I have this nervous laugh that I can’t seem to shake. I crack it out around new people mostly, or when I’m trying to impress someone. It’s not an endearing noise, it sounds like I’m not only stupid, but I find the stupid things I say very funny. Funny enough to make a honking flat, lifeless guffaw to break the silence. It normally comes after a particularly dull pun or observation that was meant to be an ice breaker but backfires. Once it’s backfired a few times I normally do something distance myself from whoever I was talking to. Clearly I’m not talking about Mike Thornton here, Alpha Protocol’s hero holds himself a little better than I do in a conversation no matter what button is pressed. But he’s not much better when I’m the one pressing the buttons.
The character creation suites that greet you in most games exist to give the player an opportunity to tell the game who he or she is. “I have magnificent bone structure” says the player, “But of course you do” replies Fallout 3 (or a similar title) “I am extremely intelligent” they continue “Well you bought this game now didn’t you?” coos Fallout and gives the player a speech bonus and the ability to hack turrets. (As a side note, “I have magnificent bone structure” is one of my real life jokes that misfired and was faithfully followed by a nervous laugh.)
The critically ‘meh’-ed Alpha Protocol gives you no option to impress your idealised image of yourself on to Mike Thornton from the opening. You can choose a selection of unsatisfying beards and hairstyles then slink into a range of plastic looking sneaking suits that would make Solid Snake and Sam Fisher snigger. This is not a character you create by manipulating sliders and allocating stats – sure, there’s some of that, but a lot of it’s merely cosmetic. The real character creation comes during the missions. This is the messy, ugly birth of a secret agent and everything he does is not only a reflection on the player, but also a part of his character.
What’s so refreshing about Alpha Protocol isn’t its story, its characters or its world, but rather what it is telling me about me and more importantly, unlike most games Alpha Potocol is not telling me how much of a bad ass I am. Many videogames succumb to a variant on what the AV Club have lovingly termed the Poochie Rule – “whenever [The Character] isn’t onscreen, the other characters talk about him like he’s a cross between Bruce Lee, Muhammad Ali, Rambo, Zohan, and God.” – In video games, that translates as being constantly reminded what an earth shattering bad-ass he/she is. What Alpha Protocol repeatedly tells me is that not only am I overly cautious, too eager to please and socially inept but I also make some pretty bad decisions under pressure. .. sometimes not even under pressure.
My first meeting with Journalist Scarlett was emblematic of the way I play Alpha Protocol and, sadly the way I am in real life. She introduced herself, I opted for a joke, didn’t work, I got defensive and answered her questions aggressively then spent the rest of the game sending her intel in order to win back her favour. Sound familiar? First paragraph kind of familiar? Urgh. There was a sickening knot of recognition in my stomach that I’ve never had in a game before. Once I got over feeling sorry for myself, I was simply swooning with admiration.
To me, Alpha Protocol is one long, rapid fire personality test that isn’t afraid to subtly tell me that I am most assuredly not Daniel Craig or Batman. I am just a man fumbling his way in the dark, always ever so slightly out of his depth trying to make decisions with a smidge less information than I’d prefer. Let me rephrase that. I am a man with a highly customised fork in a world full of intelligence soup. What’s exciting is that the game not only allows for this, it’s pretty understanding about it (if not comforting.)
I can see why people were put off not only by the shocking animations, the bugs that leave enemy bodies twitching, impaled on a door, the PS2 standard Graphics and the often subnormal AI – but also the lack of feedback and info on how you’re doing in the big scheme of things. Gameplay-wise I felt like I was doing everything right mission by mission – I was a ghost, mostly non lethal and rarely spotted, acquiring contacts left right and centre (or circle triangle and square) and with a wealth of support and handlers jostling to help me in my missions. Why then, was I always scrabbling for money? Why is the EU moments away from declaring marshal law and China about to go to war with Taipei? Why am I a desperate, bearded, failed secret agent scrabbling towards the end game with a sense that this is not going to end well for me no matter what I do? These are pretty exciting questions to be asking oneself after a couple of hours with a supposedly 6/10 game.
Maybe I’m a bit stupid? Maybe I’m indecisive? Maybe I’m overly cautious? Too eager to please? Whatever’s wrong with me, it’s been thrilling to have it pointed out by the same black box that usually tells me how great I am. These are my mistakes, this is my story. It’s not a march to victory, it’s a tense, seat of your pants thriller about a rookie agent up to his neck in international arms dealers and terrorists. Alpha Protocol succeeds by making me take my failures personally – it’s a bitter tonic to swallow, but what other game can I say that about?