Atomic Heart left me craving a silent protagonist, but not because of the character’s general banter. It’s true that, in the people-talking-to-their-weapons-stakes, it lacks Forspoken’s built-in Buffyness. But what really left me wishing protagonist P-3 would take a vow of silence was his insistence on pointing out how repetitive and nonsensical some of Atomic Heart’s puzzles are.
There’s a case in point early on where, to unlock a door, you have to gather four canisters, from four different areas. Remember how the tank-control Resident Evil games would have you doing something ridiculous like putting a medal of a unicorn’s head into a socket just to make progress? Atomic Heart takes that to the next level.
You can’t just pick up those four canisters, either — you have to undertake other tasks, such as zapping several targets so a canister fills faster. Even the Umbrella Corporation would dismiss the endeavor as just too ridiculous. But I pressed on, reasoning that it was the game’s attempt to introduce me to some new foes and skills. Besides, smashing those mustachioed robots never really gets old.
But then — it happened. In a moment that still boggles my mind, P-3 made some crack about how ridiculous it was that the scientists would have to gather these canisters every time they wanted to open the door.
“I know!” I barely managed to stop myself from screaming. Up until then I’d been going along with Atomic Heart’s busywork, but this was the tipping point. My brain tried to process the rationale behind this particular dialogue, but I still couldn’t wrap my head around it.
Yes, Atomic Heart has its fair share of off-the-wall humor, including a ridiculous, perpetually horny vending machine. And some of the time it works. But was Mundfish really expecting people to laugh at the team pointing out how tedious a particular task was? Was this an effort to excuse this particular errand — one that they themselves put into the game?
It’s not so much a knowing wink as someone elbowing you in the ribs and then breaking down sobbing when you don’t laugh along with them. And it continues, to some extent, throughout the game. The game sends you to collect train tickets from dead or dying NPCs, and when you find one, it’s rejected by the train robot. But wait, P-3 is exasperated as you are, so it’s all okay!
It’s not, Atomic Heart. It’s really not.
That’s not the only problem the game has — sometimes the game’s humor clashes with the more serious (though not exactly hard sci-fi) story Atomic Heart is trying to tell — but it’s the one problem that, from my perspective at least, is most likely to pull you out of the game.
What Atomic Heart misses is that most gamers can recognize a fetch quest a mile off, whether that’s uncovering the Sword of Xzzzyzzzark or finding the Red Skull Key to open the Red Door. Yes, you can mix things up a little, but we still know what’s going on.
What matters is that a game’s core gameplay, the activities you’re participating in to get that key, is entertaining. Yes, the objective might be questionable, but if the journey’s a joy, that fades into the background.
At some level, I know that Dead Space, including the remake, makes me a dogsbody. Am I okay with that? Not exactly. But the game is so much fun that I’m willing to forgive it. Mentally, I push it aside and get on with the serious business of killing Necromorphs.
And that’s what I was trying to do with Atomic Heart, rather than tut or roll my eyes at the rigmarole of collecting Object A, B, and C to open Door D. After all, along the way I’d get to freeze and/or electrocute an awful lot of enemies — the game’s Frostbite power has a similar effect to Dead Space’s Stasis, but it’s much cooler to use.
But by introducing quips about these tasks — not just once but on multiple occasions — Atomic Heart shoved them to the front of my mind. Maybe Mundfish hoped that, by mocking them, players would overlook their absurdity? But it has the opposite effect: You’re forced to focus on how ridiculous they are.
And five minutes after whatever sarcastic comment P-3 has uttered, you’ll still be thinking about it. If you’re not dwelling on the actual comment, you’ll be scratching your head as to why someone at Mundfish thought it was a good idea.
When it comes to giving players multiple objectives, a little imagination can go a long way. Take BioShock, which Atomic Heart bears more than a passing resemblance to. One of the game’s more entertaining quests gives you multiple objectives. But you’re not finding canisters; you’re killing people and photographing their corpses for deranged “artist” Sander Cohen.
Yes, it’s gruesome, but it’s hugely memorable, even today. Grabbing a few canisters or hunting high and low for a train ticket isn’t anywhere as nearly as dramatic. And pointing out how little sense it makes, in-universe, really doesn’t do Atomic Heart any favors.