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Totalitarianism in Polygons – Or, Goldeneye Vs. The USSR

First time I played a Nintendo 64 I didn’t actually know what it was. I was a wee kid who’d grown up on Mario on the NES when I was so young I lacked the cognitive ability to actually tell Super Mario Bros 1/2/3 were different games (or maybe I was just a dumbass, but still). I’d played a lot on my cousin’s SNES and been blown away by Super Mario Kart, Sim City and – uh – Mario Is Missing, the geography edutainment title where you wander the world as Luigi learning about different cities. I had a Game Boy with Mario Land 1 and 2 and Pokémon Red (of course). I knew what a Nintendo was. But I was a out-of-the-loop, play-games-in-your-head kind of child, not really paying attention to the kind of buzz of things – so when I found a Nintendo 64 at a relative’s Lake District holiday home one day, this plastic black box with top-loading cartridges just like the SNES, I was very curious.

It even had a Mario game! Super Mario 64. I put the cartridge in and turned it on and, after some fiddling with the TV managed to get it to display. You can’t imagine the effect Mario in 3D, something I had no conception of before literally that moment, blew my stupid mind. I was a little confused about why it started out at the castle, since in my kid’s way of thinking Mario went to the castle at the end of a world – then I realised that the castle was the world, a whole playground for this new Mario, with his bevy of new gymnastic abilities, to wander about, exploring for the “power stars” that would help him rescue the princess. Scratch that – the castle was my world.

Of course you don’t need me to tell you that Mario 64 was a hell of a game. But it wasn’t the only thing in the ‘den’ of that neat little country home I found. After all, Mario was one thing but there was another cartridge there, a more mysterious, exciting one. Mario, even this 3D Mario, was familiar, but the second cartridge was less so. It had James Bond on the cartridge sticker. I liked James Bond. This game was called Goldeneye. I started it up. There was a menu screen, a bunch of levels to choose from. I don’t know why I chose the one I did. Surface 2. I was probably just clicking around at random. The game gave me a briefing and I didn’t read it and hit the start mission button. A cutscene shows the location – somewhere in the dead of night, white polygonal snow hills and jpeg forests, a blood-red, overcast sky. I take control – I’m James Bond. I have no idea how to move, how to do anything. This isn’t Mario! You can’t even jump. I wander around this grim snowy expanse, a world away from Mario’s bright colours and friendly charm. The music is a synth-filled howl, a sound like blowing wind mixed in with a moody, unhappy little tune that at some moments resembles the James Bond theme but mostly is just noise. There are men following me. Are they men? Grey things shaped like men with guns and masks over their faces, who silently run after me and then when they’re close enough open fire. Gunfire echoes through the night. The sky is always red, unnaturally so. They corner me, the men in grey. James Bond grunts in pain. I panic. I can’t find the shoot button. The grey men keep shooting. Soon enough James Bond is dead, blood pouring down the screen.

And I’m fascinated. Before my later love affairs with Doom, Blood, Half-Life and Wolfenstein there was Goldeneye, my first experience of what we call today the first person shooter, of a game that wasn’t a platformer of some sort (or, for some reason, Sim City). Goldeneye was an intensely formative game for me – not so much for the multiplayer mode that enthralled so many others. I played it with friends, sure, but for me the Nintendo 64 was there, in that Lake District house, and it was there that I experienced its twenty-two level campaign, loosely based upon the plot of the Pierce Brosnan movie (which once I tracked it down and saw it became one of my favourites too). A first-person shooter made by Rare, legendary British oddball developers of Donkey Kong Country and more importantly people who didn’t know anything about Doom, it innovated and fumbled in equal measure. Goldeneye was one of the first shooters with complex objectives, things like “rescue this scientist” or “plant this tracking device” or “take a picture of this” that you could actually fail if you just went in blasting. On the other hand, working with the N64’s cursed three-handed controller it had controls which were…less than amazing, and an aiming system that unlike the run-and-gun style of Doom clones meant you basically had to stop and stand still to hit anything with any accuracy. Still, it was this oddness that made (and makes) Goldeneye such a standout game, for except for spiritual sequel Perfect Dark, also released for the N64, there isn’t really anything like it. Its odd shooting, its objective-based and relatively freeform gameplay, and its myriad and bizarre weapons and gadgets set it apart from most other 90s shooters, which in some way or another are derivative of or responding to Doom – Goldeneye had no idea Doom even existed, both its greatest strength and weakness and the thing that sets it apart.

That and the really, really weird atmosphere.

I mentioned the music in Surface 2. A link here, if you want to sample what my infant mind heard without no prior context:

Not exactly Silent Hill, but not really what you’d expect from James Bond. Composters Grant Kirkhope and Graeme Norgate worked to mimic the style of the movie’s synth-heavy Eric Serra soundtrack, and in doing so through the N64’s limited sound capabilities made something…well, pretty cool, but also in this one instance weirdly spooky.

Of course, nothing can communicate what this was like to me then. But I hope I’ve given you a sense of “hey why is this a James Bond game?”. Well, because Goldeneye, the movie it is based on, is itself very stylized and unusual, being the first Bond movie of the decade and the first with new star Pierce Brosnan – it is a self-referential movie in which the prologue takes place before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rest of the movie after, with large portions of it in Russia proper and with the history of the Soviet Union tied both into the plot and into the theming. Early on, new female M (yes, Judi Dench as M was once a surprise) calls Bond “a dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War”, and this is the movie’s question, insofar as a James Bond movie has a driving question – is there a place in this new, post-Soviet world for Bond, the hero who made his name fighting Soviet spies and other assorted Cold War super-criminals way back in the distant sixties? In effect, Goldeneye is a character movie about the death of the Soviet Union, and if you’re a regular here you know there is literally nothing I love talking about more. But the Nintendo 64 video game adaptation of Goldeneye might actually be why – because what Goldeneye gave me was a very surreal depiction of the end of the Cold War, filtered through both video game abstraction and through my own dumb kid’s brain, at that time just about able to comprehend an episode of Dragonball Z.

As I mentioned the game followed the plot of the movie more or less, which is as follows: James Bond is doing some spy shit in the Soviet Union, investigating a chemical warfare facility headed by the baddie General Oumorov, head of the fictional Space Division of the military, when he abandons his partner Sean Bean (006) to the Soviets and flees, finishing the mission. Nine years later a conspiracy to hijack a Soviet superweapon known as ‘the Goldeneye’, a space-based EMP laser, emerges, with Oumorov at the heart of it, and Bond goes after him and surprise Sean Bean is also alive and involved and there’s a lady who gets off on murdering people and a sexy Russian hacker and Robbie Coltrane plays a gangster and Bond drives a bloody tank through the streets of St. Petersburg and then he and Sean Bean have a fight atop a satellite dish in Cuba. All of this is in the game, more or less. But while the movie contains just enough exposition to explain all this the game barely touches on it, in short mission briefings and snippets of (unvoiced) conversation – while Sony’s PlayStation was building epic movie-style narratives in Metal Gear Solid, the N64’s technical limitations meant that plot had to be delivered via text, and Goldeneye knew that too much text would get in the way of the game’s real draw, its exciting spy-sim action. Events from the movie given whole scenes of set-up, and then containing long exchanges of dialogue and elaboration, are reduced to text banners at the bottom of the screen, characters are chopped up into NPCs who float in and out of the plot without context, small moments in the cinema become levels filled with extra objectives that barely seem attached to the original plot beat they’re now part of, and events which have to necessarily lead into one another are cut apart by the mission-based structure of the game. None of this is a criticism and is all exceedingly common in the licenced games of old (before your time, sonny). It does combine, however, with one of the game’s other features to create a very specific atmosphere.

In many first-person shooters of the nineties the levels are simply that – levels. Doom set the trend with its abstract mazes dressed up as scifi bases and hell corridors, and although the Build trilogy, for instance, added lots of neat details to flesh these mazes out, fundamentally the Doom logic for a shooter’s environments is that they should all serve a purpose. Doors should lead to somewhere new. Fighting enemies should get you something. A switch should open a passage which should show you to where to go next. Playing classic Doom-likes you are being led around gently by the hand, the levels serving a utilitarian function. Aesthetics is more important in some (Build games) and less in others (Quake, for example) but always secondary to function. As we’ve established though, Goldeneye was made by British madlads who had no interest in mimicking Doom, and with their objective-based, non-linear completion system as a basis (do you go do this first? how about that? are there any other ways to do this one?) created levels that feel the exact opposite of the tightly-designed maps of Doom and its bothers and sisters.

Goldeneye’s levels are full of things they don’t need: buildings with nothing in them but flavour objects, like for example a hut in the Siberia-set Surface stage containing a desk and model planes and tanks (which explode when you shoot them, because of lol engine limitations), or the myriad offices, bathrooms and other unnecessary places filling the second level, Facility, or Streets, where you replicate the tank ride through St. Petersburg, containing many side-alleys and backstreets which are completely misseable if you do the level how you’re supposed to and contain no secrets or anything else. And some things and places are necessary, but not on every difficulty – Dam, the first stage, contains an entire underground segment that you only need to visit if you’re playing the game on the highest difficulty, as different difficulties add more and more objectives. The enemies are not limited just to function but in fact come in dozens of varieties, all reskins of the same model with different guns, true, but some immensely contextual- the two Surface stages and only they pit you against those grey men I saw as a kid, the Siberian Special Forces, the last few levels are full of goons working for the ‘Janus crime syndicate’ instead of Russian soldiers, the Russian/Soviet soldiers themselves have different uniforms depending on what time the level is set, etc.. Some levels contain useless items – if you kill General Oumorov on Silo then you can obtain, to no purpose, his briefcase. Dam, in a moment that fascinated young gamers, features a mysterious island off in the distance, fully modelled and explorable but off-limits.

I could go on. But my point is that while today of course these environments are very artificial (and have probably aged worse than the deliberately fake spaces of Doom if you plug the game in for the first time today), at the time pre-Half-Life they had a level of detail and realism that was unprecedented. Realism filtered through the N64’s unique and characteristic aesthetic, to be sure, but at the time that was what realism was. It was possible – and I often did so – to spend a lot of time wandering Goldeneye’s vast environments, trying to find cool stuff and seeing what was behind every weird little detail. The same was true for a lot of N64 games, from Mario 64 to Zelda to Rare’s other smash-hit platformer Banjo-Kazooie – while something like Metal Gear Solid undoubtedly told a much more compelling story, in the end if you wanted a world you picked Nintendo. Rare understood the strengths of the machine they were working with and the spark that had made Mario 64 such a quantum leap, and although their attempt to make a shooter with that same detail and openness was inconsistently successful as a game, on the purely mechanical level, as an experience it was for the time without parallel.

But again, the world of Goldeneye is not a castle in the Mushroom Kingdom or the cartoony world of Banjo-Kazooie. It is ostensibly our world, or the world of a movie set in our world. The fascinating thing about Goldeneye is its attempt within the limits of the N64 and in the style of the N64 to depict reality – as with Valve’s attempt to do something similar with their Half-Life, the creation of a world on its terms mimicking many of ours, the result is something unique. Half-Life gave us the polygonal office, the scifi disaster story told in blocky 3D. Goldeneye gave us something else – the fall of communism.

In Goldeneye’s first three levels, Dam, Facility and Runway, the Soviet-set prologue of the movie, where Bond infiltrates a chemical warfare facility, witnesses 006 ‘die’ and then flees via hijacked airplane, plays out amidst clear blue skies. The Soviet soldiers are in vivid green, and the levels are bright, breezy and exciting, starting with you storming the dam and ending with a thrilling dash down the runway. Two more levels play out pre-1991, the game-original Surface and Bunker, in which Bond visits the fictional Siberian locale ‘Severnaya’, which later in game and movie assumes plot importance as the site for the test firing of the Goldeneye – they are set in the day and feature Bond battling the Siberian Special Forces and then the blue-clad Spetsnaz in similarly simple, action-packed gameplay. The game then departs from the USSR and skips ahead, and after several original levels we return, in Surface 2, to Russia. Now it is night and the sky as mentioned is blood red, and the Special Forces spawn infinitely, coming after you from the start with sniper rifles and machine-pistols, forcing you to flee them and complete your objectives on the run; and at the end of the level Bond, instead of infiltrating the bunker by himself, is captured and tossed in a cell. Then we go to Bunker 2, one of the hardest levels in the game, in which waves upon waves of Spetsnaz hurl themselves at you if you are dumb enough to alert them and so you’re reduced to stealth and cunning for most of its duration. Bond escapes and now we go through the story beats of the movie’s Russian portion, in St. Petersburg.

And the game for one level recreates something very bizarre. In the movie there’s a brief sequence set in the iconic Fallen Monument Park of St. Petersburg – if you don’t know it, this park is basically a dump of Soviet statues, monuments, and other assorted communist debris. In the game this becomes a full level, simply called Statue, in which Bond must explore in order to meet with the story’s villain, the criminal mastermind ‘Janus’. Statue is as dark as Surface was, a long, non-linear level filled with polygonal recreations of real-life statues. Giant letters spelling out CCCP sit hulking in the ruins, a huge hammer and sickle mounted on a plinth is set against a dark midnight skybox. Russian soldiers hunt Bond through the debris, set to music that sounds even less pleasant than Surface 2’s. There’s even a giant blocky Lenin statue, set in that famous pose with his arm raised, calling the masses to rise up, barely recognizable.

After this Bond is captured by the military, and he escapes in the thrilling no-objectives-murder-everyone Archives level, cutting loose on the Russian military like the Terminator in a police station, before his qt Russian hacker gf Natalya is kidnapped by General Oumorov and Bond, like in the movie, has to give chase in a tank. But Streets is not the triumphant moment of the film – its music is also grim and intense, and St. Petersburg looks less like itself and more like the backdrop to a modern indie horror game, again with black sky and muted colours. Bond can run over civilians, who die with a stock scream and a wet squelch. Not much like the movie at all. His chase continues in game-original Depot, where he dismounts and storms a, uh, depot in order to get to the bad guy’s lovingly depicted Soviet armoured train, complete with red star on the front.

Much of this imagery is again loosely taken from the movie, but that extra layer of abstraction added by the N64 – the lack of narrative elaboration, the graphical style, music and sound design – coupled with Rare’s attention to detail in their environmental work and level design gives it a vibe wholly its own. Without the ability to have their characters talking Hideo Kojima style about the world, and probably also without the interest in doing so, the developers of Goldeneye instead managed to communicate in very simple terms a narrative about the Soviet Union; that it had been bad and that what replaced it hadn’t really made things better. It communicated a drab, hopeless place run by gangsters, a playground for criminals and mad generals, a factory churning out endless waves of soldiers amidst the ruins of something else built before it, a sad place where evil – our villain Janus, not Russian or Soviet but intimately tied to its history – could take hold and threaten all that Jolly Old England held dear.

Now of course, if we ask the guys who made Goldeneye about this they’ll say they weren’t doing any of that, what are you talking about, how did you get into my house, etc., and they’ll be right. Nothing about Goldeneye is intentional: its idiosyncratic gameplay, its strange atmosphere, being able to cheat at the multiplayer by playing as Oddjob from Goldfinger. The whole it comes together into is formed from very uneven parts, and probably without the benefit of years of nostalgia – I played this game to death for years, and my mum played it even more for some reason, so it’s also a family bonding thing – at first glance it doesn’t look like much now. My point is not that this game is political at all, but how it managed to communicate to me some interesting things about politics which, unconsciously, I remembered for a very long time. Long before I knew who Lenin was or what had happened in 1917 or 1991 and probably even before I had any real sense of Russia as a country, I met it through polygons, in that strange, scary and surreal form it takes in Goldeneye for the Nintendo 64. Perhaps it coloured my interest in the place; perhaps it gave me notions, long-buried, of melancholy for whatever had happened there and of a weird respect for their military and its signs and signifiers. After all, I’d killed and been killed by thousands of Russians and their guns before I ever met a real one.

For me this was the role Goldeneye played in my life. Today it serves as an example for me of one of the most fascinating things about the medium of video games. My generation grew up, in our most formative years, with games that tried to escape from reality, Mario and Zelda and Final Fantasy type deals. Goldeneye was an outlier, trying bravely to depict something resembling the world we lived in today on the humble N64. It taught me a little, however abstracted and vague, about a world that as a child I knew nothing about. Other games did similar things – Medal of Honor about the war, Civilisation about world leaders and cultures, Sim City about how cities worked, Mario Kart about go-karting. Today video games are both vastly more sophisticated and much bolder, unafraid to move beyond the Goldeneye/Civilisation abstraction and to deal in-depth with real-world issues, historical events and political moments. In Goldeneye the Soviet Union is a brooding background presence, an unelaborated but compelling thematic element that adds atmosphere to the shooting – in Call of Duty: Black Ops (2010), you try to assassinate Fidel Castro and play through a gulag escape and thwart a Soviet attempt to use a bioweapon on major American cities. In Civilisation you play as a vague embodiment of the ‘German civilisation’ represented by Bismarck or whoever and try to beat other civilisation in what’s basically a more flexible boardgame – in the long-running Hearts of Iron series you basically have a Hitler simulator right down to individual unit formations and historical politicians and generals and orders of battle. I have to wonder – do we really know how powerful games can be as an educational medium? It’s only really been one generation ago – my generation – that games existed as a major cultural force that children could grow up on. As games become less and less polygonal, less abstract, and less afraid to dive cack-handed into the fall of the USSR, or the Holocaust, or the pain of losing a child or the misery of wage-slavery or the question of why you should or should not kill yourself, it seems that we oughta take seriously the messages they carry and who might be on the receiving end of them. I was lucky that Goldeneye only taught me that nineties Russia was kind of scary (true) and what a Lienz Cossack was (not a good thing). If I had kids, to be honest, I wouldn’t be so hot about letting them play a game where you can work alongside war criminal Jonas Savimbi to fight the commies in Angola, as happens in Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 (2012).

All that aside, you might have figured this out by now: I miss the nineties. I miss the abstraction of gaming then, a strength of the medium Goldeneye in its bizarre way embodies. By chasing tech and immersion, by striving to become real instead of creating their own version of real (yeah I talked about this before), games not only have to struggle with the much more difficult problems of history and politics outlined above but also lose something of that quintessential vibe. I feel today this is why all the kids play Minecraft: they understand that it has the same appeal as the games we played back then, the offering up of a world that is not quite our own and tells us so in stark audio-visual language, but contains just enough that’s familiar for us to find it compelling. I somehow got into history, I guess, through first-person shooters. Kids today might want to get into building, digging, exploring, etc. through what they find in Minecraft. But the more realistic – and therefore, to an extent, more standardised – the game, the more we lose this, since the principle characteristic of reality is that it’s not as fun as shit we make up ourselves. The same is true of any work of fiction, but only in games is there this perverse obsession, appealing to the kids who didn’t grow up, who are still in their thirties and forties waiting for the next ‘console generation’ to give them the thrill they got going from PS1 to PS2 way back when, with not doing more interesting or more unusual or more original things, like Goldeneye, but with correcting the medium so that it resembles less itself and more everything else.

Goldeneye, warts and all, is a monument against this. It’s a fascinating game, even if not one that’s easy to play now. It’s definitely better remembered than the still pretty good film that inspired it, and for me at least it speaks to the strengths of the Nintendo 64, and of that time in gaming, better than objectively better made games like Mario 64 or Ocarina of Time. It’s a cliché, but from the liberal use of a movie licence in very sacrilegious ways to the wide-open levels with no clear focus to the weird atmosphere to the fact that it’s a game where nothing feels real and yet that kinda sorta works, you couldn’t make anything like it today. Track it down for a quick go, if you want. You probably won’t find it as overwhelming as I did as a kid back in the den. But you might see a little bit of something special there, between shootouts with a hundred guys at once who all have the same six faces every time. As with any old game, any weird game, any good game, any decent work of fiction, it might take a little bit to adjust to what you’re faced with; but once you do you might find yourself having fun. You might enjoy the weird reality of a historical event in Russia abstracted into a movie made by Americans and Brits abstracted into a game made by Brits. That’s the kind of thing that fiction is absolutely the best at – it’s why anyone should make anything at all. Otherwise, we could just spend all our time in real life or something.

 And if nothing else, the soundtrack is absolutely fire.


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