Far from Monolith’s first foray into the grungy underbelly of urban exploration with a violent twist, Condemned: Criminal Origins served up a sampler platter of game mechanics notorious for being utterly disastrous and loathed by players across the globe. First person melee, weapon durability, and exceptionally dark environments seems like a recipe for failure- yet wound up becoming one of the most coveted unique horror experiences of the early 00s.
When I played it for the first time, I encountered the game through a vastly different lens from my fellow fans- I was unable to figure out how the taser worked. In any other game, this would be a relatively minor oversight that would hardly alter the experience beyond inconvenience, but nothing could prepare me for how much this would alter the experience, turning it into a claustrophobic ballet of internalized cruelty.
I have to confess- I’m a lover of first person melee combat, the more visceral physicality and momentum in my games, the better. It’s why one of my top games of all time is Dark Messiah Of Might And Magic. Yet, Condemned is a drastically different experience, one lacking the physics engine that drove most of the comical swashbuckling excitement of Dark Messiah, instead relying on footwork, quick thinking, and the ability to keep your nerve up under pressure.
The most horrific part of Condemned was finding out, upon completion, that I had played it *entirely* wrong, I had mistaken the Taser for an optional combat mechanic when it was in reality a fundamental. Yet, being the hardy difficulty enthusiast I am, I pushed through the entire game’s brutal, unrelenting pace and sheer dread, something about it felt just right as if the game had been designed for my personal tastes.
In John Carpenter’s ‘They Live’ there’s a lengthy fight between two of the main leads- it’s an all out brawl that is easily one of the most realistic portrayals of a street fight in cinematic history. Roddy Piper and Keith David’s characters, despite having a shared goal, wind up kicking the utter shit out of eachother- it’s ugly, messy, lacking in finesse or elegance, entirely depleting their stamina to a point that they end it in shambles, exhausted and bloodied. It’s the sort of desperate clash between equal opponents that’s rare outside of nature documentaries, and it’s hard to imagine a game that comes even remotely close to capturing this atmosphere.
Yet somehow, Condemned pulled it off. Without a taser, every fight in the game is a very blank slate, opponents are evenly matched with your damage output and tolerance, and when your weapons finally snap in half there’s no choice but to improvise. You are constantly hanging by the thread of your wits as you rapidly scan the room for endless possible solutions, in the end, the finality of Occam’s Razor takes hold when you grab the nearest 2×4 to bludgeon your opponent with.
In an era where we are saturated with endless quick-fixes, skill trees, perks, takedown maneuvers and other superhuman abilities to one-size-fits-all solve any obstacle in our path with impunity, Condemned stands as a reminder of how much longevity designers can squeeze out of simple mechanics working in concert. For a game about a investigator, you spend the vast majority of your time painting the town with your own atrocities- a gumshoe whose detective skill of using subtle environmental clues which once solved crime scenes now creates them. Ethan’s descent into primal rage is bookmarked by paranormal encounters, culminating in the climactic showdown between the killer framing him as a fugitive from the law and the discovery of his own disgustingly alien alter ego.
Ethan is, quite literally by the end of the game, consumed by his rage; the quest to prove his innocence only leaving a trail of viscera in his wake. His tragic pursuit winds up in an ironic self-fulfilling prophecy of murder- his very act of defense leaves him a guilty, anger riddled man in the end. Without the critical utility of the taser at play, the game’s mechanical competence highlights this journey into darkness and punctuates it with the sour crunch of broken bones. Every limb destroyed, every skull fractured, every moment of fleeing from his enemies alludes to the shattering of his very psyche and self-image.
It’s a minimalist painting of the darker aspects of the human condition, a violent palette used to smear every encounter with lead paint and blood red dirt. It’s a thematic triumph that resonates strongly enough to serve as the foundation for the next game. In many ways, Ethan is the same hardened, hollow anti-hero that Max Payne is, the only difference are the tools of choice.
Shortcuts to swiftly terminate a fight are few and far between, the occasional pistol or shotgun with no ammo in sight. Once expended, these ranged weapons quickly shift their verbs from shooting to crushing- the butt of his shotgun snapping off in the face of an enemy in the most bleak expression of violent resolution. Each shattered pipe, every broken stock, every bent shovel is the marching drum of this broken man, every wound he inflicts is applied in equal measure to his perception of the world. Everything he has ever known unravels before him, and he is lost to the chaotic whims of the struggle to survive.
The impact of the combat in Condemned is hard to feel to the same degree without the rest of the game affirming your vulnerability, it’s something easily lost in translation upon discovery of how absurdly overpowered the taser is, it robs you of the true acerbic tactility, the umami, the secret ingredient that ties the entire underlying thesis together.
In many ways, a no-taser run of Condemned is the ‘Iron Man’ mode of XCOM fame- entirely optional yet often seen as the ‘true’ way to experience the game. Not because the experience should be gatekept or out of reach for those lacking the raw dexterity to overcome, but because it is the kind of challenge that demands those who excel at the core game rise to the occasion. Difficulty is a controversial thing, and in many ways that debate is merited on the whole of the medium, but finding a game that cherishes it drives the same pleasure one would derive from overcoming the spiciest food, it’s a thrill tailored for thrill seekers.
It’s entirely understandable that the developers would implement the taser mechanic, much in the way that you would soften the emotional impact of a film’s finale to improve audience reception. Yet, the urge to over-commercialize and render things easier for consumption diminishes, ever so slightly, the rich tapestry of violence that Condemned truly excels at conveying in a way unlike any other game. In another way, it’s a demonstration of how optimizing games for effortless consumption often mangles the artful implicit subtext of the mechanics and renders would-be watershed moments down to subdued and misunderstood cult classics.
Few will probably ever revisit Condemned in quite the way I did, and due to the in-game tutorial, fewer still will experience it for the first time in this manner. I broke the game in a way that *changed* my perception of all games, and it speaks to the power of playing by your own home brew rules, it’s the same feeling you get playing Quake Singleplayer maps in the multiplayer mode- an eruptive chorus of rockets is transformed into a meditative platformer. In many ways, this is the versatility of games- to undermine the original intent and establish a new way to play, to process the content differently, in a sense not too unlike watching film franchises in chronological order, it’s a transformative shift in how one engages with the work.
If I have managed to catch you before you’ve experienced it, or perhaps never finished it, I hope this analysis will prove an inciting incentive to forget the taser exists, to relish the feeling of being dragged to the ground time and time again, to experience Condemned in a new way that grounds the conflict, taking you closer to the human cost and drenching you in the kind of sweat only found when waking from a nightmare.
To know the true cost of combat is to gain a whole new appreciation for the vivid colors of a peaceful life, and to find gratitude for never having to carry that weight.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice