What if? – the troubling question that keeps s at night when we aren’t thinking of paper deadlines. Men, women, and children alike contemplate this question at least once in their lives. Most people do so on a monthly, weekly, or perhaps daily basis. It is not restricted to small events, but also to major events. What if I had taken up UT Austin? What if I had accepted Purdue’s invitation? What if I had just stayed in Puerto Rico? What if I hadn’t had a child? What if I had another one? Some of these outcomes are easier to see than others. I know that if I had stayed in Puerto Rico I would be doing a Ph.D. in Caribbean linguistics and would still be the head of the General Studies department at CEM. But what about the others? In a smaller scale, what if I had not brought my books to my office at UTA? What if I hadn’t bought so many games? What if I had saved up more money? These what ifs are certainly relevant to my personal life, and whatever what ifs you have are relevant to yours. But there are other what ifs that entail a larger audience than just you and two or three loved ones. These what ifs are, possibly, addressed by someone at least once a day. What if McCain had won instead of Obama? What if Obama had lived up to his ‘Change’ campaign promises? What if we hadn’t invaded Iraq? What if Bush hadn’t won? Yet there are other ifs that might have a result on history. What if Columbus hadn’t sailed across the Atlantic? What if Newton or Einstein hadn’t dedicated their lives to the natural sciences? Heck, what if Russia had won the Cold War?
This last question is the catalyst that sparks the narrative of the game Singularity. Set in a fictional island off the coast of China, the U.S. Army is sent to investigate a high-level radiation burst that blocked the signal from a satellite. In this abandoned army facility the player is accidentally sent back in time to 1955 because of a reaction from one of the elements being processed in the island. In this flashback he rescues a scientist, Dr. Demichev, and effectively alters the course of history. Within the game’s narrative, Dr. Demichev dies, cannot continue experimentation on the newly discovered E99 element, and the world simply proceeds into what you and I know as modern times. When the player saves Demichev, an alternate timeline is created and becomes reality. When the player returns to 2010 he finds out that Demichev completed his research on E99 tech, took over Russia, won the Cold War arms race, and now controls over 1/4th of the world while keeping the rest hostage to his military might. In this game the concept of “what if Communist Russia had won the Cold War?” Sadly, it falls short of what it could accomplish.
Other games have explored the concept of global ‘what ifs’, with Fallout 3 being the gold standard. In Fallout 3 the player explores a post-nuclear Washington DC through interaction with the world, compelling narratives, and scattered records left behind in computers. Singularity attempts to do this, but fails miserably, as the idea of a communism-dominated world is only alluded to and set as a catalyst for what are undoubtedly excellent FPS game mechanics.
The entire game takes place in the fictional island of Katorga 12. Most of the time is spent wondering corridors and either committing genocide against Russian soldiers or trying to stay alive by running away from endless hordes of time-shifting mutants. Tidbits of an overall narrative are scattered here and there through propaganda material, research notes, and experiment videos scattered throughout the world, but there is, once again, no notion of the outside beyond the faint, largely unexplored concept of “wow I messed up the timeline and now the world is ruled by communism” – a concept that is, quite possibly, wasted on people who do not know about, are not aware of, or don’t care about what the Cold War was and its many implications on the way that America, and the world, developed. With no world to explore and without any characters to interact with, the concept looses all the narrative potential it has and becomes nothing more than a reason to shoot some stuff. In short, the Singularity Narrative fail is that it takes what could have been a narrative of epic proportions and turns it into a “story” (I use the term loosely) that does not go beyond the classic Saturday morning “COBRA is coming let’s go kill them JOE JOE!” two minute sort of story that led to twenty minutes of cartoon explosions.
This doesn’t mean that Singularity is bad – not by a long shot. Just as we all put up with “here comes COBRA!” in order to enjoy 20 minutes of explosions, I’m sure that anyone who plays Singularity will manage to put up with the wasted potential of its narrative to enjoy the time manipulation mechanics implemented I n what would have been an otherwise average shooter. What do I mean by this? Sure, it might give you a thrill to use a sniper rifle to shoot the head off some character, but the feeling one gets from putting 30 trailing soldiers in a slow-time bubble, turning around, stopping a missile in mid air as it flies towards you, and redirecting it into the slow-time bubble is simply amazing. The concepts that one can slow down time to travel long distances in order to save a character, or that one can age objects in the environment in order to have a stairway collapse on top of an enemy are simply priceless.
As far as the quantum mechanics implemented in the game, I’m not sure that I am qualified to comment on them. Howver, from the perspective of someone who has read a few pieces on the topic and seen virtually every film and read every text that includes the many worlds and branching realities theories, I must say that the game pulls it off rather well until the end. The alternate communist reality happens when the player is sucked into a time warp and rescues Demichev. In order to return to the normal timeline, it falls to reason, one must simply stop the Demichev rescue. Throughout the game, Dr. Borisoft, the one who invented time manipulation devices, is telling the player to destroy the singularity – a giant tower that refines time manipulation elements – in 1955. Destroying the singularity, Borisoft concludes, will prevent Demichev from doing any research on time manipulation, prevent it from overheating and having an accident, and prevent it from causing the Katorga 12 disaster. *Spoilers* When one finally accomplishes this by planting a bomb in the 1955 singularity and returns to 2010, the player finds that nothing changes. Demichev explains that all he had to do was rebuild the singularity. Here is where Borisoft suggests going back in time and stopping you from saving Demichev. However, this has already been tried and it failed. Here is when the player is treated to a flashback. As he was rescuing Demichev, a voice yelled “don’t let Demichev live!” This is a previous self going back in time to stop the player from rescuing Demichev. The player, then, is forced to make a decision: stay in the communist timeline and pledge your alliance to Demichev, stay in the communist timeline, kill Demichev and Borisoft, and rule the world, or go back in time and kill yourself in order to stop you from rescuing Demichev. It is here where the implementation of quantum theory gets a bit iffy.
After going back in time to kill yourself the results should have been one of the two following:
(1) You and Demichev die in the past, which means that the timeline continues as it is, with you being born, growing up, joining the military, and being shot in a mission in Katorga 12 in 2010. Here a reality without you would continue to develop. Your comrades explore the now abandoned Katorga 12, find some radiation material, and bring it back to the US government. You are MIA.
(2) You and Demichev die in the past, which means the timeline continues as it is, with you being born and all that. Since you killed another version of yourself, you become embedded in that timeline, take over the role of yourself, and live on after finishing the mission in the knowledge of all the shit that happened. Your TMD will vanish because it was never created in the first place.
Instead, what happens is that one goes back in time, kills oneself, and is magically teleported to the helicopter before the mission. Somehow, because of Dr. Borisoft’s experimentation, Communist Russia is no longer Communist Russia, but, it is implied by the giant Dr. Borisoft statue, has become something along the lines of Borisoftia. This is a grotesque Deus Ex Machina where, it seems to me, the writers wanted to force a happy ending. And so, the good doctor develops the TMD, uses it for world good, and you do not have to go on the mission that started the whole mess in the first place.
Keep in mind, however, that my “training” in theoretical physics, quantum mechanics, and all that fun stuff consists of having read one book and some internet articles. So, what should you get out of this piece? That Singularity is a fun game that wasted narrative potential.