Review: Phenomena

Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government's Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and PsychokinesisPhenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government’s Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis by Annie Jacobsen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Phenomena is an improvement by leaps and bounds over Annie Jacobsen’s earlier Area 51. Both books detail histories of covert government projects that have otherwise been awash in misinformation, classified projects, and the whiff of the paranormal. Both books are heavily researched and well-cited, benefiting from substantial FOIA requests and interviews conducted by the author herself. But I found a reliance on an off-the-wall account of the Roswell crash harmed the overall credibility and plausibility of the otherwise well-worth-reading Area 51. In contrast, Phenomena avoids overextending into speculation.

Jacobsen has quite the niche, writing meaty tomes about formerly classified military subject matter. At this point, I trust her as a writer and researcher. But even if you had no knowledge of the author, Jacobsen keeps to an open-minded yet grounded approach in recounting the military and intelligence community’s adventures in psychic research; she builds the needed trust in her relative objectivity throughout. This leads to the sort of writing about paranormal subjects that I love: fact-focused, invested in its human subjects but unwilling to blindly accept their claims, and comfortably probing the edges of unusual fields of study. She competently writes about the history of research into extrasensory perception and telekinesis without ever jumping onto the bandwagon of critics or true believers. And the accounts she produces, pulled from formerly confidential reports and verified in a variety of interviews, indicate that something unusual is certainly happening, that there might actually be some form of ESP and TK, even if it’s an unreliable ability that can’t be consistently trained to manifest in just anyone. Jacobsen does not shy away from discussing instances of fraud and failed scientific controls, especially in the civilian side of research, and yet there are moments that defy rational explanation–especially some of the stories revolving around characters like Ingo Swann, Pat Price, and Angela Dellafiora. I’d often read aloud to my wife a shocking story about how one of these remote viewers could, for instance, accurately detail a covert military installation that was so classified even the observer was not initially aware of it. Of course, I’m not observing these events myself, and I think it would be easy for a skeptical reader to suggest that perhaps some of this represents government disinformation efforts past or present, but there are still some wild accounts in here that can’t be confidently explained away. I enjoy reading about paranormal subjects, it’s true, but ESP has always seemed somewhat boring and inconsequential even if it could be determined real; so what if someone can apparently bend spoons when rubbing a finger over them or can sometimes guess a basic shape on a card more often than the standard rate for blind guessing? Furthermore, skeptics have so firmly branded the subject with stigma that I’d accepted hand-waving dismissals of the subject matter as absolute truth without bothering to take a second glance until now. But this book made me interested, both because sometimes these powers produce more fascinating results than would otherwise be expected (some might even say that some of the results appear “miraculous”) and because so many of the characters involved in this research are interesting in and of themselves.

I don’t think this book will get a true believer to question their cobbled-together paranormal beliefs, and I don’t think it will convince a hard-nosed skeptic that ESP (whatever that really represents) might be real, but it’s an engaging text about an unusual field of military study, and if you can set paranormal stigma aside and approach the book with an open mind, I suspect you too will be thrilled, amazed, and curious to know what this all might signify and why exactly the military remained interested in it for so long.

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Harley Quinn Fever

Thanks to HBO Max, my wife and I have now watched Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) and the Harley Quinn animated series. We loved them both.

My wife prefers Margot Robbie’s depiction, and Robbie is certainly doing a fantastic job, really raising the profile of the character in the public consciousness and providing a fun, whimsical, zany take. She was fun in Suicide Squad, but that movie had plenty of baggage. Birds of Prey is starring, written, and directed by women and presents its female antiheroes as flawed, bizarre, unusual birds of a feather, portrayed as complex and whole people, with a general avoidance of the male gaze. Quinn is coming off a breakup with the Joker, bouncing back from heartbreak, moving on from a life in the supervillain’s shadow, and finding both freedom and danger now that she is out of the Clown Prince of Crime’s bubble. She quickly becomes wrapped up in the lives of three other women and a young girl who are all caught up in taking down the criminal organization of the chillingly psychopathic Black Mask. The narrative chronology is a little more twisted up than it needs to be, but filtered through the unreliable narration of Harley Quinn, the film’s a blast. While the Joker is a driving force behind who Harley Quinn is at the start of the film, he’s entirely absent. This is largely to the film’s benefit, as it can then be about Harley and her new “friends,” but it is a curious choice, given that the film presents itself as a continuation of the same character from Suicide Squad. Sure, the Joker’s not good for Harley, and he was just as monstrous to Dr. Quinzel as any other version of the character, but the two seemed closely bonded and reciprocally loyal. What changed between them?

I really enjoyed Birds of Prey, but I actually favor Harley Quinn. This show provides Harley, voiced here by Kaley Cuoco, a little more autonomy from the get-go, as it is she who breaks up with the abusive Joker. He puts quite a lot of effort into getting her back at first, and then trying to kill her, and then trying to use her, but thanks to her close friendship with Poison Ivy, she is able to persevere and move on, forming her own criminal crew first to get back at Joker and later to do her own thing. Cuoco endows the character with considerable up-beat manic energy, sometimes disrupted by a depressive low (often when finally taking a moment to contemplate how her actions have hurt someone else, or how the Joker or her parents have traumatized her in some way), and sometimes masked in her conversation with Joker in cutesy line delivery straight out of Batman: The Animated Series. One of the things I’ve enjoyed in the series is how it draws on a variety of past representations of characters to distill something new, like the elements of Quinn drawn from that older series, among other comic and film interpretations. Other great examples: Bane is basically a parody of his The Dark Knight Rises version (with some DCAU influence mixed in), Lex Luthor feels straight out of the DCAU, Joker’s appearance changes over the show’s timeline to mirror different versions of the character, Kite Man has his “Hell yeah” catchphrase from his more recent comics incarnation, and Mr. Freeze is given an arc that at first appears to subvert his tragic story from the DCAU only to ultimately play it straight. Some versions of characters are just wacky and new: Commissioner Gordon is a shadow of his former self, lonely and rambling, teetering on the edge of insanity; the Penguin is a hardened criminal mastermind but also something of a family man; the Riddler is a little unhinged, a little weird, quite the survivor, and eventually really buff. The mixing of backgrounds and characterizations, and references to deep cuts from the comics and shows, quickly establishes a rich and varied timeline, of which we’ve only seen bits and pieces. It makes Harley Quinn and her gang feel like just a small (though significant) part of a much bigger world, benefiting from the depth of accumulated storytelling to quickly achieve a sense of a lived-in setting in a way that Justice League Unlimited and Young Justice also used to great effect. And I especially like that under all the layers of comics lore, the show is still fundamentally about a woman figuring out who she really is as she sets out in a newly independent life and tries to set aside the traumas of her past. There are only two seasons so far, but I sure hope we get more of the show.

Both of these versions of Harley Quinn are very good. The former is a good movie and the latter is a good show. I recommend them both. You can easily watch them both on HBO Max now. (Blessedly, Warner Media is moving away from the DC Universe / HBO Max divide. For all the evils of these mega corporations, the least they could do is provide all their television and movie offerings on a single streaming service.)

Review: Dishonored 2

That Arkane Studios bundle continues to pay off. Dishonored 2 is both sequel and soft reboot to Dishonored, and it offered a bigger, better, improved experience in just about every way.

The biggest improvement for me is in characterization. Instead of another silent protagonist, you plays as a fully voiced returning Corvo Attano, the Royal Protector to the Imperial Throne, or his Empress/protege/not-so-secret daughter, Emily Kaldwin. You’re partnered early with the mysterious, one-armed, one-eyed smuggler Meagan Foster, who takes the place of Dishonored‘s boat pilot Samuel, now deceased after the 15-year narrative gap between the games. Considerable time is spent in establishing your cast of allies and enemies. Even the best have their flaws; even the worst have their virtues, however small.

The plot is largely a repeat of the original game (and, as it turns out, its two narrative DLC extensions). The protagonist’s loved one is captured by the leader of a violent coup, and to save them and restore the rightful ruler, the protagonist must first perform several missions involving surveillance and the elimination of high-profile targets responsible for the current state of affairs. Later missions lean more into the occult with a focus on investigating and defeating a rejuvenated witch coven headed by Delilah Copperspoon, who is the principal agent behind the coup, claiming to be the half-sister of the deceased Empress Jessamine; Delilah seeks to bend the whole world to her will, motivated largely by a deep sense of betrayal from her youth (a story arc and an antagonist straight out of The Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches). Dealing with a decomposing empire and navigating the gap between the most destitute and desperate on one side and the sheltered but paranoid elite on the other tonally matches most of the original game. And once more, you can chart a course between High Chaos (death and destabilization) and Low Chaos (mercy and nonlethal solutions). Something new is that you actually get to pick between Corvo or Emily as the protagonist to play through the game.

Maybe I would have enjoyed Corvo more this time around, now that he’s done with his implicit vow of silence, but I picked Emily. I’m glad I did. Otherwise, the echoes of the original story would have felt merely redundant and derivative. By playing as Emily, the game felt more like a story about legacy. Emily must deal with the legacy of her father, an infamous figure who has taught her in the arts of defense, stealth, and assassination, and of her mother, whose death has created a void in her development. The young ruler we are reintroduced to at the start of the game seems like the perfect action-fantasy heroine, someone born of privilege and entitled to rule but deeply bored with the role and with the requirements of courtroom protocol, instead preferring to sneak out and explore the city. Rather than an admirable trait, the game gradually shows us that this is actually evidence of a ruler who failed to rule. While she was well-intentioned, she inadvertently allowed great suffering and inequity in her empire because she failed to pay enough attention. In my (predictably) Low-Chaos run, Emily’s choices led her to gradually understand the importance of real leadership–and that she had to earn the right to rule; she was not just entitled to it.

As is now the standard for Dishonored games, the setting was incredible. While the beginning and ending missions are spent in Dunwall, most of the game takes place in Karnaca, the capital city of Serkonos, a city known as “The Jewel of the South at the Edge of the World.” Both Corvo and the assassin of former Empress Jessamine hail from Serkonos. It’s significant to the world, exporting its culture, foods and spices, and most significantly its silver to the rest of the Empire. Where the rest of the world has become overly dependent upon whale oil, which is at this point in the game’s history declining in availability, Serkonos benefits from the use of wind energy, with wind turbines large and small powering a variety of devices throughout the capital city. Karnaca nonetheless finds itself in decline. Where the former duke was well-beloved and worked to improve equality, his son is decadent and self-indulgent. He has stripped away the burgeoning rights of workers in the silver mines, and he taxes heavily to fund his personal projects. His interest in the occult led to the resurrection of Delilah, and he is the main political supporter of the coup and placement of Delilah on the Imperial throne. Karnaca is a place full of bitter, desperate people as a result. Serkonos and Karnaca are apparently inspired by southern Europe and the Caribbean, producing a very realistic yet unique culture. The corrupt and brutal Grand Guard roam the streets, extorting shopkeepers and assaulting strangers. Fishmongers and butchers and whalers work along sloping cobbled alleys with bloodied water seeping down to the docks. A former sanitarium juts from the rocks off the coast. The upper classes live in colossal estates along the periphery. Black market shops operate in abandoned buildings. The horrid buzzing of bloodflies (an oversized combination of mosquitoes and tsetse flies and those flies that cause myiasis) fills filthy apartments overrun with the flies’ mud-dauber type nests and blood amber-infused hives. And as per usual, journals and notes and book excerpts and newspaper articles and graffiti are found everywhere, providing further insight into the state of the city and the world. The city feels alive, seedy and hot and exotic and miserable.

While artwork has always been another tool that Dishonored has used to further detail the world, I was really impressed by many of the paintings I came across. Paintings in the game seemed to encompass parallels to Neoclassical and Romantic art in our world, except for the energetic, colorful, at times slightly abstracted works by the magically gifted Delilah. Many of the more traditional paintings found detailed little myths and legends that added to the tone of the game though never appearing anywhere else. And there were, of course, drawings by children–or the childlike, including one rather bad self-portrait by the conceited Duke of Serkonos.

The game offers some gameplay and design improvements over the original. There is more movement allowed when peering around corners. There are far more nonlethal take-down options, and a Low-Chaos play style that is focused on aggressive incapacitation of opponents is quite viable. Instead of having to get any upgrades or equipment purchased at a central hub between missions, black markets provide options in each level. And Dishonored came out in 2012, while Dishonored 2 released in 2016, so it goes without saying that the sequel looks much better and feels more realistic to navigate. It’s really fun to play, much like Dishonored–perhaps even more so than the original. I played on Hard mode because it was described as tailored for those familiar with Dishonored. This was accurate. The game never felt unfair or insurmountable, and I’m glad I picked the slightly higher difficulty setting.

I mentioned much earlier that Dishonored 2 was a soft reboot. I make that argument because while it builds out from a Low Chaos-ending to the original game and its DLC extensions, it does not really require any understanding of what came before. And by echoing the plot of those earlier stories, it basically tells a more intimate version of those same stories, only this time with more voice-acting, more explicit plot developments, clearer themes, and more diversity in representation. Normally, the choice to do the “good” or “right” thing is very easy to make in video games, but here, many of the antagonists are so awful that it is understandable to want to kill them. By choosing another option, by finding another way, many of these people still meet cruel fates, but it still requires an active performance of mercy, if not forgiveness, and greater effort to produce the nonlethal solution. Learning more about the politics and personalities of Serkonos and the Empire made decisions matter more. And the opaque occult realm of the Outsider is explored in greater detail, making it ever more complex and bizarre. Even simple concepts implied in the original are made explicit in the sequel; just as one example, the supernatural heart used to provide helpful hints and to detect occult items in the original makes another appearance, but while some of the musings of the soul within the heart and the voice used were the only things to clearly suggest that it contained the soul of Jessamine in the original, it is explicit in the sequel and her residual spirit is a major plot point. (The original also made Corvo seem a tad uncaring to rely heavily on this device without ever attempting to converse with it, while playing as Emily in the sequel provided an opportunity for closure with her mother. It would be interesting to see how a voiced Corvo reacted to the heart in this game, though maybe not interesting enough for me to do a Corvo run through the game.) The original threw out a lot of ideas that were not really explored, and the sequel picked up those ideas and ran with them.

I should note that I finished playing Dishonored 2 over a week ago. Since then, I returned to Dishonored to play the DLC, to try to learn more about the past of Meagan’s alter ego, and to try to understand Delilah more. I got some answers, but the adventures of the assassin Daud within the expansion are not vital to the story of Dishonored 2. Certainly the sequel builds on the framework set down by the DLC, much like it builds on what the original game provided, but familiarity with the DLC story is not required. Most interestingly, it is clear that Dishonored 2 actually took and improved upon a lot of features from the DLC, new ideas in gameplay that weren’t present yet in the original. I’ve also started Dishonored: Death of the Outsider, which so far feels like a tighter, slightly simplified version of Dishonored 2 that is heavily dependent upon an understanding of the earlier game’s story to be fully appreciated. In fact, Death of the Outsider leans more heavily on plot points from the first game’s DLC as well, and as a result, it feels like a game made particularly for the fan of the franchise’s lore. Certainly the gameplay could be picked up by anyone, but the attention to lore might make this somewhat inscrutable to someone new to the Dishonored setting. All that to say, Dishonored 2 is easily the game I’d recommend for anyone who wanted to give a Dishonored title a try. Thus far, I’d deem it the high point of the series, while working well as a standalone title.

Retrospective: Dishonored

I actually got Prey in a bundle of games from Arkane Studios, so with that title completed, I spent the past week with Dishonored. It was very interesting to go from Prey, a game released in 2017, to Dishonored, released in 2012. I’m actually amazed by that time jump. I remember hearing a lot about Dishonored when the first game came out, and that’s now about 8 years ago! It seems like it was just last year. Anyway, the interesting thing about taking this leap of 5 years back in time between games is that it gives the impression that features are being stripped away. Of course, that’s just a result of the developers building on features they’d already established, taking advantage of their existing foundation and newer advances in technology to build a better game. Yes, I think Prey is the better game. I absolutely loved my time with it and greatly enjoyed the story, characters, and setting. But I do see how much Prey owes to Dishonored, from the basics of stealth/combat/superpowers defining divergent play styles to the presence of an evolving world divided into zones.

The highlight of Dishonored, for me, was the setting. Dunwall is an interesting city, clearly inspired by a steampunk take on nineteenth-century London. The presentation of a city, and a nation, struggling with the spread of an epidemic against the rise of a violently oppressive dictatorship certainly feels timely, as well, even as it fits naturally within a setting inspired by English history. The glimpses of a larger world, largely dominated by a scattering of islands that have submitted to the rule of an Empire based out of Dunwall, with a fabled Lost World landmass that has defied colonization across the sea, feels fresh yet familiar. We are offered a unique fantasy world, vividly portrayed through environmental narrative (clothing, technology, architecture, art, the wear and tear on the city, the contrast between the remaining wealthy enclaves and the crumbling poorer districts overrun with those infected with the plague) and the usual copious excerpts from books, essays, maps, audio logs, and so on. It is clear enough that the industrial-fantasy world of Dunwall is directly responsible for the eventual creation of the radically different, retro-futuristic world of Talos I.

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We also see the same sort of moral choices in Dishonored and Prey. The moral system of these games can be boiled down to the presence or absence of empathy. If you work to save survivors in either game, your actions are rewarded in the long run. Dishonored has a greater emphasis on sparing your opponents and finding alternative solutions to eliminating targets that avoid killing. I tend to prefer the Good story paths in games anyway (I suppose part of my escapist power fantasy is being able to make the world a better place, to make good and principled decisions even in horrible situations), but I really enjoyed how pursuing less-violent paths encouraged engaging with the game’s systems and levels more. I went out of my way to explore the map to pursue nonviolent, or at least nonlethal, approaches.

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On a related note, while I wasn’t afraid to kill in the game, I generally tried to avoid it. I actually never finished a mission without taking a life, but I definitely tried to avoid a large-scale battle. One could certainly play the game in the manner of open combat, if they were seeking a more chaotic world and darker ending. But the nonviolent approach to any situation was typically more interesting and challenging. In fact, I saved frequently, and many of my copious reloads were not because of player-character death but because I’d triggered a large fight and ended up killing a lot of guards. Finding another, better way–which sometimes just involved careful timing and generous use of the protagonist’s special powers–was almost always quite satisfying.

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The powers themselves have a firm narrative purpose for existing. Similar to Prey, they have sort of an ominous origin. Instead of being cultivated from a ravenously destructive alien species, they are given to the hero by “the Outsider,” some sort of supernatural entity who mostly seems motivated by amusement in the conflicts of mortals. A major faction in the game, the state religion, was largely organized to root out practitioners of the dark arts provided by the Outsider. The hero is simply gifted these powers that many others commit terrible rituals to obtain. While at first it’s easy to view the church’s opposition to the Outsider’s followers as nothing more than a fantastical version of the cruel witch hunts of Europe’s actual history, the apparent evilness of so many of the Outsider’s most devout disciples becomes more apparent later on. By the end of the game, I didn’t particularly care for those who followed the major religion or for those who practiced black magic, and the Outsider himself seemed bored with and disgusted by many of his own purported adherents. More than just a magic system, the powers in the game were connected with some very murky thematic waters.

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The actual plot and characters, however, were weak points. You play as the always-silent Corvo, Royal Protector to the Empress, who starts the game returning from a failed diplomatic mission to the other islands. There is no known cure for the Rat Plague infesting Dunwall, and no aid is coming. Corvo is greeted by the precocious young Emily, daughter to Empress Jessamine, and passes by several other royal advisors who prove important to the plot. Upon delivering his news to the Empress, who is clearly quite fond of him, assassins with special powers arrive to disarm Corvo and assassinate Jessamine. They abduct Emily, and Corvo is framed for regicide. Much of the game is spent dealing with one or another group of conspirators, clearing Corvo’s name, and saving Emily. Some of the twists and turns of the plot are interesting, but it’s largely conventional and reliant upon some tired tropes. Characters come and go, and the recurring ones don’t really interact enough to develop particularly memorable personalities. Still, the fun in this game is actually playing it, experimenting with the tools at your disposal and bouncing strategies off the level design and enemy AI.

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There’s certainly the opportunity for a lot of replayability. There are various collectibles in each level and challenges of remaining undetected and avoiding any kills. Then, of course, there are the different endings to the game and the smaller fluctuations to each level dictated by who lived and who died in earlier levels. It’s not the sort of thing that excites me, but there’s certainly an open invitation to return to the game again and again, down to the option to replay a level immediately after its completion as you view your final level stats. I spent a mere 15 hours making my way through the main campaign (in contrast to the 31.4 hours in Prey).

I had fun with Dishonored. I don’t know whether I’d appreciate it more or less without the context of how it was the foundation for, and was ultimately surpassed by, Prey. But it was worth the time.

Review: Prey (2017)

Having now finished the main story with one of several endings for Prey, I can say that this was a great game experience. However, despite the opportunity for many additional runs through its story, to explore different powers or to pursue completionist ambitions or to make different moral choices, I do not think I will be back to the game any time soon, if ever. Once was enough, and it was a great treat.

One of the main reasons that I would not be interested in a replay is that the game forces you to replay a lot already, in the sense that you are constantly backtracking and re-exploring areas you’ve been to before. At many points in the game, levels you’ve cleared are restocked with enemies, too, which I suppose helps to alleviate the grind of wandering across a barren area just to try a previously locked door with a new keycard or ability, but it does start to feel a little tedious at times.

This complaint is really my only major one with the game. I loved the setting, the story, and many of the characters. Above all else, I definitely loved the action-RPG-lite FPS gameplay. I loved experimenting with different abilities, upgrading special powers as the situation warranted and scarce Neuromods allowed. I found I preferred human, rather than alien/ESP powers, with a focus on stealth, hacking and engineering my way around problems, always prepared to shoot my way out of a situation at the end. Limited resources meant that I couldn’t ever depend on going in guns blazing, and many later-game enemies would have clobbered me if I’d relied on that approach. In fact, the final third of the game changed the type of enemy primarily faced, moving from the psychokinetic, shape-shifting Typhon alien types to largely robotic opponents with high-powered lasers, requiring a tweak to how I devoted my resources. Some might find the constant scavenging and need to formulate new tools out of scraps at special stations to be tedious, but it kept the tension high throughout the game and made me reflective about how to use my resources–there were many times where I had few mineral resources and had to make a close call between generating extra 9mm bullets, some shells for my shotgun, or a medkit.

Most of the game time is spent navigating large but enclosed, multi-story levels that represent sections of a colossal space station. Every level has a different environmental story to tell, as the station gradually expanded from a Soviet operation to a joint US-Soviet research facility to a chief technological base for an extravagantly wealthy private company. There are stark research labs and elaborate crew quarters with bold pop art. There’s a bridge with computer stations and displays you’d expect to see in a NASA mission control room. Whiteboards and posters and notes and letters and books and children’s art fill out the corners of the station, as is the nature of these sorts of games, I suppose. I rather enjoyed accessing more and more of the diverse environments and uncovering secrets, especially related to the events that led to the release of the Typhon and the demise of so many of the crew of Talos I. Coupled with fantastic level design and set dressing, the sound design and score kept me in the moment, maintaining a sense of tension and dread even when I became more powerful and wasn’t so concerned about a sudden Mimic jump scare.

The above details should sound familiar, for they are definitely in the vein of a particular type of game, the System Shock-alike. Given that I happen to love these sorts of games, like BioShock and Deus Ex, it should come as no surprise that this scratched an itch for me. But it also clearly pulled from classic sci-fi movies like Alien/Aliens (the parasitic nature and unstoppable drive of the alien force and the retro-futuristic design) and Total Recall (the questions regarding what is real versus simulated and the permanence/plasticity of identity when remembered life experiences are removed from the equation or otherwise altered), as well as from the niche interests of paranormal enthusiasts with subjects like ESP and covered-up astronaut contact with alien life. All the more reason for me to like it.

The plot operates on a familiar framework but offers a lot more than what the basic narrative might at first suggest. (It should be noted that it is not connected to the original Prey in any way except for name, although I never played the older title, so it made no difference to me.) A silent, amnesiac protagonist has to fight off killer aliens while exploring the confines of their environment. In this case, the game opens with protagonist Morgan Yu finding out that their current existence is nothing more than a repeated simulation, and Morgan enters into freedom just as the outside world goes to hell. They’re onboard a nearly derelict space station, in the immediate aftermath of an infestation of alien creatures with a complex ecology and life cycle, collectively known as the Typhon. The basic Typhon is a Mimic (pulled straight from D&D), an inky black, dog-sized starfish of a creature that can easily morph into any other shape its size or smaller. Mimics, like xenomorph face-huggers, want nothing more than to shove an appendage down the throat of the nearest human to replicate–but rather than releasing a rapidly gestating embryo like the classic sci-fi predator, they steal away life force (and, we later learn, consciousness) to metabolize enough matter and energy to split into fully-formed quadruplets. (This idea of recycling, reusing, metabolizing, and transforming is a major theme in the game.) There are many other types of Typhons, including the myriad forms of Phantoms, which are birthed from the corpses of humans killed by other means. Much of the game involves attempting to stop the spread of the infestation, which in turn involves learning quite a bit more about the history of the space station, its inhabitants, and the Typhon that had been contained within it.

The complexity of the space station and the Typhon, and the alternative history of the larger world, make for a very interesting background narrative that kept my attention throughout. However, the actual beats of the story are fairly conventional. You start off very under-powered, and even the little Mimics, who will eventually become at best a nuisance, are terrifying threats. The horror of the initial events of the story gives way to mystery regarding the alien threat, and that transition in tone comes with an increase in powers. You meet more and more powerful enemies over the game, but you gain in power at a roughly equivalent rate. You explore sections of the space station and unlock secrets. You (optionally) help other survivors and decide whether to blow the station up to completely wipe out the infestation, incapacitate all the Typhon so that the research can start again, or simply bail out whenever in an escape pod. The end stages of the game send in a “rescue” team actually meant to wipe everyone out, an overused plot point in action games and movies.

The game remained challenging, but never unfair. I played on Normal difficulty without any of the optional game modes like limited oxygen or the accumulation of trauma, so I imagine the higher levels of difficulty could be especially brutal. Either way, the game allows for saving at any point, and so I saved early and often. This encouraged experimentation in exploration and combat, since I knew I could quickly load back to a save moments before if something went south.

Your silent protagonist, Morgan Yu (who can be male or female, the first choice you make), is a brilliant engineer and scientist, but they start out with irreversible amnesia, and a variety of prerecorded videos and AIs and contemporary human compatriots all attempt to persuade Morgan about who he or she really is. The silence of this protagonist feels more a deliberate choice than a matter of convenience; you are Yu (yeah, the name emphasizes that, huh?), and you are defining who that is, from a blank slate. The silence means that intention is always through player expression; as the game goes on, there are moments where it is clear that the people around Morgan struggle to understand who he was and who he is now. The unknowable nature of intention behind action is an underlying theme as much as is the nature of identity or consciousness.

The side stories of perished and surviving crew were often more intriguing than the game’s primary objectives. I became quite fond of characters like Dr. Dayo Igwe, the brilliant neuroscientist with the tragic past who is ostracized by his colleagues because of his parapsychological interests; Chief Sarah Elazar, the tough-as-nails security director and war veteran with a strong ethical core and protective spirit; Mikhaila Ilyushin, the head engineer who hid her degenerative condition to get a top spot on Talos I to try to uncover the truth about her father; or Danielle Sho, the IT administrator who put aside her past rivalry with Morgan to aide them in ending the Typhon threat, even as she waited out her own death. That last character arc is rather problematic, honestly. I really liked Sho a lot, and learning about her tensions with Morgan and her romantic relationship with researcher and tabletop game master Abigail Foy was one of the most engaging backstories I explored. I was rooting for Sho and Foy, so [BIG SPOILERS] I was incredibly frustrated to discover that Foy had been killed, not by Typhon, but by a deranged serial killer, and Sho was doomed to die, stuck outside of the station and out of oxygen, helping Yu in her final moments and asking them to avenge Foy’s death. I mean, yeah, I hunted down that psychotic killer–even if you didn’t uncover or care about Sho and Foy’s relationship, he tries to kill you and taunts you through the remainder of the game–but I could have done without yet another example of burying your gays. (On that subject, I recognize that a lot of people die or are already dead in the game, and it has a wide range of people from various backgrounds, but to so conspicuously have a lesbian relationship documented in the backstory and to have it so that you can only witness their tragic deaths, when you can help most other survivors make it out, seems like a clear enough example of the trope).

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Smaller character moments mattered too. I liked learning about the crew members engaged in assassin games with their manufactured foam dart crossbows, and when I discovered one crew member from that gang was still alive, I went out of my way to ensure her survival. I was deeply saddened to find one after another of the tabletop gaming group (playing a board game that is a clear, goofy reference to Arkane Studios’ original release, Arx Fatalis) were dead. There was a lot of tragedy. There was some levity. There were a lot of uncovered intimate and banal moments that made everyone seem so real. It was never unexpected but often disheartening to discover a deceased crew member you’d come to know through their digital correspondence and leftover artifacts from life. It was so gratifying to be able to help someone make it to safety.

I mentioned the tabletop game, but there are a lot of cute little references tucked away in Prey. While not an allusion to a specific source (as far as I can tell), one of my favorite texts were the excerpts from the abysmally bad Starbender books, which are clear parodies of mid-twentieth-century pulp space opera stories. Little things like this made the game feel more grounded, even as they further cemented the developer team’s love for the genre in which they were working.

There’s one last thing I want to discuss: the ending. The game came out in 2017, and enough time has passed that anyone who’s retained some interest in it but hasn’t yet played it has probably had the ending spoiled. I had by the time I got around to the game. I don’t think it changed how I played it. On the one hand, it made me better appreciate some elements of the game, but on the other hand, I sort of regretted coming into the surprise twist with prior knowledge. That said, if you haven’t played and want to come to the game fresh, I’d encourage you to stop reading this now.

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Prey offers two separate endings to the game, each with multiple outcomes. The first ending concerns how you resolve the Typhon infestation on the station: fleeing from it (which apparently ends the game early, if you follow the escape pod route), destroying it, or disabling it to continue the research. I went the route of destroying the station and all the Typhon aboard it; I found the research to be unethical, especially regarding its human test subjects, many of whom were political prisoners, and I wanted to ensure that the Typhon couldn’t get to Earth. Even picking the destruction option has some branching paths. Do you just let everyone die? Do you find a way to get the survivors off the station? Do you make it off yourself, and how? I was glad to join my fellow survivors on the shuttle back to Earth, the explosion of Talos I erupting in our wake. Morgan finally speaks in the present, not just in a recording, ominously remarking, “I keep having this dream.” Then the credits rolled.

And after the credits, Morgan awakens in a containment chamber, monitored by his brother Alex and four Operators, the robotic assistants prevalent throughout the game. It turns out that “Morgan” is in fact a Typhon–apparently a Phantom, infused with elements of Morgan’s genetic code and consciousness. This Morgan-Phantom was in a simulation, a reconstruction of the final hours of Talos I. The Operators possess the personalities of Igwe, Alazar, Ilyushin, and Sho. They pass judgment on the choices you made in the game. In my ending, they noted the empathy Morgan had displayed, coupled with an apparently retributive drive. As I’d passed their test, Morgan’s brother offers the Phantom an option: now that this Morgan understands and empathizes with humans, they can work together to stop the Typhon, which have now spread over much of the Earth. The final choice: kill them all or join with them. I joined, and the Phantom extended its hand in cooperation, somehow adjusting its shadowy appearance to take on a human look.

I really liked the two endings, and I liked that both were affected by player choice throughout the game and at the end. I liked the reveal about the true nature of Morgan. It emphasized the inherent limits of a video game in its ability to simulate reality. It explained the occasional weird glitch. It clarified how suddenly certain plot-relevant items would appear on a desk after I’d taken a particular step. It put in context the bizarre and brief dream sequences that interjected key moments of the game. It twisted expectations; the whole time, you thought you were defining who Morgan really was, when in reality you were never Morgan at all. And so Morgan breaks free from one simulation only to find that they were in another all along.

This final, post-credits ending also offers many intriguing questions. What actually happened on Talos I? Presumably the Typhon invasion of Earth started with the breach depicted in the game. What went wrong? Did Morgan fail to activate the nullwave device or to blow up the station? Did Typhon get aboard the shuttle? Perhaps some of the Typhon made it out on another shuttle? (There was a side quest where a shuttle, out of contact with Talos I, was approaching Earth, having departed only 30 minutes before everyone became aware of the outbreak and before they knew how to scan for Mimics; I blew it up, but maybe the “real” Morgan didn’t.) Did Morgan stay aboard the station? Did they evacuate? Is Morgan alive now, or did they die? Did anyone other than Alex survive? I can know for certain that at least part of the simulation did not match reality (and also highlighted how it was a simulation). I saved Alex, locking him unconscious in his safe room. He appeared later on the bridge of the station, intent on stopping me from blowing it up, and was killed by January, the Operator who had been pushing me to destroy the station. I blew up January in retribution and commenced the reactor overload. But at the very least, Alex must never have been on the bridge. Morgan must have killed January earlier. Or perhaps Morgan helped Alex to use the nullwave device, and there was a later infestation outbreak. Or perhaps everything happened more or less as I played it, but Alex was never on the bridge. He must have gotten off somehow, perhaps in his executive escape pod. What happened to Igwe, Alazar, Ilyushin, and Sho? If things happened as depicted, then at the very least Sho is dead. There was no way to save her, regardless of player choice. Their Operators at the end seemed somewhat surprised that I found a way to save everyone, so maybe that’s not the most likely outcome for the real Morgan. Did Igwe, Alazar, and Ilyushin perish as well? An Operator can be programmed with the voice and personality of a real person, and at that point, that person certainly wouldn’t need to be alive. Perhaps, though, some or all of them are alive, using Operators so that Alex alone was risking himself in the presence of the Phantom. Of course, while these are questions that are very interesting to me, the use of the Operators also meant that the same assets could be used in this final scene, regardless of whether Morgan saved the others. Still, it’s a fun way to challenge the idea that there is or even can be a single, concrete version of events. All pathways are possible, and none may be real even within the game world.

I don’t know if you can have an effective sequel to a game that offers so many endings and such an open-ended interpretation of the final state of the world. I guess The Elder Scrolls continues to rise to that challenge, but normally by offering games in different parts of the world and sometimes with convoluted explanations for how every ending did and did not happen simultaneously, a level of mysticism appropriate for a fantasy setting but not for a more grounded sci-fi story. I think I’d be disappointed if a sequel boxed in a “canon” interpretation. But I could see other games set within the lore of this game, perhaps set during a past or contemporary outbreak, or perhaps set on an overrun Earth, following a member of a resistance group. I suppose that Arkane Studios did explore a contemporary adventure within this setting in its rogue-like Prey: Mooncrash DLC. Maybe I’ll give that a try, but I’m not typically a big fan of rogue-likes; then again, the inherent uncertainty of the reality of events, as reinforced by the basic story structure of the expansion and the nature of the game type, is intriguing and fits well with the themes of the base game. Regardless, I want more because I had such a blast with this game, its setting, story, characters, and themes. What a great experience–I’d highly recommend it, if you can tolerate a game that starts with an initial survival horror vibe.

Final thought: I really, really enjoy an endgame stats summary. Thanks for that, Arkane Studios. And, you know, for everything else about this game.

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Technopath Twosome

My free time has been a bit scattershot in its uses, and I haven’t had quite as much of it lately as usual, so here’s another week with a meandering post. I’m still primarily reading Phenomena and still primarily playing Prey, but I didn’t engage with either much the past week. I watched more TV and movies in my downtime; that’s included making a good run through much of the first season of The Umbrella Academy, which I’d petered out on only a couple episodes in when it first released, and watching the adorable and funny Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, although while I adored it, I think you have to have a baseline fondness of Will Ferrell’s typical comic characters and plots.

While my time with Prey was reduced this past week, with no play at all on any weeknights or most of the weekend, I still remain thoroughly engaged with it. I made it a point to load up my last save last night, just to make sure I didn’t lose track of what I was doing and how to play with so much distance from it, and even with a week of the game going untouched, it felt like I’d never left it at all. I meant to be in for 10 or 15 minutes and stayed in for a little over an hour. I only stopped as my usual bed time drew near because I’d reset the reactor of the space station and just watched two technopaths drop into the reactor room outside of my shielded control room and promptly hijack my arrangement of turrets. Foiled by my attempt to prepare! I’m eager to see how I’ll get out of this–whether I’ll be able to sneak away, or if it’ll have to turn into a resource-draining brawl.

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I love how the gameplay in Prey evolved from a white-knuckle survival horror experience to a game of open-level experimentation, alternating between combat, stealth, exploration, and special abilities. It definitely owes a lot to games like Bioshock in structure, but it’s hard not to keep coming back to film; the game’s first few hours play out more like Alien, but by the later game, even while the difficulty and variety of challenges continue to ramp up, it’s more like Aliens–which was no walk in the park for its characters either, but definitely more of an action-adventure experience. But there are plenty of other sci-fi ideas packed in. Just as one example, its core wrangling with identity and memory, and the uncertainty about what is really happening, all feel rather Total Recall.

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The video games, films, and literature pulled from are from a wide array of sources. It might be fun to revisit some of these references and influences when I’ve finished the game.

For now, I guess I have to figure out how to deal with those technopaths!

Battlefront II’s Tiny Story Time

[Note: heavy out-of-context spoilers for a game released almost three years ago.]

The strongest thing I could say about the campaign(s) in EA’s Battlefront II is that the acting and visuals are excellent. Janina Gavankar fully embodies protagonist Iden Versio. The mocap animation is excellent, and the combination of voice acting and body language is incredibly moving. Gavankar brings a lot to what she is given. Her best scenes play off her stern but proud father, Admiral Garrick Versio (Anthony Skordi); her overly loyal squad mate and eventual lover Del Meeko (TJ Ramini); and the at first just intense but eventually scene-chewingly over-dramatic Gideon Hask (Paul Blackthorne). Late addition Shriv Suurgav (Dan Donohue), a bitter and sardonic Duros commando who helps round out the Rebel version of Inferno Squadron once Iden and Del defect, adds a little bit of oddball charm and comedy. As with the best of Star Wars, the emotional core of this narrative is a family drama / soap opera framed in the context of a war among the stars, packed with romance, betrayal, and a complicated parent-child relationship.

I also have to say that when it comes to level design, the developers clearly tried to experiment, to make every level feel fresh. Some moments require stealth, and some are guns-blazing action. You fight on the ground and in space, on foot and in vehicles. Some missions let you live out big, beautiful (and bizarrely slowed-down) starfighter dog fights. Some levels have you leave Iden behind to take control of one of the classic Star Wars heroes in a team-up mission with a supporting member of Inferno Squad. There’s even a mission in which you step into the shoes of Han Solo, eavesdropping on conversations and attempting to locate a potential intelligence contact in Maz Kanata’s cantina (though the level quickly pops up HUD indicators pointing out who you need to talk to, and most of the rest of the level is the usual pew-pew).

With that out of the way, the story moves too darn fast. Fair enough: this is an action/shooter game, so there are very few slow, quiet moments. But that means that we don’t have the time or room to explore the emotional depths of a scene, or to clearly track a character’s arc, or even to get more than bare-bones exposition dumps over holograms and comms channels as you advance across winding maps. Many key plot shifts–like Iden and Del’s decision to defect, and their eventual romance, or Iden’s complicated relationship with her father–just aren’t given adequate time to fully convey the emotional logic of characters’ actions. I was willing to go along with most of it, but that was purely based on the skillful acting, where for instance an expression and changed tone in the elder Versio’s reunion interaction with his daughter conveys a lot more than the actual words in the exchange.

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There were certain story beats that had to be met in a very short campaign, and the developers were clearly relying on the audience to follow along by connecting events on screen with expected tropes of Star Wars and cinema. Writers Walt Williams and Mitch Dyer use quite a bit of the script to load in a lot of references to the new Star Wars continuity. The story is clearly for die-hard Star Wars fans, and it’s clear that the writers expect players to recognize at least most of these references just as they expect them to recognize the allusions to tropes that were better developed in other stories. Huge portions of the game revolve around Operation Cinder and the Battle of Jakku, and so allusions are made to the events of the Aftermath trilogy and the Shattered Empire comic miniseries. They’re more than just allusions, though; without the context of these other stories, I would imagine that a player would struggle to have much understanding for what was happening in the overarching background plot and why, as the game seldom takes the time to explain or provide much connective tissue between events. Then again, in a game about shooting people, it is enough to feel that the Empire is evil and thus would do evil things, and the Rebellion is good so will try to stop the evil things.

There are technically two campaigns in Battlefront II, but the second is just an epilogue to the first and a continuation of its predecessor’s time-jumping, cliff-hanging ending. We’re rushed through some heroic last stands and a handing-off of the torch to the next generation, but it feels like it’s just echoing what the sequel trilogy spent three movies attempting to do, truncating that down to a couple hours dominated by blaster-fire-filled gameplay. Once more, the game leans on reference, as a full appreciation of the significance of Inferno Squad’s sacrifice is dependent upon a familiarity with The Last Jedi. It’s all well and good for Star Wars continuity to be shared between projects, and one of the benefits of a shared continuity is that later stories can grow out from older ones, or even recast those older tales in a new light. But I don’t particularly care for the Marvel-esque impulse to graft inter-connective tissue between every new release, such that a new title can’t be fully appreciated on its own. I believe a story should be able to stand on its own two feet. Design the story to function on its own, and then decide how you want to tie it to the larger narrative galaxy.

The whole game feels like a ghost of a larger story. It’s disappointing that we don’t get to see that story. I liked the characters introduced in Battlefront II, and I wish their arcs hadn’t been so truncated and by-the-numbers. Still, while playing, I was never bored or snorting with derision. It wasn’t a “bad” story; it was just reduced.

Maybe the multiplayer will keep me around a while, though I doubt it will hold me like the original Battlefront II did (just a feature of encountering that game at the right age). If playing make-believe with Star Wars figures in big battle mashups is something you’d like at all, I can see how you’d love the game. But I’ve long enjoyed games most of all for their ability to put me in a story, whether scripted or dynamic, and to make me feel something unique by making me inhabit another identity and assume agency for difficult choices; this game, in contrast, just wasn’t all that committed to story–and what story it had relied on, and was presented as, a traditional cinematic narrative, designed for passive interaction with its characters and plot twists. EA knew where the money is, and that’s in long-term players buying new features for multiplayer matches.

All that said, the campaign was far more cinematic and emotionally evocative than the tale of good clones willingly going bad that was the core of the original Battlefront II. It’s good to keep that in mind, at least. The newer release’s story might have been condensed, but it was told with plenty of spectacle.

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Review: The 37th Parallel

UPDATE: Chuck Zukowski appears to have responded to my post. You can see the comment at the bottom of this post. If it’s really him, he is really quite angry at my characterization of him. He also rightly points out that I do not have a science background (hopefully that’s clear to any regular readers). I’m not going to change my review. I’m also going to leave the comment up; it’s more ranting than argument, but I do feel the guy deserves the space to defend himself. I would prefer that people who put themselves in the public eye just avoid seeking out commentary from random people on the Internet, but I can’t dictate what people do with their free time.

The biggest takeaway from the comment, for me, is that the individual claiming to be Chuck says that Ben Mezrich mischaracterized him. He says that his wife didn’t have two jobs, for instance. If I were Chuck, I’d be furious with Ben for characterizing myself in such a horrible way. I suppose if you read this review now, keep in mind that the depiction of Chuck is far more a fictionalized character than an accurate portrayal. To the extent that this is true, Mezrich has published pseudo-fiction as nonfiction. That goes further than just making up dialogue or using a composite character. It feels a little like character assassination…

The 37th Parallel: The Secret Truth Behind America's UFO HighwayThe 37th Parallel: The Secret Truth Behind America’s UFO Highway by Ben Mezrich

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’d never read anything by Ben Mezrich before. I’d heard of his works, though, if only because of the occasional Hollywood adaptation. I’d seen The Social Network. It was interesting to see that he’d written a book on the paranormal, which I found squirreled away in a corner of my local library a while back. Either this book or the concept of concentrated geographic regions of paranormal activity across America had been discussed in the so-bad-it’s-good “documentary” Hellier, so there was the faintest ring of recognition in the back of my mind when I did come across it. I figured, why not? I’ve read plenty of books and stories and watched plenty of shows with a paranormal bent, so I felt confident that at best, this could be a thoughtful examination of strange phenomenon or perhaps just a quirky character piece, while at worst, it would be some entertaining fluff to occupy some of my down time.

Sadly, for the most part, The 37th Parallel failed to even be entertaining.

There are many reasons why I did not enjoy this read. Some are related to style and narrative, but some are related to its underlying subjects. Frankly, there was quite a bit of overlap between these factors. My central complaint is that the book follows a thoroughly unlikeable and uncompelling outsider who is convinced that he is a crusading hero for the truth–and it never really makes much of an effort to challenge or contradict his beliefs about himself or his investigations. I had never heard of Chuck Zukowski before, but it is clear that the central figure of this narrative is eager for publicity. By way of example: in the book, he finds a little bit of metal at the alleged Roswell crash site, orders some analysis that produces data that would allow for a more conventional explanation, and pushes for a press release and special event to celebrate his findings; he calls out a local news team to interview him about a cattle mutilation case he’s investigating; and when he comes up with his “UFO highway” hypothesis, central to the book but barely present in it, his sister asks, knowing him, “What do you want to do with this? Put out a press release?” A quick Google search shows that he maintains a website; he’s active on Twitter under a handle based off his site name; he turns up for radio and news interviews; and his IMDb page indicates that he’s slowly carved a bit of the paranormal TV racket out for himself, most recently with his own show, Alien Highway. To return focus to his portrayal just within the book’s narrative, Chuck is a gun-nut paranoid obsessive who forces his family to relocate from California to Colorado so he can go from a full-time job in microchips to a part-time freelance position closer to some of the more interesting paranormal activity he’s gotten reports about. He follows a quest for glory to become a Reserve Sheriff’s Deputy, but his need for publicity ultimately puts him in opposition with his department, and he’s fired from that volunteer role. Once out of the volunteer job, he makes no effort to go back to full-time work, instead focusing more on his hobby of hunting UFOs and investigating cattle mutilations. In the meantime, his wife has to hold down two jobs just to cover the bills. He overspends on bullshit technology for his investigations, because just about every middle-aged white male paranormal investigator conflates lots of gadgets with doing science. While he still had a decent income, he would try to bribe his wife with appliance upgrades and kitchen remodeling to get her over the frustration of his overspending (in other words, he spent even more on “woman stuff” to try to pacify his wife over spending too much). He seems anxious about his wife not understanding his UFO obsession, and he gets frustrated when she doesn’t believe the same nonsense he does, but she’s shown as nothing less than supportive, giving him all this free time to travel across the country and letting him blow through their money even while she’s working double and raising their kids. A highlight of his reckless, selfish behavior is when he reflects on two incidences in which his wife “exploded on him”: one time after maxing out a credit cart on equipment “the same afternoon she’d tried to make a payment on their youngest son’s braces” and another time when he spent $300 on scalpels the morning after their washing machine broke down. If there is a true hero, it’s Tammy, his long-suffering wife, whose main character flaw appears to be an enabler tendency and an unwillingness to demand that he make any sort of sacrifice for his family or even seriously consider the possibility of psychiatric care even as he spirals into paranoid thinking including the belief that he is perpetually tailed by government agents in black SUVs.

There was nothing charming to me about Chuck. He seemed like a bad dad and a bad husband, too obsessed with what he wanted to see to even register how his actions impacted those around him. Maybe that’s an unfair read, but there’s nothing he did for his family (at least in the book) that was truly selfless. Sure, he bought an RV and took them on family trips a lot when the kids were younger–so he could drive to places known for paranormal activity. He even scheduled participation in a volunteer archaeological dig with his wife for his wedding anniversary so that he could learn more about how to conduct physical investigations at field sites.

Chuck also broadcasts a lot of tired, racist beliefs about Native Americans. He believed the Anasazi were in communication with aliens. He reads Indian “sacred and historic” sites as somehow fundamentally connected to the paranormal phenomenon he tracks. For that matter, he does not seem to register that indigenous peoples have been repeatedly displaced. And in the tradition of the classic, “I’m not racist, I have a/an [insert race here] friend,” he even has a “part Native American” friend who drifts in and out of the story for Chuck to use as a tracker, sidekick, and key to get onto indigenous lands.

Mezrich tries to keep us in Chuck’s perspective, only occasionally taking a trip to track someone else’s (typically sympathetic or allied) viewpoint. I suppose he was trying hard to frame Chuck as heroic, or perhaps he just couldn’t think of a better way to humanize him. But his depiction of Chuck is someone with 90% grandiose thinking and 10% halfhearted humility. His acknowledgments only complicate the subject further, as he remarks, “Chuck is certainly one of a kind, and it was impossible not to be inspired by his enthusiasm about what he views as a quest for the ultimate truth, regardless of the consequences” (emphasis added). I’m not sure how to read that aside, other than as an admission by Mezrich that Chuck’s delusional worldview is flawed and lacking in self-awareness. There is nowhere in the text itself that felt like an attempt to be tongue-in-cheek or to seriously engage with Chuck’s thinking.

There are problems outside of Chuck. Another issue for me was the style. The dialogue manufactured to fill in most scenes, to present something closer to a novel than a more removed non-fiction narrative, reads as cliche and stilted. Characters talk like they’re in a bland action movie, rather than like real people. Most of the characters, in fact, are not given the opportunity to be presented as the fully rounded humans they must be in reality, with the bare-bones writing directing most of the energy to Chuck’s delusional thinking and his cattle mutilation investigations. We’re constantly bombarded with exposition, like when Chuck “explains” Roswell to his wife, and actual dramatic tensions are typically skipped over. Yet anyone with even a passing interest in the paranormal is unlikely to uncover any new “facts” here, just the same lukewarm, regurgitated tales with even the most wildly speculative accounts presented as genuine possibilities. On top of all this, Mezrich makes the baffling decision to hop around in time, which had me shuffling between chapters to see whether events were happening before or after what I was currently reading; it didn’t build to anything, and a standard timeline would have only brought clarity, so it’s a truly puzzling choice.

A final failing of the book is its failure to wrestle with the nature of the investigations here. Chuck wants to be viewed as engaging in science, and Mezrich never challenges this. It’s a common failing of paranormal narratives; the story only works if you suspend your disbelief, so better not point out the shortcomings in that story. Chiefly, Chuck thinks it’s science to go to cattle mutilation sites days or weeks later, interview the ranch owners, take samples from the corpses, and record observations about the sites. He eventually finds a veterinary school that will autopsy the corpses, resulting only in a continued refrain that the cause of death cannot be explained. Chuck apparently has no interest in actually investigating what “normal” animal deaths are like. Despite there being fields of study into decomposition, Chuck remains focused only on those cases that are called in. Yes, they present interesting mysteries, but you’re never going to get an answer if you keep poking at the things that can’t be explained with the tools you have. His investigations could provide interesting data points in aggregate, but he’s looking for proof of a particular worldview rather than trying to understand what’s happening. Unknowns are, to him, proof of his beliefs, rather than gaps in the path to better understanding. His apparent lack of interest in seriously examining how animals die and how they decay means that he can’t seriously rule out other results. He’s spent years doing this and has never found anything conclusive, but he thinks the big breakthrough will be through continuing to focus only on the unexplained. In other words, he’s trying to be an expert without bothering with the basics. He’s not trained as a scientist, and he seems to view forensic investigations for a police case as interchangeable with the scientific method.

Chuck’s fixation on the outlier cases of animal deaths foreshadows his “UFO highway” hypothesis. You see, he gradually filled a map of the US with pins showing where paranormal events occurred. One night, he took down all the pins and restored only pins that correlated with “his recent [investigations of] mutilations,” “his own UFO investigations,” and MUFON files sent to him by his sister where the “events . . . could be corroborated by multiple witnesses, or that had enough circumstantial evidence for him to consider them verified.” Using a highly subjective process reliant upon his own experience and judgment, he produced a band of cases that were concentrated between the 36th and 38th parallel. It’s sort of an interesting coincidence, but when you start with the factors he used, it’s not weird that there would be some sort of geographically contained result. He even claims that the “only big hitter that’s missing” is his sacred Roswell, but attempts to explain this by saying that if the flying saucer that crashed had come from Kenneth Arnold’s Mount Rainier sighting, it would have to pass the band to get to Roswell. He does not seem to register that Mount Rainier, too, is outside of his predetermined band, and so the grandfather of UFO sightings would be excluded as well. And he outright ignores the many, many, many UFO sightings throughout the US and, for that matter, the world that don’t fit within this geographic band. Combating anecdotes with anecdotes is counterproductive, but I could point to famous UFO cases like the 1967 Malmstrom Air Force Base incident or the 1950 Mariana UFO video or the 1980 Rendlesham Forest incident, not to mention the numerous sighting reports from throughout the nation going into organizations like MUFON, or the sightings that have given rise to serious investigations by other countries that don’t even lie across this latitude (e.g., Brazil, Canada, France, and the UK). In other words, even without careful scrutiny, this hypothesis just flies in the face of reason, demanding that we give greater weight to reports verified by one man operating in one region of the country.

With the suggestion of his sister, Chuck then added pins of military bases and those “American Indian sites, both sacred and historic,” that happened to fall within this geographic band–a completely irrelevant data point, and highly selective since he’s not adding all the bases and indigenous communities or archaeological sites outside of that band. They ended up with a lot of pins on a narrow band of a map after this highly guided approach, arriving at a predetermined outcome. His sister even concedes, “Some of this has got to be coincidence. Some of it is probably related to the reporting mechanisms. Where we’re situated is informing the kind of reports we see, and the ones we can verify.” Yet still, these faithful believers choose to accept the findings because the map looks significant somehow. It’s a small matter to them that they can’t determine how or why it’s significant.

It does seem that some in the paranormal community have latched onto this. I’m not surprised. True believers engage in so much magical thinking and confirmation bias that anything vaguely interesting or curious gets grafted on to support the colossal, rickety structure of belief that has grown to define their worldviews. But it is nonetheless frustrating to see, and Mezrich, who appears to otherwise be a “mainstream” author writing about “serious” nonfiction subjects, should not have presented such a belief set without seriously engaging with and challenging it. Yes, perhaps it was obvious to Mezrich that these ideas should not be taken seriously, and perhaps he should be able to trust a reader to engage critically with a work. But all too often, that will not happen. His use of heavy redaction on the last page, to suggest that Chuck finally found some truly otherworldly occurrence that confirmed his beliefs, is an especially awful example of how he put flimsy beliefs ahead of rigorous thinking. I’m disappointed all around.