Blackthorne

Blackthorne (or at least this particular incarnation of it) leads an interesting dual existence. As a historical object, the game is a product of Blizzard’s pre-Blizzard days, when the company was still experimenting with any trend they could to find their own voice. They dabbled in comical puzzle games with The Lost Vikings, tried their hand at miniature car racing with Rock’n Roll Racing, and explored contemporary comic book trends with Blackthorne.

But among these games, Blackthorne was special. It really was the first place where you could see Blizzard’s voice beginning to form; not just because the –craft games were still a ways off but also because this was the first game under the Blizzard Entertainment label (the other two games were made under Silicon & Synapse). The GBA version (which I played for this) adds another wrinkle to the story, being part of a series of GBA re-releases of Blizzard’s early games. It acts as both a reflection on how far the company has come and a valuable act of preservation as that same company looks toward the future and bigger and better things.

F2This is Blackthorne the historical object. Blackthorne the cultural/artistic object paints a much more dubious image. In its defense, it’s clear that Blizzard only wanted to use the game to experiment with certain aesthetics – namely, high fantasy and grim-and-gritty comic books. But at its best, pursuing aesthetics as an end in itself robs those aesthetics of substance they could have had. At worst, the artist pursuing them remains ignorant to any problems those aesthetics might pose. Blackthorne falls into the latter category. Without confronting its protagonist’s flaws, or even the fact that they are flaws, they seep into the rest of the game and turn what should have been a story of growth into a fantasy that precludes growth.

One of the first things you notice about Blackthorne is how firmly entrenched it is in cinematic platformer tradition. The hero moves with such inertia that precise movement can be hard to pull off, and despite using a shotgun to fight, his encounters have roughly the same back and forth a sword fight would have in Prince of Persia. However, these are just surface resemblances. Cinematic platformers were never about their mechanics or how they simulate reality, but about their characters and the specific brand of heroism these games develop through them.

True, platformers in general are steeped in heroism and anti-fatalism, but where fantasy platformers (like Mario, Sonic, etc.) begin with static figures whom we already recognize as heroes, cinematic platformers focus on the growth of the protagonist into somebody who can be called a hero. Theirs are stories of maturation, centering characters who are far from ideal but capable of achieving great things anyway. Such narratives have to begin with characters who were wrong by fate because without that accidental connection, their characters would have nowhere to go. The eponymous prince of Persia has to prove that he’s deserving of his station as Prince (most notably by accepting his own shadow) before he can bring peace to the kingdom. Likewise, before Abe can fight the capitalist exploitation of his people, Oddworld requires that he learn who his people are, how they are being exploited, and how to find the power within himself to oppose/put an end to those atrocities.

F2How does Blackthorne fit within this tradition? The short answer is “it doesn’t.”  The game never realizes that the genre’s mechanics are loaded with meaning, nor does it care to work with that meaning in any way. In addition, it doesn’t care to elaborate on its very sparse story. The writers were more interested in creating and exploring these intricate fantasy worlds than they were in doing much of anything with them, so you end up with a lot of posturing but no substance to show for it.. People and places are given a significance you don’t entirely understand. The narrative premise amounts to a deposed prince (Kyle Blackthorne) opposing an arbitrarily evil king (Sarlac), and the plot amounts to Kyle meeting with some figurehead who tells him to meet with some other figurehead somewhere else ad infinitum.

But it’s in the details that Blackthorne chooses to elaborate on where we see the game’s misunderstandings hurt it the most, even if it doesn’t elaborate on them all that much. Most if not all of those details concern the eponymous protagonist. The story begins with his father, King Vlaros of Andorth, sending his son to Earth as a young boy to protect him from Sarlac’s invasion. A monologue over a dark desert sky tells us how Kyle remembers his father’s last words, and how he’s been plotting his revenge against Sarlac ever since he was first sent to Earth.

Yet our prince has spent twenty years in exile. He spent that time living as a human, modeling himself after the grim and gritty heroes of the 1990s. In fact our first image of him (one of the first images we see in the game) demonstrates as much: a muscular physique hidden beneath a tank top and jeans; long black hair peaking into a scowl; and a shotgun casually slung over his right shoulder, connoting seriousness and casual disaffection at the same time. Kyle even began a career as a professional soldier to ensure he was strong enough to enact his revenge when the time finally came. That career ended with a court martial and a prison sentence, although we’re never given any reasons for why that is. All we know is that shortly after escaping prison, Kyle returns to his kingdom to free his people and end Sarlac’s reign.

F2.pngOr at least that’s the goal he says he’s fighting for. In truth, this story isn’t as important to Blackthorne (the character and the game) as we’re led to believe. Ignoring the fact that we’re only dealing with archetypes and tropes instead of reasonably developed human characters, the idea that Kyle cares about freeing Sarlac and freeing his people doesn’t hold up. That argument assumes Kyle cares about anything, but we know that this character is designed with the exact opposite in mind. He’s supposed to be so strong a person and so important to the world that he can close off his emotions to everything and focus on his one desire of finding opportunities to enact arbitrary violence.

That much is clear in his interactions with his Androthi subjects. Time and again, Kyle sees his subjects in chains, either forced to work in Sarlac’s mines or tortured by the guards. Does Kyle try to rescue them? Can he rescue them? The answer to both questions is no. Because Kyle lacks a strong relationship with his people and his enemies (he’d been separated from both for twenty years), his actions over the course of the game neither ensure peace for his people nor investigate the forces preventing that peace from happening.

True, the story ends with Sarlac’s death, but it would be naive to assume he was the only obstacle to a lasting peace. How does Kyle plan to lead Androth out of its post-war situation? What is he to make of the characters who shout, “Power to the Androthi!” and shoot down their fellow people with zero compunction? I doubt Kyle has given these questions much thought, especially considering how blind he is to his actions aggravating the latter. Sitting on the throne with a gun in his hand, it’s likely he’ll become much the same tyrant as the one he’s just deposed, either to some other group of people or even to his own subjects.

F2.pngThis kingdom only has worth to Kyle because it presents him with opportunities that never existed on Earth. He can exercise power to his heart’s content and realize his destiny as the great hero of the land. Because he’s so quick to embrace those opportunities, we are forced to revise our image of Kyle Blackthorne. Far from being the prince who fights for his people, Kyle is a man who gladly embraces a world of fantasy because he sees reality as an impediment. He’s an emotionally stunted figure who seeks power for its own sake, and can only see power as brute force and violence. Furthermore, all of this is possible for him because he’s unaffected by any of the violence he encounters, including the violence he inflicts on other people. In short, Kyle is an obvious, thorough, and dangerous instance of toxic masculinity (as obvious a takeaway as this is).

Worse still, the game bends to meet Kyle’s will. Where Kyle the narrative figure is fundamentally incapable of rescuing his people, Kyle the player avatar never even considers it an option. He can talk to them (usually to get an item), and he can kill them free of consequence if he wants to, but breaking their chains isn’t an option. To him, they are nothing more than objects he can use at his leisure.

And the world he inhabits is made to give him opportunities to see his own virtue reflected. I have to admit that in terms of game design, Blackthorne is a conservative cinematic platformer. Levels are presented as labyrinthine puzzles for the player to solve bit by bit, and the game only makes slight modifications to fit its own scenario. However, it’s those very modifications that catch my attention the most. Kyle, unlike his subjects, has complete freedom of movement within his kingdom. Not even the kingdom’s geography can inhibit that freedom, since there are plenty of characters willing to teleport him where he needs to be to complete his journey.

F2.pngThis makes sense from a game design perspective, since it neatly segments the world into levels, and Kyle needs some freedom of movement if he’s going to rescue his people. (Oddworld does this, too, if I remember correctly.) Considering all the other problems with Blackthorne, though, all this minor change achieves is preventing Kyle from forming a relationship with the world around him, much less the people in it. Or rather, that change entrenches him in his current relationship with it: all freedom, all opportunity, and no obligation to use any of it for anything other than a momentary desire.

I have to see a lot of this as intentional, at least to a certain extent. After all, Kyle clearly belongs to the same family as characters like Doom Guy, Spawn, The Punisher, etc.: dominating, masculine figures an audience of male teens can see themselves in. They’re alluring figures, but they also offer a comforting fantasy. Kyle himself is an underdog who’s destined for greatness, but kept from realizing it by outside forces conspiring against him at every turn. In seeing ourselves in this person, we allow ourselves to forget our own mediocrity. More than that, we’re given a false sense of importance, one that justifies a lack of effort to better ourselves.. Why bother doing the hard work of looking inside yourself and trying to become a better person? You’re already at the top; enjoy it, why don’t you? And if you still feel frustrated, like there’s something not right, then you’re entitled to express those frustrations through your shotgun.

A better game might interrogate this character and everything he represents. It would force players to reconsider why they idealize these figures and what, if anything, they continue to value in them. In fact, I’m certain games have already walked that path before. Blackthorne is not one of those games. In offering unqualified and unconditional praise for its nominal hero, Blackthorne cannot realize the danger he poses or how empty his fantasy is.

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4 comments

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