Today's Closer Look brings us quite the odd choice. Our poll winner for January went out to The Kane Project, an action game by Master Raze from 2001. This the first game in a pretty lengthy series, consisting of five parts, though the fifth was abandoned with a project dump released in 2007. I've personally never played any of them so this is my introduction.
I am however, not entirely unaware of the series, as Raze was pretty prolific for the few years he was actively creating ZZT worlds. Part four of the series was a recipient of a MadTom's Pick award where the review makes it sound like a foul-mouthed action title with some nice looking art boards for the cut-scenes. Undoubtedly, the first would be a bit less polished, but I had some expectations that I'd get an enjoyable game that may not have aged particularly well.
And while I hadn't played a Kane game before, I have played the other series Raze was known for, Thug Life, with the second game also being a MadTom's Pick winner with likely a similar style to the Kane games. The Thug Life sequel has a significant number of favorable reviews from the era, with many comparisons being made to Grand Theft Auto. This game in particular, perhaps being a well-made attempt at converting that style of game into a format that ZZT could handle. So, no cars, but a nice open world of streets to run around in.
The only issue being that Raze's games really leaned in heavily on sex and violence to the point that even some ZZTers at the time felt like it was more detrimental to the quality of Raze's work than beneficial. If this made his work a tougher sell then, it's not hard to imagine that it would be even more challenging to look past today. That ultimately is the case as you'll see soon enough.
The Kane Project is Raze's second release, a fact that the game will quickly make obvious. As an inexperienced ZZTer, this one ends up feeling quite dated with its gameplay, playing more like a world from the mid-90s than the 2000s. Lots of built-ins and lots of abstract designs for building interiors that make it hard for players to try and adjust to the grimy crime-ridden metropolis they're responsible for saving. These aren't inherent deal-breakers, and even by this point the idea of retro ZZT games was nothing new. This isn't a love-letter to the past though. We're dealing with a game that's trying to be as impressive as it can be, with Raze biting off more than he can chew. Combined with the story-line that fits in much better with the ZZT community of the era aiming to be violent, mature, and starring an all-powerful hero who can do no wrong and remains cool regardless of danger, and you wind up with a game that feels very off.
The good news at least, is that obviously Raze kept at it, and with the success of his later works it's easy to see this one as a steeping stone towards more complex gameplay and visuals that eventually begin to look modern. The bad news is that while poking around at some of these later games in the series to see how things improve, the problematic elements definitely don't go away. The usual disclaimer applies of course. Raze was still a teenager when this series began, and even the demo for the final part of the game would just barely have entered adulthood. We are talking about a game that was last under active development more than fifteen years ago. Raze, like everyone else, has had a lot of time to grow up and reflect in the time since the games were released. I'll stick with keeping that hope alive and just worry about the games as products of a teenaged mind, without attempting to predict what he's up to these days.
The following content contains material which may be offensive to some audiences. It was most likely originally created by a teenager who has since grown up. This material does not necessarily reflect its creator's current opinions nor behaviors.
Specifically, this page contains depictions of or references to:
Sexism - Women Existing Primarily As Sexual Objects For Men
The Action Manifesto
The game's accompanying documentation lays out the core philosophy of The Kane Project, and how this unique design makes it better than so many other ZZT worlds out there: Action over dialog. A young Raze complains that too many ZZT games have scrolls popping up with every step constantly slowing the pace down. Raze commits to a faster style of play where scrolls only appear when you want them to. You either talk to people or you don't.
ZZT games from around this time were definitely doing quite a bit of storytelling purely through text. Even if Raze's complaint is a bit exaggerated, there's his general argument has some legitimacy to it. I can totally understand wanting ZZT games to just get on with the action already. Pacing issues have been a recurring problem in the past, and Raze isn't saying that games should be devoid of story entirely. It's just gotten a little out of hand for his tastes.
Other worlds have had special rules to follow before. Myth's Winter purposely avoided text in order to create an atmospheric puzzle game. Yet despite Raze's convictions, The Kane Project actually does have a decent ratio of text to gameplay, and even a non-skippable cut-scene. An odd thing to see when plenty of worlds that weren't calling out cinematics included skip functionality for those with no interest in stories or for those replaying the game that already knew what was going on. The instances in which Raze skews off course like this would typically be inconsequential. Due to the text file, these normally perfectly acceptable ways to design a ZZT game get turned into points of criticism. The Kane Project certainly does not need any extra angles to look for flaws from.
In some ways, Master Raze does take his dislike of lengthy text windows and apply some creativity into finding nicer alternatives. A few early boards employ this technique where text is just written onto the board directly, something rarely seen outside of comic book styled boards or introductions before gameplay begins. Mixing the reading material with the gameplay works on these screens as the player is free to focus on the text and course-correct any navigation as they explore the rest of the boards.
Yet this still trades one problem for another. While players no longer need to stop because there's a message window taking focus, they instead are navigating large boards devoid of things to interact with while they read the text. The walks become a little more tolerable though the solution here is to scale these boards down a bit. Of course, if you were to do that, then you'd have to stop to read the text regardless, only saving players an enter press.
In addition the text file provides a lot of helpful context both to the game as well as Master Raze that makes it a lot clearer what kind of story this game is going to tell. For one thing, the game is rated 18+ with Raze confessing to only being sixteen. The reason for the maturity?
THIS GAME IS RATED 18 DESPITE THE FACT THAT I'M ONLY 16! IT'S 18 BECAUSE CUSSING TAKES A HUGE ROLE IN THIS GAME AND ALSO IT HAS SOME IDEA'S FROM A SEXUAL BACKGROUND. AHH WHO GIVES A ****, NEW CERTIFICATE Ue (UNIVERSAL EDUCATIONAL) YOU ALL WILL LEARN SOMETHING ABOUT DEATH, A FEW SWEAR WORDS, KILLING AND SEX!!!!
You might raise an eyebrow at this and immediately think of the many many ways this game can go wrong. And honestly, it does with its portrayals of women. It could be significantly worse. This is PG sexism here written by a dumb kid more than twenty years ago. The women in this game are pretty much here to be objects of sexual desire for the protagonist, and want him really badly. This amounts to a lot of "tee hees" and playful teasing rather than anything actually explicit. In years past it's the sort of thing that would have come off as unintentionally funny, with juvenile ideas of romance being laughably unrealistic. Today, it makes an already tough to enjoy game even rougher. It's very hard to not notice that the game indulges in patriarchal values with the protagonist not being portrayed as a flawed man, but an ideal one.
Sexism aside, Raze's ability to abide by his promise of a fast-paced game seem to be abandoned from the very first board. A locked door sits in the middle of the street protected by invisible walls while the player is instructed to head into the building if they want information. I was quite disappointed to see that getting that information was a requirement. To be fair, the passage leads to a few more passages where the player also receives their initial supplies of ammo and gems, which would make for a miserable experience if skipped.
This probably could've been structured better. Even a menu with an option to start the game or get the introductory info would have been preferable. What Raze is trying to do shouldn't be very difficult for a game like this. As the game progresses Raze gets better about the mandatory dialog. Breaking the rule immediately like this quickly sets player expectations low.
The Prime Minister? And Other Important Characters
In The Kane Project, players take on the role of Dave Cameron. A former cop that was part of the "Fight Force" returning to line of duty in order to take down the ruthless killer known as Kane that's been terrorizing the city along with his men.
If the protagonist's name sounds familiar, perhaps you're thinking of conservative U.K. prime minister, David Cameron? David, having just entered Parliament the year of this game's release, means this is more likely to just be a coincidence. The more fantastic interpretation being that he was Raze's representative and either took the name, or was an edgy sixteen year old interested in conservative politics. I suppose anything is possible.
Cameron is working on behalf of John McGee, the head of the Fight Force in the city that's found himself in charge of handling a threat that he and his men are unprepared for. McGee isn't quite your typical "by the book" chief trying to keep Cameron under control. He's very much aware of Cameron's abilities, methods, and most importantly his results, supporting him all the way not just through words but through actions as well. This support is sometimes direct, with Cameron showing up covertly on several boards to pass on new information about where Kane and his men can be found, as well as indirectly aiding him by placing health and ammo on various boards. Having an in universe explanation for why there are closets full of ammo and gems everywhere is an appreciated detail for a game that struggles to create a realistic city setting. In a few instances he'll even use his status to pull a few strings such as letting Cameron get healed at a nearby hospital free of charge.
Raze does have a cute trick up his sleeve when it comes to McGee. People in ZZT worlds are most frequently represented with one of two smiley face characters. The only way to differentiate characters is by the object's color. With McGee, he appears as several different colors throughout the game, often surprising the player when the person they want to interact with turns out to be him. This is no continuity error, Cameron is described as a master of disguise, going undercover in most scenes to be able to lay low and provide help without being recognized. At the same time, he never actually appears on boards with other people to speak with besides another recurring character that is consistently colored, so the opportunity for a true surprise encounter is mitigated quite a bit.
The game's antagonist is none other than Kane, formerly known as "Kareth", him. He's "one tough bastard" according to McGee. For the purposes of this game Kane is simply an evil man that enjoys being evil. There's no tragic backstory or much of a past at all to allude to. Players are informed that Kane had been imprisoned for the murder of forty-eight people, but has broken loose, and is now amassing a gang of criminals loyal to him. This personal military is referred to as "The Kane Project". The group is responsible for many killings, kidnappings, and other dastardly deeds that plague the unnamed city as Kane imposes his will, with the police being helpless to deal with the violence.
Kane is aware that Cameron has been put in charge of bringing him to justice, and hates him for trying to put an end to his plans. There's no history between the two characters, which seems like an obvious plot thread in a game that really is as generic as this one. Cameron hates Kane solely for being responsible for putting him through hell to reach him. I would have expected Cameron to have been the officer that got him sent to prison in the first place. Raze instead sets the conflict up to be the meeting of an unstoppable force and an immovable object, with both of them confident that their counterpart has no chance at stopping them.
Lastly, is Sophie. She serves as McGee's secretary, and the incredibly forced love interest for Cameron. She'll sometimes be there to give Cameron information instead of Cameron, and her home is used as a brief place for Cameron to rest. She's a very flat character that only seems to exist so that Cameron can get a kiss after rescuing her when she too is taken hostage. She's also a sex worker, which should be a recipe for disaster in this game. Instead Raze makes it a somewhat subtle detail, requiring the player to put two and two together based on what they see when Cameron visits her home.
If you are a man in the world of The Kane Project you are an aggressive person that likes to swear and call people bastards. This is a British made game, and I'm pretty sure the concept of a chav was starting to take off around this time. For the enemies, that's the energy they bring to the game. For the heroes, they're also aggressive and swear a lot, but remain cool and collected as they do so.
Hey, I'm Big Bob, who de fuck are you?
Fucka? You're in ma and ma crew's Turf!
building and grab da key. Not so hard is
infested with people who want to kill a
white bastard like you mun.
Though at times, Cameron will be a little nicer in order to contrast with the enemies he's dealing with. Big Bob here seems to have nothing to do with Kane, but has it out for anybody on his turf, Cameron included. Here Cameron is much more casual amidst the verbal assault. He also is a doofus who only thinks to give out an alias after starting to say his actual name. This is the top man being brought out of retirement to do the impossible.
If you want respect on these streets you have to earn it by killing a lot of people inside what the game dares to call a house.
At the end of the house, Cameron reveals his way with words, successfully scaring off "Tuffy Nathan" without having to actually fight.
Please do not take this as a threat against a government official.
A man can be found in the guest bedroom at Sophie's home where Cameron can ask him a few questions that are too personal for him to be asking honestly.
Yeah, he snogged with her. That's what powerful men do. They snog.
A pawn shop offers up a good look at the ex-cop's morals. Cameron can shoot the door to a safe. Upon entering in full view of the shop owner, he can grab a few gems and face no repercussions beyond being yelled at.
Later on, perhaps as a way to not have to worry about if the player has money to hail a cab, Cameron can also empty a dropped wallet and pocket the cash for himself. What an asshole.
Pure Sex Appeal
If you are a woman in the world of The Kane Project you are horny for Dave Cameron.
No, really. This is the first woman Cameron talks to in the game. What does she do? She blocks the entrance to a room with gems.
The second woman is a sex worker, whose reasons for wanting to have sex with Cameron are admittedly a lot more understandable. My assumption was that saying yes would increase Cameron's health or score. It's actually just a waste of gems with Julia thanking him and nothing happening. The Kane Project predates Grand Theft Auto III so Raze was on his own for figuring out what should happen if the player says yes.
Not all women in the game are actually horny for Cameron. Just most. "Woman in HURRY" runs off as soon as she's approached. A wise move.
Part of the reason why everybody is hot for this guy amounts to Raze finding it very funny to take the ZZT act of "touching" literally. This also makes it difficult for players that don't care for the clumsy sexually charged moments to avoid them. Sometimes touching a person a second time will get some extra dialog. For Sophie, the first touch event is used introduce yourself and gain access to her home. Touching her a second time actually touches her.
It's unrealistic, off-putting, and kind of gross. This kind of stuff is easier to stomach when you yourself are also sixteen. The only real reprieve is that it doesn't get as bad as it could be. Cameron's attempts at flirtation or physical contact are met with near universal positivity, with the lamentation that now isn't the place or time for this. But maybe later handsome~ ;)
The only woman willing to actually turn down God's gift to women is the advisor that offers advice ...while living in Sophie's home? Cameron can ask if she's free tonight only to be shot down as she's in a monogamous relationship currently. Cameron can dish it out but he can't take it, getting repulsed at the idea a woman having sex with someone that isn't him.
I think Sophie just has nude photos or herself lying around her office. The blocky visuals and lack of special colors are making me only just now realize that her office only contains a bed. Combined with the man in the spare bedroom who admits to having quote: snogged her, I'm beginning to suspect that she's also supposed to be a sex worker and have edited the earlier description of her character with this breaking development. That's totally cool and all, but she is very much referred to as McGee's secretary so either she's living her best life with a side hustle or McGee needs to pay her more.
The boys can be horny too I guess. It's love at first sight for Cameron who expresses his desires by being skeevy as fuck.
Sophie shows up on the next board where she manages to have lost the map. Cameron isn't mad and just asks her to tell him what was on it. I'm glad at least that Sophie was able to be helpful earlier. It would not be great for her to be given a single basic task and to be incapable of accomplishing it.
In practice, players themselves might prevent her from accomplishing it as she's coded to first walk all the way across the screen before the conversation fires. I wound up walking up to her and trying to interact to no avail and was able to run off to the next board before ever seeing the dialog until looking at it in the Museum's file viewer.
At one point Sophie is kidnapped as well. No mention is made of this until you find her with the other hostages. Before Cameron leaves the scene she stops him and they share a kiss.
This sign of affection occurs in the room with the dead bodies of all the men McGee sent to defeat Kane before bringing Cameron out of retirement. Just before this kiss she talks about how she screamed when she saw all these dead bodies, and how she was good friends with several of them. We all deal with trauma in different ways I suppose.
Trying to speak with her at all in the next scene just tickles her instead. Please stop with the literal touching.
Sophie shows up in the game's ending waiting patiently in Cameron's bed. She had to get a copy of the key from McGee to pull this stunt off, not that Cameron has any objections.
And then the game ends.