Sent out to die.
The former head of the UN, Kofi Annan, once said that war is always a catastrophe, and even though that was the general view of World War 2 stealth title Velvet Assassin, the game itself has much more in common with this view of conflict than nearly all other games set between 1939 and 1945.
Developed by German outfit Replay Studios, Velvet Assassin is the rarest of things; an anti-war game. Much has been made of the graphic violence seen in many of today’s games, not to mention violence against women, but in this much maligned game from 2009, the violence is deployed within an atmosphere of claustrophobic, sometimes even oppressive nihilism, where everything and everyone is corrupted and deformed from the emotional consequences of warfare.
Take the game’s protagonist for instance, Violette Summer; she isn’t a hero, but she is, as the title clearly states, an assassin. She has no grand quest, no great moral crusade, just her orders to destroy and to kill. Her personality is largely one of detachment, but with a subtle hint of seething hatred and desire for revenge, as if focused in her grim task by some bloody past injustice which demands more blood in return. Though she retains some moral sense, as demonstrated by her vain attempts to free civilians from a burning church, you very much get the sense of someone who has been damaged, almost irrevocably, from the bloodshed.
She is also alone, almost completely. The game does feature characters she actually talks to, but these are set in such circumstances in that all that do speak with her end up dead, by either their own hand, the Nazis, or by the hand of Violette herself. There is no light to anything; there are no jokes to lessen the despair, and even at the occasion of Violette’s rescue at the hands of the Resistance, it is quickly followed by betrayal and death. In the end, Violette is in tears, broken by her wounds and her failure to protect those who needed it most. We never see what becomes of her, but in the world of video games, one doesn’t really have to, or try to imagine, such is the treatment of most video games. But it occurred to me, and to a dear friend of mine, that within this rather archaic video game lives the spark of something deeper, an actual message, dare I say it, some sense of thematic substance.
The world of Velvet Assassin also contributes to its sense of loss and the grim results of the war. Just two levels take place in full and actual sunlight and one of them is a depressing trip across some eastern European ghetto, with piles of dead bodies joining the rubble of bricks, furniture and smashed glass. The settings themselves are typical; underground bunkers, prisons and the like, but even with the limited visuals, the desired atmosphere is still well realised. Clever use of light and shadow create some very effective moods. Be it the melancholy twilight of an autumnal wood, or the depressingly dank squalor of a Nazi prison, Velvet Assassin manages to capture a range of emotions within its world. All this is aided and abetted by the game’s pacing. The need to stop, wait, and observe before moving on, allows the scene time to sink its claws in.
Given the lack of speed in Velvet Assassin, save for the occasional daring and gunfire fuelled escape (which are the game’s lesser moments), It is rather sad to see how many supposed stealth games fail to honour the essence of what it is to be a true rogue, or spy, or silent hunter of men. Patience, a keen eye, and a steady hand are all required for the would-be shadow, and Velvet Assassin keeps to this idea by forcing you to take your time and wait for the right time to strike, or slip by unnoticed. Violette is fragile, and not equipped to deal with proper fire-fights, so you must stick to the shadows and actually think about your next move. The enemy AI is not always the smartest, often pitifully moronic, but it is dangerous, and the fear of being detected is palpable, and by all accounts it ought to be in any game that purports to be based within the stealth genre. For all of its mechanical failings however, Velvet Assassin succeeds for me in creating not only a refreshingly downbeat and sorrowful tale, but one in which you actually feel vulnerable in, where Violette’s life is as cheap as any other.
It is very unfortunate however, that the last level attempts to undermine a large degree of the goodwill which I had had up till then. Not only do the stealth mechanics decay into an incredibly misjudged third person shooter, but Violette is forced to spend the entirety of these sections in her blood stained hospital gown. Although there is nothing particularly creepy here, and there are no lecherous camera shots, it is nevertheless a disappointing lapse into vulgar pandering, made all the more egregious by the relative absence of it in the preceding levels. Attempts to cite the morphine events as following this line are to my mind repudiated by the very fact that there is nothing sexual about these moments, in which the more voyeuristic gamer is offered scant little in the realms of titillation.
Velvet Assassin’s fate is somewhat apt then; already forgotten, very much unloved, and only ever to be mentioned in mocking tones, if it is to be mentioned at all. But I believe Replay Studios have something to be proud of, as Velvet Assassin puts forward an idea of war which is far from common, and it is one which is served with an appropriate gameplay style and mise-en-scene. An admirable attempt then, even if the end results were, in the view of the mob at least, catastrophic.