Jun 1, 2012

The Infinity Blade Games’ Worldbuilding Is Deceptively Simple

Infinity Blade

Warning: This article contains spoilers for the Infinity Blade games.

Last week, Chair Entertainment and Epic Games released the “Vault of Tears” update for Infinity Blade 2, one of the most acclaimed iOS video games around. Although I’d beaten the game shortly after it was released last December, the update gave me a reason to venture back into the game, and I found myself once again absorbed by the Infinity Blade world. But why? Structurally speaking, the game is essentially a hack n’ slash action RPG dungeon crawler with a lot of grinding involved (albeit a really good-looking one, thanks to its use of Unreal Engine 3).

In the game, you play a lone warrior trudging through wastelands and decrepit castles fighting one boss after another, while picking up increasingly powerful weapons, armor, and magic along the way. The story’s structure plays off that repetition. In the first Infinity Blade game, you play the latest in a long line of warriors raised to slay the God King, who rules your people with an iron fist. When you are killed, you restart the game as your son, and when you’re killed again, as your son’s son, and so on until you finally defeat the God King. In Infinity Blade 2, however, it’s revealed that you’re an immortal like the God King, that your body is merely the latest in a series of clones, and that your true identity has been hidden even from yourself. (Brandon Sanderson’s novella, Infinity Blade: Awakening, explains this all in more detail.)

The original “Infinity Blade” trailer.

It’s a simple yet effective storytelling mechanic, with “simple” being the operative word. And by itself, would not explain why I find the games so fascinating. But the Infinity Blade developers seem to have made that famous filmmaking adage, “Show, don’t tell”, their mantra. Although the actual narrative contains few details about the games’ world — not terribly surprising, given the limitations inherent to the platform — the Infinity Blade games are full of visual and design details that add up to create an intriguing experience.

Your opponents seem like a fairly straightforward menagerie: you square off against dark knights, ogre-looking beasties, and even a golem or two, i.e., your basic fantasy fare. But look a little closer, and that knight looks more like a mech from a Masamune Shirow manga, complete with wheezing mechanical noises, and that ogre-looking beastie looks like an escapee from some science experiment gone horribly wrong. What’s more, your enemies’ fighting styles often have more in common with kung fu and other martial arts than “traditional” sword-fighting. Your weapons and armor are rather diverse beyond your usual array of broadswords, battleaxes, and shields, with some of them possessing a distinctly sci-fi look. Finally, as you travel further into the games’ various settings, you’ll encounter sights that quickly belie a traditional fantasy setting.

The launch trailer for “Infinity Blade 2.”

It quickly becomes apparent that the game is set in some distant future, one where technology is so advanced as to seem magical, though little of this is spelled out explicitly. There are some lines of dialog that hint at it — such as a reference to “quantum identity patterns” — but the specifics of the games’ world and its history are conveyed primarily through visual clues that leave much to the player’s imagination to decipher. This, when combined with the game’s atmosphere (which is greatly enhanced by the decrepit-yet-beautiful visuals and eerie soundtrack), makes for a deceptively captivating game that is much deeper than its simplistic gameplay and storyline would otherwise indicate.

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