The best game designers are concerned with both form and content when they are creating–of introducing fundamental innovations through a game engine and making the whole thing engaging and fun through the details and specifics that constitute that engine and flesh out the game world. We have the Shigeru Miyamotos, the Hideo Kojimas, many Japanese console masters and American PC legends. Most designers are content with borrowing from these forerunners, slightly improving or at least attempting to improve what they have already established. Others have great ideas, grand ambitions, and a pool of talent to execute a fresh design. They might not have the biggest budget, but they have a lot of heart. Additionally, their end product might not have the polish of a first-party Nintendo game for example, or the gameplay mechanics might not be as tight as a Halo, but it’s decent enough. Geist is one such game, wielding a desire to explore and further the first-person genre of gaming, regardless of its average content. It’s the form that n-Space–Geist’s developer–is concerned with.
The form in question is in the exploration of different perspectives in first-person gaming, and not just limited to that of humans. We get to explore that of various animals and even inanimate objects. Whether or not the representation of these perspectives is accurate or plausible–for instance, if one were to possess a soda machine, what would one see; how would one see?–is beside the point. When you boil it down, what is truly accurate and plausible in context of video games or other creative mediums? The importance lies in the idea of utilizing an intrinsic property of interactivity and applying it to how you view the world in which you vicariously interact with. Having said that, Geist deserves praise for its eagerness to explore new territory. It’s not exactly earth-shattering stuff, but it may just inspire some future game designers or perhaps the n-Space team themselves to take it to the next level.
This exploration of perspective comes at a price of course, which is manifested in the ho-hum first-person shooting mechanics and just the overall complexity of the design of the game. The story is pretty standard and even features the oft-visited FPS subject of interdimensional rifts being opened up that leads to unforeseen trouble. The music, sound effects, level design, scenario/mission design, control, and so on are also fairly average. The voice-acting is surprisingly above-par, however. Mostly though, the game has legs on its ideas and execution and some small design details found throughout the game that manages to pleasantly surprise. Geist is full of pleasant surprises.
“You are John Raimi, a specialist in Biological and Chemical threats. In high demand, you are often hired by Governments, Universities, and Corporations to help deal with the most dangerous biological and chemical agents.” That passage is taken straight from the background portion of the game’s manual, and goes on to give some rather useful story info that isn’t exactly present in the game. Basically, your current assignment has you tagging along with an elite counter-terrorist group that is backed by the Center for Disease Control to extract an undercover agent in the south of France at the Volks Corporation, a company that deals in military weapons R&D. The man you’re sent to extract happens to be Raimi’s best friend. If you’re wondering by what precedence or line of legal reasoning these people have for doing what they’re doing, you’re not alone. Needless to say, things go wrong during the operation, and there are deeper, darker, more sinister things brewing behind the scenes deep within the lab complex, beginning with, well, spectral separation experiments.
The beginning is kind of brilliant in that it might potentially set up some gamers for disappointment in what’s to come (wow, this is rather bland fps action). Then it lets them off the hook with the first “pleasant surprise”–the game is actually pretty good and interesting. This comes during a short sequence that has you exploring a simulated world program after Raimi’s spirit has just been separated from his body. A soothing female voice gently informs you of your surroundings, the basic mechanics of being a spirit, how to possess objects, etc. There are trees, streams, bunny rabbits hopping happily along, and everything is in slow motion and glossed over in excess light bloom. Suddenly, the world begins to deteriorate, the voice-over fragments and you’re ripped out of your own little personal Eden. That sequence right there is almost worth the price of a rental.
From there, you roam throughout the Volks Corporation as a floating, ethereal entity, looking for objects to possess to further your progress in hopes of reattaching your soul to your body, among other things along the way. As a spirit, time is experienced in slow motion, which figures into some of the puzzles and strategies involved when dealing in possessions and battles. Additionally, the color palette of the environment takes on subdued blues and shimmery whites; and your spirit force slowly drains while not in possession of an object or person, a constant result of the Afterlife’s pull on your spirit (yet another detail provided by the manual). While haunting the lab halls and other locales, you have the ability to float up in the air a certain height to access some places. However, unlike popular depictions of ghosts and spirits, you do no have the capability to travel through walls and the like, just designated slipstreams between various rooms as well as the ability to pass through less-dense objects like barred doors.
You’ll spend most of your time, however, in possession of some host, be it animate or inanimate. To progress further within the lab complex, it is necessary to possess hosts like engineers, scientists, and heavily armed security officers to access restricted areas. Almost all combat takes place while in control of these hosts. Each living host (including some animals like rats and bats) has their own unique capabilities, like jumping, running, or using a variety of weapons. The possession of inanimate objects is used primarily as a means to possess human hosts by way of spooking them. According to Geist’s universe, a spirit can view the energy field of a living thing, and depending on what color it is determines that hosts level of fright. When a host is frightened, their energy field is red, and thus is susceptible to possession. Oftentimes, you must engage in a two-tiered spooking event that has you possessing two different objects and scaring the host both times. One example has you possessing a soda machine and shooting out a bunch of soda cans (which turns their energy yellow), then possessing one of the cans and causing it to explode at the host’s feet (turning it red).
Geist seems to have been developed either with a modified Doom 3 engine or with the look of Doom 3 sans space-station lighting in mind. If by chance you’re pretty familiar with third installment of the Doom series, one quick glance at this game will make you think that you are in a well-lit area of Doom 3: it has the same kind of bouncing view when you move and the same polish in graphical detail (especially noteworthy is the high-res textures). The framerate isn’t as consistent, and it’s by no means on the level of Doom 3 graphically when you consider this is a Gamecube game. But the look of Geist is yet another pleasant surprise about the game. The controls, on the other hand, feel very stiff. The inability to adjust the look sensitivity is oddly missing. But then I ask myself, when has their been a FPS for the Gamecube that has had awesome controls? Oh well, it works well enough.
As for the multiplayer portion of Geist, it has some good, fresh ideas that do not feel tacked on. This is because the multiplayer gameplay is derived logically from the single player campaign’s design, although I wish developers would quit making players earn the right to play on different maps or with different weapons/options through other modes of gameplay.
Players can fight in one of three modes: Possession Deathmatch, where players must possess hosts located throughout the map and kill each other; Capture the Host, an interesting take on the standard Capture the Flag that has you retrieving hosts and returning them to a base; and finally, Hunt, which has human hosts using anti-spirit weaponry against spirits who are in turn trying to possess and cause death to the humans. Spirits must cause the hosts to die by forcing them into hazards on the map like spikes or fan blades. Of these, Capture the Host is probably the most entertaining. Again, it’s no fault of the game’s conceptual design that the multiplayer portion isn’t as fun as it could be. Though there are plenty of levels and a decent amount of options, you probably won’t spend too much time with this due to the shooting mechanics and stolid map designs. As a sort of consolation, n-Space has provided the optional use of bots in place of friends, of which you can have a mixture of eight humans and bots total.
Geist is intriguing enough as the sum of its parts to elicit forgiveness for its shooting gameplay. There is also a drive towards originality and towards recognizing its roots or the roots of games that came before it. There are some smart, inspired boss battles to be fought. You’ll even find Samus’s helmet from the Metroid series in a locker. In any case, Geist is a unique gaming experience and another FPS (like the recent Peter Jackson’s King Kong) that wants to do something more with the genre than have you blow away wave after wave of enemies.