Your tiny baby legs patter across the metal grating as you sprint towards a cop, praying to your boss, God, that he doesn’t turn around and pump you full of lead. You lunge forward and possess him. His body pulsates as your powers take hold, and you begin steering this meat puppet that will finally grant you access into the next room. Once you get there and his job is done, feel free to throw him over that railing into the vat of acid. Just make sure you pop out first, you certainly don’t want to take the final swan-dive with him.
Messiah is a delightfully eccentric game released in 2000 from now-defunct developers Shiny Entertainment, and published by Interplay. More well known for their titles such as Earthworm Jim and MDK, Messiah stands out amongst their gameography as a title well worth revisiting.
Pitting you against the world as Bob, errand cherub (or putto, depending on how pedantic you want to get) of God, you are tasked with descending to Earth to do a little tidying up of humanity as they spiral towards their encroaching corruption. Upon arrival, via crash landing inside of a wandering cop, you begin your strange quest within the confines of a security facility nested deep in a cyberpunk hellscape of a city. Society is seemingly run by a tyrannical dictator known as Father Prime along with the strange voice that begins telepathically contacting you, spurring you on to topple the patriarch. Along the way, you’ll also encounter the rebelling faction to Prime’s dystopia: Chots, also known as the sewer-dwelling mutants that run raids on these facilities in ceaseless, attempted uprising. Eventually, you find yourself situated in such colourful locales like a sex club, or The Moon, dealing with mutants, super-mutants, and over-militarized trigger-happy police forces.
While the setting alone is definitely worth seeing, it’s the gameplay that becomes Messiah’s raison d’être. Marketing materials poise the game to be something action-y, a dash of third-person shooter set in the decaying age of human civilization. Perhaps one could see its mechanics of possession and stealth working towards a type of game akin to Hitman, where you must orchestrate the downfall of various opponents to move forward towards a greater target. Better than your prototypical shooter or by-the-numbers stealth/puzzle clone, Messiah positions you within levels that feel at times like immersive puzzle boxes.
The player is presented with a large space that has several choices or possibilities and a linear path forward, typically requiring a specific type of human to proceed. In the opening levels, for instance, Bob begins inside of a cop, but all doors around him are locked to this profession. However, there is a door that demands a scientist to open it, and, wouldn’t you know it, there’s a scientist hiding off in a shadowy corner just downstairs! Possessing them not only allows you access to that upstairs room, and thus the flamethrower inside, but also presents you with the opportunity to “take over” for a colleague on your way up. Taking over turns out to be you disabling braking controls on a space cruiser, crashing it into an orbiting station.
Now, instead of using the flamethrower to alert security, causing the locked door ahead of you to be opened, your mischief prompts cops to descend on the scientist who was meant to be running the controls, as they believe him to be responsible and “fire” him on the spot. Dashing past the commotion, you’re able to sneak into the next room and continue your hunt for the greater objective of the level: finding and possessing a commander to allow you to get into the next sector of the facility.
Messiah doesn’t limit itself to being entirely straightforward, though. During your time playing, you’ll find yourself tasked with navigating vertical space in a variety of jumping puzzles. While they may have a bit of early-3D jank to them, it’s never anything game-breaking or rage-inducing. Which, looking back on the milquetoast reception of the game in 2000, seems to have been quite over-played. Nary a review fails to mention the annoyance brought on by these jumping segments, seemingly the prevailing reason that knocked their scores down overall.
It’s a shame the game was met with such lukewarm reception, as what it does it does extremely well. Its sense of tone and atmosphere is impeccable, with mouth-watering graphical effects such as the pulsating bodies of possessed enemies or the distortion given off by various grenades. Furthermore, the soundtrack is incredible and worth taking in on its own; haunting ambiance gives way to throbbing electronic industrial, intermixed with radio chatter crackling under the melody. Seriously, listen to this:
Anyway, all of this is to say that Messiah is a game that should be honestly universally loved instead of “controversial” or “divisive.” Sure, it’s rough around the edges, but there’s such love and heart at its core that its hard to turn your nose up at something so earnest. It does what games do best: present the otherworldly, the surreal, the absurd, and plant you directly in the middle. It takes on a deeply unique and interesting form of gameplay, straddling between puzzle, stealth, and action in a way that’s hard to compare to anything else. Its systems of possession, differentiating the quirks or skills of your myriad flesh-suits, and how they play into environmental exploration and manipulation, a beautiful coalescence that hasn’t really been done before or since.
It’s easy to immerse yourself in these factors and overlook the bad, but when journalism lambasts the weaker parts of a title without wholly elevating the strong points of it beyond the criticisms, we do a disservice to promoting a space in which the weird, the different, the experimental, are able to thrive. Back in 2000 this was a far more damning issue with a greater lack of enthusiast press versus exceedingly methodical and clinical approaches of dissecting titles, but now we can thankfully embrace releases within the indie scene that strive to explore the more unknown corners of our medium. Still, though, there’s a larger battle to be fought to exorcise our demons that have pushed us into a time of largely homogenized experiences within the mainstream.
Despite our sins, there is a chance for redemption. Our salvation lies not in pure explanation and objective review, but rather, through excitement, finding a way to bring players into the bizarre and different. Should we choose to seek a savior from the decay of AAA, we can only hope to find it in ourselves.
Catherine Brinegar is a trans game developer and filmmaker who explores the surreal and abstract in her work. Beyond her creative endeavors she enjoys losing herself inside other worlds, interactive and not. Finding inspiration in everything, Catherine aims to see all the world has to offer, through the continual conversation of art. You can keep up with her on twitter @cathroon.