It’s all too easy to criticise Alpha Protocol for its mechanical shortcomings, loose characterisation and unfulfilling combat. Indeed I have, multiple times, during the hours that I spent with it. This is not a genre-defining role-playing game, a revolutionary shooter or a masterclass of stealth gameplay. It’s a far cry from all of those things. Yet, it utterly compels me, often in a way which very few video games ever have in the past.
My version of international super spy Michael Thorton is a sneaky, tech-savvy lurker who finds solace in the shadows and the dull thud of silenced weaponry. He’s a thinker, more suited to finding alternate, more intelligent solutions to problems which a noisy assault could just as easily solve. The customisation options Obsidian provide not only allow this kind of approach, but present me with the tools I need to complement such a style of play. All this is irrelevant, however. How I progress through the shooting galleries has no real impact, nor is it the most fulfilling element of Alpha Protocol. I appreciate the freedom I’m given, but I don’t really and truly care.
What Alpha Protocol does exceptionally well is lend the decisions you make throughout its narrative a real, tangible weight. The dialogue system at the core of this is a deceptively simple affair, revolving around which of the three predetermined attitudes you choose to assume with a particular non-player character (NPC). How you communicate with people, and the choices you make during and as a result of those interactions, impacts the surrounding world and its fiction in ways both subtle and dramatic – so much so that I felt a stronger connection to my character and his story in Alpha Protocol than I typically do in much more commercially and critically successful games that also focus on choice and champion player authorship.
I’ve been thinking a lot about why this is, and the answer may be that Alpha Protocol eschews the typical good vs. evil dichotomy in favour of a much more realistic and necessarily complex approach. Characters in Alpha Protocol are not arbitrarily defined as simply being good or evil, but rather presented as individuals who have opposing beliefs, motivations and goals. Often, foreknowledge of a particular character’s background will be the deciding factor in whether or not you glean the information you require, and the aforementioned attitude-centric dialogue system is tailored towards being able to adapt naturally in conversation not to assume a specific moral stance, but instead to be the person you need to be in a given situation.
Many people have described the three attitudes available to Mike Thorton as contractions of three similar characters across popular media: Aggressive being representative of 24’s Jack Bauer, Suave the nature of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, and Professional synonymous with Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne. This is an effective analogy and almost totally accurate. What’s interesting about this system is that none of these attitudes are designed to completely characterise Thorton, who is by nature chameleonic, and this works incredibly well within an espionage framework.
Another important aspect of the dialogue and decision-making is that every response and action must be performed within a time limit. Being able to sit and ponder how your selections may ripple through the surrounding fiction has almost always been the norm for this kind of gameplay, and removing that luxury is a bold, effective step. Similar RPGs such as Bioware games like the Mass Effect trilogy and Knights of the Old Republic offer a deep and complex system of conversing which allows you to attribute your avatar a personality of your choosing. I enjoy video games like these immensely. What they lack is a real sense of urgency and the dynamism which characterises real-life discourse, and this is what Alpha Protocol brings to the table that its contemporaries do not.
As I said before though, it is really the outcome of these interactions which defines the experience for me. Characters you meet will frequently be aware of and reference your previous exploits, and their perceptions of your character will alter depending on how you behaved around their peers and associates. Other factors, such as whether you decide to approach a particular contact before or after, say, investigating a NSA listening post, will in turn determine how that contact chooses to deal with you. There are countless moments like this throughout the game which lend the world a real sense of connectedness and depth, which along with the ever-changing personality of your avatar really helps to tell a great, globe-trotting spy story.
Of course Alpha Protocol’s story isn’t perfect. It’s frequently very good, and has a few moments of genuine emotional depth, but towards the end it does seem to bow under the weight of its own complexity. Honestly though, I don’t really care. To me Alpha Protocol is an experiment, and it’s worth remembering that most experiments tend to blow up in somebody’s face before they create something revolutionary. This is the case here, and while the experience is flawed and frequently misguided, it is also fresh, interesting and genuinely compelling. Sometimes that’s all we need.