Games reveal a lot about humans. Action games? They exist because we can't get enough of violence. Experience points and achievements? Our brains are so hard-coded with the idea of incentives that we get a quiet, bottomless thrill from watching numbers increase. God games? Best not think about that one. But we must face up to the truth: as a species, we are fruity and doomed.
However, there is one noble trait that games expose about us, which is how we're drawn to explore. Look how compulsive roguelikes are. These are games which only ever end in you dying alone hundreds of feet beneath the world's surface, yet we find ourselves pulled down those same shadowy staircases over and over again. The unknown has a grip like a bear trap on our imagination.
It was Project Eden's roguelike narrative that I found most interesting back in 2001, and I still love it now. The idea is that in the future humanity takes to building cities vertically, with the stratospheric upper stories acting as the prime real estate and the endless lower levels gradually descending first into poverty, resentment, and finally abandonment.
Except something's stirring down there in the dark. The player in Project Eden controls an entire squad from the Urban Protection Agency, an organisation that comes across as quite slick despite being the worrying combination of a police force and call-out handymen.
The game opens with your guys en route to investigate the disappearance of a couple of technicians working at the Real Meat Company, where Something Has Gone Terribly Wrong. It quickly drags you further and further down.
You end up following the trail of the technicians down into the research lab of Real Meat. Then you follow their captors down into the unfinished building site beneath that. And then down, down and down again, through empty apartments, a barren car park, a looted shopping mall and much more, all with the creeping sense that you're leading your team further and further away from the gleaming safety of civilisation.
In a sense Project Eden was a game of urban exploration before it came into vogue and hipsters the world over began snagging their jeans on fences just to upload a photo of a water-damaged piano to Flickr. It's also a game with an emphasis on verticality before it became an industry buzzword.
At the time the only thing anybody had to say about Project Eden was that it was a spiritual successor to the ancient, venerable Blizzard game The Lost Vikings, which is partly true. The Lost Vikings gave players a team consisting of a fast viking with a pointy helmet (Erik), a fat viking with a shield (Olaf) and an angry viking with all the weapons (Baleog) and in requiring players to use these various abilities in tandem and in a careful order, it turned traditional-looking platform levels into intricate, head-scratching puzzles.
Going back, it's easy to see that Project Eden doesn't even come close to reaching the puzzle-related highs of The Lost Vikings. It never coughs up those glorious moments where you're left staring at all the pieces of a problem, mentally moving your team about like jigsaw pieces to try and solve it. But then, I'm not sure it's fair to compare the two directly. While solutions in Project Eden are almost always less chin-strokingly teasing and often rely on you simply spying something in your environment, they're also that much more believable.
You're not using Baleog to shoot an arrow at a switch so Erik can jump down and get a key which he'll give to Olaf who'll hang-glide down to a door that Baleog will run through and kill the monster on the other side so he can then pull a level that finally scratches Erik's arse. Project Eden wouldn't be seen dead prancing about arranging 14-step brainteasers like these.
Instead, it wants you to laboriously move a crane to fix a sparking control panel, or shoot out a wooden chock so a column falls down and becomes a bridge, or use a flying drone to turn off a conveyor belt from its distant control panel so you can run up it.
Project Eden doesn't just want to give you puzzles, it wants to convey an atmosphere of sci-fi spelunking. That's why co-operative puzzles often take a backseat to simply dropping into the shoes of your favourite team member and taking point as the lot of you navigate rickety scaffolding or have a few firefights, and that's why it's unfair to compare it to The Lost Vikings.
To say that Project Eden's lack of interest in traditional puzzles means the game isn't making the most of this four-character mechanic means you're failing to see this mechanic's subtleties. The benefits of giving the player a team to control instead of a lone explorer don't begin and end at contrived puzzles. Project Eden's limp combat is saved by the way your team all open fire at the moment you're ambushed, and more significantly the fact that you're swapping between perspectives forces you to see your team as individuals rather than faceless avatars.
The game's thick foreboding is heightened as you tug these lost men and women first through riotous explosions and destruction, and eventually down to where everything weak has already rotted away, leaving the stillness and moss of death.
Where Project Eden does fail is that despite this whole dramatic setup your team displays an icy, professional stoicism throughout the entire game, which robs them of the personality and chatter that should have been the game's driving force.
It would have created a perfect cycle - the team's despair would keep you playing, so you'd push the team deeper, and the team would go even madder. But outside of the scant, brief cut-scenes you might as well be steering around four robots. Although that's a poor choice of words - your robot, Amber, is actually the only distinctive character on your team.
Amber is a glance at what Project Eden should have been - as a kind of bulky sister to Robocop, Amber is only really used when you need someone to go wandering headfirst through fire, steam, noxious gas, electrified flooring or whatever other hazards you stumble across.
Poor Amber. It's hardly the most imaginative of talents, but compared to the rest of your tedious team (specialising as they do in repairing things, hacking things and, in your spectacularly underqualified commander's case, nothing but opening high clearance doors), Amber's a card. She also boasts a little rocket launcher in her wrist and she's so big that your viewpoint goes leaping up whenever you take control of her, making tight corridors seem that much more claustrophobic.
Why couldn't the rest of your team have received this kind of attention to detail? It wouldn't have taken much. Make nerdy Minoko a little smaller and faster, give tech-specialist Andre a stronger shield, lend captain Carter a first aid kit. And while you're at it, give the team some incidental chats to have as they probe the undercity.
There's one bit very early on where the destruction of a bridge ends up splitting your team in two, and you have to spend the better part of an hour trying to re-unite them. The level reaches a climax with the slightly drastic play of sending Minoko sprinting through a garbage crusher to the waiting arms of her friends. It's a powerful idea, but there's nowhere near enough of it throughout the game.
As much as I might want to distance Project Eden from The Lost Vikings, this is one lesson to which it could have paid more attention. The Lost Vikings had its protagonists bickering between levels, and this was all it took to give that game hopeless charm.
Once the player's under this spell, convinced of the personalities of their team, you don't even have to do anything - every trap or scrap of co-op becomes more engaging because it's happening to these characters the player's gotten to know.
The only other regret I have about Project Eden is that it ends in an overwhelmingly ninetie mutant laboratory, when really it should have had a final level set in some fossilised vision of the 21st century. Your shiny, tired future-squad could have ended up crawling through a compacted obstacle course of brittle cathedrals and mouldering pubs.
But then I'm just still trying to crowbar personality into a game which really doesn't seem to want it. Shame. The tiniest bit of heart in any creation goes such a long way.