Ocean EchoesI didn’t know what to expect from this book. Glancing at the categories and the description, it didn’t match any genre I was familiar with. I figured it would be a romance set on a scientific voyage. And it kind of is that, but there’s way more to it.

The book follows marine biologist Ellen Upton, an expert on jellyfish whose grant money is rapidly dwindling. In desperate need of a breakthrough to save her career, Ellen ventures out on a research ship into the Pacific, hoping to find something that will earn her more funding.

The majority of the novel is told from Ellen’s perspective, and in many ways, her plunge into the unknown depths of the ocean mirrors her journey into her own equally complex and mysterious psyche. I usually don’t like using such lit-crit terms, but that truly is what happens here, and what’s more, it works. It never feels like an overplayed metaphor, but rather an organic marriage of character and plot development.

Ellen has great difficulty feeling close to others, having gone through a painful break-up when her fiancé stole her research ideas for his own. Unwilling to trust others easily again, she loses herself in her work, much to the disappointment of Ryan, her loyal research assistant.

On the cruise, she meets other scientists and students, including one researcher whose skepticism of man-made climate change sparks a friendly rivalry. She and the other scientists also visit a small island populated with a tribe of welcoming natives, and a family whose patriarch has gone missing at sea. Ellen and Ryan later find him on another island that formerly housed a military installation.

The book is filled with strange vignettes that make Ellen’s experience feel more like a surreal journey into a mystical realm than a scientific expedition. From her encounter with a waiter who speaks of ghosts following her, to the magical rituals performed by the islanders, to the antics of one of the students on the expedition who has a penchant for dressing up as a gorilla, the book gradually builds a feeling of melancholy mystery woven from bizarre, dream-like incidents.

When Ellen finally makes the major discovery she has longed for, it is not a triumph, but rather a frightening experience—one that disturbs her so much she questions her own sanity. As did I, I’ll admit. I wondered if Ellen might be transforming into an “unreliable narrator” of sorts, though the book is written in the third-person.

Hurst’s prose throughout is haunting and hypnotic.  The tale unfolds at a slow pace, but the writing is filled with evocative descriptions and intriguing turns of phrase. At times, it reminded me of Steinbeck in the way it dwells upon seemingly minor things without ever becoming dull or tedious. Little details, like the apparent changing expressions of a rock face the islanders believe represents the moods of the sea, stick in the memory to create a beautifully odd atmosphere. (It reminded me of Mal, the demonic face in the trees in Patrick Prescott’s Human Sacrifices.)

Maybe it’s just because I saw the film adaptation so recently, but the book also put me in mind of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. Like VanderMeer’s nameless biologist, Ellen’s seemingly cold reserve and preference for biology over human interaction mask a wounded soul with deep emotional scars. And also like Annihilation, Ocean Echoes depicts nature as simultaneously dangerous, mysterious, and eerily beautiful; all while weaving an environmentalist warning of humanity’s potential to unwittingly cause unimaginable harm to our own planet.

Does the book have flaws? A few, yes. Some of the scientific exposition sounds a bit awkward as dialogue, and I swear that a couple times some background information about jellyfish was repeated almost verbatim. Also, the above-noted slow pace of the book may not be to every reader’s taste. If you have a strong preference for fast-paced action, it might not work for you, at least early on.

But even then, I still encourage you to give Ocean Echoes a try. It’s a weird, haunting, hypnotic mystery of a book, a love-letter to the ocean, written with respect for its dangers and fear for its fragility. When it rambles, it rambles in the way the best novels do—with love and understanding of its theme that commands the reader’s attention.

It’s very bold to write and publish a book that doesn’t easily fit into any pre-defined genre, and that goes double for an indie author. And yet some of the greatest works of fiction ever created defy categorization. So I admire Hurst tremendously for going through with it and taking the risk to write this mesmerizingly weird and thought-provoking tale. It may not always be what you expect—but then, what better reason could there be to read it?

WARNING: I AM GOING TO SPOIL THE WHOLE MOVIE. DON’T READ THIS IF YOU WANT TO BE SURPRISED.

Annihilation_(film)Annihilation tells the story of a biologist exploring a mysterious region called “Area X”, where the fallout from a meteor strike has enveloped the landscape. In the film’s first scene, we see the biologist (unnamed in the novel on which the film is based, but here called Lena and portrayed by Natalie Portman) being interrogated by a man in a hazmat suit, whose questions she can answer only vaguely, or not at all.

The film then flashes back to a meteor crashing into a lighthouse, and then forward again to a scene of the biologist  giving a lecture in her class at Johns Hopkins. (It seemed hard to believe she would have been giving a lecture on the basics of cells to pre-med students, but whatever.) After class, she meets a fellow faculty member named Dan, who invites her to his house for a party. She refuses, as she is still mourning the loss of her husband, Kane (played by Oscar Isaac, and yes, apparently Kane is his only name)—a soldier missing and presumed killed in action. She stays home and paints their former bedroom, thinking of happier times.

Then her husband suddenly appears. She’s overjoyed to see him, but it soon becomes clear he is not well, and has no memory of what his mission was or how he got back. He begins to bleed from the mouth, and Lena calls an ambulance. En route to the hospital, they are intercepted by a SWAT team that drugs Lena and forcibly removes her husband from the ambulance.

She awakens in a holding cell where she is interrogated by a psychologist called Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who eventually reveals that they are in a research station just outside of Area X—where Kane was deployed. He is dying, and Lena realizes the only way to find out what happened to him is to join the team of researchers about to deploy into the mysterious Aurora-like substance called “The Shimmer” that covers Area X.

The team consists of physicist Radek (Tessa Thompson), anthropologist Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) and medic Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez). They are led by Dr. Ventress. Ventress throughout seems cold and distant, and in early scenes has her hood pulled over her eyes like she’s Darth Sidious or something. She also sounds almost bored when describing to Lena how Area X will slowly grow until it consumes the entire planet. Leigh is a fine actress, so I’m assuming the director told her to deliver her lines in this awkward way.

After entering the Shimmer, Lena and her team awaken after a few days with no memory of how they reached the part of the jungle they are in, or of setting up their camp. Moreover, they discover that none of their communications equipment works, while Ventress lurks ominously at the edge of the camp, saying dismissively “Did anyone really expect our equipment to work?”

In other words, Ventress is pretty much the worst leader imaginable, and gives them every reason to distrust her.

The team makes their way into the jungle, trying to find the coast and the lighthouse that lies at the epicenter of the strange phenomena. At one point, they find an abandoned boathouse where they are attacked by a huge albino alligator.

NotATrashCompactor
Natalie Portman and Tessa Thompson in “Annihilation” Image via IMDb

This scene really annoyed me, because when the creature attacks Radek and pulls her into the water, Lena immediately runs in after her, dropping her rifle. And then Sheppard and Thorensen follow suit.

Lena is supposed to have been in the army! I find it hard to believe she would just throw down her gun and blindly jump into the water. The fact that the others would do the same, leaving no one to cover them, is just inexcusable.

Miraculously, they rescue Radek, and then–despite inexplicably letting the gator get too close before firing on it–kill it and examine its corpse, discovering it is mutated, with teeth like a shark.

As they move deeper into Area X, they discover an abandoned army base where they find a video memory card left behind by the previous team–including Kane. On playing the card, they see a disturbing scene of Kane cutting one of his comrade’s stomach open to reveal his intestines writhing like a living creature. Later on, they find the remains of this unfortunate man, with strange vine-like structures radiating out from his skeleton and covering the walls.

Unable to sleep after studying the strange behavior of the cell samples, Lena joins Ventress taking the night watch. Ventress tells her that, in light of the disturbing footage, it’s a good thing that Lena didn’t tell the other team members that Kane was her husband. Ventress’s musings on the human urge for self-destruction are interrupted when a monster breaks through the perimeter and drags Sheppard into the night. Lena finds her remains the next day

After this, Thorensen grows (rather abruptly, I thought) distrustful of the other members of the team. She comes to suspect that Lena murdered Sheppard.

Now might be a good time to mention that all of this has been interspersed with flashbacks to Lena and Kane’s marriage as she thinks back on their relationship. First, she recalls their happiness together, but gradually, her thoughts turn to his deployment–and her infidelity with Dan during his absence.

She wakes from a dream of one such memory to see Thorensen holding a gun on her. In her escalating paranoia, Thorensen has found a locket of Lena’s with Kane’s picture in it, and realized he was her husband. She is now convinced that Lena, possibly working with Ventress, killed Sheppard, and ties both of them up, as well as Radek. She seems on the verge of slicing them open when the monster that killed Sheppard appears and kills her. (Eerily, the sinister beast growls in Sheppard’s voice.) Radek gets free and kills the monster, saving Lena and Ventress.

Ventress decides to press on, heading alone for the lighthouse. Lena and Radek remain behind in the ruins of suburb overrun by strange vegetation and trees that resemble human beings. Radek wanders off, apparently deciding to become one with Area X, leaving Lena to find her way to the lighthouse alone.

The lighthouse scenes were some of the best in the film–it’s a tower surrounded by human skeletons and strange glittering trees; a perfectly creepy set. Inside, Lena discovers a camera (which mysteriously still has power after all this time) that contains a recording of Kane giving a chilling speech that ends in instructions to “find Lena”. He then commits suicide with a phosphorous grenade, after which a doppelganger of him steps into the frame.

Lena enters a small hole in the lighthouse floor, leading to a strange catacomb structure where she finds the psychologist, who says some threatening stuff and then explodes into a dazzling display of light and strange alien forms.

I know a lot of reviews talk about how weird and trippy this scene is, but honestly, it was not nearly as weird as it is in VanderMeer’s book:

“Not a wall of light–gold, blue, green, existing in some other spectrum–but a wall of flesh that resembled light, with sharp, curving elements within it, an textures like ice when it has frozen from flowing water. An impression of living things lazily floating in the air around it…”

Weird lights as shorthand for the Great Unknowable Cosmos is a pretty common science fiction idea. I thought of this line from Lovecraft’s The Music of Erich Zann:

I saw… only the blackness of space illimitable; unimagined space alive with motion and music, and having no semblance to anything on earth.”

I even fancied I heard the demonic pipings of some nameless flute on the soundtrack, another Lovecraft standard.

After the light show ends, Lena is confronted by a strange creature that resembles a person in an oddly-colored full-body suit. (Honestly, you could be forgiven for thinking the special effects department gave up and said “Just send the stunt person in their mo-cap garb.”)

This creature fights Lena, prevents her from escaping the lighthouse, and mimics her every move. It’s a mesmerizing and well-choreographed dance-fight, although I couldn’t help thinking of this classic Marx Brothers routine.

The creature gradually starts to take on Lena’s physical features, creating another doppelganger. Lena–at least, I think it’s the “real” Lena–takes a phosphorous grenade from Kane’s pack and thrusts it into the creature’s hands. It explodes and Lena escapes as the creature and the lighthouse are engulfed in flames.

Flash forward to the interrogation chamber, where the man in the hazmat suit reveals that The Shimmer disappeared after the lighthouse was destroyed, and that Lena’s husband–or, the person who looks like her husband–has recovered. She asks to see him, and a flicker of The Shimmer is seen in their eyes as they embrace and the credits roll.

For all the talk of Annihilation‘s many influences–Apocalypse Now, Alien, 2001, everything Lovecraftian–it reminded me most of the video game Spec Ops: The Line. The scene of Lena gazing back at the flaming tower reminded me of a similar surreal shot in Spec Ops, and both game and film are driven by an ever-increasing uncertainty as to what is real amid mounting death and destruction. (Also, minor note, but Spec Ops was the first time I ever heard of white phosphorous.)

Annihilation is a solid sci-fi thriller. Portman and Isaac’s performances are the standouts, but everyone is good–in later scenes, Leigh makes up for her early flat line readings about the end of the world. There are a few truly disturbing scenes, but it wasn’t as bad as I expected. The special effects occasionally look cheesy, but for the most part they were decent. The soundtrack is a little weird. A strangely soothing stringed instrument crops up at ill-timed moments, but it wasn’t a major problem.

The script is likewise solid: the love scenes, Kane’s final message, and the very last line are the best parts, and there are only a few pieces of clunky exposition, including Lena’s opening speech to her class.

If you like science-fiction, horror, and especially weird fiction of the cosmic variety, this one’s for you.

And that’s my review. What are you waiting around for? Go on, shoo! Go watch the nice movie. There’s nothing to see below the page break, I promise.

Lena Got a Gun
Natalie Portman in “Annihilation”. Image via IMDb

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I had low expectations for this game. After the fiasco of the Mass Effect 3 ending, coupled with EA’s general business practice of filling out their games with overpriced DLC and tacked-on  multiplayer, I wasn’t expecting them to do much with a new entry in the series.

Besides, the original Mass Effect trilogy was a lot of fun, but also wildly uneven. The first game had a brilliant story and atmosphere, but clunky controls and emotionless characters. The second game, as re-imagined by EA, had great characters and terrific voice-acting, but an incoherent mess of a plot that was only tangentially related to the story set up by the first game. And the third game had tighter controls, better combat, and a surprisingly good crafting system—but it compounded the story errors of its predecessor tenfold, while also doing major disservices to the characters. And that was before the infamous disaster that was the game’s finale.

All in all, while I had a lot of fun with the Mass Effect trilogy, there was no avoiding the fact that it was a decidedly mixed bag—some brilliant elements; some rather shockingly bad ones. For years, I’ve said that if someone made a game that had the story and atmosphere of Mass Effect 1, the characters and voice-acting of Mass Effect 2, and the gameplay mechanics and crafting systems of Mass Effect 3, it would be a true masterpiece.

And now I know I was right. Because Mass Effect Andromeda is that game.

I don’t think I have ever been as pleasantly surprised by a game as I was by this one. I was expecting a Gears of War clone with a Mass Effect coat of paint. Instead I got an epic adventure in a sprawling galaxy, complete with likable characters, clever writing, and what just might be the best-designed combat and exploration mechanics I’ve ever seen.

You play as Ryder, a special operative who, in the early stages of the game, assumes the mantle of Pathfinder—the person tasked with setting up colonies in the Andromeda galaxy on behalf of an organization called “The Initiative”. Like Shepard in the first three Mass Effects, Ryder can be either male or female. The official canon has male Ryder’s name as “Scott”, and female Ryder’s as “Sara”, but the game allows you to choose your own first name. So, as I have traditionally done in RPGs at least since Fallout: New Vegas, I’m playing as a woman named Jane.

Jane Ryder
This is my Pathfinder. There are many like her, but this one is mine.

I have never felt such a connection with a player character before. Not with Shepard, not with the Courier, not with J.C. Denton—not even with the Jedi Exile. Something made me feel attached to my Ryder. Fryda Wolff’s terrific voice-acting is part of it, I’m sure, as she manages to at least match the great Jennifer Hale’s Commander Shepard, and perhaps even raise the bar a little higher. Tom Taylorson also does a good job in the brief but important scenes Scott has in a female Ryder playthrough. (I haven’t played the full game as Scott. I’m not sure if I ever will–to me, there can only be one Ryder.)

I can’t give a full plot summary, or this review would be longer than War and Peace. Ryder leads her team across the various worlds of Andromeda, battling the hostile species known as the Kett, making alliances with the native Angara species, setting up outposts, uncovering the remains of a bygone species known as the Remnant and in the process making the worlds of Andromeda livable for the Milky Way species—humans, turians, asari and krogan.

Desert on Eos

The first planet Ryder explores, Eos, was where I really started to grasp that Andromeda was something far more epic than I had expected. As I drove around the gorgeous, sprawling deserts, listening to Cora and Peebee banter while we fought the Kett and secured our outpost, I realized I was 10 hours in, and the save screen informed me I was only 10% of the way done with the game. For comparison, a typical playthrough of KotOR II or New Vegas (two of my all-time favorite games) takes me between 20-30 hours.

Wow, I thought. I’m sure I’ll pick up the pace soon, but I’m looking at a 40-hour game here.

Try 73 hours. And counting. The game goes on after you beat the final boss.

I have trouble being a completionist my first time through an RPG. I usually start off vowing to do all the sidequests and explore every nook and cranny, but then I get impatient and want to see what happens in the main story and wind up rushing to finish it. That didn’t happen with Andromeda—the game made me feel like I really was exploring new worlds and discovering new wonders, not just mowing down wave after wave of bad guys en route to the end.

Fighting Kett
The combat in this game is some of the best I’ve ever seen.

Now, it’s true, there are tons of bad guys to be mowed down, and what a system BioWare has designed to do so. As with the other games, there are combat powers, biotic (telekinetic) powers and tech powers. All of these lead to remarkably different playstyles. As if that weren’t enough, Ryder’s weapons are highly customizable. You not only can build new ones from scratch, but you can add augmentations and mods that drastically alter their behavior. (I made all my weapons super rapid-fire laser guns, for example.)

I almost never bother with crafting systems in RPGs, but I was hooked on this one early on. After every mission, I was always rushing back to the modding table to see what new armor and weaponry I could put together.

The way you acquire new equipment is also ingenious. Throughout the game, you can scan various objects for research points that you can spend on building new items.  This again reinforces the need to explore every inch of the galaxy in order to build new equipment that leads to better combat. It’s all a very nice feedback loop.

Now, again, good game mechanics don’t count for much without a good story and characters. After all, Mass Effect 3 had a good crafting system too, but nobody walked away from it thinking “I was really satisfied with that shotgun I built!”

Andromeda’s overall story, while not terribly innovative, avoids descending into utter nonsense like Mass Effect 2 and 3 so often did. And its character interactions are every bit as good as those in ME 2. There are even a few scenes that do something very rare for a video game (or even most Hollywood films, for that matter): scenes where the characters don’t say anything in response, but instead convey what they are thinking solely with the facial expressions. There was one scene where two crew members are arguing  over something silly and Ryder silently facepalms in the background. This was a level of nuance that I was not expecting. For all the complaints about animation glitches (I’ll get to that), it was nice to see that degree of realism.

Each member of Ryder’s crew has a backstory, as does Ryder herself. The Ryder family history is quite interesting, and gradually piecing it together makes for a very satisfying subplot, with a great payoff during the endgame sequence.

All the backstories are slowly revealed over the course of the game, and the development of relationships works much better than in past Mass Effects because of Andromeda’s slower pace. It seems more plausible that a crew member would fall in love with you over the course of many conversations and missions together, rather than the old model of “three conversations and then bed”.

Now, as you are likely aware, the knock on Andromeda is that it’s glitchy. The animations are awkward and there are weird bugs and incomplete quests.

Yes, all of this is true. The game crashes abruptly sometimes. There are some sidequests that are broken. (One was a simple “scan three things” mission, and the game never gave me the option to scan the third.) The facial animations, while sophisticated and nuanced in concept as I described, do sometimes look a little bizarre. When talking to her AI assistant, SAM, Ryder sometimes turns her head around 180 degrees on her neck, like she’s possessed. In one cutscene, one party member was placed directly over top of another, causing them to meld together—I hadn’t seen anything so weird since the sex scene in Blade Runner 2049. And the krogan party member makes the game’s framerate slow down to a crawl if you enter combat with him. (On the flip side, this glitch also makes Ryder immortal.)

Cora
This is far from the weirdest facial animation you’ll see.

All of these are indeed annoying bugs, and if you came to Andromeda as someone used to polished AAA games, I can see it would be pretty appalling.

Let me explain why I can forgive it: my introduction to RPGs was BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic, which I first played on the Xbox 360 in 2006. Because it was an original Xbox game that had to be made compatible with the new console, it had all kinds of slowdown issues in combat, random crashes during loading, and a host of other issues. But I enjoyed the thrill of a grand adventure across the galaxy with my rag-tag band of party members so much that I could forgive all. I’d never played anything like it before, and a few bugs here and there couldn’t interfere with the ambitious scope of the game.

Then I played Knights of the Old Republic II, by Obsidian, and again had to deal with broken quests (fuel for Telos, anyone?), glitches, and an ending that seemed (on the first playthrough) confusing and abrupt. But I loved it even more than KotOR I for the brilliance of the writing, the complexity of the characters, the brooding, ominous atmosphere, and the deep, philosophical questions at the core of the story. To this day, it remains my favorite game—perhaps even my favorite work of fiction, regardless of medium.

Since then, I’ve loved lots of games that had their technical flaws, be they bad graphics, (Deus Ex) frequent crashes (Fallout: New Vegas) bizarre texture glitches and entire rooms that didn’t load (Alpha Protocol) or just being so utterly broken they couldn’t be played without cheats. (Mask of the Betrayer) I loved them all, in spite of their technical shortcomings, because they more than made up for it with the sheer ambitiousness of their stories, the scope of their settings, and the depth of their themes.

Nomad on Voeld
Exploring in the Nomad.

Mass Effect Andromeda is another in that class. Its flaws are the flaws of a work so daring that it pushes the limits of the possible. Unlike the original Mass Effect trilogy, which always felt oddly constrained despite its space-faring setting, Andromeda really does shoot for the stars. It gives you a sense of freedom, of exploration and of adventure. Whereas Mass Effects 1 -3 boiled down to the story of Commander Shepard vs. the Reapers, Andromeda feels like a universe of countless stories, in which Ryder’s is but one—an important one, with significance to all the others, but still, just one. As I discussed in my KotOR II video, the interplay of galaxy-spanning concerns with deeply personal ones gives the game a truly epic feeling.

Andromeda
The Heleus cluster, where Ryder’s adventure takes place.

That’s another difference with the original series: unlike the Lovecraftian bleakness of the Reaper threat at the heart of Shepard’s story, Andromeda belongs to a different strain of science fiction—the optimistic sort, about life surviving in alien settings and using technology to overcome adversity. A fittingly pioneer spirit underlies all of Ryder’s adventures, and when, after long fights and lengthy treks across strange worlds, Ryder establishes a new outpost, you feel a sense of accomplishment—like you really did use your powers to help out humanity. It’s an inspiring theme; a throwback to the “space cowboys” epics of the past, when space was viewed as another frontier to be tamed and made habitable.

While the writing is not as deep, and the themes are lighter and less complex, Mass Effect Andromeda is the first game I’ve played since KotOR II that really made me feel like I was part of a universe, and even more importantly, made me think about what that really means. Like Obsidian’s epic, it makes the player ponder the meaning and the scale of their decisions, and reflect on, ultimately, humanity’s place in the cosmos.  There is no higher compliment that I can pay a work of fiction.

Ryder in game
Pathfinder Ryder on bridge. Where to next?

The Directorate
Click to view on Amazon

 

At long last, here is the novel I’ve been talking about for the last few months. I started writing this back in August, and polished off the first draft some time in October. I’ve wanted to do a Space Opera/Science-Fantasy military adventure for some years now, because those were the sorts of books, movies, and games I liked best as a kid and teenager. Some elements of this story have been kicking around in my head since I was 12 years old. (Others, of course, are as old as science fiction itself.)

It’s definitely slower-paced than The Start of the Majestic World—there’s a lot of backstory, world-building and political machinations in this one, but I enjoyed being able to set the scene a little more compared to the deliberately vague setting of Majestic World.

I wrote several posts about my process as I was working on this book:

Here you can read my concerns about how there is one scene and character who is similar to one in Majestic World, and why I decided it’s OK.

Here you can read my musings on “Mary Sues”, whether my protagonist is one, and why they are so popular.

Here is where I addressed whether it had enough words, too many words, or not enough words.

Here is where I considered whether it was funny enough

On most of these questions, I decided that what I was doing was probably right, or at least that any other approach I could think of wouldn’t have been as good. That’s not to say that another author might not have been able to tell the story better, but only that I didn’t know how to tell the story any better. Your mileage may vary.

The thing I’ve enjoyed most about this whole process has been the comments I’ve gotten from readers, both here on the blog and on Twitter. It’s been a lot of fun, posting about various aspects of the book and hearing what other folks think. So, many thanks to Carrie Rubin, Phillip McCollum, Eileen Stephenson, Barb Knowles, Mark Paxson, Pat Prescott, Thingy, and all the other readers who stop by here. I appreciate all of you!

So, this is the project I’ve been hinting about on Twitter these last few weeks. I decided to do it on a lark, and ultimately it turned into way more work than I expected. Yet for some reason I kept going. I’m not even sure why; I had more or less accepted the fact that some technical glitch was eventually going to scuttle it, but I just kept plugging away at it, and here we are.

I’m not happy about the reduced size of the video and all the black space on the screen. I’m a total newbie when it comes to making videos, so there’s probably an easy fix that I just failed to figure out. It might have something to do with the resolution (The original was saved at 720p. At 480p the footage is in an even smaller box.) If I figure out how to solve it, I might do a re-upload. But that probably won’t happen for a while; I’ve got other stuff I want to work on first.

Consider this video a supplement to the KotOR II retrospective I wrote a few years ago. The essay is more thorough—and more eloquent—than my remarks here, but I hope having some footage from the game helps make my points a little more clear, especially for people who haven’t played it. The reason I keep talking about this game so much is that I think it contains lots of useful examples for writing fiction generally, not just games.

Enjoy!

Valerian_and_the_City_of_a_Thousand_PlanetsThis movie is based on a French sci-fi comic series called Valerian and Laureline. I’m not sure why they didn’t just call the movie that, because Laureline (Cara Delevingne) gets at least equal screen time with Valerian (Dane DeHaan).

The film begins by showing the aforementioned “City of a Thousand Planets”–a massive space station where millions of species, including humanity, all coexist. This is followed by a lengthy sequence of primitive, peace-loving aliens frolicking on a beach and collecting pearls, only to be interrupted by missiles and burning spaceships falling from the sky. A few of them manage to seek shelter in a crashed ship, but the alien Emperor’s daughter doesn’t make it, and he watches in horror as she perishes in the fiery destruction of the planet.

Agent Valerian wakes up suddenly, having apparently just dreamt the apocalyptic scene. He and his partner (in both the romantic and professional senses) Laureline are assigned to retrieve a “Mül converter”–a small alien creature which Valerian saw on the doomed planet of his vision.

After much bickering and flirtatious banter, Valerian and Laureline arrive at a trans-dimensional market where a deal for the converter is being done. Along with a team of soldiers who looked like they were auditioning to be in a Borderlands movie, they get the converter and escape from the gangster who was selling it.

As they examine the creature, they learn that the planet Mül was destroyed 30 years before, although the details of this are classified. Mysteries!

On returning to the City of a Thousand Planets, Commander Filitt (Clive Owen) informs them of dangerous radiation growing within the station. The Commander is attending a summit of the species on the station to discuss the threat, but is kidnapped by aliens similar to the ones Valerian saw in his vision.

Valerian gives chase, but falls into the supposedly deadly radioactive area himself. Laureline eventually manages to track him down through performing what I can only describe as “fetch quests” that are too complicated to explain here. She eventually finds Valerian, but is then captured herself by another type of alien, which then forces Valerian to rescue her, which is another fetch quest that involves watching a shape-shifting alien named Bubble (Rihanna) perform a pole-dance.

As Dave Barry would say, I swear I’m not making this up. But it might not be as bad as I’m making it sound.

Maybe.

Anyway, they eventually get back on track and manage to find their way to the center of the station, which turns out to be not irradiated at all. They meet the aliens who kidnapped the Commander Filitt , who explain that their world was destroyed when Filitt fired powerful missiles at an enemy ship, annihilating both the planet and the enemy fleet. He then classified the data to cover up his war crime.

The Emperor also tells them that his daughter’s spirit has been reincarnated in Valerian, which is why he received visions guiding him to this point, where the few survivors of the attack were taken in the remains of a damaged ship, and have since been working to build a new vessel that can recreate their homeworld. All they need is the Mül converter and a pearl–both of which Valerian and Laureline provide.

The kidnapped Commander–who has been unconscious to this point–awakens and Valerian and Laureline confront him for his crimes. Unrepentant, he defends his action as necessary for humanity and orders his personal robot guards–who, along with the rest of the military, have surrounded the alien ship–to attack and kill everyone.

Valerian and Laureline fight off the robots, and escape along with the remaining aliens. The Commander is left behind for the military authorities on the station to arrest. The Mül aliens part ways with Valerian and Laureline, leaving them to enjoy a romantic interlude while await rescue as the credits roll.

It’s a goofy, weird, often campy, but still fairly entertaining movie. Even if I hadn’t known it was based on a comic book, I probably would have guessed it–everything about it feels like a comic book, from the action scenes to the art style.

About that art style: there are tons of CGI shots in this movie. Sets, characters, backgrounds–huge swaths of it are digitally created. And it’s kind of obvious. In all but the most distant scenes, the graphics are, in my opinion, pretty fake-looking. There were some scenes that looked like Playstation 2 games.

If you’re a fan of high-quality graphics, this may be disappointing. But since the whole story felt like a whimsical comic book adventure anyway, I was able to write that off as just part of the style. Comic books are known for bold colors and fantastic scenery, not photo-realism; so I could live with it.

The acting from the two leads was nothing special, but it was mostly passable. A few of the bit parts (especially Alain Chabat, who plays a submarine pirate named Bob) are pretty well done, although they don’t get much screen time.

One final note for weirdos like me who are fascinated by movie weaponry: the mixture of guns in this film was very strange. Some of the soldiers seemed to have plain old AR-style rifles, like present-day Earth armies use:

obvious AR 15 is obvious

But other times, the weapons were a bit more bizarre:

fake sci-fi guns

(And yes, that thing Laureline has is a weapon, even though it looks like a bottle of water.)

I’m not sure why this was or if it was even a deliberate choice, but I found it odd. It instantly surpassed the question of why people are always getting knives in Ghost in the Shell as the big movie weapons mystery of 2017 for me.

Anyway, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is far from a great movie. It may not even be a good one. It’s simultaneously very weird and extremely predictable, which is kind of amazing in its way. But as a light bit of silly science-fantasy fun, it gets the job done. It’s more fun to watch something weird with a little new flavor than to just watch yet another installment in an established franchise.

 

“They don’t blame you — so long as you’re funny!” –Jack Point, in The Yeomen of the Guard, by W.S. Gilbert.

One of the most interesting beta reader comments on my new novel was “Why don’t you make it funnier?”

This one stuck with me, because I already had a sneaking suspicion that the book was too humorless. Paul Graham’s point about good design sticks in my head: “Good design may not have to be funny, but it’s hard to imagine something that could be called humorless also being good design.”

I’ve struggled with this quite a bit. The book isn’t a comedy by any means—it deals with some very dark subjects. And yet… that doesn’t seem like a valid excuse. For example, racism, murder, and rape are all major elements in the plot of To Kill a Mockingbird, and yet it still has plenty of extremely humorous moments as well.

I read somewhere that a novel is supposed to capture “the totality of life”. If so, then it makes sense that it needs to have both the dark and the light moments—after all, real life has both.

But how do you put humor into a serious story? You can’t just put in a slapstick comedy routine for characters who are struggling with matters of life and death. It would seem out of place.

This is the problem that so-called “comic relief” characters were created to solve. And sometimes, that can work. But it’s easy for it to go wrong, and then you get something like Jar Jar Binks—a character whose antics clash with the main narrative and annoy the audience.

A better route is to have characters who are well-rounded enough to be both funny and serious. And actually, having funny characters is probably helpful in terms of the larger goal of making the reader care about them. Funny characters are more likeable.

One of the complaints I got about The Start of the Majestic World was the lack of banter between the two protagonists. This was because I just generally don’t like banter—it comes across as too forced to me. But I wonder now if this was really about an overall lack of humor in the book. (I did try to make some of the supporting characters entertaining, if not exactly comic.)

It’s tricky to find the right point to insert humor in a non-humor book.  At any given moment, the characters are dealing with serious problems, and so there never seems to be any specific point where it makes sense to insert comedy, even though the overall vibe is that the book needs more of it.

Another way is to put humor in the descriptions. The difficulty here is that my book is set in the distant future, and as such requires a fair amount of world-building and information about how the futuristic society works. And it’s tough to give the reader that information, much of which will ultimately be relevant to the plot, and be funny at the same time.

Even more importantly, humor relies on a shared frame of reference, so it’s hard to come up with really funny things to say in a futuristic society. Humor also involves playing with social norms, and when dealing with unfamiliar social norms, it doesn’t seem funny when they get violated. It just seems confusing.

This still doesn’t justify a lack of humor, though. Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke infused their science fiction stories with wit. What it comes down to is being able to write plausibly human and relatable characters in a futuristic and/or alien setting.  That’s what I’m trying to do, anyway—write characters with both serious and silly sides to them, and then put them in situations where the different aspects of their personalities can appear.

Blade_Runner_2049_logo
Poster for “Blade Runner 2049”. Image via Wikipedia.

*WARNING: SPOILERS!*

The movie’s title is misleading. The term “runner” is way too fast-paced for this 2.75 hour science fiction slog. It’s much more of a “Blade Walker” or even a “Blade Crawler”. Scenes drag on, and the camera lingers on things like trees, ruined cityscapes, and statues of naked women long after the viewer has gotten the idea.

The film follows officer K (Ryan Gosling), an LAPD officer in the year 2049. His job is to “retire” (that is, kill) obsolete replicants–synthetic humans created by the Wallace corporation. The older models, leftovers from the Tyrell corporation, which Niander Wallace purchased, have no built-in expiration date, unlike the newer versions–which is what K himself is.

In the opening sequence, K retires a rebellious replicant farmer, after getting into a ridiculous fistfight with him. The director and choreographer really should learn that people can’t get punched in the face repeatedly and then thrown through a wall and just walk it off. (There’s an even more egregious example later.) Also, the whole fight happened because K inexplicably set his gun aside. Very odd.

Anyway, after K kills the replicant, he finds a box buried in the yard outside his house, beside a lone dead tree. This allows for some nice shots of K standing around in his coat, looking contemplative and brooding. Get used to this.

K then goes home to his apartment, to install some upgrades on Joi (Ana de Armas), his holographic companion, who he apparently has set on “sexy over-solicitous housewife” mode. She makes him an artificial dinner, instantly switches her appearance from among a variety of revealing outfits, suggests various things they can do for fun, and in general behaves like a parody of what 13-year-old boys imagine a girlfriend is like. It’s cringe-worthy.

The new upgrade allows Joi to accompany him outside–so now, rather than just being his sexy overeager housewife, she can be his sexy, overeager constant companion. They are celebrating this by pretending to kiss while frolicking in the rain when they are interrupted by a call from K’s boss, Lt. Joshi. (Robin Wright)  She tells him to come to the police station, where they are examining the contents of the box he discovered–the skeleton of a female replicant that died in childbirth.

I was really annoyed by this scene. Basically, it was the standard police procedural trope of “the forensic lab”–except it was Officer K who spotted all the key clues! He kept telling the forensic analyst to zoom in on stuff, and figuring out what had happened to the remains himself. It seemed hard to believe that he, an average replicant rent-a-cop, would pick up on clues the forensics person missed.

At any rate, this is an alarming discovery, as replicants are not supposed to be able to reproduce, and they fear that the discovery of one who did will lead to a replicant rebellion. Joshi orders K to destroy all evidence of this replicant and her child.

This leads K to the Wallace Corporation headquarters–a strange, extremely orange building that reminded me of some of the sets from The Mummy, except with shimmering water shadows on the wall for some reason.

The corporation seems to consist of just two people: Niander Wallace (Jared Leto)–a strange, monk-like character who speaks in nonsense sentences that are possibly supposed to make him sound smart, but in fact make him a comically obtuse guru–and his replicant secretary, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), a femme fatale. It reminds me of a story I heard once about a company that employed only a lawyer and a secretary–their only job was to sue any companies who infringed on their corporation’s patents.

I frankly don’t know how the Wallace Corporation stays in business, with only two employees and a product line that exists solely to destroy other parts of the product line. Well, I guess there’s also a third product line designed to provide female companionship to the main product line.

I’ve heard of niche markets, but this is ridiculous.

Anyway, Officer K finds out from Luv that the bones are the remains of a replicant named Rachael, and hears some recordings showing she was once involved with another LAPD cop, Rick Deckard, the protagonist of the original Blade Runner movie. (That last part wasn’t included in the script, though I half-expected it would be, since this movie insists on spelling things out for the audience.)

At some point around here, K leaves the Wallace Corp. headquarters and gets approached by a prostitute, who has been sent to spy on him by a mysterious woman. It doesn’t mean anything at the time, but it will be important later on, so file that away. Also ponder this: why are there always so many prostitutes in these sci-fi and fantasy worlds? Seriously, it feels like one-third of every fictional economy is hooker-based.

Luv is sent by Wallace to destroy the bones and to follow K as he searches for Rachael’s child. The former she does with incredible ease, considering it means murdering the forensics expert in the middle of the police station.

Meanwhile, K is telling a (somewhat tipsy) Lt. Joshi about his childhood memories. They aren’t, of course, real childhood memories–he’s a replicant, after all, but he has implanted memories. He tells Joshi about one of the most vivid–a story in which he is hiding a small wooden toy horse from some other children. We flashback to scenes of him being pursued through a dark industrial maze, and carefully securing the toy in some shelves.

This scene–not the flashback itself, but the scene where K recounts it to Joshi–was one of the best in the film. Wright was terrific as the foul-mouthed and heavy-drinking but warmhearted Lieutenant. In this scene, she’s almost flirtatious, and has far better chemistry with Gosling than his holographic love interest ever does. It’s a pity she doesn’t have a larger role.

K returns to the scene where he first found the box of remains, and finds a date carved on the dead tree beside the grave–6/10/21, which was also carved on the toy horse he remembers from his childhood. He begins to suspect (bolstered by Joi’s reassurances) that he is Rachael’s child. He checks the birth records and learns that two children were born on that date with identical DNA–a boy and a girl. The girl died, but the boy was sent to an orphanage.

This was another scene that annoyed me. As they are looking at the strings of DNA, the various combinations of “G” “T” “C” and “A” are displayed and Joi comments that these four elements make up human beings’ “code”, whereas she only has two elements to hers. I liked this line, but I didn’t like that she then had to spell it out: “1 and 0”, she says, for the benefit of everyone who doesn’t know what binary code is. I suppose there are such people, but I doubt any of them would go to see this movie.

K (along with Joi, for no reason I can discern) decides to go to the orphanage, which is located in some sort of massive junkyard, where K’s flying police car is shot down by some group of bandits–who these bandits are is never explained. K fights them off and finds his way into the orphanage–a neo-Dickensian sweatshop of sorts, where he forces the cruel overseer to show him to an abandoned area that matches his childhood memory. There, he discovers the horse in exactly the place he remembers hiding it.

Somehow–it was not clear how, since we last saw his flying car being shot down–he makes his way back to his apartment, and from there finds Dr. Ana Stelline, a woman with a condition that forces her to live inside a glass chamber so as to be protected from all contaminants. She designs false memories for the Wallace Corporation to implant in replicants. She is a talented designer of memories, and on inspecting his (how she did this, I have no idea) indicates that it is real.

K then becomes inexplicably angry and consequently fails the replicant behavior test that they apparently give him after every mission. He tells Joshi this is because he successfully found and killed Rachael’s child. Joshi gives him 48 hours to either flee or try to pass the test again. So he…

He, um…

Ok, this is really kind of bizarre…

He goes back to his apartment, where Joi has brought in the prostitute from earlier. She has done this because she knows that he’s been wanting to sleep with her (Joi, that is). But, since she’s a hologram and all, it doesn’t go very well. So she sort of superimposes herself over the prostitute.

Except the superimposition doesn’t totally work, so there’s this bizarre blurring effect, kind of like when you watch a 3-D movie without the glasses on.

It’s creepy and hilariously bad and stupid and probably one of the worst romantic scenes ever filmed. And it’s worse when you put it in context. I mean, I get annoyed enough when my computer installs updates without asking my permission. If it started letting prostitutes into my apartment while I was gone, I would be even more upset. And then when you add in that K has just been given 48 hours to run away from the authorities, it seems even more absurd that he would spend 8 of them making love to his virtual assistant.

Ok, looking at K, it was probably more like 10 minutes, but still.

Oh, and the morning after, as she’s leaving, the prostitute makes a catty remark to Joi. That was stupid too.

K has the toy horse analyzed by some random character who exists only to advance the plot but still manages to be vaguely offensive during his brief screen time. The levels of radiation found in the horse lead K (and Joi, natch) to the blindingly orange ruins of Las Vegas.

After finding an abandoned beekeeper’s station and some statues of naked women in high heels–just another day at the office!–K finds his way to an abandoned hotel and casino, where he meets Deckard (Harrison Ford)

Deckard enters with one of the best lines in the movie: “You mightn’t happen to have a piece of cheese about you, now?” This is a quote from Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, as K helpfully informs us, thus weakening the line immensely.

Deckard and K then engage in another ridiculous comic-book fistfight that serves no purpose to the story, but takes place in a casino lounge with various holograms of famous performers flickering on and off. It’s kind of cool, but it was done better in Dead Money.

After this is over with, they talk, and Deckard explains he left the pregnant Rachael behind and scrambled police records so they could not track the child.

This scene was another one of the film’s high points, thanks entirely to Ford’s acting. The dialogue is still awkward, and Gosling is pretty wooden throughout, but the gruff tones of the veteran actor make it compelling. As he was when reprising another of his most famous roles, Ford is the one of the few bright spots.

Meanwhile, Luv–remember her?–has killed Joshi and tracked K to Las Vegas. She and her men attack, capturing Deckard and badly injuring K. She also destroys the small device in which the Joi program is stored, effectively “killing” her.

Luv takes Deckard to speak with Wallace. And by speak with him, I mean have Wallace recite bunch of gobbledygook at Deckard in a dull, awkward monotone before finally producing a replicant of Rachael. Deckard gruffly responds that “her eyes were green.” I would say it’s absurd that they could get such an obvious detail wrong, but given the Wallace Corporation’s general ineptitude, it seems almost plausible.

Meanwhile, K has been rescued by some pro-Replicant freedom fighters–one of whom is the prostitute from earlier. They want K to kill Deckard before he can lead the Wallace corporation to his daughter. From this, K realizes he is not the child after all, and that Deckard falsified the records.

After a brief interlude with a giant pink naked holographic girl–just don’t even ask, ok?–K intercepts Luv and her men as they are transporting Deckard to… someplace… and, in a rather anti-climactic battle, K kills Luv and rescues Deckard. This scene takes place at night and underwater, so it’s not really a feast for the eyes.

Finally, K takes Deckard back to meet his daughter–Ana Stelline. K has realized that the memory was actually hers–she designed it and the Wallace Corporation put it in his brain. Deckard greets his daughter in her isolation chamber while K collapses in the snow outside and the credits roll.

It’s not a bad little plot, and might have made quite a good 90 minute or two hour movie. But the pacing is absolutely bad; not merely because it is slow–although it is definitely that–but also just because even with all that build-up, the final battle still seems rushed, confusing and unsatisfying. And we never see what becomes of Wallace himself, who is the main villain of the piece.

“But it’s not about the story!” say the fans. “It’s about the atmosphere! The cinematography!”

Ok, sure; but the atmosphere isn’t that great. It’s nothing we haven’t seen a thousand times before in other films influenced by the original Blade Runner. I was struck, again and again, by how ordinary all of it felt.

As for the cinematography: it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t as great as I expected from all the hype. That large parts of the film take place at night and in the rain doesn’t help–and frankly, as rainy noir-cinematography goes, there are much better examples.

The poster tells the story. Remember that article a few years ago about orange and blue in Hollywood movies? Well, those colors are out in force here–everything is bluish except Vegas, which is orange. (Compare the poster for 2049 above to the one for the original.)

And in the end, movies aren’t about cinematography. It’s just one tool that the filmmaker uses in service of the ultimate goal: telling a good story with good characters.

The story, as I have said, is not bad but it is also not remarkable, and certainly shouldn’t take this long to tell. And the characters? Well, there are a few good ones. Joshi and Deckard are standouts–I wish we could have had a film about the two of them working together instead.

K is probably the least interesting character in the whole thing, and that’s saying something. Joi–who is the de facto love interest–is also quite dull, since she exists entirely to serve K.

This brings me to another point: the film’s sexism. As I have said, there’s plenty of “male gaze”–besides the statues and holograms, there is a horrible scene where the camera focuses on a naked, newly-created female replicant who is immediately killed for no reason. (This should have been cut, not only because of the gratuitous nudity and violence, but also because it added nothing to the story and made the already overlong picture drag more.)

But even more significant than the sexist imagery is the fact that the women’s roles in the story are all secondary. Even Stelline, who is in a sense the central driving force of the whole plot, is shunted to the side to focus on the unremarkable officer K.

The irony is, it’s clearly a dystopian story, and the world they present could indeed be described as a dreadful dystopia for women in particular, where they are treated, with a few exceptions, as commodities. But the writers seem not to be aware of this. If they were, they could have explored that, rather than the story of officer K, the second-rate cop who wanted to bed his virtual assistant.

Blade Runner 2049 is the second cyberpunk film I’ve seen this year. The other was Ghost in the Shell. See that instead–it’s much better. You can even watch it twice in the time it takes to watch 2049.

"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…

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