Whatever you think of Warp’s eclectic output…
…doesn’t actually matter, because there’s little doubt the main force behind the company – Kenji Eno – was a man driven by the desire to make whatever the heck he wanted and simply did not care what anyone thought of him for pursuing his goals, even if this maverick outlook was ultimately to the commercial detriment of his creative works. We must take care not confuse this bridge-burning attitude with thinking Eno or any of the other talented people working at Warp (including Fumito Ueda, of ICO/Shadow of the Colossus/CatDogBird fame) never cared if their games were any good in the traditional sense – it’s clear they cared very, very, much about making something they thought was truly special – but they were always going to make the game they wanted to see exist, on the format they wanted to see it exist on, sales figures and future investor relations be damned. This belief that “The only way is the Warp way” extended to users as well, with players expected to quickly adjust to their game’s quirks or get left behind: Nothing says “Our games are different” quite as strongly as popping in the first disc, clicking on “Opening Movie” in the main menu, and being asked to swap to… disc four to continue. Or like red indicating “Healthy” and green “You’re about to die” because the game’s going off it’s own internal logic – humans have red blood, monsters have green – than the standard colour-coding system you find everywhere else.
Although it’s billed as a sequel to the original D, no knowledge of that game or any other is required (or would be helpful) to play this one, as they exist as entirely standalone works with unrelated plots. There are a few things shared across the space/time/canon divide: Laura’s hint-giving mirror from the original D retains its magical capabilities in D2 (although it’s use is restricted to a few story sequences this time around) and there are some slight nods to Enemy Zero as well, but these should be considered as reused items from Warp’s virtual prop department and nothing more. D2’s small cast of characters will also look familiar to anyone who’s played Warp’s previous adventure games but as with the items there’s no point in wasting your time trying to work out how Laura got from D to D2, or how Parker can die here but still leave behind a nigh-identical descendent in a sci-fi future also called Parker, because there’s no connecting thread to be found. That’s not down to Warp not explaining things properly (not in this specific instance, anyway), that’s on us not understanding their intent: Laura, David, Kimberly, and the rest aren’t characters at all, but Warp’s in-house group of digital actors. Today we think nothing of a character sharing a face with someone we already know the name of or have seen elsewhere; all Warp did was arrive in the future a few decades before everyone else, solving the “How to create a realistic digital human” problem by making people crafted and designed to exist entirely within cyberspace (as we would have called it at the time) rather than photographing real actors and then pasting their faces over a polygonal sculpture. When viewing D2’s cast purely as 3D objects it’s fair to say they all look quite crude and doll-like by modern standards – they all have that slightly unnerving “We want to make faces but haven’t quite worked out how yet” look to them, but then again nobody knew how to make decent 3D models at that point in history.
Where the models stumble the animation (and it is animation, with no hint of a credited motion-capture studio in sight) more than makes up for it, with lots of attention paid to movements most would consider small and inconsequential: Look at the way Laura handles a tape player, rests her hand against a cupboard as she leans in to check its contents, or brushes snow off her shoulders as she comes in from the cold. I’ve closed doors the way Laura sometimes does – putting one hand against the door so it doesn’t slam shut – and while that doesn’t matter it’s an important and ordinary sort of connection that helps bridge the gap between real life and the snowy monster-filled Canada found in the game. This extreme detailing even extends to generic pickups, all treated as individual objects within a specific environment, and their placement – some neat and upright on a shelf, some hidden in a drawer, some lying at an angle against another object – proving time and time again that someone thought long and hard about where to put every last little thing and considered how to best dress the set. Watch Laura quickly tap the vault handwheel she’s just thawed with a flamethrower to check if it’s still hot before grasping it with both hands – a lot of games treat the characters purely as vehicles for the story (even when they’re telling really good stories) but in D2 it always feels like the top question for each scene was “How would this person react to the situation we’ve put them in?”, making even Laura – the mostly-silent player avatar character who was two lines all game – behave in a believably human manner.
Laura may not say much but luckily for us she spends much of the game accompanied by Kimberley Fox, the woman responsible for voicing at least 90% of the lines you hear in the first disc and speaking the lion’s share of dialogue in the second and third discs too. She’s an interesting character, alone and utterly broken by past trauma… but she’s also kind, funny, reliable in a crisis, as well as an accomplished poet. She also unknowingly murders a few people while under the influence of an addictive medicine she willingly takes because it helps her cope with day-to-day living but even when faced with that awful truth she’s accepting of it and keen to own and make amends for her actions.
For all the strangeness of their impeccably detailed surroundings and the unknowable dangers the cast have to face there’s a sensitivity to the characters that makes them whole: Laughter in the dark, food thrown over a dinner table during an argument, bad people having genuinely touching last requests, and David – the character most likely to be the game’s all-good action hero – is mostly heard in hazy flashbacks, and even then he’s often melancholy and at some points audibly on the verge of tears. That’s not how the good looking brave guy with the gun’s supposed to end up! But by making him reflective and vulnerable in a very human way, suddenly everyone becomes just that little more exposed to danger – everyone’s struggling here, sometimes to the point of death, even the characters who look like they were made to breeze through this horrific story in one piece. There’s a sense of not just light and dark but shade to these people: The script never confuses “Bravery” with “Having a shotgun” nor equates “Being scared at this specific moment” with “Always being scared” or “Being weak”. Even Jannie, the young girl in the cute dress with cheeks so chubby hamsters look at her and think “Tone it down a bit, love”, recalls her mother’s hand getting cold and her “going to sleep” with the sort of sad strength that only comes from a child’s abstracted view of the world. Likewise when she’s bawling her eyes out, begging for a hug and saying she’s frightened it’s because something worth being frightened about has just happened – she always comes across as relatable, or at least reasonable, when lesser writers would have bunged her in the “She’s an annoying kid but we’ve got to have someone helpless to rescue” pigeonhole and left her there. It’s all a welcome and refreshing change from the usual NPC alignment chart of Good>Arsehole Good>[Object To Be Rescued]>Repentant Evil>Unrepentant Evil. The mix of personalities in D2 almost always avoids going down the usual “How kind/evil is this person?” path, resulting in many characters an isolated horror setting would normally dictate “should” be monsters turning into something far more interesting. There’s the broken son obsessed with perfecting his piano playing to please his mother’s unrealistic ambitions, the one shut away behind a door furiously practising classic music in an ornate house in the middle of nowhere… in any other game that’d be the perfect set up for a boss battle. But no, he ends up quietly murdered off-stage and stuffed in a cupboard before you ever get to see him – which means there’s still a murderer on the loose, but like a good magician’s trick you were too busy watching the wrong hand to notice what was really happening. Another unexpected twist comes from one of the plane-hijacking terrorists from the FMV intro – the one who becomes your first enemy encounter and later shows up as a spider-like monstrosity for you to finally finish off properly – the expected course of events would be for him to embrace his emerging inner beast and smile ominously as some overwrought orchestral music kicks in and his health bar appears across the top of the screen. Instead D2 takes the time to show how he wants to cling on to his humanity to the point not of anger or sadness but denial at his situation as he insists he’s fine, he’s still human – you wouldn’t kill a human, would you? – words pouring out of an uncontrollably bulging face caked in his own green blood.
Sadly while the moment-to-moment dialogue between recurring characters is a glorious and somewhat erratic mix of the full breadth of human emotion, the overarching plot can only be compared to channel-hopping between at least two different horror-disaster movies and an infomercial for The Great Mother’s Guide To Universal Spiritual Wellness (order now and receive a genuine piece of healing quartz – FREE!), or trying to write down a half-remembered dream before its washed away by that first swig of coffee. To dismiss it as a shredded mess of horror notes sticky-taped back together would be unfair because there’s clearly a framework here, with a set series of events building towards a climactic battle: A confrontation that dares to rob players of both their sight and hearing as it wears on, leaving players staring into nothingness with only the vibration of the controller giving them any sort of connection to Laura’s world. It’s an unforgettable showdown, the game playing with the player in a manner that’s as least on a par with any of Kojima’s more famous Metal Gear Solid stunts. But for all these flashes of brilliance there’s still no getting away from the fact that the plot has holes so huge a blue whale could comfortably backflip through them, and the key points that do make some sort of sense involve a frozen mammoth with a belly full of angel, the scientist who discovers this thinking “Yeah I want to have that angel’s baby”, an addictive lichen-based drug that turns people into part-time murderers, cloning, the voice of the planet, and time travel. Fortunately for everyone D2 never quite tips over the edge into outright stupidity… it doesn’t make sense either, but it doesn’t feel right to laugh at the story, not when there are so many brief glimmers of the important message (I think) Kenji Eno wanted to pass on about mankind’s destructive tendencies towards themselves and the planet (as laid bare in the sober sequence of statistics about deforestation and population growth before the credits roll) in there you can almost see what he’s getting at even though it doesn’t quite get through. Sadly this serious commentary on humanity is diminished by Laura being given the power to personally rewrite the course of history in the space of a few seconds resulting in the events of the game never happening at all; meaning all of the growth, sacrifice, and lesson-learning over the past ten hours amounts to nothing for anyone but her. Her happy ending – not that there’s anything wrong with her getting one – doesn’t feel redemptive for our species (especially as in this new timeline life carries on as it did before) but a rather selfish and small wish to sort things out for herself and the friends she made along the way.
Even with screen-covering blood splatter, limited supplies, and people turning into distended eyeball-covered shapes before Laura’s eyes, the danger never feels as raw and suffocating as it did in Warp’s previous work, Enemy Zero, and the moral of the story gets lost amongst the exploding grandpas and sentient ex-human computers with shootable vaginas (now there’s something I never thought I’d type)… but I honestly can’t think of another game that’s kept me as unsure of what’s going to happen next – or feel as pleased when it finally reveals its hand – as D2 does. Warp went out the way they came in, a blaze of self-confidence bearing a clear personal vision they absolutely remained true to for every shining second of their existence, and they are sorely missed.