Every Saturday, Richard Cobbett digs into the world of story and writing in games - some old, some new. This week, a trip back in time...
Her name is Marta Louise Velasquez. She's the best of the best. Pray you never have her on your wing.
This week I thought we'd take a look back at one of the most interesting shareware games ever made - one that long, long, long term Crap Shoot readers will recognise, but which we never got to take a really good look at back in the day. Ah, those halcyon days when these columns were written to a word-count...
I've thought about Velasquez quite a few times since then though, especially in the wake of games like Tomb Raider on PC that have sparked discussions on what strong female characters are and should be. It's a subject couched in misunderstandings - just for starters, that 'strong' translates to either 'badass' or 'perfect', rather than 'well written' or 'interesting', and most problematically, that any negative traits tend to be seen as a slam on women in general rather than simply a character trait. As with so many things, it's less an issue of individual characters as trends. There's nothing inherently wrong for instance with a game having a level set in a strip-club, or a princess who needs rescuing. It's when that kind of thing becomes constant, the default state, that things start getting both problematic, and, frankly, boring.
Velasquez is a very, very different kind of heroine, one it's hard to imagine any publisher either then or now having the guts to unleash on the market. Hell, never mind the heroine bit. The closest in recent years was Walker from Spec Ops: The Line, and he had a complete mental breakdown to blame it on. Velasquez is pure poison from the start, both to herself and to her colleagues. Her very first line in the game, responding to a cheery "Routine assignment, Vel," is "The name's Velasquez. Say Vel to my face again and I'll rip yours off." After that, she only gets worse.
What's really interesting about our introduction though is how her character is set up to this point. As the credits roll, we see her father Ric returning home to what's obviously going to be a tragic death, and then surprising exactly nobody, being blown up by the evil invading Vultures right as he reaches safety - young Marta forced to watch from the hangar as her father burns to death. This unsurprisingly lights a fire in her soul that results in the Lt. Velasquez that we ultimately see - a woman who lives solely for revenge, and a hate that can never be fully satisfied. Hero fuel!
(Oh, and in case you're wondering, the Traffic Department of the title isn't in the business of giving speeding tickets any more. They're simply the last bastion of defence against the Vultures, acting as a resistance force using their former hoverskids. It's not quite as odd a choice of revenge as it might sound...)
The twist is that this isn't used to justify anything. Velasquez is poison, and the only reason that anybody puts up with her is that they have absolutely no choice in the matter - she's the best, they need her. A couple of characters are sympathetic to her, but even then it's more because they respected her father. The closest thing she really has to a friend at the start of the game is the slightly sleazy Dispatcher, and that's entirely one-sided - he teases her because he's behind a screen and out of punching range, and she tolerates it because she can't be bothered to go murder him.
Most of Traffic Department 2192... the bits not spent in honestly pretty crap combat against brainless AI... is an exploration of this - of what someone as truly damaged as Velasquez would actually be like. Early on, it's not too bad. She's a weapon that can be safely pointed at the enemy, and then wherever possible left the hell alone until the next time it has to be fired. Her commanding officer has enough of a grip to keep her relatively leashed, and when she does lash out, it's often played for laughs - trading insults, all of them weird bullshit future-insults, and suffering no fools.
You're probably wondering how long it takes her to encounter someone sexist, and will probably not be surprised to know it takes about four missions. His name is Aron Demeter, a representative of a group called E.G.G (don't ask), who introduces himself as "Why, your wet dream, sugar tits! How about getting me a hot cup of coffee?" Three hours later he regains consciousness to be told that's actually less than usual for Velasquez, and he wears the bloody nose and black eye for the rest of the game.
As the game goes on though, it begins to strip away this element character by character. The initially sympathetic commander is killed and replaced by someone with no love for Velasquez at all, and the episode ends with the wingman she's spent the entire game insulting, berating, sabotaging and showing up finally putting a bomb into the helicopter she's set to fly on a mission for no better reason than that he simply can't put up with her shit any longer. He's not a traitor or a sleeper agent or anything like that - he just reaches breaking point. Hard to blame him either.
And it's at this point that the shit really hits the fan. Because Velasquez doesn't survive the bomb. At least, not really. When she wakes up, it's with half her face replaced with cold steel and the rest of her a cocktail of functioning organs and cyborg parts - a killing machine who now literally looks the part, and in fact actually twists her wingwoman's head clean off during a fit of madness while being rebuilt.
The standard story at this point would be Velasquez struggling to retain her humanity in the face of all the electronic components, and there's some of that to be sure. The actual arc though is more about everyone above her in the chain of command being taken out, one by one, until there's nobody else to lead. This serves primarily to continue stripping back the heroic facade that Velasquez has as a soldier, and reveal her to be an out-and-out psychopath. The cyborg parts don't help, but they can't be blamed for it either. At the end of Episode 2, with the Vultures planning to glass the planet, she murders the man who reunited her with her son in order to steal his mining shuttle and escape, and when realising there isn't the space for all the vehicles she wants to take with her and all of her pilots and tech staff, opts to ditch the people and keep the hoverskids. Not long after that, more or less all her remaining allies abandon her and flee into space. It may mean getting blown up by a sadistic alien race, but hey, better that than Velasquez. And she openly tells them that she'd have killed them all herself, if she'd had the firepower to hand right then.
It's not even as if she expects to win at this point. All that matters is her son, to some degree, and taking out as many of the enemy as she possibly can. When called on this by their doctor, told that if she doesn't pull it together, there'll only be the two of them left, her response is just "I wouldn't count on survivors." Ouch.
She's right too. By the end of the game, pretty much every character is dead, and Velasquez herself is quite happy to add to the kill count. It takes until the middle of the third and final episode before she finally discovers a weapon that might win her war; a race of mostly peaceful shape-shifters who have infiltrated the Vultures and plan to replace them, who at least on the face of it seem friendly. Vel of course threatens to murder all of them at the first sign of trouble... and then starts doing so, never mind that their plan is literally, objectively, the only possible way she has left to salvage her continuing clusterfuck.
If you're wondering if it all works out... well, yes, it does to a point. The Vultures are dealt with, while Velasquez and her son don't so much escape as leave - her with malfunctioning robot parts that mean she's probably not going to last too much longer, wearing the colours of her enemy and flying one of their ships. For the most part though, the war ends because literally everyone else is dead - good guys, bad guys, and even the planets they fought over long-since reduced to glass and rubble.
To lighten the mood, here's a chipmunk eating peanuts.
Traffic Department 2192 certainly isn't the best written game around, with a tendency towards the hammy and trying a little too hard to stuff every possible SF trope into the mix. Nor is it that great as a game, with the action being entirely forgettable and more than a little irritating. Most missions consist of little but flying around in a loop shooting the AI, with occasional breaks for an awful escort mission.
It is however one of the most interesting stories told in an action game. Shareware games of course had less to worry about than commercial releases, but Velasquez was a brave, brave creation. Female protagonists were still a rarity... totally unlike today, cough cough... and those we got were typically the straight subversion of existing tropes - the damsel who saves the prince for instance, as in Jill of the Jungle and King's Quest IV. Traffic Department was one of the first games to not simply do that, but to try and create a complex character that we could follow on a psychological journey as well as a monster killing spree. It respected Velasquez enough to let her be flawed and awful, while being self-aware enough not to lose sight of that. Heroes often drift into villainy by accident, especially in adventure games - I can think of several puzzles on the lines of a supposedly well-meaning guy mixing up chlorine gas with cleaning supplies to steal a bottle of wine (Diamonds in the Rough), or poisoning a tramp to steal money to make a phonecall (Mystery of the Druids). At those points, you just have to ask "Do you realise what you just did?"
But Traffic Department 2192 did. It brought us a character who was at least initially disarmingly awful, then kept digging and exploring what that meant. Had it not slumbered in the relative obscurity of shareware in a pre-internet age, it's hard to imagine that Velasquez wouldn't regularly be mentioned along with the likes of Samus Aran and Lara Croft and Princess Rosella. She certainly deserves her place, even if nobody deserves to have to share it with her.
If you're interested in seeing the full story, the whole thing is in this Let's Play, and you're really not missing out on much by reading it like that. The whole game was however released as freeware a few years ago, and isn't difficult to find. (Unfortunately I can't link it because it's on abandonware sites.) Play it, enjoy it. Hope that at some point, someone will have the guts to do something similar.
And, uh, hopefully with a better name than "Traffic Department 2192".