I love moral ambiguity in games. I love characters who struggle with intense yet believable emotions, and who are conflicted by their actions and beliefs to the point that they nearly destroy themselves. I love the simple humanity of this, and I love it when this is set against a bleak, gritty setting that offers scope for exploring the darker side of human nature without being too pretentious. I’ll take a plot where simple people tear themselves apart over one in which heroes save the world any day.
I finished playing Iji the other day and it fits that characterization well. Here’s the trailer:
And, here’s why I liked it:
The game begins with the world’s destruction in a massive alien assault. Any hope for a happy ending is gone before you it has a chance to materialize.
Iji wakes up in a lab in an underground base, having been modified by now-dead scientists with game necessary but plot irrelevant nanotech. She’s confused, lost, and angry at the world in a hopeless, self defeating way. Even worse, she shortly discovers that her brother is still alive, but, though he tries to help her, has become hardened and cold, and expects Iji to get over her fears and save the world.
The basic premise isn’t particularly novel, but the way Iji plays out really works. The insanity of the situation she’s in isn’t dismissed as irrelevant with a short angst session early in the game, rather, she breaks down and cries from stress at various occasions, and it just works. She’s not a hero type, she’s just a person, stretched to the emotional limit.
I just loved this – I can’t recall ever seeing a game in which the hero breaks down and cries over their victims. Probably no surprise given the constant reminders that she’s slowly turning into a killing machine. As you play, you pick up logbooks left behind by aliens; early in the game you find a diary entry in which an alien scout waxes lyrical about his lady love, stationed elsewhere in the facility. You can imagine that this doesn’t turn out well.
Anyway, I won’t go into any more detail for fear of spoiling things, but this was one of the most emotionally satisfying games I’ve played in a very long time.
Most of the levels are somewhat linear with occasional secret areas. What’s interesting is that you can approach them in several ways. By no means do you have to go on a rampage, killing everything in sight. In fact, it may well be to your advantage not to (certainly, in the later levels you’re almost forced to just run away from things lest they set you on fire). Furthermore, the game’s weapon options allow for a variety of different tactics in confronting your enemies.
Even more interestingly, though, you can play the game as a pacifist. That is, you can make it through the whole game without killing more than two of the game’s several hundred aliens. Unsurprisingly, this results in the plot taking a fairly different direction.
With a range of different weapons combined with various special abilities and an attribute point system, Iji creates a wide range of options for the connoisseur of killing. Different weapon choices require different styles of play, and not all weapons are effective on all enemies. Multiple weapons aren’t special in themselves, but few games use them to produce diversity of play in the way that Iji manages to.
In some games, only the boss fights require much thinking and observation in order to determine how to defeat a given set of enemies, but in Iji, this is frequently the case. Even on normal difficulty, you have to use your brain.
x-posted in a bunch of places