header is screenshot from Anthem
Today, I Felt Nothing
Tara Hillegeist

It took me nearly twenty consecutive hours of play to find someone willing to let me help them. It was a simple questline, a checklist I needed to tick off all the boxes inside to proceed—“repair three javelins.” I just needed to find someone who wanted to let me be helpful to them. The game had no idea how hard it had made it to do so. No one wanted to help me help them; they just wanted to keep playing. And it was a fun game, but, it had to end, right?

With every mission taken, Anthem’s always-online structure drops the player up to her eyeballs in lush confusion. Whether in among moss- and algae-covered ruins, surrounded by dense flora, or stumbling about beneath an open sky so immense and empty-feeling it looms over the player like a vast digital mouth ready to swallow her, pixel by infinitesimally small pixel, she often has little room for spatial confidence, only reflexive and reactive hope. Hope that she is clever enough in the often lonely experience of dropping into a random freeplay server to use this cover there, that she can time this jump and dodge correctly to avoid being caught by electrical surge or wave of fire or acid bath here; hope that in the more structured missions proffered by contracts or quickplay that she has found herself in a group of javelins whose abilities mesh well together, because unless she comes to the game with a friend group pre-established she is guaranteed no consideration from the game’s clear indifference to the idea that players might want to play happily with other players.

Anthem, unlike all its precedents, is actively hostile to the player who wishes to make it easy for others to see the best in her cooperation and contribution to the group environment. She has no alternative means of communication, if she elects not to disclose the sound of her own voice. There is no text chat option. The player’s chosen character voice only appears in the “hub” of its first-person Fort Tarsis traversal instances, siloed off from engagement with other players so that her relationships with the game’s few developed cast members can proceed undisclosed to her peers. There are exactly three emotes available for her to use at any time, all minor variations of a greeting or congratulations. It fosters nothing so much as paranoiac worry about other people, the opposite of the cooperation a game like this necessarily requires. You will never be assured your party doesn’t think you a waste of space; you will never trust them to do what you need, only what they need. It privileges a player who lucks into joining the game with a tight-knit community culture already ready to embrace her, but it does nothing to foster the creation of one uniquely the game’s own. For a studio that stays invested in inserting gestures of social inclusion into their dialogue, for a game so often at pains to instill in the player some sense of generosity and self-effacement, the actual setup here is extremely hostile to anyone who isn’t a man, or a bully.

In between these paranoiac jaunts, the player loads herself into Anthem’s Fort Tarsis. Fort Tarsis represents the uncomfortable tension that characterizes the rest of the Anthem experience, both as a hub area for the game to launch the player out into its massive open world sections from and as an interactive space—the fort is walled off from the outside in more ways than one; nothing truly “leaves” its walls or follows, much less lets, the player in. Fort Tarsis is a single-player-only first-person town map that wouldn’t feel out of place in a game from two decades ago. It inspires many a moment where the player slams into an outstretched piece of atmospheric kipple just below or beside her field of vision like she’s a particularly ambulatory wall and the whole thing might have been better served had it been rendered by technology that belonged to that era, instead, and concerned itself with less need to demonstrate the Frostbite engine’s capacity for high detail and density, and more care towards the location of anything. It makes it difficult to invest in the character work provided by the cast of chatterboxes that begin to fill up the fort map as the player completes objectives and fulfills contracts; new voices cut into the quiet murmur of the place as her standing increases with the game’s few factions, requesting her attentions and ministrations, but as welcome an interruption from the pretty nothing that is Fort Tarsis’ chosen aesthetic as they are, their narratives are as sealed off from each other—to say nothing of the player’s own attempts to alter their course in any way—as their “lives” are from the player’s routine. A genre-savvy player may rush to talk to every NPC with a chat balloon over their head for fear she might miss some flavorful snippet of conversation from someone she’s not yet realized could be fun to talk to—there’s no need. NPCs who have missions for the player will wait until the player’s completed their task before talking to her again, and anyone else will just wait. Theirs is a passive life cycle, occurring at the player’s mercy.

The character writing in these short conversation pieces ranges from unforgettably bad—the dialogue between the hapless player character, the fashion designer, and his assistant is an object lesson in how filtering a camp aesthetic through the lens of straightness in an attempt to appeal to all audiences turns it into an exercise in grotesquely homophobic tedium—to surprisingly affecting—one woman’s heartstricken attempt to convince herself my character must be her daughter, miraculously alive after all these years, lingers on in my memory still, as does the disturbing melodrama of two married spies, both of whom seem incapable of telling where love ends and the paranoia of the interrogation room begins. But it’s a rare conversation where the player feels an active participant in it, rather than a proscenium arch through which the gathered performers have chosen to enact their little staged scene before all involved move on to the next piece of business. Just a nice distraction, a breather between the important parts of the game: the missions. This situational malaise hollows out their interactions with the player’s minimally-developed avatar and sits deeply at odds with the actual content of those interactions. Like the strewn bits of kipple in the airless hallways of their home, they never become interactive materials, just … things in your way.

There could have been a moment where it all came together despite itself, where the concepts Anthem speaks about inspiring the player to care about but doesn’t concern itself with truly teaching might have actually mattered to the game.

One of the first things that happens to the player’s javelin in Anthem is the weather and wildlife combining to knock it out of the sky in a scripted tutorial event. Later, once this windy environment is opened up to her for actual missions, stray lightning bolts randomly generated by the ancient relics embedded into the land by its creators—collectively depersoned by the name “the Shapers” within the fiction, and similarly as “Bioware Austin” without—can and will knock her javelin straight out of the sky again. The player learns to be careful where she lands, in the teeming undergrowth of Anthem’s jungle setting, as the shifting movements of its wildlife and antagonist factions mean she can never be too confident she isn’t crashing into a canopy-obscured firefight; but a single second of inattention to the weather patterns and every force on heaven and earth rips that choice out of her hands. Javelins are vulnerable to the landscape they explore. A keen player learns to respect that vulnerability, to internalize the pregnability of her armor-encased avatar. Far more than the quality of loot an enterprising player may scavenge from corpses and plants and wreckage, it is her grasp of how porous and reachable her javelin is within the the game’s ecosystem of pressures and presences, and how to define the terms on which she engages with that, that provides true satisfaction in play. This is the nature of the power fantasy on offer in Anthem, such as it is; there is no moment where the numbers go up and you become impregnably secure from a chance encounter with even the least powerful antagonists in the game, should there be enough of them to greet you on arrival.

This is a striking, unique statement of humility and vulnerability, one no other game like Anthem even gestures towards desiring to make the player feel. Then the colored rectangles drop in their abundance, and as the player pilots her javelin over their tinkling promises, she remembers why she’s really playing this game, and the moment passes.

Eventually, at the climax of the storyline the game ships with at launch, the player returns herself to the site of that story’s abrupt and catastrophic beginning, the site of that first moment of enforced vulnerability, to, in part, finish what she was unable to do the first time, but also to experience the Anthem of Creation directly one more time.

Much is written in the game’s difficult-to-navigate codices and dialogue of the raw creative power of this Anthem, the pleasure and polyphony of its song. The game’s mage/psychic equivalents, so-called “cyphers,” are drawn to it like moths to light, and die to it just as readily. It, as the navigable world available to the player aspires to be, is not a force to conquer or control, but to surrender to or let go of. Even hearing a fraction of its melody changes a person forever, sees them chasing it for the rest of their lives. The concept alone is inspirational. A studio like Bioware Austin, comprised of hundreds of employees and supplemented by thousands of outsourced asset developers, depends on a company culture where they can justify to themselves it’s worth it because they believe in the magic of the creative act in exactly this way, after all. It couldn’t exist as it does if they didn’t believe in it. They could not have survived the tumultuous seven-year development of Anthem from its beginnings as Project Dylan to its launch, now, as a live service, without at least partial hope that this was a true metaphor.

The ultimate confrontation provided to the player’s investment, if she has any, in engaging with the power of the Anthem of Creation is a boss fight with a very big human man that reeks of the same uninspired shrug that resolves the confrontation with Kai Leng in Mass Effect 3. You shoot him enough times and he dies. More creativity will be found in any random firefight in basic freeplay. The concept of the Shapers’ Anthem, the concept underlying what Project Dylan has become, is a beautiful concept, and one that its creators give no teeth whatsoever, because they throw it out the window the minute they need to make it stand for more, mechanically, than a method by which players gain access to dropped loot.

It should go without saying that a perfect art work doesn’t exist. There is only completed work—something the worker has to live with having done enough to, that there is nothing more this part of her life can sustain itself inside the act of doing. Even something that will continue on after one part of it concludes still finds itself concluded, at least in part. The reality of a live game as an always-active service is that this ending is never an ending—there is no point of completion, because the game is not feature complete until it is active, and players in their hundreds, thousands, hopefully millions, link their accounts to the servers set aside to hold their dreams inside them and in that handshake everyone on every end of every exchange finds out what’s become of their ambition. One day at Bioware Austin someone realized the project that began as Project Dylan was finished, and the part where someone else had to switch the live servers that would continue where they left off was about to begin. That project—one of sustaining massive arboreal undergrowth, endless skirmishes, as many excuses to throw death on two legs at the playerbase as they can exhaust themselves inventing, of leaderboards and loot—was not a project with an end date, only a succession of requests that would need to be fulfilled or denied, according to the project documentation, as soon as anyone was able. How can anyone, having been asked to render their belief in the power of creation itself as a supernatural force into compilable code, reconcile that task with this future that will shape whatever they’ve made, that their work depends upon the success of to reach anyone at all, with anything more than a hapless shrug? How can this satisfy anyone?

There’s a street prophet who stands by the fountain in the center of town in Fort Tarsis. He has much to say about the game, if you’ll listen. Someone knew what they were making, and they slid it in sideways through his mouth. He often talks about the Anthem of Creation. He calls the player a scared puppet of meat, always fighting, always afraid, always grasping at a meaning she’ll never know because she’s just playing along with the systems that push and pull her by unreliable whims. “It never finishes,” he says. It can’t afford to.

But I can’t afford to play along forever.

As you can see, Tara Hillegeist is a critic.