Singularity is not the most linear game I’ve ever played, but it sometimes felt that way. Blandly American protagonist Nate Renko is either the most blasé guy in the world, or else is mute (perhaps brain-damaged from the game-opening helicopter crash?). As Renko, I picked my way through the mutant-strewn remains of a secret Soviet research base. Though armed with a powerful time manipulation device (TMD)—a scientific breakthrough that clumsily combines Valve’s gravity and portal guns with a time-shifting mechanic that may be original, or may have been stolen from a game I have not played (Timeshift, I’m looking in your direction)—I had no agency whatsoever.
I could not travel through time at will. I could not travel through space at will. I could not solve puzzles in more than one clearly prescribed way. Despite the presence of cryptic messages urging me not to trust specific characters or information, I could not make choices about whom to trust, aid or hinder (there is technically one choice in the game, at the very end). If I saw something that could be time-shifted or moved, doing one or both of these things was always correct. If I saw a switch, flipping it was always necessary. If there were ever two paths available to me, the better-lit one was always the path forward.
There’s a real conflict between Singularity the game—a corridor shooter with so-so weapons and a few neat tricks up its sleeve—and Singularity the story. The story is a campy, creepy work of genre fiction that draws equally on Cold War-era sci-fi tropes and modern twist-a-minute series like Lost to create something that is, if not exactly great, then definitely solid B-grade fun. The game is a theme park ride. Strap in and feel it creak as it shoves you forward. Honestly, who thought it was a good idea to marry this inflexible gameplay and narrative structure to a story about time travel? It makes no thematic sense, and hurts both the ludic and narrative elements of the game. I’m reminded of the episode of Full House in which Michelle makes tuna fish ice cream [PDF].I did have the option of exploring a few rooms that lay just off the critical path, for which I was rewarded in clockwork fashion with ammo, health and “E99 energy.” J.P. Grant has already identified many of the sources for Singularity’s hodgepodge of mechanics, so suffice it to say that Adam:Rapture; E99:Katorga-12. The “chrono-ping” that points you in the direction of your next objective is the most useless mechanic I can imagine, since I never once felt lost, sidetracked, confused, befuddled, or anything other than completely certain of the direction I should be heading at any given moment. The most meaningful decisions available to me in the game were tactical: which weapons to bring into battle, which weapons to upgrade, which enemies to aim the weapons at from which positions, when to fire said weapons, etc. Unfortunately, several of the weapons are neither fun nor terribly useful, which further limits meaningful choice and deflates the dynamism of the combat.
The audio logs, another barefaced theft from BioShock, are dull and add little to the atmosphere of Katorga-12. I think developer Raven Software would have been better served to stick with the scripted scenes in which Renko watches the ghostly past unfold before him. Audio logs have always been distractingly pseudo-diegetic, and I’m ready to decree them off-limits without an unusually convincing explanation. The lack of subtitles is also a serious oversight, since the logs are only audible if you stand around next to them. I was frequently left tapping my foot in an empty room on the off chance that the tape had something to say other than yet another variation on “They are feeding us strange orange food,” “Strange things are happening,” or the ever-popular “We have holed up here for the night, because it seems safe.” This last is always found next to a pile of corpses.
The most interesting aspect of Singularity’s plot is the relationship between two research scientists who begin as colleagues, but begin to suspect and fear each other. The problem is that this plot exists mostly in my imagination, since the game only bothers to sketch it in the most cursory manner. The best part of the narrative as it actually exists in the game is probably the canon ending, where you re-watch the opening of the game as it plays out with a single significant variable shifted in the timestream. This is the only point at which I felt like the game lived up to the potential of time travel stories, in which the rules of reality can easily be altered in surprising ways.
Singularity is a very well-made game. There is excellent craftsmanship at work here, even if little of it is original. It’s undoubtedly a looker, and the impressive tech and workmanlike art design help to sell the experience. Watching a time-shifted cargo ship disintegrate around you as you race against time may have been reminiscent of the opening of Call of Duty 4, but it was also freaking cool. The enemy types are varied and are used sparingly, and the boss fights—though all of the “shoot the glowy bit” variety—are fun. In another game, the fact that I was never confused about where to go would have been a testament to careful level design and the appropriate use of minor visual elements (a little extra bloom here, arcing electrical sparks there) to “subtly” direct me. The theme and tone of Singularity, however, would have been more appropriately matched by a design that wasn’t afraid to challenge or even confuse me.
Similarly, the puzzles that make me roll my eyes aren’t much less sophisticated than those in Half-Life 2, a game whose design I venerate. Then again, Half-Life 2 is nearly seven years old, and even back then Valve had the good sense not to repeat the exact same puzzle three or even four times. Darksiders, another Frankenstein game stitched together from clear “inspirations,” chose a far more exciting source for its puzzle design philosophy (Zelda). Maybe the lesson is that, if you’re going to steal iconic design elements, think through the implications and design a game around them that really uses them to full effect in a new context.
In the end, I’m torn partly because I wanted to like Singularity more than I did. I view the relationships between publishers and developers in almost Marxist terms, and I hate to see a talented team like Raven treated so badly. Singularity deserved a decent marketing and PR campaign; instead, it got nothing (representative comment in the Neogaf official thread: “What, it’s released?”). Alas, we don’t always get what we want, even though sometimes—when we try—we get what we need. Christ, you know it ain’t easy to make an original work. You know how hard it can be! But you can’t just cobble something together from someone else’s hits and hope to have it achieve real greatness. I’ll leave you with one final thought, as well-suited to this blog post as many of Singularity’s mechanics were to its overall design: In the end, the love you make is equal to the love you take.