Sunday, July 17, 2011

Just a Series of Tubes

This past week, the fine folks over at Paste were kind enough to run my review of Double Fine’s new XBLA title, Trenched. Many, many tubes were harmed in the making of this piece.
As a member of Woodruff’s elite mobile trench brigade, you strut around a battlefield in giant metal pants and shoot cannons at Farnsworth’s electrified monstrosities, which explode in a satisfying array of sparks and convenient building materials. These victories are brief—each shattered tube gives way to more, and even with up to four be-trenched warriors in the fray, there is more than enough glory to go around.
It was a fun game to play and a fun review to write. Walking around the world of Trenched, I was struck by the limited capabilities of my mobile trenches—in addition to the familiar sense of inventory management present in all tower defense titles, trenches are ploddingly earthbound devices. They may be packed to the gills with firepower, but with scant resources and waves of enemies inbound to destroy whatever it is you’re tasked with protecting, it’s sometimes easy to feel like you’re at a bit of a disadvantage.

Owing absolutely nothing to Michael Bay’s latest affront to the series, my thoughts drifted to the TV show whose robotic heroes all but defined my youth, The Transformers. The show’s “good guys” were the Autobots, a stoic order of robot protectorate that had been marooned when their spaceship crash-landed into an Earth volcano. Opposing them were the Decepticons, a morally bankrupt faction bent on universal domination (a rather optimistic goal, considering the problems they would encounter week after week, trying to dominate one singular blue planet).
When I was young, the concepts of good and bad carried none of the heaviness and uncertainty that I would later come to assign them: “Bad” meant enriching oneself at the expense of innocents or threatening to destroy the very planet on which we live; “Good” meant placing oneself in opposition to those who would pursue such goals. There was something appealing about this restricted morality, and it’s a part of what makes the tower defense genre such a winning formula: when the roles of aggressor and defender are so rigidly defined, there is no need for an intricate narrative—bad guys are coming to lay waste to your base, and you’d best do what you can to fight them off.
The rules get a bit hazy as the Transformers legacy fragments across various media formats, but the Autobots of my youth found themselves at several distinct disadvantages. For the most part, they could not fly, whereas the Decepticons could simply blast off from the Earth’s surface at will. The Decepticons returned to each encounter with devices of increasing complexity, seemingly immune to exhaustion of either resources or will. For the weary Autobots, the primary advantage was a moral high-ground whose definition was somewhat limited—they had chosen themselves to be defenders of humanity and Earthen resources (ironic for a group whose preferred disguises were fossil fuel-guzzling vehicles from the American 1980s, but whatever).

And so it is with Trenched. Antagonist Vladimir Farnsworth returns to each new battle with an army bigger and badder than anything you’ve yet encountered, and the player, armed with only what his or her trench can carry, must convert American conviction into combat victory.

Read the review, and then round up some friends for an old-fashioned battle of good versus evil.
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