“That is not the question,” he said. “If he’s like a cat or a spider or a fucking wolverine, if he’s huge, if he’s tiny, if he can shoot flames or ice or death rays of vat 69, if he turns into fire or water or stone or India rubber. He could be a Martian, he could be a ghost, he could be a god or a demon or a wizard or a monster. Okay?”
“How? is not the question. What? is not the question,” Sammy said.
“The question is why.”
“The question is why.”
-Michael Chabon “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”
The question is why.
For James Heller, the “hero” of Prototype 2, the reason is pretty clear. While he’s in Afghanistan, New York City is again besieged by the virus that ravaged its streets in the first game. His wife and daughter are killed by a bunch of mindless mutants a few days before his tour ends. Alex Mercer, again with the scare quotes, “hero” of the first game, is blamed for this outbreak, so Heller’s why is one of revenge: to kill Mercer whose only distinguishing features include a collection of hoodies, and a teenager’s love for annoying sarcasm.
This revenge motivation is supposed to be an excuse for everything Heller does in the game. For the superpowers Heller gains – to battle a super mutant he’s going to need to have his own set of super-mutant powers – and for the carnage he inflicts upon the world. Heller is so blinded with rage about his loved ones that he’s perfectly willing to jump around the city murdering hundreds of enemy soldiers and civilians either intentionally, the player regains health via consuming people, or as collateral damage.
Wait, umm, wait, that sounds a tad problematic.
So, how do we justify that? If Heller goes on a killing spree, the villains, which also include the scientists and soldiers that make up the Military-Industrial funhouse “Blackwater,” must be evil enough to warrant this wide-scale destruction. They have to be evil in a way that seems unjustifiable, which unfortunately means being evil in a way that makes no practical sense. They have to be cartoon evil. (And just like this game, I’ve said “evil” so many times, it’s lost all meaning.) We see this in war games too: the Nazi villain is a staple because they represent somebody we can righteously hate. In Prototype 2 each new atrocity seems designed to outrage and shock. They have to run science experiments on people, bomb a church, and murder autistic kids for, like, no reason. Pains are taken to make them come off as THE BAD GUYS that I just stopped caring.
Nothing in the writing on the game suggests any nuance; all we’re ever doing is going to X to do Y because Z told us to. One of Heller’s abilities is consuming the memories of his victims. Why doesn’t Heller just consume the CEO of Blackwater? Because the game would be ten minutes long. So, instead, we get drip fed targets as a deus ex machina to learn about more targets. At times it seems like the game is going down the tired route of the old Nietzsche saying cautioning against fighting monsters, lest you become one. Even that idea is only mentioned when villains are monologuing (“You know Heller, you and I aren’t that different.”). It becomes clear the more you play the game that the villains are just there and you’re given a carte blanche to fuck shit up, because, why the fuck not? This game is a nihilist. It believes in nothing, Lebowski. Nothing.
Now I’m asking why I’m playing this.
The developers understand the joy in power fantasies – jumping around and moving through the city, whether through running up skyscrapers or gliding between building, is a pleasure that the game doesn’t indulge in enough. Instead we pound enemies with your mutant hammerfists or dismember the creatures that roam the streets limb by limb or impale enemies on your blade fist…things. There is no catharsis. This isn’t like the explosions that follow the carnage in Just Cause 2, another open world game about taking down a regime. Nor is there the “All the Greatest Hits” appeal of playing a licensed superhero game (Arkham Asylum, Spiderman 2: The Movie: The Game) that has years of thematic weight from another medium to coast off of. Prototype 2 offers streets filled with blood and the occasional chance to take down a helicopter. I’m afraid that isn’t enough for me anymore.