Microbot: You’ve got a friend in me

I reviewed Microbot for Screenjabber yesterday and found it to be a generally horrible experience. It was full of repetitive combat, bad aesthetic design and a host of other problems. There was something in there, a dark cave holding a beacon of what could have been. A lost relic, perhaps, I found it in the most unlikely of places. In this critique corner I want to talk about what Microbot excelled in, which is just one thing, but also how that could be expanded even wider. It’s about a specific element, something I haven’t seen since 2007. You see, I made best friends with a white blood cell.

Portal did this back in ’07 with the Companion Cube, making you feel compassion towards something not because of its character traits or dialogue but because of its ability to be useful. Half-Life 2 did this in a more subtle with the AI of Alyx Vance always acting as a follower and not someone to be followed, rarely was she actually required to progress through the game and she would never get in your way. This made us, on top of the brilliant characterisation, care about Alyx and want to see her succeed. It’s why at the end of Episode Two we’re not just sad for our loss, but her loss too.

In Microbot then, this relationship between player and game is done in a much more tactile way. There’s no dialogue, the white blood cell doesn’t spout its life story and expect itself to be liked. In fact, it isn’t that independent, it often requires help to move from area to area to gobble up enemies. The way you do this is by using a harpoon to tether the white blood cell and drag it through the level. This is a dependent relationship, I can’t handle the enemies alone but the blood cell can’t manoeuvre without my help. Instead of it being a one-way street of dependence, we rely on each other to progress through the game.

This is exactly what the Companion Cube and Alyx Vance were designed to do. Video-games often cover up the whole player/character relationship by using ta non-interactive format. Either through a player character talking to them (eugh), a cutscene about them blithering on, a clear indication that they’re the only one who can get you past the door. It’s a one way street of dependence in interactive terms, but from the outside we’re said to be friends. Alyx, the Companion Cube and the white blood cell are not our best friends not because of their non-interactive features but of their value to us and (in some respects) our value towards their character or being.

It’s odd seeing this in a twin-stick shooter of all things, it’s even more surreal when it’s not even tied to some of the main gameplay. There’s a real sense of tactile and interactive relationship with the white blood cell. You’re not throwing barrels with the gravity gun for Alyx to shoot and you’re not having to carry the Companion Cube around for it to help you to help it progress. You tether to white blood cell behind you and it can often become a wrecking ball, in which you both spin around endlessly attacking the nasties. It’s got an edge to it, where both of your characters are perfectly physically in sync.

Microbot falls short in its main areas which can be easily fixed. An upgrade system that makes sense, weapons that have a longer distance of firing, a clean up of the aesthetics thing and generally a better use of the context. What I want to improve is this diamond in the rough, a relationship between the player and a particular character with the potential to mean something. This game had the power to subtly educate its audience not through reams of text but through interaction. Instead of biology being taught through a background sort of way, I’m battling robots in a human body, I might as well be in space.

In order to strengthen this relationship further I looked into co-op gameplay and saw how it could be applied to a solo format. The co-op gameplay links the two players’ ships with an electrical tether, a chain tied to each. This chain is stretched and moved around as each player moves about the environment. As you can guess, enemies which pass through it get fried to bits. In the main game, as far as I’ve played, there is only the harpoon which I can only use to turn a white blood cell into a wrecking ball or get him from place to place.

I don’t see why this electric tether hasn’t been applied to the solo game, one click of the right trigger and it should be left there indefinitely. The beauty of the interactive relationships with Alyx and the Companion Cube is that we’re not relying on human error or decision, we’re in sync with the AI. In this sense, the AI should be able to lead me (and vice versa) on where we should move around with the tether. Perhaps strengthen the relationship more when we kill the nasties together, allowing us to upgrade ourselves and equip ourselves with new powers. They do it in RPGs with companions, so why not here with white blood cells?

Little design choices like that make a big impact. Why not add even more to the tactile relationship by encouraging the wrecking ball activity, with the white blood cell using either you or itself as the wrecking ball. It’s a lot more fun when you’re not shooting people. Considering this relationship and the potential of education about biology in Microbot would it not make sense then to insert little lessons on biology into the upgrade system? Right not the currency in Microbot is ‘Atoms’ (which is a stupid name) so just the littlest name changes may make a huge impact to young audiences taking their biology exams.

That’s all I have to say about being best friends with a white blood cell. It definitely changed up the pace and was the only surprising element in the ultimately disappointing game. Seeing videos of the game I saw a completely different design structure full of charm and insight, it’s so sad to see that unpreserved in what could have been a very interesting experience.

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