my mind's eye as I processed their consumed memories. "Oh good," I thought, "One of these people might be decent." I was tired of eating Nazis, you see. A few moments later, a baritone voice resounded:
So you place a hundred families with just as many geographic backgrounds in one, isolated locale for one reason — as a cross-section. Maintained objectivity. It helps if the test subject does not know he or she is taking part in a test.
Resignation takes its turn consuming me. Nearby hangs a GameStop poster that reads, in alternating text of red, white and grey: YOU'RE NEVER OUTGUNNED IF YOU'RE ARMED WITH KNOWLEDGE. Well, they're not wrong. An ocean of brown-grey industrial hell yawns out into the infinite void.
'Prototype' is an open-world game with two primary draws: 1) you are allowed to indulge in the old ultraviolence to a perhaps sickening degree, and 2) you are gifted some of the most satisfying sets of movement mechanics to ever grace a game (possibly the most satisfying, depending on who you talk to). These two elements combine to form an incredibly fluid experience of jumping, gliding, slamming down and eviscerating everyone in sight.
In 2009, this was enough; no mainstream title had yet captured this experience, at least to this degree, and it netted a cool million-plus in sales for its troubles. I myself pre-ordered it back in the day partially because I was so excited for the opportunity — I still even have my unopened Alex Mercer promotional figurine, though my younger self would be extremely disappointed to discover it'll only get me, like, ten bucks (at time of writing).
All these years later it's still fun to play, yet even for the time it was considered unpolished & ugly, and even the people who liked it would've hesitated to add it to their best-of-year lists. Actually, I'll go a step further: I'm reasonably certain that 'Prototype' is a bad game, and if you pushed me, I might even call it terrible. Its story, gameplay and open world are all threadbare implementations with seams visible from space. Playing it on a controller can be literally painful, with your hands mashing RT & A so hard so often you may feel as if your carpal's tunneling is pre-syndrome. It has two different collectibles, one of which is a "Hints" series you are unlikely to complete before the end of the game, and both of which are transparent incentives for the player to actually explore the world they've... well, "put together" is probably the most accurate phrase. (I have more, but I'll save them for later.)
It is, in sum, a solid core gameplay loop in shit packaging. Nobody with first-hand experience will dispute this. So why am I even talking about it? Plenty of games are like this, after all — even down to the in-game ads — and being overhyped is not enough to warrant scrutiny over others.
My thesis, then: This game touches the sublime, and it does so because it's terrible. Put your back braces on, everybody — we're about to unpack the hell out of that statement.
Let's go over the background first, because I find it interesting & it lends context to why the game turned out as it did.
Originally I assumed 'Prototype' was some kind of fake game — an experiment in adapting the legendary swinging mechanics from the 2004 'Spider-Man 2' game as a vehicle (pun intended) for GameStop ads. Based on the corporations involved, there may be a glimmer of truth to that intent, but for all purposes the real prototype (wink) — down to sharing many animations & at least one ability ("Critical Mass") — was 'Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction' from 2005.
Near as I can piece together, the story goes like this: Back in 2005, Radical Entertainment — fresh from the Hulk game following an acquisition by Vivendi Universal — managed to convince their publisher to let them start a new IP using the tech they developed for the Hulk game. This new IP — what would become 'Prototype' — stayed in development hell for the next few years:
Bennison had admitted to him that developing Prototype had been harder than they had expected, was taking longer than they wanted, and was costing more than they had anticipated.
Between 'Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction' and 'Prototype', Radical released a bunch of games that had nothing visible to do with either aside from being open worlds (one of them, 'Scarface: The World Is Yours', had the masterful absurdist touch of renaming "points" to "balls"; you score 200 balls by choosing intimidating dialogue, for instance, or 50 balls for shooting someone in the, er, balls (literally)). In 2007, 'Prototype' was announced with high-profile coverage from Game Informer (note how much Mercer's design differs from the final product). Then, in 2008, Activision-Blizzard fused into being from the smelting together of its many corporate tendrils, including Vivendi; Radical managed to be one of two surviving studios, apparently as some sort of industry-wide "gimme too" initiative to plunder Canadian development studios. Unfortunately for Radical, this came at a heavy cost:
When Activision Blizzard acquired Vivendi, any and all developers (as well as their projects) were subjected to review and many found their way to the chopping block. Not only that, [Radical] was to immediately become a first-party studio for Activision Blizzard, which could result in the publisher getting involved in all aspects of the development process […] According to a former employee, both the early conceptual Crash title and Scarface 2, which he claims was ready to go gold – a term used for the completion of a game that is approved to be manufactured – were slashed immediately.
Radical's acquisition was also ostensibly motivated by the need for a developer to take over Spider-Man duties from Treyarch — to that point the developer for most of Activision's Spider-Man, including the aforementioned 'Spider-Man 2' — as the latter had moved on to Call of Duty (the linked article mentions James Bond, but Treyarch only ever shipped the one title). From that angle, buying a career license studio with a matching proof-of-concept in the pipeline makes perfect sense. In another timeline, this all worked perfectly and Radical wasn't converted to a support studio after 'Prototype 2' failed to make Activision rich enough. Wayne Dalton — an artist for Radical at the time — shared images from a 'Spider-Man 4' game the studio worked on immediately following 'Prototype'; that game, according to him, ended up serving as the prototype (oh yes) for 'Prototype 2' (this image in particular is like a missing link between all these efforts).
But I'm getting ahead of myself; let's jump back to 2008. 'Prototype' by this point was in a rough state and had to be delayed. Features like online co-op and a hidden unlockable lore quest were cut, and the sheer scale of others — like the "750 possible combinations" of consumed physical traits, or a world that changed shape based on how stealthy or violent you were — were ruthlessly pared down (side note: this part of the story gives me immense 'Fable' deja vu — look up "Project Ego" to see some of the legendary shit that Peter Molyneux utterly failed to deliver).
This is likely where the ads came in. I say "likely" because extantly populous intelligence regarding specific business dealings for this game are, to be precise, "nonexistent". One can imagine Radical's management — seeing the writing on the wall — scurrying to convince everyone in arm's reach to give them money. Hey DC Comics, you did some writing work for us, want an incredibly conspicuous ad that coincidentally also gives us the illusion of legal muscle backing our totally-not-Carnage-from-Marvel game? Well, I can at least say with some confidence that it wasn't "artistic integrity" that put a Gold's Gym in Times Square (if that thing was ever real in real life, I will pretend to eat a real-life shoe). Alas, the fullest irony borne from these machinations of corporate history: The most visibly cynical part of this whole story was likely (to me, at least) just slapped on as "risk maintenance" so everyone could keep their jobs for a bit longer. Those GameStop ads could've saved lives!
At any rate, these are some pretty monstrous odds to quality, far beyond the kind even a game like 'Halo' had to overcome. And, well, I admitted it's a bad game, right? But it is interesting to note how a game about consumption was itself produced in an environment of entities endlessly consuming each other in their own quests for power. Let's call it an extension of Conway's Law.
Now that we've discussed the behind-the-scenes story, let's discuss the in-game story. Spoilers follow, but let's start with the opening cutscene:
My name is Alex Mercer. I'm the reason for all of this. They call me a killer, a monster, a terrorist. I'm all of these things. Three weeks ago someone released a lethal virus in Penn Station. I woke up in a morgue. Now I hunt, I kill, I consume, I become. I'm going to find out who did this to me. And I'm going to make them pay.
From the beginning you are informed that you are not the good guy. You are a literal monster on a quest for revenge, so stripped of humanity that you wake up with no memory and a name that sounds like a staph infection. You primarily achieve your goals by eating people, consuming them both in body (he can shapeshift into their forms) and mind (he can access all of their memories & skills).
The latent horror of the premise is that, as an amnesiac, Alex Mercer has no sense of self, yet his death-conquering power is leading him to literally embody dozens of murderous, psychopathic psyches — you are controlling someone with a transparently tragic fate. Indeed, Alex's first ally is his sister, Dana, who carries a palpably growing sense of terror at being forced to share a room with her brother — and that's before she finds out that he's taken up people-eating.
A decent chunk into the game, you're sent to get a tank. This involves a kind of fetch quest of eating people: First you must eat a military person to enter the base's outer grounds in uniform; then you must eat a military commander to access the base's interior; finally, you must eat a tank driver so that you can drive the tank to pick up someone important to your quest. Add to this the people you've already eaten — to a man, romantic for mass murder — and you're suddenly the gestalt psyche for a dozen or more war criminals. At this point, crucially, you as a player have also been at it for at least an hour, probably more — long enough to stop respecting the world as a living and breathing organism & instead view it as a mechanical assemblage of systems to freely manipulate.
The action music kicks in hard now. The story says: move fast or you'll lose. You are currently in possession of a near-unstoppable method of locomotion; you may try to avoid killing anyone, but soon enough a set of trucks will block your path, and the easiest thing to do is just roll straight over, inciting an explosion that obliterates anyone nearby. After that, why bother? The line has been crossed. You may just find yourself thoughtlessly crushing dozens of "innocent" people beneath your treads, their screams curdling with the crunches from their bones. Then the music breaks for a moment long enough for a horror sting to creep in — just for a few moments — before ramping back up to the dun-dun-dun-dun. You, trapped at the center of the hive mind for slaughter, rose to the surface just long enough to realize what prison you've built for yourself — only to be submerged once more, possibly forever. You descended into hell, and there you stayed. You never actually made it out of that military base.
In that moment, every aspect of play — not just the mechanics, but also the meta-experience of playing the game — unify into a single terrifying idea. This is one moment of the sublime, and it's easy as hell to miss.
The plot's big "twist" comes in several parts: first, you discover that you're not merely infected with the virus, but are in fact the living embodiment of the virus, and you only think you're Alex Mercer because he's the first person the virus consumed; second, you discover "the person who did this" and released the virus was, in fact, Alex Mercer, and you've been chasing yourself this whole time; and finally, you discover that he too was despicably evil, just like all the other people you've been eating — not just because he worked for the same company ("Morality wasn't my job. Modifying chimeric viruses was."), but because the reason you released the virus was some of the stupidest, pettiest shit imaginable: you got caught red-handed, and spiked the vial you kept as "insurance" out of spite. That alone, to me, marks you as more evil than everyone in the game combined; even the general that turned an entire backwater town into a petri dish for his own personal gain held the moral line that it was a "sacrificial lamb" to prevent exactly the thing you did. Imagine that — you are so incomparably evil you put into a positive light the people who confess to being so racist they can't not use the scientific method (!)
Oh, and they are racist, make no doubt about it. Leave aside that the military organization you fight is called Blackwatch — a neat side, but not the main dish. That "backwater town" experiment I mentioned before? It was to create a virus that targeted specific ethnicities, which is additionally horrific because it's the kind of thing our real-life government actually does — shit, the game's fictional experiment shares an overlapping timeline with Tuskegee (!!)
(Parenthetically, that virus turned a pregnant woman into an ageless incubator for new strains of viruses, which the government continued experimenting on for various other depraved reasons. One of these virus samples was the one Mercer released — the "Blacklight Virus", as it would come to be known and revered, was itself just another in an endless series of "prototypes" taken from the incubator. Irony time over; back to the racism.)
Against the backdrop of a literal race experiment, what I assert is the true intended message of the game becomes clear: Alex Mercer, a white man working for a white megacorporation, sets out to "fix the world", only to find out that the world only need fixing because he exists, and now it faces reduction to a single annihilated form — the hive-mind of
white culture the infected. Even your most seemingly benign actions near the start of the game — jostling with bystanders who get in your way as you run through the city — take on the grotesque property of having enabled the spread of the virus that — lest we forget — you released out of spite. Here's something I bet people didn't notice: The literal first thing you do after the introductory sequence (ending in your first consumption) is "go to higher ground". Why? The game says it's to get the lay of the land, but don't believe it. You do this because you're an airborne virus. Yes, even the movement mechanics are in on it.
You are not a victim; you are the victimizer. Realizing the full implications behind this is another moment of the sublime, and it's also easy as hell to miss.
I haven't gone into detail about the movement mechanics because, even though they're by far the biggest reason to play the game, as far as my wheelhouse of critiques are concerned they're merely a set of implementation details that happen to tie into the rest of the game in a thoroughly resonant way. Truthfully I think all games should treat their mechanics this way, but soon enough I will explain how everything good about this game is an accident, even when it was intended (and, for the record, I believe the tank sequence & the "airborne virus" reading are both intentional).
But the movement does have its own moment of the sublime, and the runup (this time) to it is what everyone who plays this game loves it for: As you gain power, your jumps and glides gain distance and speed, and the rhythms behind the movement accelerate in turn. Before long you'll find yourself zipping across the city — over rooftops and parapets, through tunnels and plazas — and you may notice your body tightening in tune with every leap and dash, your mind evaporating the barrier between you and the game. From the beginning you flit about as a god, and that sucks you in; then they make you even godlier. For me this effect was so striking that it's somewhat of the initial motivation for this piece. It is a rare game that can make me truly feel like I've entered into its world. Hell, most of my favorite games don't even try to achieve that feat.
I really do hope someone with more knowledge in this area can break down the mechanics in a more satisfying way. Maybe they already have and I'm incapable of finding it. Please let me know.
WHOA NELLY back up, did I just use the space immediately after discussing heavy racial shit to talk about how the main character is a god? Doesn't that seem... weird? Well, the game thinks so too:
I can understand it all. I'm supposed to do these things. But it's right. I can feel it.
When Dana looks back to see Alex gone, what does she feel? Relief that she's safe from her brother (for now)? Guilt for allowing her brother to become this monster? Guilt for setting him loose on someone else to save her skin? I really can't say.
Alex, meanwhile, is utterly transparent: He knows he's a god incarnate, and carries absolutely zero remorse for freely exercising his full destructive power. His only fear in this scene is that his barely restrained glee won't be reciprocated. And you, the player, have now been called out for enabling his megalomania just so you can feel good controlling him.
Have you heard of the concept of gamification? "It helps if the test subject does not know he or she is taking part in a test," indeed.
Enough establishment & positivity. What is the sublime? I will lean on this definition: "a greatness beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement, or imitation." Greatness does not imply goodness — let the phrase "greatness of evil" disabuse that notion. Rather it is the sheer enormity of an experience of encountering something so thoroughly beyond yourself that not only are you left in a state of awe or shock, you're in some way unable to understand what you're bearing witness to.
I have a theory, and I absolutely cannot back it up with anything hard, but it goes like this: The sublime can only be birthed by garbage. Quality begets itself, and quality is intentional; it follows rules and order, pre-determined by people who then channel them into physical reality. As we are non-sublime creatures, it is therefore impossible for us to not only pre-determine the qualities that lead to the sublime, but also to produce quality that naturally reproduces itself as sublime.
So how, then, do we ever manage to capture the sublime? The same way as the rest of the universe — by accident. We chuck enough shit at the wall that the smear marks connect to inform us of something we could not have perceived otherwise.
Everything I've discussed so far is about a well-intentioned game crippled by its own ambition. Nobody in 2005 Radical Entertainment pushed to create a new IP just so they could stuff it with GameStop ads; they did it to push the boundaries of what an open-world game could be. They wanted functionally infinite powersets; robust stealth with meaningful shapeshifting; dynamic cities that lived & breathed according to your will. Unfortunately, they forgot they weren't that good, and four years later, they shipped a game with almost none of what they wanted. They delivered an ocean of garbage instead.
That plot I detailed? Rich in themes and ideas, but low on execution. Major characters disappear without explanation. A core twist happens off-screen, and is never explained; the only set-up is a subtle blink-and-you'll-miss-it cutscene moment that relies on your familiarity with abilities you probably never used, because they're useless. There were apparently 17,647 lines of dialogue in the game, which is incredible because all you'll remember are the dozen-or-so pieces of woodenly scripted cutscenes. The voice acting is mediocre, especially from Barry Pepper, who voiced Alex Mercer. He's a fine film actor, but as many will point out, voice acting is a different beast, and Barry doesn't slay it.
The controls? Absolutely incoherent. Buttons do wildly different things depending on context, with no rhyme or reason as to why. Vehicles are slow and sticky & aiming is a crapshoot. The camera constantly fights you over even the simplest things. The "Web of Intrigue" — the game's representation of all the memories you've eaten — is impossible to navigate, making the plot that much harder to understand (even though there's not actually that much to understand...)
The action? Alex Mercer treats normal enemies like failed papier-mache, which is certainly satisfying, and there's an impressive amount of work put into all the different ways people burst into pieces in his presence — but most of your time you'll be either caught in stunlock by a series of rocket explosions and wild haymakers from tougher monsters, or off crying in a corner because your
God Meter health ran low from all that stunlocking.
The stealth? Absolutely laughable. You don't so much "sneak around" as you do "slam down into a military base at top speed & run bizarre circles around your prey until they dip out of a visibility cone". It is routine for you to "Stealth Consume" someone while their buddies, mere inches away, practically stare you down. You can prance around a base leaving craters with every step — guards will react! just not to you specifically! — before patsying a dude who's been picking his nose with his pals for the past twenty minutes. (Nobody seems to ever mind wrongly gunning down a brother-in-arms, but they are mass murderers, so that gets a pass.)
The graphics? They get more of a pass because the scale of combat on display was challenging enough for 2009-era computers & the cuts had to come from somewhere — but they're still ugly. One decision that absolutely baffles me is their building textures; like many games with performance budgets, they have low-resolution models for distant objects, but there's so little gradation between those and the higher-res models that loading one in (complete with fade-in animation???) is incredibly jarring, and makes me think they should've just stuck with the low-res stuff for everything. Here's a couple screenshots to illustrate the difference: