'The Fall' Remains a Modern Sci-Fi Classic, But Its Sequel Misses the Mark

A lack of focus and too much combat drag down the next chapter in a very promising series about artificial intelligence.

Feb 16 2018, 5:13pm

The first story I wrote for Waypoint, then VICE Gaming, was about how The Fall was one of my favorite sci-fi stories in gaming. When people are looking for something new to play, I always point them towards The Fall. (Also, The Swapper. You should play The Swapper.) You can imagine my continued anxiety over the nearly four-year wait for the second part in a proposed trilogy about A.R.I.D., an artificial intelligence whose world is turned upside down when forced to break the rules of their rigid programming to comply with said programming.

The Fall was funny, thoughtful, and beautiful. It was also laser-focused in its ambition, a three-hour story of personal discovery that knew what it did well—storytelling, light puzzles in service of storytelling, a tiny bit of platforming—and stuck to it. Both in design and narrative, it was a game about limitations, and what's possible within a constrained possibility space. As it turns out, it's a lot. The Fall Part 2: Unbound doesn’t follow the same path and suffers greatly for it, a game so weirdly desperate to be “bigger” and “deeper” it loses sight of what allowed The Fall to stand out in the first place.

Warning: Spoilers for The Fall to follow.

The first game followed A.R.I.D.’s bid for survival, an action motivated by the need to protect the human inside the suit A.R.I.D. controlled. Since the human wasn’t responding, A.R.I.D. was forced to disregard rules that once defined what they could and couldn’t do. By the end, A.R.I.D. was on the verge of discarding so many of those rules it could be argued they were exhibiting true consciousness. In the final moments, it’s revealed there was never a human inside the suit, and by extension, nothing to stop A.R.I.D. from thinking on their own, free from the chains of ones and zeroes. But A.R.I.D. is quickly dismantled aaaand cut to black.

Unbound opens with A.R.I.D. disconnected from the suit, and with a deteriorating mental state. Without rules, direction, and the fallback of directed code, what is existence? A.R.I.D. establishes a new rule—”Save myself”—and sets out to find a way back into the suit and escape. The concept of rules gives A.R.I.D. “perspective,” a way of looking at the world that comes with its own boundaries. This is the big (and interesting) question at the heart of Unbound: how perspectives, for better and often for worse, limit how we look at the world.

That sounds very much like what you’d want and expect from a sequel to The Fall, and for a moment—roughly the first 15 minutes—it seemed Unbound was what I’d been waiting for.

Then, the combat kicked in, and everything got weird. A squiggly blob appeared on the screen, started swapping between different colors, and before I knew it, I’d died. What? I quickly reloaded, re-read the tutorial text, and hit the blob with a few shots after it turned blue. Two exploded blobs later, it was over, but confusion remained. I tried to write off the shoddy combat as simply being a bit loose and probably not something the game would focus on, but I was wrong. Combat, in shooting and melee forms, is a big part of Unbound. It’s an attempt to add more mechanical depth to a game that didn’t really need it—and it fails.

The melee stuff is fine, a totally acceptable riff on games like One Finger Death Punch, but like the shooting, it’s not a one-off; you’re constantly pressed into more combat scenarios. I probably spent less time shooting and punching things than my memory of the game suggests, but that’s because neither is fulfilling, and in the case of shooting, actively bad.

Not helping matters is a largely unsatisfying storytelling in the game’s first half, which has A.R.I.D. hijacking three other AIs—butler, pleasure bot, drone—and trying to convince them to act outside their programming and help out. Each AI is stuck in a routine of tragedy, albeit one they’re often largely unaware of. The butler wakes up each morning and completes tasks for the owners of the house, despite—well, you’ll see. The chippy, upbeat sex worker simply wants to make other people happy, and believes her actions are accomplishing that. The drone has become enamored with the idea of individuality, despite being in a collective.

The slow, upsetting introduction to each situation is Unbound at its best, but the momentum sputters as the game part kicks in, compounded by a few elements. For one, puzzles often felt deliberately obtuse, the kinds of frustrating adventure conundrums that went out of style a long time ago. Not every puzzle is like this, but it was enough that I found myself glancing at a walkthrough provided by the developer. I spent too much time trying an inventory item on everything around me, desperately hoping it would unlock the next part of the sequence.

Worse still, it’s not always clear what you can even interact with on-screen. You have to wave a flashlight around for the game to start prompting what’s interactable, and more than once, the only reason I hadn’t made progress was because I’d walked through a room several times, but had never pointed in the direction to make an important part clickable.

Part of the problem, too, is A.R.I.D., who presents as a helpful AI, but constantly gets into circumstances where the path forward takes advantage of whoever (or whatever) is in the way. Unbound hammers this home by presenting players with false choices. Time and time again, the game offers up two options: look for a non-confrontational solution or do what needs to be done. But each attempt to do good is conveniently compromised by the new rule, which dictates survival. Survival means doing what’s necessary, morality be damned.

The narrative decision to limit A.R.I.D. isn’t the problem, it’s the repetitive framing.

Unbound does find its footing in the back half, when the core theme—perspective—becomes a gameplay mechanic. Not only can you swap between three AIs, but perspective, as well. Think of it as a way of filtering information through a new lens. It’s worth keeping the specifics of how this operates under wraps, but it’s where everything Unbound is trying to achieve, as both a story and as a game, successfully work in concert with one another. Yes, there’s still too much punching and shooting, but the rest more than makes up for it, and the story eventually ends, again,with me wondering what might happen next. I’m a sucker.

But it's only in those final hours where Unbound leverages the strengths of its predecessor, design and story hand-in-hand. The Fall was a small and focused game about what it means to be small and focused. When A.R.I.D. became "unbound," so did the game. Ironically, it's when the game revisits the notion of focus, this time in gameplay form, that Unbound comes full circle. That's not a coincidence. Who knows how long it’ll take for the third chapter, but hopefully there’s time spent looking back at The Fall and understanding why it was so special. Unbound needed more of that.

A last note: even though Unbound is a disappointment, The Fall functions fine as a singular story. Nothing about Unbound changes that, and I remain resolute: you should play The Fall.

The Fall Part 2: Unbound is also available on PS4, Xbox One, and Switch.

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