I don’t know when we started watching The Great British Baking Show in our apartment. It feels like we may as well have been watching it since birth.
If you’ve never seen The Great British Baking Show it’s quite simple. It’s follows a prototypical reality show structure. A group of people are weeded out one by one, until one winner remains, but in GBBS they’re tasked with baking a series of traditional and sometimes not-so-traditional British baked goods.
On its face it couldn’t sound any more generic. The magic of The Great British Baking Show though, is that it’s smothered in what I imagine is a classic sense of British decorum. People speak softly, are extremely cordial with one another, and accept criticism with aplomb. When somebody is eliminated from the show they do so graciously. There is no hyper aggressive American-ness. It stands as a polar opposite to something like Hell’s Kitchen. The show is simply soothing. Relaxing. Meditative.
Despite the fact that it’s ultimately a competition and you may have some favorite players in the game, who wins or loses never really feels that paramount, because everybody is just swell, and you’re happy for them, win or lose.
Entertainment and media, especially video games, often rely on the notion of challenging the viewer.
If you look at some of the most popular shows on television, Game of Thrones, Walking Dead, Westworld, they’ve become so popular because, as their fans would say, anybody could die at any moment. They’ve become successful because they buck the trends of television that have become calcified over the past however many years – the good guy wins, his lover never dies, etc. It preys on the viewer’s sense of tension and dread to elicit a guttural response that had never been felt before in television.
The same is true in video games. There is a reason why the Dark Souls paradigm has now become a foundational pillar of contemporary game design. It’s not just that the game is hard, but because there is a chance you could lose everything. The same is true of the mounting popularity of roguelikes, survival games, and other “hardcore” genres. That are effective because they tap into the lizard part of our brain that is afraid of death, of screwing up, of facing penalty.
I love those games. Bloodborne has recently dethroned Resident Evil 4 as my favorite game of all time. Invisible, Inc. is way up there. But in the case of Klei’s Invisible Inc. it simultaneously occupies the same part of my brain that The Great British Baking Show does.
If you’ve never played Invisible, Inc. you should absolutely do so.
Right now. In fact, I’ll buy a copy for the first three people that email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. It’s that good. Invisible, Inc. is from the same team that made Mark of the Ninja and Don’t Starve – Klei Entertainment. It’s an isometric, grid-based, turn-based, small-scale tactics game that forces the player to rely on stealth. And not the way you rely on stealth in something like XCOM 2. If one of your characters is spotted, they go down in one shot. If you don’t drag them to safety (you probably won’t) that character is gone for good. The game is a roguelike – if all of your characters die on a mission, you start the 4-6 hour campaign over from the beginning.
Naturally this leads to dread-filled sorties full of white knuckled close calls. The only time I completed the campaign was one of the most glorious moments of my gaming history. The area was being swarmed by enemies. We were outnumbered, outgunned, and they had a fix on our relative location. Prism decided that she’d rather spend her last few minutes on earth helping the squad and ran into the line of fire, buying precious seconds for her team to move closer to the objective. Nika decided similarly, dashing about the room, knocking out as many guards as possible before being torn to pieces by a high powered assault rifle. In both of their last breaths, they offered a final quip before expiring. But the kicker is that even if we’d failed that final mission, I would have been just as satisfied.
I won’t give away the climax of Invisible, Inc.’s campaign for two reasons. One, you need to experience it for yourself. Two, because the game isn’t really about being finished. It’s about the stories you accrue through each failed attempt. I have countless memories about the checkmates I’ve finally reached with approaching guards. Exactly how Decker went down in my 12th attempt at the campaign. The way Alex was taken out – he got greedy looking for a new prosthetic to feed his fetish and was caught out in the open, shot by a hulking automaton (which if you’re familiar with Alex’s lore, is a fittingly ironic death for him.)
Invisible, Inc. is about as high stakes as a turn based game can get. I would be lying if I didn’t say that the level of tension it builds isn’t dramatic in a deeply, bodily sense, but once you admit to yourself “we will all die” that tension becomes something else. It becomes about the moments in between starting up the game and finishing it. It reminds me why we play video games, for the journey, not the destination. In that way, Invisible, Inc. is just as meditative as The Great British Baking Show, it feels good to click the mouse, to hear Mary Berry’s praise, to access Incognita, to hear Paul say something is “under-proofed”, to be reunited with its lovely user interface and just spend time in its world. To accept the fact that win or lose, here we are and this is what we’re doing.
As somebody with low level, but persistent anxiety, it sometimes helps to remind myself that we are all going to die. Not that I seek it – I love every minute of my life – but to acknowledge that there is no victory state.