Monday, October 26, 2015

The Endings of 'SKYHILL'

Lately I've been hooked on SKYHILL, the point and click survival indie game from Mandragora and published by Daedalic Entertainment. It's a simple but atmospheric game in which you play as a lone man, possibly named "Perry Jason", who is trying, apparently, to escape from the aftermath of a biological weapon attack which has transformed humanity into monsters. The twist is that you start the game in the VIP suite on the one hundredth floor of a hotel, and must fight your way down. As such, you reactivate lifts and, when injured or needing to improve your equipment, you must retreat upwards, returning to your place of sanctuary on the top floor. It plays with typical imagery of progress, in which upward motion is associated with achievement, success and escape. Here it's the opposite; you want to go down, and going up is going backward.

The gameplay is fairly simple. Everything bar a couple of "puzzles" is done with the mouse. You click on rooms that you want the character to walk into (one on either side of the central stairwell in two dimensions), fight monsters in turn-based battles by clicking on them, either generally or by selecting weak spots which have a reduced chance to hit, collect food, health items and gear, and craft with the material you collect. You can use this material to upgrade your VIP suite in various ways, primarily to cook better food in which the combined value is greater than the sum of the parts, and to build superior weapons. These range from the notionally conventional, like a blade strapped to a wooden mop to form an improvised spear, to the outright outlandish, like circular-saw-bladed axes, Japanese naginata and, at the top of the pile, an electric "chainsword" presumably influenced by Warhammer 40,000.

I highly prize simplicity in games, and SKYHILL engrossed me. I've played it for 16 hours - over ten times as long as I've played Dark Souls, which I bought recently out of an itching for RPG fantasy but struggled to find interesting. There's something about simple games that I find appealing, especially when they're laden with atmosphere. In this case SKYHILL seems to owe a fair bit to 2012's Lone Survivor as they both feature apartment-based 2D post-apocalyptic gameplay, although SKYHILL is a good deal more simple and has less immediate narrative.

It's the narrative I wanted to talk about primarily, its ambiguity being another connection to Lone Survivor, which featured multiple endings and which generally suggested that the post-apocalyptic scenario was a hallucination, dream or delusion. In SKYHILL, apart from an opening comic-book-style cinematic which shows the player character checking into his hotel and being protected by a "biological defence system" when the city is attacked, the narrative is presented through a series of collectibles and interactive experiences: a series of journal entries, a set of voice recordings, some mysterious electronic and written messages, and a torn photograph. The confusing thing is, these elements don't all correlate. 

The journal entries describe the state of the world in the near future, which seems to suggest both a plague and a severe nuclear weapons moratorium after Middle Eastern terrorists gain access to nuclear weapons. These two events are seemingly followed by the development instead of vicious biological weapons, and a failing political relationship between the West and an Asian super-state named the "Eastern Confederation". On the verge of losing a war against the United Nations, this Confederation has apparently launched last-ditch biological attacks against the West. This apparently explains the situation. It doesn't explain, however, any of the other components.

The recordings are presumably the musings of the player character, and feature his melancholy thoughts about living in the post-apocalyptic world, as well as increasing thoughts that his life is a dream, and confusion about his identity; he describes himself as an inhabitant of the post-apocalyptic world scavenging in the hotel, but he's come from outside after the disaster. He's very clearly not having the same experience as the player character in gameplay. References to a "fever" suggest that he is a deluded and possibly infected inhabitant of the ruined world who is simply dreaming that he lives in the VIP suite at the top of the hotel, and is actually following hallucinatory "whisperings" attributed to a dead relative, "Nikki", beckoning him upstairs. This person was killed in an explosion which toppled a billboard, leaving the player character as the only survivor. It's unclear as to whether this relates to the explosion presented in the opening cutscene. In this case the truth is the reverse of what the player experiences.

The interactive components, by contrast, including graffiti behind a hanged man and a computer message discerned by using a password taken from a website which can only be accessed using a web browser outside the game, a kind of modern equivalent of old games that asked players to use the phone, state that the world is unreal, and that the player character is in fact part of a virtual reality experiment testing the effects of a mutagenic virus and the possibilities of human survival through a computer simulation.

The photographs, finally, assemble a news article and statement describing the existence of a vicious serial killer dubbed 'The Mechanic' who uses improvised weaponry and who apparently believes that the world is inhabited by monsters who have infiltrated human society. They don't exactly fit together. Each one leads towards a different ending. Thus there are essentially four storylines:

1. The storyline on the surface: a man is trapped on the top floor of a one-hundred-storey hotel after "the end of the world" and is trying to fight his way out.
2. The "recording" storyline: the man is actually an inhabitant of the ruined world suffering from delusions which lead him to believe that he's in the first scenario; in actual fact he "lives" in the lobby and is climbing to the top of the hotel following a hallucinatory voice beckoning him upwards.
3. The "computer" storyline: the man is actually plugged into a virtual reality machine, being used as a human guinea pig to simulate and test human behaviour after a society has been destroyed by a mutagenic virus. Nothing in the game is real.
4. The "photograph" storyline: the man is actually a hallucinating lunatic termed 'The Mechanic' who sees the innocent people around him as dangerous monsters and is murdering them; he's not really escaping from the hotel but rather rampaging down from the VIP room slaying the other inhabitants; the premise is essentially an elaborate, violent fantasy.

SKYHILL has three endings, and I'll describe them in the order they appear in the game's cutscene menu.

Named the  "Secret Ending" in the game's achievements, in this one a point-of-view character wakes up in some kind of scientific facility being observed by two people. One of them is pleased with the "data" they have collected and tells the other to "dispose" of the person from whose point of view the player experiences the scene. That's it. It follows on from the "computer" storyline.

This is the default ending, and it follows from the "recording" storyline, but is achieved regardless. The player character bursts out not from the front doors of the hotel on the ground, but rather the door on the roof of the hotel, high above the city, calling out for "Nikki" and finding out that she is not there. He climbs onto the edge of the roof and looks down, presumably preparing to jump, a reference to one of the recordings in which he considers whether his life is a dream and muses that death supposedly ends dreams.

Dubbed the "Alternate Ending" in the achievements, in this one the player character wearily emerges from the hotel's lobby, a bloody axe in hand and a dead mutant behind him, only to discover a brightly-lit, functioning city, and the hotel surrounded by armed police telling him to put down his weapon. As he warns them of further monsters, they shoot him, and he dies in confusion, unaware of his hallucination, the final shot showing that the dead "mutant" behind him is in fact the murdered body of the hotel's receptionist.

Thus the odd thing about SKYHILL is that it has three different storylines, none of which wholly relate to the others, and the only one that apparently isn't true is what I've termed the "storyline on the surface" above. The only thing that the player knows for sure is that what they are observing is, in one way or another, not the truth, at least not wholly. The mutants might not be real, or the progression of the game might not be real, or the entire thing may not be real.

On the one hand it's an interesting narrative exercise if nothing else. To what extent do we trust what we are presented with in a text? In what way can a video game have an "unreliable narrator"? This also leads to the question of whether one of the multiple narratives is "more true" than the others. The default ending resolves one of the narrative strands to the same extent as the others, but requires none of the luck required for the "alternate ending" (as the photograph fragments do not necessarily appear on a particular playthrough, at least not in accessible places) and does not require the arguable puzzle-solving ability of the "secret ending", which relies on the player, unless like I did they discover it through the internet, realising that the mysterious password file on one of the interactive computers in the game is the address of a real website which can provide them with the password used at the end of the game to access the "secret ending". Does this mean that Ending 2 is the "least true"? Ending 3 relies on luck, while Ending 1 uses both luck (the computer with the password file does not always appear) and puzzle-solving ability. Does that make Ending 1 the "most true" ending as it arguably involves the most challenge? In the end, however, the character is deluded any way you slice it, and perhaps the point of SKYHILL ultimately is to question the idea of "multiple endings" and whether they really mean anything.

Multiple endings are typically presented as a "reward" for conscientious players. They typically give different levels of closure, with the most difficult to attain being the most satisfying, as in Lone Survivor. SKYHILL reverses this situation by turning it on its end: none of the endings offer any real closure. If Ending 1 is true, what's the meaning of all the material about 'The Mechanic'? Was that part of the simulation? If Ending 3 is true, what is the meaning of all the information about the war, or the computer in the lobby? If Ending 2 is true, who was "Nikki" and why was the player character so confused about what he was doing? You might be able to fold some of it together; Ending 1 lists the test subject as an unknown agent who might conceivably be 'The Mechanic', but it's hardly clear.

In this way SKYHILL also interrogates typical gameplay experiences. Ending 1 presents the game as a data-collecting exercise which gives no benefit to the player whatsoever, a possible commentary on game experiences in general. Ending 2 questions the reality of what a player is presented with in-game, arguing that graphical representations are nothing more than that - up might really be down and a penthouse might really be a lobby, and we're none the wiser. Ending 3 to an extent goes down a familiar route of criticising the routine violence of video games, presenting it as deranged, but it also mocks the current obsession with "crafting" in the indie game survival scene, portraying the questionable combinations used to produce new items in such games as the imaginings of a deluded mind.

On the other hand, SKYHILL might be seen as a cop-out, a game that foists upon its players three vague storylines, fed in an arbitrary fashion, to avoid composing a single robust narrative. The "simulation" ending in particular is hardly original, and there are certainly precedents for the "Mechanic" ending as well. As a result, ultimately, my favourite was actually the default ending: the idea that all this progress has been no progress at all, that the inversion of typical goals was itself being inverted, and that there is nothing, really, to discover. Perhaps that's the point, and the "harder to attain" endings are formulaic deliberately to subvert our expectations. In that case, almost as an exercise in futility, SKYHILL succeeds.

All that remains is to consider this archetype of the "man alone", alienated in a world in which there is no meaning, and how the game's various narratives engage with this. I'd argue that the game essentially presents them as interchangeable and focused on a single concept: our utterly limited comprehension of what constitutes reality, and how modernity and its artificiality has brought this, so long avoided, to our notice.