We know that Russian Intelligence worked to increase Donald Trump’s election chances by spreading propaganda. And we now know that they also attempted to tamper with US voting systems. And we know that President Trump has long spoken approvingly of Russian President Vladimir Putin. And we know that Trump campaign personnel met with various Russian officials during the campaign.

All of this looks highly suspicious, and suggests that something was going on between Trump and Russia.

However, there is one thing about the “Russia colluded with the Trump campaign to steal the election” theory that doesn’t add up.  Namely, if Russia was covertly influencing the election, why would they bother to tell the Trump campaign about it?

Think about it: there’s no reason for them to have any contact beyond perhaps an initial meeting to lay out the plan.  Why keep having these meetings between Trump’s people and Russia’s people?  All it did was increase the likelihood of the plot getting exposed.

This is actually the best argument the Trump people have in their favor, as far as I can see.  If they were committing such a serious crime, why leave such incriminating evidence?

The “Trump’s campaign is innocent” scenario could be something like the following: sure, they met with Russian people, but it was nothing to do with election-hacking. Trump’s platform and Russia’s interests in promoting a new nationalistic world order just happened to align, and they were hashing out details of what they would do in the event that Trump won. Russia independently carried out their manipulation of the election without the knowledge of the Trump campaign.

Which would be the way to do it, if you were running a remotely competent espionage operation.  You don’t tell people stuff they don’t need to know, and from Russia’s perspective, the Trump campaign wouldn’t have needed to know that Russia was attempting to influence the election.

But this leads to the question: why did the Russians meet with them at all?  Presumably, Russian officials knew about the plan, even if the Trump people didn’t. And they would therefore know how bad the meetings would look if word of the Russian interference ever came out.

This points strongly to the conclusion that the Russians suckered Trump, or at least Trump’s people. They knew it would make them look bad when these meetings came to light, and so would undermine the American people’s faith in the entire government and the electoral process.

If this is the case, Trump and his personnel, rather than being willing pawns of a Russian plot, are actually naïve victims who fell into a Russian trap.

Personally, I find it hard to imagine the people working for Trump were that unbelievably easy to trick.  But it’s hard to see any other explanation.

Here’s a rarity for you, readers: I’m going to agree with Donald Trump about something. In February 2016, then-candidate Trump said “It takes guts to run for president.”

He’s right. In fact, it takes guts to run for anything these days; since every political contest is seen not only as having huge national implications, but as being the front line in the battle between Good and Evil. It tends to make people… passionate.

The Georgia 6th district election is the latest example. The most expensive Congressional election in history, it drew national attention. Trump tweeted his support for Republican Karen Handel before the election, and tweeted congratulations when she won.

Everyone viewed it as a proxy battle in the national contest between Trumpism and anti-Trumpism. Everyone, that is, except Rep. Handel and her Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff. They both tried to keep their campaigns focused on local issues.

The district is historically Republican, so it stands to reason that Handel’s strategy would be–no pun intended–conservative. But Ossoff, rather than shying away from the national fight, should have fully embraced it and positioned himself as the bold lone warrior–the last line of defense against tyranny.

Hyperbolic? A bit, sure. But in political campaigns as in military ones, “Fortune favors the bold”.

One reason Trump’s campaign did so well is that he was willing to take political risks and say shocking things that most politicians would never dare utter, but that riled his core supporters into a frenzy.

This strategy is, of course, risky. Trump alienated a lot of people–probably the majority of people, in fact–with his statements, but the people who liked them really, REALLY liked them.

Trump’s campaign created the following cycle, which it used continuously from its first day to its last:

  1.  Trump says something outrageous
  2. Press and politicians react with horror
  3. Trump refuses to back down.
  4. This galvanizes Trump’s core supporters

This strategy made sense, because Trump was the underdog. When you are the underdog, you have to take big risks, because it’s the only way to change the calculus that has made you an underdog in the first place.

The central gamble of Trump’s campaign was that it was worth it to alienate moderates in order to get a really fired-up core of supporters. It worked. (Barely.)

Now: what did Ossoff do to try to whip his supporters into a frenzy? As near as I can tell, not much. I knew little about Ossoff except that he was the Democrat in Georgia who people thought might pull off an upset. That’s nice, and if I had lived there, I would have voted for him. But that’s it–there was nothing I heard about the man himself that made me think, “Ossoff is the only one who can save America!”

Ossoff portrayed himself as a generic, clean-cut Democrat. That would have worked if he’d been in a Democratic-leaning district. But as it was, he should have been more willing to embrace the theme that he was fighting to save the last bastion of freedom on Earth, rather than to make things more fair for the people in the 6th district.

People might say that I’m just Monday Morning Quarterbacking, and I guess that’s a valid criticism. But all we know for sure is that the Democrats lost an election they thought they could win. Again. Maybe my ideas on campaign strategy won’t work, but at this point its fair to say that what the Democrats have been doing isn’t working either.

I’ve heard lots of criticisms of video games over the years, but Jeff Vogel’s critique that they have too many words is a new one. He makes a strong case against one particular game–Obsidian Entertainment’s Pillars of Eternity. After reading his article, it’s hard to argue against the claim that Pillars is too verbose. The character creation and menu screens are packed with tons of text for the player to wade through.

I’m less sure about whether this is really a trend in gaming generally. After all, Pillars was explicitly designed as a throwback to the beloved text- and lore-heavy Black Isle RPGs. For example, Planescape: Torment has over a million words. Even I tended to ignore some of the esoteric descriptions in Planescape, and I love that game.

Scene from “Planescape: Torment”

Some players really do seem to enjoy the atmosphere of a game rich with background material. It may be true that much of the information is irrelevant to the game’s mechanics, but this is High Fantasy, and one of the things High Fantasy fans look for is a sprawling world filled with many interesting details that don’t all fit into the main narrative.

Using lots of words is indeed a problem, as Vogel says, but not just in games. The High Fantasy trope of giving tons of background information can be traced back to J.R.R. Tolkien. The Pillars of Eternity intro is nothing next to the dense opening chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring. In general, when writing in a genre, you will try to emulate the most successful authors in that genre, so it’s hard to blame Obsidian for looking to the work of Tolkien and his successors for ideas.

I myself have never been a fan of this style. And that’s despite the fact that some of my influences favored verbosity. Take H.P. Lovecraft for example–he was a pioneer in writing horror, but he tended to go overboard with some of his descriptions. I think some of that crept into my own early attempts at writing horror.

It’s much easier to use too many words than to use just the right number. The old line about “writing a long letter because I didn’t have time to write a short one” applies.  It’s easy to waste words, and that dilutes their intended effect.

The economy of any piece of writing is a very important consideration, but few people ever think about it. It wasn’t until I saw the movie Lawrence of Arabia that I really learned to appreciate it.

Think of it this way: whenever you write something, eventually you will have to stop. You only have so many words before you have to hit send, or mail it to the publisher, or whatever. While the supply of words is theoretically infinite, in practice it’s severely limited–by the reader’s attention span if nothing else.

So, you want to maximize the value you get per word. What do I mean by “value”? Well, it’s whatever idea or feeling you are trying to communicate in your writing. If it’s an informational document or a bit of technical description, then you want to be as clear and concise as possible. If you are writing a character who prefers to communicate non-verbally or who is just mysterious, you use few words, and you make them vague and open to interpretation.

Sometimes there is value in deliberately using too many words. The dramatist W.S. Gilbert (another of my favorites) would often have characters say things in as complicated and lengthy a way as possible for comic effect. “Quantity has a quality all its own,” as they say in big organizations.

Vogel is right that the Pillars opening screens are bad at conveying information. They could have communicated the same points more succinctly. But the problem is that in addition to giving the player some information, they are also supposed to be atmospheric. And you usually need more–or at least different–words to create an atmosphere than to just convey information.

It’s a difficult balancing act–the writer(s) must both communicate technical detail about how to actually play the game while also keeping the player immersed in the virtual world in which the story is set. (For an example of a character creation intro that is more integrated with the game and doesn’t bore the player, I recommend Fallout: New Vegas-also by Obsidian.)

The “optimal” number of words is dependent on what the writer is trying to convey, as well as on the medium they are using. Obviously, a screenwriter is going to use fewer words than a novelist to describe the exact same scene, because the screenwriter knows they will have actors and sets that will communicate certain things visually.

To summarize, all writers, regardless of their subject, style or genre, should follow Einstein’s advice: “Everything should be as simple as possible–but no simpler.”

standing-color-cropped
Carrie Rubin, author of “Eating Bull” and “The Seneca Scourge”

[I recently read the book Eating Bull, by Carrie Rubin. I loved it, and contacted the author.  She very kindly agreed to be interviewed about her work.  Enjoy!]

BG: I’ll start at the beginning: how did you get the idea for “Eating Bull”? Did the idea just come to you one day, did some specific incident suggest it, or…?

CR: A little bit of both. Overweight/obesity is a professional interest of mine. I’ve dealt with it in both a clinical and research setting. Many people assume a large BMI means a lack of willpower, but that’s both inaccurate and unfair. Many other factors come into play, especially our disastrous food environment where processed food, mega-sizes, and sugar-laden junk bombard us wherever we go.

Through fiction, I wanted to bring the issue of the food industry’s role in obesity to light. Plenty of nonfiction books exist on the topic, but with fiction you get an emotional element as well.

As for a specific incident, several years ago a tearful, severely overweight adolescent sat on my exam table and said: “Not a day goes by I don’t know I’m fat, because no one will let me forget it.” That was the catalyst for my teenage protagonist.

BG: The book has three “starring” characters, each of whom represents a different view on the roles of the individual and society in causing obesity. Can you discuss these viewpoints a little, and also how you balanced the amount of page time devoted to each?  Was it difficult to strike that balance?

CR: I wanted to represent three viewpoints, from one extreme to the other, all of which exist in our society:

My secondary protagonist, a social-justice-seeking public health nurse, represents the viewpoint that society plays a huge role in our weight gain and must take responsibility.

My villain, an obsessive-compulsive fitness fanatic, believes obesity is entirely the individual’s fault and takes it upon himself to rid the world of “undisciplined sheep” … in a very bloody way.

My primary hero, an overweight teenager, falls somewhere in between, representing the viewpoint that both the individual and society play a role, but that society must make changes so that it’s easier for the individual to change too.

As for the number of pages devoted to each, I simply shifted to a new viewpoint with each chapter, rotating the characters on a regular basis, each carrying the story forward according to his or her point-of-view.

BG: Regarding the villain of the story, Darwin: He’s really a repulsive and terrifying character, but you also show just enough of a glimpse of his past to make the reader feel a little sorry for him at the same time. He seems genuinely mentally ill, rather than just a caricature of a psycho killer–I loved that. Any observations (or advice) on writing plausible, well-rounded villains?

CR: Villains are tricky to write. They can easily become one-dimensional. Rounding them out into full-fledged characters with likable—or at least relatable—traits is difficult, and I have a ways to go before I master that skill.

Darwin’s pretty despicable, but I tried to create backstory that would explain how he got that way. This proved even trickier considering I hid his identity until the climax. I had to flesh out his character without giving away who he was. That adds an element of mystery to the thriller and hopefully keeps the reader guessing until the end.

BG: I could go on forever about how much I liked the characters in “Eating Bull”. Expanding from just Darwin, what are your techniques on writing characters generally? Apart from the three starring characters, did you also write the supporting cast to reflect the central theme of the novel?

CR: Before I even start my outline, I define my main characters: their likes, dislikes, dreams, goals, mannerisms, etc. Characters drive the plot, so I like to have a firm grasp on them before I start much story planning.

As for the supporting cast, I usually have them in mind before I begin, but they tend to blossom as I go along. In Eating Bull I did indeed write some minor characters to reflect the central theme: the bullying grandfather and classmate, the unsupportive boyfriend who dislikes overweight people, the dietician and fitness coach who guide my main character toward his goal.

Some of the supportive characters heap a world of hurt on my teenage protagonist, but I wanted to reflect real life. In my research for the book, I attended a seminar in which the focus was to highlight the frequent fat-shaming that goes on in our society—including from the healthcare industry—and to shift the onus from weight loss to size acceptance. The tales the speakers told of the shaming they experience on a regular basis, from acquaintances and strangers alike, horrified me. I knew I needed to have my character experience the same thing if I wanted to be honest to the theme.

BG: What is the central message you want readers to take away from “Eating Bull”?

CR: I’ve already touched on that somewhat, but the main takeaway is: weight gain and loss isn’t as simple as calories in minus calories out. There are many other factors in the equation, including hormones, biological determinants, neurochemicals associated with addiction, socialization of food, poverty, food environment, built environments (poor walkability of a city, food deserts, etc.), and yada yada yada.

I could go on and on, but the point is, changes need to be made at all of these levels if we want to see real progress. Expecting the individual to do it alone hasn’t worked too well for us so far. It’s time to up our game.

BG: So, not to spoil anything, but you’ve mentioned you are working on another book. Any hints as to what to expect from it?

CR: I’m often reluctant to discuss my unpublished works (worried I’ll jinx things, perhaps?), but I can tell you my latest completed manuscript is a medical thriller with supernatural elements. There is no shortage of medical thrillers out there, so I like to change things up a bit. It’s pretty much ready to go, and I’ve just completed the first draft of the second in the series. I’d like to write at least three novels with the same recurring characters—maybe more—but each book will be a complete stand-alone.

BG: What other authors have influenced you, either in writing style or in genre/subject matter?

CR: I always get nervous with this question, because I worry I should list a number of literary greats, but that’s not how it is for me. I’m all about the storyteller.

In my teen years, Stephen King was a huge influence on me. More than just be a writer, I wanted to be a storyteller, and to me he’s one of the best. JK Rowling is in that category too—a gifted storyteller—and if I can match a fraction of their skill I’ll be happy.

In terms of writing medical thrillers, Robin Cook was my first influencer, and while his writing might sometimes get panned, he knows how to weave a good tale. I’m easy to please and can overlook a lot. Give me a story I can get lost in and you’ve got me as a fan forever.

Before I go, Berthold, I want to thank you for your support of my novel and for interviewing me on your blog. It’s a pleasure to be here and I enjoyed answering your questions!

BG: My pleasure. Thank you for your thoughtful and informative answers!

[Carrie Rubin is a physician, public health advocate and the author of medical thrillers Eating Bull and The Seneca Scourge. You can find her books here, and also be sure to check out her website and social media pages.]

It_Comes_at_Night
Poster for “It Comes at Night” (Image via Wikipedia)

It Comes at Night is a highly misleading title for this film. Actually, everything about the marketing campaign is misleading. It’s not really a traditional horror film at all. Aside from a few disturbing images and jump scares, its primary focus is horror of the psychological and atmospheric sort, rather than any physical monsters.

Of course, this brand of horror is very much to my taste. The most frightening things, I’ve always believed, are not what we see, but rather what we imagine. Ultimately, the root of all horror is the unknown, because in it the human mind traces all the most terrible threats.

And from this, it should follow that It Comes at Night would be a truly terrifying film after all, because it certainly provides the audience with plenty of unknowns. But in spite of that, it’s not as scary as one might expect.

There’s a lot to unpack here, but I’ll begin by summarizing the plot–don’t read ahead if you don’t want to know the spoilers.

(more…)

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“Wonder Woman” poster. Image via Wikipedia, re-used under “Fair Use”.

Superhero movies are not my favorite genre. But I have long enjoyed watching re-runs of the old Wonder Woman TV series starring Lynda Carter, so I made a point of seeing this one.

Another thing that intrigued me is that the movie is set in World War I. (The character of Wonder Woman was originally created in the 1940s, and therefore was naturally depicted fighting in World War II against the Nazis.)

This was interesting to me for a couple of reasons: first, Hollywood normally can’t resist inserting Nazis into things on the flimsiest of pretexts; so to have no Nazis when the source material actually includes them is a pretty bold artistic choice.  Second, World War I is not nearly as well-known to modern audiences as World War II, so this setting seems like a bit of a risk from a marketing perspective. I like risk-taking.

I also like spoiling movies, so be warned–I’m now going to describe the plot, with spoilers!

The film begins in the present-day with Diana (Gal Gadot) receiving a photograph from the first World War, showing her in her full Wonder Woman garb, standing alongside a ragtag band of soldiers.

This segues into young Diana’s childhood on a hidden island of Amazon warriors. Diana wishes to train as a warrior under General Antiope (Robin Wright), but her mother forbids it, and tells her a cautionary tale about the horrors of war. She explains that Zeus created men to be peaceful, but they were corrupted by the God of War, Ares. Zeus then created the Amazons to protect mankind, and Ares was ultimately defeated. But Zeus also created “the God-Killer”–a weapon housed on the Amazons’ island, in case Ares should return.

Despite these warnings, Diana trains in secret anyway.  Her mother eventually finds out and initially disapproves, but ultimately is persuaded to let her continue.

One day, after a sparring session, an airplane crashes just off the shore.  Diana rescues the pilot, Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), and the Amazons defeat the German forces pursuing him, but General Antiope is killed in the battle.

The Amazons question Capt. Trevor, who explains that he is fighting in the “War to end all Wars”. His plane was shot down as he was fleeing the Germans having stolen a notebook from a chemist nicknamed “Dr. Poison” and her commander, General Ludendorff, who are working to create a super-deadly poison gas.

Diana quickly realizes that the war Steve describes must be the work of Ares. She takes the God-Killer weapons and asks Steve to travel with her to the outside world and the center of the fighting, where she is sure they will find Ares.

Steve first takes her to London and delivers Dr. Poison’s notebook to his superiors. They can’t read what it says, but Diana can, and realizes it means the Germans are manufacturing and preparing to deploy the new, more lethal gas at the Front.

Sir Patrick Morgan, one of Steve’s superiors, is close to getting the Germans to agree to an armistice, but Diana believes Ludendorff is actually Ares, and will use the gas no matter what.

Diana, Steve, and a small group assembled with help from Sir Patrick go to the Front to destroy the supplies of poison gas.  Thanks to Diana’s heroics, they successfully liberate a small town and learn that Ludendorff is in the area, planning to attend a gala for the German officers at a castle nearby.

Sir Patrick orders them not to attack the gala, as he is close to finalizing the armistice. However, they go anyway. (Notice a pattern here?) The Germans fire the gas into the recently-liberated village, killing the inhabitants, much to Diana’s horror.

Diana tracks Ludendorff to an airfield where the Germans are about to deploy a massive long-range bomber loaded with the poison gas. Steve and his men attempt to take the bomber, while Diana kills Ludendorff with the God-Killer sword.

Diana is shocked that the fighting doesn’t stop on Ludendorff’s death. She starts to wonder if all mortals truly are inherently evil and prone to violence. At that moment, Sir Patrick appears, and reveals that he is in fact the God Ares, but that he does not cause wars–he merely exposes the true, dark nature of Zeus’s creation.

Meanwhile, Steve and his men fight their way to the bomber, and Steve is able to get aboard, knowing the only way to stop it from delivering its payload is for him to personally destroy it.

Diana and Ares fight a massive battle, and when Diana sees the bomber explode with Steve aboard, she rallies and defeats Ares, having been persuaded that humanity has the capacity for good as well as evil.

The closing scenes show Diana in London, somberly remembering Steve as cheering crowds celebrate the end of the war. The film ends with a return to the present-day Diana, looking at the old photograph of her and Steve, taken when they liberated the village.

As is typical of the genre, there are lots of drawn-out, special effects-heavy fighting scenes.  These are not bad for the most part–though definitely not to my taste. Each of them seemed to go on longer than necessary–thanks in part to an overuse of slow-motion effects. This was especially true of the final showdown between Diana and Ares. Since Diana’s victory was a foregone conclusion, it really did not need to drag on that long.

Much more interesting are the “character” scenes–yes, that’s right; the parts where people actually talk to one another. Gadot and Pine have excellent chemistry together, and their scenes were my favorite parts of the film.  Romantic sub-plots in action movies can very easily become pointless and tiresome, but the sparks between Diana and Steve seem genuine, and it gives the story some real heart.

One interesting aspect of their scenes is that they frequently talk simultaneously or interrupt one another.  This happened quite often–almost to the point of being overused–but it also made their conversations feel spontaneous, rather than just like two actors reciting lines at each other.

I wish the film had dwelt a bit more upon Diana’s relationship with Steve, and her impressions of the “outside world” in general–there was a little too much time in the second half devoted instead to Steve’s merry band of sidekicks.  They were mildly entertaining, but I think it would have been better to let them be nameless grunts rather than try to make them “colorful”. It’s Diana’s story, after all.

The script didn’t even try to use language that was appropriate for the time period–all the allied soldiers and officers spoke in modern lingo. Even more puzzling to me was that occasionally some characters would speak in a foreign language, with subtitles, but the Germans (and some of our heroes when posing as Germans) would speak in German-accented English.

I’d be interested to know the details of some of the weapons used in the film.  Some are obviously fanciful, others seem to have been trying to stay faithful to the period.  At one point, Steve still has a Colt 1911 despite being disguised as German colonel–that seemed weird to me. But after all, this is a comic-book superhero movie, so I tried to tune out the nit-picking historian voice in my head.

This brings me back around to the setting, which as I discussed at the outset was something that interested me in the film. I still think it was daring (by Hollywood franchise standards, that is) to change the setting to a less-familiar time period.

However, given what actually happens in the movie, it’s a bit puzzling. In fact, World War I actually did end with an armistice, and the real Ludendorff survived the war and went on to be influential in the early years of the Nazi Party.  So, given what happens in the film, is it supposed to be the beginning of an alternate history tale in which World War II did not happen? That would be quite interesting, but it’s left very vague and unexplored.  Fertile ground for a sequel, I suppose…

It’s not a bad film by any means, the plodding CGI boss fight at the end notwithstanding. The other fights are good enough, if you like that sort of thing, and Gal Gadot is a very likeable and charismatic lead.

As I said, I have seen few superhero films. The only recent ones I have watched are Marvel’s Thor and its sequel, The Dark World. The former is a delightful adventure that ranks among my favorite movies.  The latter, sadly, is more what I gather the typical superhero movie is like: a CGI-laden affair, with little time for character development or nuanced emotion of any kind.

This is noteworthy because Patty Jenkins, who directed Wonder Woman, was originally hired by Marvel to direct The Dark World, before leaving over the dreaded “creative differences”. It’s a pity; having seen Wonder Woman, I would have liked to have seen what she could have done with it.

Wonder Woman isn’t a great movie, but it’s certainly an entertaining summer flick, and it’s nice to see a film with a female lead and a female director drawing crowds to the theaters.  Hopefully, this will be the beginning of a trend in the entertainment industry.

"Prey" cover
“Prey” cover. Image via Wikipedia.

I think it was somewhere in the arboretum of the TranStar corporation’s Talos I space station, about six hours into Prey, that I started to realize what was wrong.

Something had been gnawing at me; a vague sense of discomfort in the back of my mind.  It wasn’t the apprehension that every object in every room might turn out to be an alien mimic waiting to ambush me, nor was it the thought that at any minute the possessed remains of crew members might teleport in to attack me with psychic energy blasts.

No, these things I had expected, and indeed become accustomed to.

In fact, that was the problem.  What was really bothering me was that none of it was all that scary.

Prey sounds like a game almost engineered to my personal taste.  It’s a horror RPG in which you play as Morgan Yu, a scientist on a space station overtaken by mysterious aliens called “the Typhon”.  As you explore the station and fight the Typhon, you gradually uncover the backstory by reading logs of deceased crew members, and talking with the few survivors. All the while, you must overcome obstacles placed by Morgan’s brother, Alex–the scientist who seems to be responsible for the disaster.

Some of the Typhon, called “mimics”, have the ability to take any form, including such innocuous items as coffee mugs and even health kits and other useful items. So, you never know what might turn into a monster and attack as you creep through the dark, eerie corridors.

In addition to the usual video game weapons–pistols, shotguns, etc.–Morgan can use an experimental technology called “neuromods”, which grant the user all sorts of abilities, but can erase the user’s memory–a significant point, as it accounts for why Morgan has no memory of events that occurred before the beginning of the game. (This is explained by a character named January–a robot assistant who holds Morgan’s memories and acts as a guide in the early stages of the game.)

Prey has multiple paths and endings, and many different ways of accomplishing your objectives–a style of gameplay I strongly prefer.  And to top it all off, Chris Avellone, perhaps the greatest game designer ever, helped write it.

It’s like a hybrid of Doom 3 and Deus Ex (two games that I love), along with many other influences.  It also evokes the mining station episode that starts off my all-time favorite game, Avellone’s Knights of the Old Republic II.

With all this going for it, I was a bit dismayed by how weak the first act was.

Not that it’s bad.  It’s good enough.  Especially the opening 20 minutes or so; which are very disconcerting and disturbing. Not since Spec Ops: The Line has a game so successfully pulled the rug out from under me. But I’ll talk more about that later. (This is probably a good time to mention I’m going to spoil the game’s plot here, so don’t proceed any further if you want to play it without knowing what happens.)

I reference Spec Ops because it’s another favorite game of mine–again, Prey mimics elements from many of the classics. There are elements of Bioshock (takes place in a remote futuristic art-deco station) Half-Life, (the mimics look like headcrabs) Alan Wake (the shadowy phantoms murmur phrases spoken by the victims they now possess) and Dishonored. (This is only to be expected, since both are made by Arkane studios.) Indeed, there’s so much mimicry here, it makes the clever “not a mimic” marketing slogan seem rather ironic.

And yet… it doesn’t quite work as well as it should in the the beginning. And by “the beginning”, I mean approximately the first five hours after the opening sequence.

It’s like how all-star teams in sports don’t necessarily play up to the potential of all the great players on the roster.  This is usually because all-star teams don’t have time to develop chemistry–the sense of timing that makes a team function well as a unit.

Something similar is going on with Prey: it is built up of some very excellent parts, but they don’t always work together to create a coherent whole.

It’s not always clear what Prey is supposed to be. A lot of it looks like survival horror, but it’s not particularly scary. (One exception is an enemy called the Poltergeist. It’s invisible and causes all sorts of disruptions. Very effective, especially the first time it happens.)

Portrait of JFK from alternate future game "Prey"
Portrait from “Prey”

Prey‘s setting is also somewhat puzzling. It’s set in an alternate future in which John F. Kennedy was not assassinated, and the U.S. and Soviets worked together on space exploration.  But it’s not clear to me why this background was needed for the story. It felt like a gimmick.

Then there are the graphics.  They are good, but strangely cartoonish, which makes it hard to take anything seriously. I had this same problem with Bioshock and Dishonored as well. The people in these games all have soft, caricatured features, which creates a feeling of unreality.

I’m not sure why this particular style bothers me more than the outdated graphics of older games like Deus Ex or even Doom 3, but somehow it does

It is probably true that if I weren’t so well-versed in the simulated experience of exploring a creepy station overrun by monsters, the beginning of Prey might have been a lot more intriguing. If you haven’t played Doom 3 or Bioshock or System Shock 2 or Half-Life or Dead Space or the Fallout: New Vegas add-on Dead Money or… well, if you haven’t played many survival/horror games, everything in Prey will be new and interesting.

To get back to the Arboretum, where I first began to have thoughts of just giving up on Prey–well, I didn’t. I pressed on, and was soon rewarded for my efforts.  Because not too long after this, I started to run into some survivors with whom I could actually interact, as opposed to just constantly sneaking around in the dark, trying to alternately fight and run away from the Typhon.

The game really picks up once you start to meet some of the other characters. One suspects there must be a behind-the-scenes reason for this…

Helping officer Sarah Elazar and her men prepare for and then win a battle against Typhon forces massed in a cargo bay was the first really satisfying part of the game, and meeting some characters I cared about (who weren’t already dead) made me feel much more invested in the plot.

Even better were the quests involving Mikhaila Ilyushin. She guides you through a section of the station, and eventually you have the opportunity to get her some life-saving medicine.  It’s an optional quest, but really satisfying to complete.

See what I mean about the graphics?
Best character in the game.

Mikhaila was my favorite character in the game, because the quests relating to her are both rewarding and emotionally “true”. After returning to Morgan’s office, she asks you to find data about her father that is stored in the station’s archives. On finding it, it reveals that Morgan ordered her father’s death. You have the choice of whether to tell her about this, or destroy the evidence. In the end, telling her is ultimately the right choice. “Honesty is the best policy…”

Between her and the security personnel in the cargo bay,  I started to care about the story in a way I hadn’t for the first six hours or so. And so I found myself once again heading to the arboretum to meet with Alex, and hear his explanation for the whole thing.

On reaching his office, you learn that in fact everything he’s been doing has been to fulfill orders previously given to him by… you.  Alex isn’t evil; he’s just doing what he believed the “real” Morgan would have wanted him to do, before neuromods and other experiments changed his sibling into someone he no longer recognizes.

This was a very powerful plot twist, because the game does a good job of making you hate Alex in the beginning, and then does an equally good job of making you want to work with him. The switch is accomplished very economically, and does not feel at all forced or contrived.

Alex explains that the key to understanding the Typhon has to do with the “coral”–a mysterious luminescent substance they have woven throughout the station as they have taken it over. After you study it further, it confirms what Alex claims Morgan initially suspected: the coral is a neural network.

For me, this development happened at about the 15 hour mark, and I was really getting into the game at this point. I returned to the arboretum (Alex’s office is there) to bring back the data I had collected and upload it for analysis. This, I figured, would trigger the endgame sequence.

But no–the upload gets interrupted by a surprise attack from a mercenary named Walther Dahl. He’s been sent by the TranStar corporation to steal back all the data and kill everyone on the station.

He’s also the most annoying character in the entire game. He blows in at the eleventh hour with his army of military robots, totally disrupting the pace of the narrative. He may have been referenced earlier in the story–although I sure don’t remember it–but certainly not in any way that counts as meaningful foreshadowing. My reaction to his arrival wasn’t “oh, wow; it’s that Walther Dahl guy I heard about earlier”, but instead “who the hell are you?”

It reminded me of Stephen Leacock’s mockery of a common trope in detective novels that explains the crime by concluding: “It was the work of one of the most audacious criminals ever heard of (except that the reader never heard of him till this second)”.

Even worse, Dahl undercuts the main enemy of the game, the Typhon. It’s like in Mass Effect 2 and especially 3, when Cerberus and the Illusive Man kept getting in the way of fighting the Reapers.

I actually found myself rooting for and counting on the Typhon to get rid of Dahl’s inexplicable army of robots for me.  This is detrimental to the plot in two different ways: first, it makes you feel sympathy for what had previously been an unambiguous enemy; and second, it undercuts the Typhon’s effectiveness–they can’t be that powerful, if Dahl was able to show up and take over the station in the space of about five minutes.

This whole sequence was undoubtedly the weakest point of the game, and it took about two hours to resolve. (In fairness, defeating Dahl was extremely satisfying, but not so much as to justify his existence in the first place.)

So now, I found myself going back to the arboretum yet again, to do the same thing I had been about to do two hours before, prior to the pointless Dahl episode. And that wasn’t even the worst thing about it–but I’ll get to that later.

There had been several points throughout the game where it seemed like they were just throwing obstacles at me to  make everything as hard as possible. There were quests that went something like this:

  1. “Go get some files from a computer on the other side of the station.”
  2. <Goes there, fighting and hiding from Typhon all the way>
  3. “Oh, the door is broken. You have to get parts to fix it.”
  4. <Gets parts>
  5. “Shoot, the power’s out. Backtrack and turn it on.”
  6. <Goes back; fights more Typhon>
  7. “Hey, the power is out because the reactor is broken. Fix it.”
  8. <Rebuilds nuclear reactor>
  9. “What were we doing again?”

This had been frustrating enough, but the Dahl interruption was just too much.  I prefer games in which each objective involves uncovering new information that advances the plot, rather than have most of the objectives be about doing busywork that eventually uncovers information that advances the plot. It felt at times like they were just dragging it out. And this turned out to be a big problem, but again, more about that later.

Once the coral data is analyzed, Alex explains that the coral is used by the Typhon to transmit a signal.  Morgan, he continues, had suspected this from the beginning and had designed a device that could destroy the Typhon by taking over the neural network.  He suggests using this, instead of following January’s suggestion of activating the station’s self-destruct mechanism.

At this point, a massive Typhon creature appears from deep space and begins to consume the entire station. Morgan then has to choose between whether to destroy the station and the Typhon along with it, or activate the device and destroy the Typhon but keep all the research and technology the team on Talos I has developed.

I chose the latter. I’m always a big one for keeping knowledge–same reason I always leave the Collector base intact at the end of Mass Effect 2. It never hurts to have more technology at your disposal; you can always choose not to use it if you don’t want to.

In either ending, the Typhon are destroyed, and the credits roll. But Prey still has one final twist in store. And it’s significant enough that even though I warned you about spoilers earlier, I’m putting it after the page break…

(more…)

[Adapted and updated from a post I wrote about this five years ago.]

Whenever I write about climate change, I always feel obligated to mention that I’m not a climate scientist, and thus my opinion doesn’t count for much.

But then, climate scientists are automatically dismissed by surprisingly large segments of the population as part of a massive liberal conspiracy. This has the effect of making scientists’ opinions not count for much, either.

So, I like to take a different approach–forget using data or climate models, and use common sense instead.

The world’s human population is around 7.5 billion–meaning there are more humans on the planet then ever before. The planet has not grown to accommodate them.

Now, the typical human body temperature is around 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. That means the planet now has more 98.6 degree furnaces on it than ever before. If you add furnaces to a room, does the room become hotter?

Obviously, it’s a big planet. It can take quite a bit, so maybe this isn’t going to have major repercussions. Maybe it doesn’t even register. Or maybe it will eventually destroy the world. Beats me. I don’t know the first thing about biology, chemistry or physics. But still, I assume it has some effect. It would be kind of weird if it didn’t, right?

When you add in the fact that humans have started engaging in activities over the last century that had never occurred previously in the history of the planet, you again have to suspect that this has some effect on the atmosphere. Again, if it’s not, that would be kind of bizarre.

For this reason, I’ve always thought the burden of proof is on those who claim it has no effect.

WARNING! The following clip contains intense LEGO violence.  Parents, this is what happens when you give your nine-year-old sons red clay and LEGO skeletons! (Credits blurred as before, to avoid embarrassing family and friends.)

This movie is a little clearer than my previous ones, I think.  It was about an army of skeletons who invade a planet and massacre the inhabitants. I made the movie when I was nine, but the music came much later–when I was about 15, and I briefly got into composing scores for my old movies.

And now you know how far back my cosmic-horror fixation goes…