Hey all, back to my usual weekly structure after the resolution of May Madness and the comparatively less insane alternative E3 irrationality. This week's game Binary Domain - Sega's dumb action movie take on heady Isaac Asimov ideals - manages to raise an excellent and intriguing notion between characters wondering out loud if that's a control panel over there and teaching players to scream obscenities into the mic to piss off their AI comrades: That is, the flexibility of automaton antagonists. Robots come in so many different forms that a game like this can have a field day with its enemy design, drawing from animals and their bestial behaviours, random grunts, random grunts with shields, zombies, colossi and others.
I'm just going to be checking out a smattering of the different types of robots featured in this game, as well as examples from other games of a similar sci-fi predisposition towards multifarious mechanical malcontents. Wordplay!
Servants & Companions
The game goes about quickly establishing the grand, grand majority of robots as harmless servile entities happy to do the housework or automate our radioactive food-processing facilities. The Alfies and Bettys (the cute names derived from their Alpha and Beta designations) you meet throughout the game are almost always completely docile; killing them might be construed as cruel, or at the very least a waste of ammo and an indication that you're perhaps getting a little too jumpy. Then again, the game gives you every reason to be paranoid of every android you bump into, so it might simply be testing you. I played enough Jedi Knight to leave the Gonk bots well enough alone in case the game docked me light Jedi points for causing harm to an innocent, and I guess it kind of stuck.
The friendliest robot in Binary Domain is, of course, the all-purpose combat robot CN-7. Otherwise known as Cain, he becomes an integral party member for much of the middle part of the game, always answering you and applauding your efforts in his mildly condescending yet perfectly polite French accent. Like with the other members in your squad, maintaining a high trust level with him pays dividends in the late-game.
Other notable examples of the friendly companion robot include: C-3PO and R2D2 (of course), Anachronox's self-aware and increasingly irascible PAL-18, 50s' "super robot" Thursday, Clank, Robo, Chibi.. Heck, they're legion. Who doesn't want a robot buddy?
When designing a robot, specifically its function, it's a fine idea to look to the animal kingdom for sterling examples of natural design. Most animal species have had millions of years to perfect the function of whatever role that animal takes in the greater ecology of their environment, and while many don't apply to what we need robots to do (manual labour, let's say), there's a lot to inspire would-be robotics engineers. From a slightly less practical perspective, animals make for good, unpredictable nemeses with their inhuman movements and capabilities and developing a game about killing only robot animals is way more conducive to not getting your house burned down by eco-terrorists. (Though the chances are they'll simply just make terrible parody games involving tofu instead.)
Binary Domain presents several robotic animals, including an utterly implacable Gorilla bot that refuses point blank to take a hint and stay down. Through a slightly aggravating boss battle to a gauntlet of traps that culminates finally with you taking it out with a mounted gun, the simian simulant puts up a good fight and then some. You'll also see small robotic spiders (a mainstay of many a sci-fi game, especially the Minority Report and Chronicles of Riddick games) as well as one stonking great huge one, smaller ape robots that surround and pummel you, an elusive cat robot confusingly named after a mythical dog, a lifter/crane that transforms into a scorpion and something that's a cross between a squid and a chandelier. It's complicated.
Robot animals, especially ape-like ones, aren't new to games in general either. Almost all the Robot Masters of the Mega Man X franchise are animalistic in some fashion. The risible Rise of the Robots had an ape robot, for "lifting", and there have probably been more Spider Tanks in games than is perhaps healthy (including FF8's XATM-092, which I wrote about as part of a horribly mis-named Chase Boss article). Also, who could forget Grimlock (of "me Grimlock King!" fame) and many other electrical thunder lizards seen in too many animes to count? Why would you clone dinosaurs when you could just make robotic ones?
Perfidious Puppet People
Binary Domain's key plot elements are the "Hollow Children" and the globally-prohibited process of creating human-like robots that are indistinguishable from the actual thing until they start peeling their fake skin back like evil robot Bill and Teds. Robotics have been restricted to an extent that stops any AI from growing too intelligent (a concept the game, and other media that deals with the same idea I suspect, names the "Frankenstein Complex") and the game follows an anti-robot special task force as they take down a Japanese company that is purposefully disregarding this law for unknown reasons. But that's about as much as I'm willing to go into plot-wise in case I get too spoilery.
Robots posing as humans have been a thing for a long time in speculative fiction. Perhaps the best example is Terminator, though the movies tend to dilute the horror of a pitiless robot that you thought was a human tearing things up with the fact that everyone (including the audience) quickly figures out who the assassin automaton is (though his memetic alloy replacement provides more question mark moments). Blade Runner is a clear inspiration too, as is Snatcher; Hideo Kojima's earlier video game take on that movie. Binary Domain's robots aren't quite as insidious as Snatcher's eponymous bioroids - like many of Blade Runner's replicants, the Hollow Children aren't actually cognizant of their non-human origins - but there's plenty of the same skin-deep body horror that the game plays around with.
There's quite a few sci-fi-themed games that'll drop a drama bomb by exposing one of the cast as a realistic humanoid robot, which may or may not be evil. I'd give you examples, but I would get busted almost immediately by the spoiler cops. I don't want to give too much away, but those guys are all about the police brutality. Oh Hell, I wasn't thinking.. I CAN HEAR THEM HAMMERING ON THE DO-
Fight A Giant Spider In The Third Act
Acclaim and approbations to any who get that sub-title. One thing Binary Domain does amazingly well, if in concept but not always in practice, is set up some memorable boss fights. Robots can be as big as you like, given that it's probably less complicated to have a giant robot performing a difficult task than it is a much smaller one with less circuitry to go around. As such, many of the boss fights in Binary Domain pit you against something truly colossal. While the spider tank and helicopter bosses are present and accounted for there's a few other remarkable outliers, such as a giant roadster robot that takes up the entire freeway and tries to squish your innocuous delivery truck with its massive front tyre. There are also mobile howitzers (like those things needed legs), more than a couple "Grand Lancers" which resemble the Tower Knight from Demon's Souls (really didn't think I could make a comparison between Binary Domain and Demon's Souls) and the aforementioned gorilla and tentacle chandelier bosses.
As for other games with enormous robots, you can't really surpass the Mechonis of Xenoblade Chronicles. At least in terms of sheer size. Man, was that one big robot. Otherwise, you're generally restricted to large mecha suits, like the various MetalGears or everyone's favorite giant singing attack robot Impact. The original Breath of Fire and Final Fantasy IV have at least one dungeon apiece that take place inside a giant robot (that will start moving on its own at some point). I also crafted a game idea some time ago that dealt with destroying giant robots from the inside too, clearly inspired by a Shadows of the Colossus marathon.
Having Your Brains & Eating Them Too
Zombies are done. Clearly. I can't speak for everyone, but Romero's necrotic nasties have long since lost their appeal with me with game upon game expounding on the same ideas and scares over and over. I hear the Walking Dead games from Telltale are decent, but from what I understand it's largely because of character development and the player agency placed behind important decisions. The zombies might as well be landsharks or aliens for all the importance to the plot they bring. It's why games are starting to experiment a little with the zombie concept in order to distance themselves from contemporaries, such as The Last Of Us' cordyceps-inspired "infected"s.
Because the Yakuza series (which is what the team behind Binary Domain had worked on previously) recently had a zombie spin-off game of its very own, the developers evidently weren't done crafting set-pieces that had an innumerable shambling crowd for our heroes to contend with. As such, there's a sequence late in the game where you'll be trapped in an underground scrap metal facility filled to the brim with faulty "prototype" Hollow Children - the robots, I'll reiterate, that appear to be human. As such, you have a big crowd of robots with deformed human(ish) faces that try to tear you apart with their bare hands as you look for a way out. It's a good sequence, though one that's a little too clearly inspired by those ubiquitous ravenous revenants.
Okay, I think that's enough robots for the time being. I hope this convinces a few of you to try Binary Domain out. If you liked how goofy yet polished Vanquish was, Binary Domain is very much the same kind of deal. That I'm becoming more appreciative of TPS games from Japan is sort of an odd development, but I guess those guys are serious about breaking into this typically Western market. Whatever, I'll have a review of it for you all soon enough. In the meantime, how about a...