Monday 28 January 2013

Stories in Unlikely Places: Giants: Citizen Kabuto

Good comedy games - small list. Good comedy games that aren't adventures - smaller list. Toward the top of it, though, nestled just next door to Psychonauts, is Giants: Citizen Kabuto. I won't commit to which takes the biscuit, but I will suggest that of the two, Giants is the game that carries its comic ideals right to the heart of its design ethos.

Founded by a bunch of ex-Shiny chaps and very much carrying the mantle of that studio's deranged comic styling, Giants was an incredible game of open world combat, lush tropical visuals and cockney aliens. It's a game of vastly disparate ingredients, united by Planet Moon's refusal to consign its boundless imagination and comic juxtaposition to the cutscenes alone.

You start out Giants playing as a crew of cockney aliens crash-landed on an alien planet on their way to Planet Majorca. It's an immediately ridiculous scenario in which to frame the subsequent island-hopping action. Once you're introduced to local boy 'My name is Ahmed, but call me Timmy' you'll never look back.

You won't spoil things too much by checking out the first few minutes of cutscenes below.

The levels that follow excel in mixing up conventions. Sure, a large part of this game is going places and shooting dudes, but the team at Planet Moon obviously relished finding ways to disguise that fact. In the second mission you get a jetpack and have to rescue dangling Smarties (the comically disfigured locals), and this was long before the likes of Just Cause gave us similar freedom. It's worth noting, too, that as good as that franchise looks now, Giants looked back in 2000.

As the game progresses - always interspersed with those fantastic cutscenes - your objectives are messed about with. One minute you're planting a bomb in an enemy camp, the next you're hunting Vimps (cow-bug things) for meat, the next you're knee deep in the base building game. Yes, there's even a relatively fleshed out RTS in here, which forms the cornerstone of the benchmark multiplayer mode. Every one of these elements is considered, presented with flair, and imaginative in ways it's hard to comprehend in these homogeneous times. The multiplayer standing alone would have had an impact - it was 8 player, non-symmetric teamplay with base building and Vimp hunting and a giant bloody Kabuto running about eating people. And it was 2 years before Natural Selection.

To put it in soundbite form, Giants is a game that reminds me how lazy the likes of GTA and The Elder Scrolls really are with their mission design - and how much more attention, variety and contextual detail we as players have a right to demand.

So you play on, and it's true - some of the levels become a little repetitive - but then you leave the Meccs behind and become a Sea Reaper. Suddenly the waters - which as a Mecc mean death by piranha - become the shadows you stalk through before you strike. You're able to move in ways that entirely change the game, and to overcome the hordes of enemies, that for the Meccs were becoming overwhelming, with precision and flair. You also have your boobs out which is again bucking convention, if nothing else.

All the time your objectives are being framed in ways that make sense. Gameplay rarely devolves into something that feels familiar. You're looking forward to the next joke, or the next time Planet Moon are going take you completely by surprise. Surely they're not going to let me do that?!

Playing it again now, it's naturally not as pretty - but it still has the charm. The timing is off in some of the cutscenes - Psychonauts comes up trumps for sheer polish and consistency - but I feel closer to these characters and, perversely for such an off the wall tale, the story itself. The world feels like a real place, and there's a darker tone to the game than the cartoony visuals suggest. From the grotesque design of the Smarties' physical features, to feeding children to giants, to the tensions between the different species, there's an edge here that keeps the game from feeling flat.

There's also the bit where you play as the giant, which was rubbish even at the time. Ignore that bit.

Planet Moon released one game of interest after Giants, Armed & Dangerous, before hitting financial woes, switching to smaller, licensed projects and finally being subsumed into Bigpoint. A&D retained the feel of Giants, but lacked the spark of invention (though it did come up with the shark gun long before it rose to fame in the latest Saints Row). Comparing the two games is nonetheless a fruitful engagement - doing so demonstrates just how much more is going on in Giants than gameplay + funny cutscenes.

Giants is a must play. You can get it from GOG for $9.99 (I make no money from sending you there).


  1. Giants seems to me like one of those games that probably didn't sell enough copies, but what copies it did sell I assume were sold to people like us. It wasn't as if it lacked critical acclaim at the time, so: is there actually anybody left out there who cares about this sorta stuff and hasn't played it?!

  2. Just "played it"? LOVED IT!

    To me it's the spiritual successor to MDK 1, not the "thing" Bioware (spit!) produced :).

    Let's see now, I'll agree to most things you wrote there, and I do agree that this has some of the most fun dialogue in a game, and the gradual mutation of gameplay almost never lets you get bored (ok, having to play the tower defense-y game a few times did get a bit of a chore, but it's all in good doses). I'm not sure why you disliked playing Kabuto - I found it jolly good fun stomping at people, reminded me of that old game, Aaargh! ( or even Rampage ( :).

    One last thing I'd like to comment on is the dialogue system, because it made a huge impression on me: anyone noticed that the voices overlap? I.e. sometimes the actors speak all together, or one doesn't wait for the other to finish to start talking? I found that hugely innovative, and thought that was the way to the future - gone are the time of canned speeches, this is the way people talk in real life! I really thought it'd set a paradigm for the others to follow, but unfortunately I never saw another game use this... Sigh.. a pity...

  3. I'm glad you guys liked the game! I wrote and designed it.
    And it's also great that you notice the dialogue overlap. It's sometime I purposely did, and have continued to do in my writing. It not only allows the dialogue to sound somewhat realistic, but during those heightened comic moments, it also ramps up the tension, which leads to be better comic payoff (I hope). Thanks again!

  4. @George
    I actually rather enjoyed Bioware's MDK! Though it certainly lost some of its rough charm.

    Kabuto felt very repetitive to me. I think I actually cheated my way through half those levels!

    The voice overlap I hadn't noticed before, really good point. We spend so much time in games taking it in turns, speaking to one other character, and it just doesn't produce natural sounding conversation. I feel as if The Walking Dead actually does this, though it may just be that those scenes are very dynamic, multi-character scenes.

    Great to see you around these parts - and thanks for Giants! I've just shamelessly LinkedIn'd you and see that you're now at Ubi and living in... Cornwall?! If you'd care to - and if you have anything you can talk about - it would be all kinds of cool to get an interview with you for the blog :-)