Sunday 19 December 2010

Stories in Unlikely Places No.2: Tribes: Vengeance

Tribes: Vengeance is one of the most subtly subversive multiplayer games ever made. Not a lot of people know that.

This is the second in a series of posts aimed at celebrating and championing games which don't just further the art of interactive narrative design, but do so either from unexpected places against unlikely odds, or despite their continuing obscurity. No serious spoilers.

Released in 2004, Tribes: Vengeance was a prequel, the third game in a series that was itself a spin off of Dynamix' mech-game, Earthsiege. Incidentally, that series simultaneously demonstrates that our industry is ridiculous, and constantly, brilliantly evolving. It goes...

Metaltech: Earthsiege
Earthsiege 2
Starsiege: Tribes
Tribes 2
Tribes: Vengenace.

I'd buy Vengeance: Metaltech any day.

But back to the point. 1998's Tribes was startlingly advanced in every sense other than the narrative one. It was a pre-1942 Battefield; the game that did huge outdoor arenas, massive player counts, and on-foot vs vehicle teamplay before anyone else had graduated beyond Quake deathmatch. It was a technical and design marvel.

But it still centered around blowing shit up.

In the hands of a pre-Bioshock Irrational - known at the time for System Shock 2 and Freedom Force - Vengeance still centered around blowing shit up, but the studio's masterstroke was to bother explaining why. With Tribes, Irrational proved beyond all doubt their ability to deliver in whatever genre they set their sights on - their vision of online carnage more than lives up to the series precedent and yet they've never returned to it - but it was the blindside of the singleplayer campaign that quietly redefined the playing field.

Vengeance pits you as five different characters on opposing sides of a space cold war, separated by generations. There are two timelines, set 20 years apart, and you play them in parallel, so the events occurring in the past give you new insight on what's going on in the present. You are simultaneously the Imperial Princess captured by the tribals, and the daughter she's yet to give birth to. The story sees the characters fall in and out of love, make and avenge any number of murders, and instigate and quell all out war.

Frankly, the writing isn't as sharp as we've rightly come to expect half a decade later:

Just get on with it, you tribal dog.


That's probably the best line in the first half hour. No, In case you can't tell, Vengeance stands out for me for its epic, multi-protagonist narrative structure.

We spend a lot of times in games writing bemoaning the aping of cinema; we should be our own medium with our own strengths and weaknesses. What I think a lot of games writing could learn from is dramatic structure. How often do you play an action game whose story isn't realtime? It's rare to see so much as 'Two months later...' let alone a game as bold as Vengeance. It's not that realtime is always bad, it's just indicative of a general lack of faith that we rarely try anything better suited to telling a story. Another question: how often do you play a game confident enough in its storytelling that it will keep you in the dark about huge portions of its narrative until it deems fit to bring you into the loop? Cinema has these tricks down pat, but we're still learning how to do them. Irrational pulled it off ages ago.

In Vengeance you play as both mother and daughter, and the hindsight provided by the one character renders seemingly righteous actions by the other as tragedy. And right there, there's the reason Vengeance is special: it's a tragedy. That shouldn't be a rarity, but it is. This is a game about love, and politics, and perspectivism, and hatred. It's a game which is entirely linear not because it lacks narrative ambition, but because this enables it to tell an intricately crafted story of a fashion I'd argue Bioshock never even approached. It's a game assured enough to let your motivations in the present only be explained later by your own actions in the past. Even Rockstar - in Red Dead Redemption - look amateur in their attempts at the same.

But there's something else. Let's look at the story premise again, because it's so obvious, and so smart, as to be almost invisible.

The Tribes series - and online shooters in general - have always been about people fighting one another for no real reason. How do you make a story out of that? Simple. Irrational's story is about how people fight one another for no reason. And they prove that to you. In gradual, tragic detail.

Perhaps that Vengeance was a multiplayer game whose strongest asset was its elaborate, story driven tutorial was what damned it to the insulting sales and mass exodus of players and publisher immediately following release. Perhaps Vengeance's singleplayer didn't redefine storytelling in the same way the original game did multiplayer. But it should have done.

This is a game which, if any ever did, deserves another look while its gameplay remains palatable. Because unlike its visuals, its story is timeliness.

Buy Tribes Vengeance at
Buy Tribes Vengeance at


  1. You may notice the Amazon links at the bottom of the post there. This isn't particularly me trying to monetise the site, and by no means is sending a bunch of people to the shops the reason I wrote this article. I hate those thinly veiled ads some sites mask as editorial. More so I want to encourage people to support the game... though some beer money wouldn't hurt either.

    If it bothers you, just let me know.

  2. Ken Levine (Irrational's auteur lead) was kind enough to have a read and comment on Twitter:

    "Thanks for taking time to think about Tribe's story. It's a bit of a lost time for me, I don't remember much about writing it. I know I had some ambitious ideas...given the general reception, I don't think I really hit the mark."

    For me (TJ), in many ways Tribes hit the mark in a way that Bioshock never did. What are your thoughts?

  3. For a while, I considered getting this game. I changed my mind, but reading this article made me realize that I can't remember why. So I'm going to be getting it again. I always liked the Tribes playstyle, but my reaction times are often pitiable against other people and single-player is often a throwaway in titles like this. A strong narrative is a good enough push for me.

    Thanks, Tom!

  4. As a hardcore Tribes 2 player, Vengeance's purchase was a foregone conclusion, yet it was the writing in the single-player campaign that stuck with me longer than the multiplayer did. (Time has taken away my memory of the actual dialogue, however. This is probably a good thing.)