This is the first half of a two-part series on Daniel Remar’s Iji (2008), a game I’ve wanted to dig into for a while. I’m playing violent and pacifist runs simultaneously. I’m not all the way through yet (just hit Sector 8). I’ll aim for a broader contextualization in this week’s post, then dig deeper next week, once I’ve (hopefully) seen everything there is to see.
Iji was released as freeware in 2008, one year after 2K Boston and Ken Levine released Bioshock. For a while, Bioshock was the conversation. Clint Hocking, who read Rapture as a manifestation of the shortcomings of Randian Objectivism, invoked the phrase “ludonarrative dissonance,” citing an inconsistency between Bioshock’s constricting overarching plot and the player’s “choice” to spurn or spare the slug-brained Little Sisters. Basically, ludonarrative dissonance is when plot says one thing, and gameplay says another. Or more specifically, when the unchangeable story says one thing, and the dynamic, player-affected narrative says another. Years later, Hocking’s phrase still creeps around the conversation, and Iji reminds me of Bioshock in a number of ways.
Let me count the ways. Bioshock and Iji both have two distinct approaches to weaponry. The first is introduced in the early game and is more traditional, in the vein of shotguns and assault rifles. The second, which consists of Bioshock‘s plasmids and Iji‘s Komato weaponry, is mystical and futuristic, informed by science fiction and genetic engineering gone wrong. Both games allow the player to be either ruthless or merciful, though in different contexts. Iji allows you to progress without killing anyone, while Bioshock dehumanizes everyone in Rapture with the exception of the Little Sisters, whom you can slay or save. In both games, some of the most interesting narrative bites are optional and peripheral. And finally, Bioshock proclaimed itself a spiritual successor to the System Shock series, while Remar cited System Shock 2 as his most important influence.
If there’s any ludonarrative dissonance in Iji, it’s in the fact that you spend much of the game improving skills that largely contribute to soaking up or dishing out damage, even as you’re given the option to completely opt out of all violence. But just like Bioshock, Iji makes violence feel good. And just like in Bioshock, the visceral reward of a shotgun’s exceptionally designed feedback mechanism often overshadows high-minded narrative arcs or environmental portrayals of dystopian philosophies. There’s not much use in philosophizing about the reduction of perfectly capable humanoids to clumsy bits of flesh, but man, sometimes that stuff just works.
In Iji, like in Bioshock, you master the hardware of your enemies. There’s no real human weaponry. Your skill in a weapon set is labeled as either Tasen or Komato, the two offending alien races. If you take a combative approach, you’re essentially choosing which enemy to emulate (or you can choose to emulate both of them). Either way, through violence, you become the enemy. The music is absurdly effective, as it compliments the militaristic play-through with sick, driving kicks and dirty, industrial metal riffs.
There’s been some talk lately about how violence in games can feel really good, but then make you feel bad, irritable, maybe even a bit dirty, afterwards. Most reviews of Max Payne 3 are laced with this sentiment, though it’s allowed to surface in varying degrees. It’s probably at its most unabashed in Tom Bissell’s piece:
“Let’s also not kid ourselves about what happens even to a sane, well-adjusted person after an entire day of watching faces get shredded by bullets. I played Max Payne 3 in two long sittings. After the end of my first sitting, which lasted around six hours, I went to a dinner party with my girlfriend. I was, she reports, “mouthy” and “agitated” during our dinner, and she wondered what had gotten into me. What had gotten into me was that I was shooting people in the face all afternoon.”
Bloodlust seems to be an inherent part of the design in a game like Max Payne 3. The player is manipulated, yet complicit, in the slaughter. This is the arrangement you accept when you fire up your console. There’s something of a critical backlash going on against this particular type of engagement that probably ties into the shooter saturation that plagues the triple-A industry. Michael Abbot is somewhat optimistic about the current state of affairs, arguing that it’s “High Noon for shooters,” and the genre is on its way out of fashion. Of the smattering of E3 articles I’ve seen, the ones that aren’t justifiably condemning the event’ s pervasive misogyny are expressing a sense of exhaustion and disillusionment with the dull, desensitized state of the triple-A hemisphere.
Iji‘s not like Max Payne 3, and it’s not just because of a graphical discrepancy. Shooting is the most viscerally rewarding part of the game, but you’re allowed, even encouraged, to not shoot. The action is there, but you can sprint past it without ever pulling the trigger. And though Iji does make violence feel good, walking right past it can inexplicably feel just as good. Many games begrudgingly allow for a pacifist run, but Iji‘s architecture actually supports a peaceful play style. The sloping, angular level design alternates between straight ledges and smooth diagonals, elegant in the way it allows you to avoid combat without breaking the game. Other characters, with the exception of a few, can’t jump or hop down, so their attack is limited to the elevation on which they’re standing. This means that if you can get to a platform that’s a bit above or below your enemies, they can’t touch you.
Iji‘s pacifism is a strange beast. Neither crafty nor stealthy, it’s frantic. Curiously, the more peaceful approach makes for a faster paced experience that’s less contemplative. The plot is colored by bits of background information, revealed in text logs scattered throughout the levels. But combat isn’t courteous. It doesn’t stop and wait for you to catch up on your reading. As a pacifist, since you can’t clear a room, you’ll have to either opt out of a lot of narrative exposition or end up on the wrong end of a plasma cannon. The choice between violence and nonviolence is less tank or stealth, more platformer or shooter. The odyssey of the pacifist is a frenzied ballet of jumping, crouching and sprinting.
I’ve been nursing my violent and pacifist runs side by side, one level at a time. I’ll take in a new environment by killing everything in my path. Then, I’ll revisit, leaving all of the level’s inhabitants untouched. Switching back and forth between my two saves is sort of like watching Tony Soprano eat pizza with his kid and apologize for his anger management issues in one scene, then pump bullets into some young twenty-something in another. Playing Iji in this way creates a kind of dissonance that’s different from the one Clint Hocking talks about. My two Ijis are dichotomies that make sense to me within the context of the game’s universe, just like Tony Soprano makes sense, once you slip into his world.