It may perhaps be the season for it, so here is a thread for the once stalwart series of vampiric free will and predestination. As a subject, I'm motivated to share some thoughts upon a recent Soul Reaver playthrough, so here are a few assorted brain morsels:
- I would not characterize vampire media, ever since its inception into the pop culture repertoire, as having been wholly absent, but as with any recurring set of thematics and motifs continually explored and iterated on in fiction, there are undulating trends, boom periods and fallow stretches that dictate the visible prominence of such works. The years on both sides of the turn of the millennium were a time of increased cultural proliferation for vampire stories, to a global extent and across mediums, and Kain for all its idiosyncracy both represented certain traditions akin to the genre even as it acted in concert and perhaps in its own way helped mold new associated trends of its own for its subject matter. A crucial element is the interaction of sex and sexuality in vampire fiction; it is an inevitable component and one that as far as genre generalities go, is a major draw for the audiences that seek out the material. Kain is not lacking for it, but the specific ways sensuality manifests in the series is intertwined with another at-the-time-returning contemporary trend in the field, in depicting vampires as more than foppish, threatening foreign invader figures as the classical imagery goes, and instead focusing and highlighting their physically monstrous, mutated and malformed aspects; a revulsion manifested in the corporeal for the heresy they're seen to embody. As the exterior crumbles and contorts ever astray from standards of conventional attraction, how to communicate the level of intrigue and seduction so inherent to the genre?
Whether a result of many happy coincidences or a keen insight into the nascent material, Kain quite literally found its voice in the vocal performances delivered by Simon Templeman, Tony Jay, Michael Bell and others for the duration of the series. As the most consistently and highly praised aspect of the entire franchise, it's easy to repeat the same well-deserved compliments and assessments for the commitment and consistency displayed by the voice actors over the years, but the aforementioned angle is what keeps running foremost in my mind as to what I find fascinating and compelling about the series and its use of VA work to define itself, in that it was relentlessly sexual in non-explicit, purely auditory ways, and how all facets of the presentation supported and enhanced that impression. These games are a sort of orator's fantasy, so long as one's preferences are for florid and excessively melodramatic and romantic phrasing and diction, and the material is utterly owned by the acting direction in having the actors put on performances full of theatric conviction for every tortured monologue and spiteful exchange they have with one another. Every facet of the narrative presentation was thus primed to position the character voices as definitive to the storytelling itself, inextricable from the roles they played or the words they said; the personal charisma of actor and character bound to one another, and it's in there where the intensity and passion--sexual or otherwise--lives in these stories, in all their affected pomposity and self-righteous stylings, delivered by on-screen figures whom had long since lost the attractive veneer that could now only be communicated via flavourful verbiage, and in effect the spoken word itself becomes the fetish.
- When I think of PlayStation 3D in all the ways it's beautiful, I submit to a sort of mental compartmentalization of distinct eras and vaguely consistent technical complexity. There are the early, impressionistic masters of the form as seen in King's Field, Jumping Flash!, Tecmo's Deception or Aquanaut's Holiday, full of atmosphere almost through a paucity of on-screen geometry and visual elements, and highly suggestive in every representative form depicted. By the time of Soul Reaver's mid-1999 release, PlayStation visuals had undergone a drastic evolution compared to those early offerings, and now professed scale, texture detail and technical ambition in equal measure as far as works like Silent Hill or Ape Escape were concerned, or the looming, titanic Vagrant Story. It is to Soul Reaver's enduring credit that for works of such ilk that may be considered definitive, it can stand right alongside them without appearing out of place. It is a game that presents a contiguous, interconnected world, and only sees necessary to break the action with a loading screen briefly upon starting a session; beyond, all loading in and out of assets is handled by constant data streaming, in concert with level design tools of the trade that facilitate the approach, but notably less intrusively and belabouredly than contemporary games have handled the practice. Even Metroid Prime, three years after this, which as much as anything introduced and codified the concept for many, became known for the almost ritualistic tapping-on-the-door pauses enforced upon Samus as she charted the world. Soul Reaver is almost shockingly advanced for its hardware in the concepts it explores and executes on, from the bigger ideas like a dual-world set-up that seamlessly shifts and warps the geometry and visuals of the inhabited locale around Raziel on command, and the smaller feats that almost go unnoticed, like how each and every contextual, disposable weapon pick-up is remembered by the game exactly where they were abandoned, even should a player return to the spot hours later and between play sessions. It is constantly impressive in ways that were in effect subsequently recognized as the game was ported more or less as is to Dreamcast, and how that release in a relatively more competitive ecosystem on a technical basis still does not appear as a game lagging behind its peers.
- Soul Reaver is a search action game, and an early 3D try at the genre at that, so it is interesting for all the ways it stands in contrast to later established conventions of both modern game design and its own wider genre. As a raw sequence, the game is actually exceedingly linear, always leading up to a boss's lair whereupon a new exploratory power is obtained, and the process repeats a few times until the game's conclusion with nary a diversion along the way. For all its ostensible simplicity and straightforwardness, it is still a game very easy to feel lost in, which is quite a rare sensation even in games that shape themselves around exploration as a central tenet. Emphasis on player convenience and clarity in communicating progression and navigational elements often leaves such games as feeling as going through the motions even as the concepts at hand should by all rights excite, intrigue and perhaps befuddle. Soul Reaver exists somewhere in the liminal space between archaic indifference and modern guidedness, to an effect that in ideal circumstances works to the benefit of both extremes. Hint systems exist, but they are tied to geographic location and character, and require the motivation to make the trek and to interpret the shared musings provided. Every play session begins in the same introductory space, in an original Metroid-esque fashion, but the continual retracing of steps is both practically expedient and corollary to the game's mechanical and narrative themes of Raziel's immortality and subsequent reincarnations in the eldritch womb that resuscitated him in the very beginning. The world is littered with unmistakable teleportation rooms for easy returns to previously canvassed areas, yet none are marked with identifiable text and instead have to be recognized by the associated vampire clan emblems and insignia that mark each location and its territorial overlords; said iconography is found on banners erected about the world, or carved into the architecture itself, and so navigation is a process of internalizing the setting's internal visual language and applying that context to a series of interconnected landmarks that define the world in place of associative area names and labels. Raziel's Nosgoth is not the one he knew; it's not the one players would've known from Blood Omen either; the task then is to understand its new form from all these disparate yet equally unfamiliar perspectives.
- Soul Reaver is also a famously "unfinished" game, to the extent that such an universal of game development is made into a remarkable quality distinct from other projects. The reasons for this have been well-documented, and it's a mostly the result of publisher deadlines, to which the datamined and publically shared material left over from the design process pointing to altered and scrapped plans, the infamously abrupt ending and said ending's direct continuation and reinstating of the leftover material in the game's sequels serve as the evidence commonly pointed towards. The narrative is usually crafted and shared along to impress upon the listener the sensation that the way the game ended up as released was an unquestionable loss born out of necessary compromise, and while I can't attest to or even imagine the perspective and emotional significance such would involve on the developer end, as part of the experiental end of the dynamic Soul Reaver's truncated form--in retrospect--becomes a sort of accidental strength.
As mentioned before, the primary sequence from opening to end credits in this game is very straightforward by almost any standard applied to it. In having to remove many of the planned mechanical features and narrative beats for the game, the developers however did not wholly excise and strike them from the record, instead leaving either their housings or nature as untethered, contextless power-ups or locations as a sort of conceptual residue of more intricately integrated past plans. The effect this has on the world is that wholly player-directed exploration is rewarded by entire optional areas of great geographic scale and stature, often featuring some of the game's more elaborate environmental puzzles (its most engaging playable aspect) or utterly gorgeous, unique altars, shrines and complexes tucked away into the far corners of the world that the player is allowed to completely miss, because wrest of their developmental context, they now lack "purpose" in the overall scheme of the game. The satisfaction of stumbling upon narratively unimportant secrets is paradoxically enhanced by the absent focus in presenting them, and it would not be had Soul Reaver not gone through the hard choices in what to cut, as most games do, and then still availed to retain the work that had been completed, now a digital archaelogical record of the development team's work able to be explored in the game itself.
Other potential benefits of the troubled development are the game's shorter-than-intended length; an epic by no measure even should the full scenario be in place, but still highlights effectively the concise nature of the story told and the world explored, leading to the final aspect that is only really discernible in hindsight: that the explict TO BE CONTINUED... conclusion need not be treated with scorn or as a testament of the failures resulting from the realities of game development, and instead marks the series as what it eventually became and ended as: a long-form serial, presenting a contiguous narrative by mostly the same central staff, across several games and years, but in less time than one might assume, after which the series had had its say, ended, and passed into history. Diminishing returns are a topic and perception that inevitably follow a series like this that was seen to have been formed as an unruly iconoclast that eventually submitted to big money iteration and interference, but as a body of works representing its central concepts Kain could not be said to have strayed from its path as long as it walked it.
~~~I speak from a position of hypotheticals, ambient osmosis and personal impression regarding the series past Soul Reaver, as I have not yet played them, but coming off of this it's something that seems a thing to try sometime. I don't expect the world, but maybe there is a saga there worth seeing to its conclusion.