Review: Vigilante Speak for the Dead

By Owen Faraday 28 Mar 2013 0
I watched Watchmen like, 3 times. Who watches the watchmen?

Delmar Pratt hasn't done anything wrong. I've been watching him for a while now. It's my job to watch.

I've got other things that need doing but I make a point of coming back to check up on him every once in a while. A recent arrival in this part of town, Pratt acts like a man with something to hide, but I don't know what that something is. The neighbourhood parents don't trust him around their kids, I'm told. The lack of trust seems reciprocal. Pratt doesn't seem to have any friends and rarely leaves his house.

I can't help but think that sooner or later Delmar Pratt is going to require some attention. The next time I have a moment, I check in on him. Pratt is at the door of his new neighbour's home, explaining that their awkward conversation is one that is mandated by law, because he is a registered sex offender.

I remind myself that Delmar Pratt hasn't done anything wrong in the whole time I've been keeping a vigil over him. But an ounce of prevention is the best medicine and all that. I could go and cave in one of his kneecaps right now. And if I don't, one of the other guardian angels of this neighbourhood might anyway.

This is Vigilante: Speak for the Dead, and it is one of the bravest games I've ever played. But bravery isn't everything.

Vigilante is a member of one of the most maligned game genres in existence: the social game. Made famous by Farmville, social games are notorious for being mindless clicking treadmills designed to part fools from their money and propagate themselves to said fools' friends.

Not long for this world, I'd bet. The infamous Mr Pratt.

Strip away Vigilante's theme and the mechanics of the social game are laid bare: Timers that force you to go away for a while or pay to keep playing, and an emphasis on character customisation which pushes digital goods you can pay good old-fashioned cash for. But stripping away Vigilante's theme is a mistake, because that's where the real boldness is.

Vigilante takes place in an unnamed city, a place where there's no police to speak of and gangs of armed private citizens dispense justice to those deemed to deserve it. It's a Randian paradise or libertarian dystopia, depending on your perspective. If you have to pick a lawless urban jungle to spend time in, you can pick much uglier ones than Vigilante's city. The game's art is simple but visually striking, like a Frank Miller comic rendered in photo illustrations. The short but frequent cutscenes play out in true Miller style with enough muzzle flashes and sprays of blood to fill three or four volumes of Sin City -- Vigilante is one of the darkest iOS games I've ever seen, in fact.

Gameplay begins on the city screen, where you watch the comings and goings of AI citizens. At any given moment, there may be a dozen different bubbles hovering over the cityscape, detailing the activities of the locals.

Each citizen's activities update in real time. Drop into the app right now and you might notice Babette Morris out with her two kids. Come back in twenty minutes and you'll see a message stating that she's been talking to someone suspicious in a known drug-dealing neighbourhood. As a vigilante, you can choose to intervene at any point: go give Babette Morris a stern talking-to for being in bad part of town. Or go break her wrists. Or worse.

While there's many different actions in the game, when you decide to intervene, there's never more than a couple of different options, ranging from intimidation to outright murder. While there's many different actions in the game, when you decide to intervene, there's never more than a couple of different options, ranging from intimidation to outright murder.

Meanwhile, other players are sharing this space with you. Another player may decide that Delmar Pratt (from the introduction) is a menace to the neighbourhood and round up a crew to beat him up. You are free to join in on Pratt's side and defend him if you wish: the losing players will go home bruised and possibly be unable to play for a while (without ponying up in-game currency to heal instantly), so there's actually something at stake in each fight.

What's so fundamentally fascinating about Vigilante is that it resolutely refuses to pass judgement on anything you do. Western RPGs of the past decade have been obsessed with injecting elements of moral choice into games, but those choices are always pre-assessed for you. Punch a ruthless journalist in Mass Effect and you'll get "renegade points". Sell war trophies taken from the bodies of bandits to a sheriff in Fallout 3 and get good karma. There's plenty of moral choices, but their relative morality has been pre-assigned for you. So are you going to join the thugs headed to Delmar Pratt's house to break the windows, or will you help fight them off?

The problem is that Vigilante shares too little information about other people's decisions. I don't know why you want to beat up Delmar Pratt. I don't know what criteria (if any) your gang is using to decide who to go after, and other than the bruises you get from losing a brawl. Vigilante poses a lot of interesting choices, but there aren't many consequences to them. The narrative of Vigilante is happening entirely in your head -- something that would be perfectly acceptable in a single-player game. In a social game, it alienates you from the other players in the city. The least interesting thing about the other players is which IAP car they're driving and which moustache they picked in the character creator, but that's pretty much all you know about your fellow vigilantes.

There's also no consequence to one of the most interesting decisions of all: to do nothing. The writing in Vigilante positions each AI "character" very differently: some are unequivocally up to no good, some inhabit a Delmar Pratt-style grey area, and many seem to have done nothing at all.1

Who's paying for these hospital bills? I just put this man in the hospital. He deserved it. I think.

The end result is that Vigilante the game starts to resemble the nameless city of its setting: after a few hours it's an experience of utter nihilism. Without any indication of who's been doing what and why, it's easy to believe that your fellow players are just pressing buttons to keep the social game treadmill going. Not even they know why they've broken Rebecca Halls' legs. For all its ambition, it's Farmville with baseball bats, sex offenders, and cracked craniums.

In spite the number you see down there at the bottom of the review, I actually recommend Vigilante: Speak For The Dead: it is one of the most thought-provoking iOS games I've played in a long time. If its moral choices were as well tended-to as its customisable faces and hats, it might even be a great game, too.

1 There's some fascinating unaddressed questions that the metagame brings up: how do you have all of this information? Who's watching you? Everyone in the city, it seems, is under perennial surveillance from the street gangs -- yet another aspect of the civil rights horrorshow.

Review: Vigilante Speak for the Dead

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