Alternate-alternate histories for Jurassic World Evolution 2’s Chaos Theory

At this point, I’ve completed Jurassic World Evolution 2‘s Campaign and Chaos Theory missions, and I’ve tested the waters with Challenge mode, completing the first challenge on easy. The handful of Challenge levels suggest that it’s actually reasonable to try to complete them all on Jurassic difficulty–and it might even be fun. At just over 50 hours of game time, this has proven to be a robust game with enough content to make the price tag worthwhile, and there’s still more to do.

Nodosaurus in nature.

On top of that, compared to the original, the dinosaurs are better-looking and have more realistic behaviors, guests are more varied in interests, and park-building is a deeper and more customizable experience. (Really, the only gameplay elements I wish were different are the still relatively short lifespans of most of the dinosaurs and the lack of breeding in the wild–the latter means you’ll never have an authentic dinosaur preserve, and it’s also a glaring absence given the importance of breeding in Planet Zoo and the significance of breeding and natural survival in the books and films.)

Dilophosaurus death leap.

All that said, there’s something that still feels “light” about the whole experience. If I had to identify a single factor, it would be that there’s very little connective tissue between levels. As I discussed in my original review, the campaign is incredibly short, easily completed in about five hours, with little development in plot or the handful of characters you’re interacting with. Then each Chaos Theory level is its own isolated experience: build Jurassic Park, build Jurassic Park San Diego, capture dinosaurs from Site B for Jurassic World, build Jurassic World, tear down Jurassic World and help the dinosaurs go free. Each is in its own separate alternate universe, so your successful Jurassic Park has no bearing on San Diego or Jurassic World. And there’s very little to explain just how the timelines changed, beyond just your involvement–for instance, why exactly is Ian Malcolm on board with San Diego and why is there no Peter Ludlow in sight? This disconnect between the movie timeline and the isolated alternate universe tales was maybe strongest felt in the Jurassic World level: the Indominus rex is created, and so long as you did a decent job designing a secure pen and catering to its environmental needs, it’s never really a threat to the park as a whole (meanwhile, my “Rexy” died of old age and was replaced just before the Indominus was released). But every level embodied some level of detachment–for instance, in the Jurassic Park III level, the mission runs as a plausible prequel to Jurassic World, as you collect dinosaurs for the new park and witness the death of the Spinosaurus at the hands of a raptor pack, but it decidedly cannot be part of the official continuity because the Spinosaurus still has the ringing phone signature and the Dino-Soar sail can still be found caught in a canopy. The “alternate universe” nature of the level almost seems to be that all the Kirby party survivors died, or were rescued without mention earlier than in the movie.

The end of the Spinosaurus in Chaos Theory.

It’s true that these levels certainly taught me again and again that it was difficult to make an excellent dinosaur park–I had to restart a lot from a hopelessly bankrupt state in the first mission, I never got San Diego to five stars (unnecessary to complete the mission), and I had to fire scientists and hunker down in a slow recovery when I overinvested in synthesizing the Indominus and a replacement Tyrannosaur just as Rexy passed away. But these problems are not the big problems of the movies. It’s true that John Hammond and Simon Masrani had some more mundane management problems, like Hammond’s no-shows and a sick Triceratops or Masrani’s lost and sick visitors, overly rambunctious Pachycephalosaurus, and perpetual need to rekindle visitor interest, but these weren’t the issues that sunk their parks. Hammond claimed to spare no expense but relied too heavily on automation and low-bid contractors who didn’t share his vision. Ludlow never had any vision of his own and rushed into things without fully understanding the risks he was taking. Masrani let Wu take the genetics into even more questionable places without caring to understand the science and allowed the creation of fantastic hybrids with too little oversight. And these three men were all betrayed, not just by park whims, but by deliberate human actions. Hammond was betrayed by Nedry. Ludlow was betrayed by Hammond (and his eco-saboteur). Masrani was betrayed, not deliberately, but by the at first rushed and later panicked actions of the Indominus guards and park staff.

Things going sideways in Chaos Theory.

In short, the problems that they failed to overcome were not ones of simple management, and with Ian Malcolm’s chaos theory messaging, the suggestion is that regardless of what they had done, the control they were attempting over such complex and unpredictable systems would inevitably lead to failure at some point. Therefore, to really feel like you were stepping into their shoes, it would have made more sense to have experiences catered around reacting to unique crisis points. It’s easy to avoid overworking your staff and thus avoid sabotage, so what if the game put more pressure on you to push a little too far? What if you had to design a Jurassic Park that was actually closer in design to Hammond’s vision, with park tours aligned with the map of the park from the film? What if you had ample money, with regular new income from investors, but your problem was not dwindling income streams but rather a deadline? Hammond’s investors were wary and ready to shut down the park close to opening, so you could have had two competing priorities: efficiency versus security. You could be racing to open the park with a test run of the park tour attended by scientific consultants by a certain deadline (with all planned exhibits and attractions in place) without having more than x number of fatalities. Then you’d really be living Hammond’s vision, where the issue wasn’t simply a matter of draining money before opening but dealing with competing demands from investors and employees. I also would have had a set limit of scientists that you have to work with at the start of the game–have to keep the park secret, after all! No extra staff centers to increase scientist count. And you could even have set staff specifically for this level–the “scientists” could be Wu (genetics), Harding (welfare), Nedry (logistics, and with the Entitled Salary trait, of course), and Muldoon (generalist?), for instance. Just because Nedry betrayed Hammond in the film doesn’t mean he’d be the bad actor here, if you happened to keep him more rested.

Jurassic Park Chaos Theory

This process of reconstituting the levels to be better tailored to their respective films could be extended to the full Chaos Theory mode.

The Lost World is challenging because, outside of the promise of San Diego (which is clearly signaled to be a bad idea), there isn’t a clear “park” to deal with here. But Frontier had two Chaos Theory levels that avoided dealing with park-building, and perhaps they should have applied this to The Lost World. I think I would have split this into two levels, with an overarching story: first on Isla Sorna, and then outside San Diego. The big thing is that Frontier never clearly explains why Malcolm has come around on San Diego–it seems like InGen maybe listened to him in this timeline and thus didn’t do the snatch-and-grab, but they still decided to monetize the Isla Sorna dinosaurs anyway. I would make the turning point into a whole level, in which you play as Malcolm’s research/sabotage team. In this alternate timeline, Hammond makes the full team aware immediately of InGen’s plans, and Malcolm agrees to go with Harding, Carr, and Van Owen to get documentation of the dinosaurs to bring to the world to derail their plans. Van Owen makes his sabotage play before departure, the InGen hunter team’s expedition is resultantly delayed, and your team gets to the island with time to spare and a clear deadline once more: you have to get enough observation and footage in within the time provided, or else the InGen team gets to the island. (And if that team gets to the island, you get a losing cinematic in which things play out largely the same–sabotage of the hunter camp, destruction of the research team camp, mass death, and a Tyrannosaurus loose in San Diego.) The mission could be very simple, locking you in to a ranger Jeep (something the game experiments with on some levels already) and having you drive across the island, scanning the dinosaurs and photographing particular behaviors within some species before the hunters arrive, then driving to the old InGen compound to broadcast out your findings. That would launch the second, interconnected level: InGen’s mission was shut down, the dinosaur preserve was established, humans were amazed by the dinosaurs, and there was no big chaotic event like the San Diego attack. Years pass, and InGen executives persuade Malcolm to come on as a consultant once more as Jurassic Park San Diego is set to launch. Rather than importing dinosaurs from Isla Sorna, which again is an untouchable preserve, InGen has restarted its genetics program under Dr. Wu. Wu and Malcolm become opposing narrative factions–Malcolm encourages moderation and a focus on natural preservation and herbivorous species, while Wu pushes the envelope, gradually recreating carnivores for the park that could peak with the return of the Tyrannosaurus. Much like in the existing version of Jurassic Park San Diego in the game, the challenges could be more oriented around the unique environment, the gradual acquisition of more land, and the mundane problems of park management, rather than the unique risks of the prior scenarios. There could be a big final challenge of corporate sabotage–by BioSyn, of course–resulting in the release of the carnivores and a frantic effort to protect the guests, secure the paddocks, and recapture the dinosaurs before fatalities get high enough or dinosaurs get far enough away to shut the park down for good.

The Lost World Chaos Theory

I rather liked what Frontier did for Jurassic Park III, having the level serve as a canon-adjacent backstory for the creation of Jurassic World. But a couple of the nods to the third film–the hang glider and the ringtone–just add confusion as to the when/where/how. Plus, Jurassic World always had dinosaurs from both Isla Sorna and Isla Nublar, so it’s not a definitive story to show the importation of dinosaurs from Site B. I think you can give an alternate timeline to III that acts as both an alternate prequel to that movie and to Jurassic World by changing the focus to InGen’s unauthorized cloning and release of animals on Isla Sorna shortly after Masrani Global’s purchase of InGen. As the Dinosaur Protection Group materials made clear, these new animals included Ankylosaurus, Ceratosaurus, Corythosaurus, and Spinosaurus. This mission could have seen you working with Dr. Wu yet again, this time without a sympathetic foil–the closest, perhaps, being the misguided and naïve Masrani himself. You could set up a small research facility on Isla Sorna, ensure that it is secure from dinosaur incursions, send teams to dig sites to specifically target the creation of these four species, and then create habitats for them that met their needs. Perhaps this climaxes with a unique disease that you have to identify and treat (pulling some inspiration from DX in The Lost World novel, perhaps) that is further complicated by an unusually bad storm. If you get through this with the dinosaurs contained, Masrani decides to export them to Jurassic World right away, rather than allow them to be abandoned, and the mission ends.

Jurassic Park III Chaos Theory

Next up is Jurassic World, and I think that’s another one that’s fairly well-served by its current incarnation. I would have liked a more curated experience of building this park, though–as I suggested with Jurassic Park, it would be nice to be guided in building a park that more closely matched its on-screen counterpart. This could also have a little more guided mission structure, starting with the capture of the Isla Nublar dinosaurs, then the importation of the Isla Sorna dinosaurs, the creation of the Mosasaurus, and the creation of the Indominus. Since Jurassic World collapsed because of the Indominus’s tricks, I think the mission should climax with a scripted sequence in which the gate is opened by a fleeing guard checking on it, resulting in the Indominus getting loose in the park and removing its tracker (so you couldn’t see it on the overhead map or check its status–you’d need a visual confirmation of its location). You could be more aggressive in taking it down quickly, and you’d have the added benefit of using a capture helicopter from the start, so you’d probably be able to contain the threat much more easily than your film counterparts–once more, the goal would be avoiding excessive guest fatalities and restoring order.

Jurassic World Chaos Theory

The last Chaos Theory mission, for Fallen Kingdom, works just fine as is: in this timeline, the volcano is not about to erupt, so Claire is able to clear away the old park and let the dinosaurs loose. I think I would tweak this one only a little, to allow for the development of a more permanent dinosaur preserve without the commercial focus of the preexisting park.

Fallen Kingdom Chaos Theory

I also would have liked more Chaos Theory missions–and I think easy additions would have been updated versions of Return to Jurassic Park, Secrets of Dr. Wu, and Claire’s Sanctuary, offering up alternative sequels/events to Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, and Fallen Kingdom, respectively.

Return to Jurassic Park

I certainly threw out a lot of ideas above, but I recognize that these aren’t the only ways to have offered more expanded alternate stories, and they’re almost certainly not the best ways. I nonetheless think they’d offer more narrative experiences that better suited the stories they’re adapting. I had hoped that Chaos Theory would play more like the original game’s Return to Jurassic Park or Claire’s Sanctuary, which offered some of the better narrative-focused campaigns in the game. Instead, the final implementation feels more “inspired by” the movies rather than directly responding to them. What does exist is not bad. I wouldn’t have already played for over 50 hours if I didn’t like what I was doing. But the overall experience feels detached, narratively light and fluffy, just a series of out-of-context anecdotes oriented around building up or tearing down park after park after park. While the levels are varied, it feels a step back from where the team had been going with the original game’s DLC content. Despite this criticism, at the end of the day, I suppose this is all a testament to the quality of the game, that at 50 hours in, with several Challenge levels left to go, my biggest disappointment is that there is not even more.

The dream of resurrected dinosaurs flourishing on Site B.

Review: Jurassic World Evolution 2

I’ve played a little over 20 hours of Jurassic World Evolution 2. That’s seen the completion of the campaign, the Jurassic Park Chaos Theory mission, three-fifths of The Lost World Chaos Theory mission, and 19 of 44 Steam achievements. That also means that I haven’t touched three of the Chaos Theory missions or any of the Challenge or Sandbox modes. My time with the game has not been brief, but it still feels a tad premature to offer a definitive review–certainly, it can’t be a final impression.

That all said, I’m liking what I’ve experienced so far, and it appears that Frontier have improved upon basically every issue I had with the original game–without entirely resolving those issues. There are more prehistoric creatures, including an array of pterosaurs and marine reptiles, and they look more lovely than ever, with more unique and lifelike behaviors; on the other hand, I’ve watched a Triceratops starve to death, locked in a perpetual state of panic, as its companions grazed peacefully around it. “Too stupid to eat” hardly seems an authentic experience. Much of the busywork has been streamlined; on the other hand, now, instead of manually restocking animal feeders, I’m manually restocking food and fuel for ranger and medical stations. There are more things to do and more unique choices to make; on the other hand, you’re still pulled out of the flow a bit too often by storms, disease, and injuries. And there are some dynamic animations with social behaviors or release of new animals that don’t quite work right at times.

There are some things that are simply better, without exception. You no longer have to constantly placate the frustratingly feuding divisions of the original game; now, you just have to manage your team of scientists, avoiding overwork that can lead to the risk of sabotage. There are more plausible pathways to a five-star park, and there are many areas of research that you can choose to focus on, making even the narrative-focused modes I’ve been playing feel refreshingly open-ended at times. I can’t confirm it yet, but I suspect that the open-endedness should make Challenge modes far more replayable now.

After as much time as I put into the first game, and with the great fondness I felt for it despite its flaws, I followed this sequel pretty closely since its announcement. That means that my experience with the game has been heavily influenced by expectations, for good and bad. The developers often emphasized a more interesting campaign experience with a greater focus on character relationships, but that’s not really here at all, and the campaign itself can be completed in about five hours, so that was a bit of a letdown. What was there was good, focused on ensuring the safety of dinosaurs, people, and other wildlife by setting up nature preserves across America. There just wasn’t very much of it. I get the impression that the developers have more planned, for three reasons: (1) they released DLC with more dinosaurs to reflect Fallen Kingdom content in the original game; (2) the original game had several narrative-focused, alternate-universe stories that were released as later expansions, including one that built on the plot of the base game; and (3) the story that exists so far in the sequel hints at secret goings-on that Claire and Owen don’t yet have insight into. I wonder how much of this will get fleshed out, how much will go unfulfilled, and how much might actually connect to Dominion. If The Secrets of Dr. Wu are any clue, though, I would expect that the story won’t ever end up being that meaty here. The great expansions in the original game, Claire’s Sanctuary and Return to Jurassic Park, were alternative histories of sorts and offered more compelling stories; the same is the case here, as the sequel really shines in its much deeper Chaos Theory modes. I expected to be a bit bored with the San Diego mission because we could see so much of it in promotional advance-play videos, but actually playing it, I’ve had a tremendous time. Its skeletal architecture built out around that iconic amphitheater establishes a clearly defined basic infrastructure but still allows you to build the park out as you wish, especially as you buy more land and expand the area you have to operate in. I love the park I’ve built so far. It was startling to discover how much fun this mission was because the Jurassic Park mission was more of a slog for me. Since the main campaign was focused on nature preserves, Jurassic Park was my first real introduction to the refined park management in this game, and while this sequel benefits from systems that are deeper and more complex, that also means that things aren’t as simple and straightforward as before; some things were more opaque, and I made some bad choices and ran into a lot of bad luck. While I got to five stars eventually, the experience made clear to me that, without the ability to reload, I would have fared no better than John Hammond in opening that island attraction. But by the time I got to San Diego, I understood systems better. It’s funny that the “introductory” experience does provide adequate training, but more through trial and error than a basic guided tutorial.

I think that after maybe a patch or two, at least some of the minor issues I still have with Jurassic World Evolution 2 will be resolved. Even if those fixes never came, this game is already an incredible experience for a Jurassic Park fan and a considerable improvement over the original. Reviews emphasizing the iterative nature of the sequel are not wrong, but I have found my time in the game refreshingly different from the original nonetheless. My main concern is, will this game be able to keep holding my interest when the Chaos Theory missions are done? Will I stick around for the Challenges? Will I reach a point where I’ve exhausted them and have run out of things I want to do? And how many hours in will it take for me to reach that point? I hope that we will see more expansions, as with the original game, to broaden the campaign further and add more features that might add more hours of gameplay. But until I spend more time with the game as it exists now, it’s hard to say how long the base game will continue to engage me.

For now, I’m having a good time. It’s a good dinosaur park management sim, and more robust than the original even if not as deep and customizable as Planet Zoo (another Frontier title). If that’s your thing, or if you’re a fan of Jurassic Park, then you’ll probably like it too.

Review: Dune (2021)

Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is incredible. The cast, the scope and ambition, the cinematography, the special effects and costume design and sets, the sound design, the score, the faithfulness to the book with a few small tweaks to update it and make it feel fresh…all elements excelled.

The visual aesthetics and moody musical themes were special highlights to me, really driving home the differences in the different factions and worlds. I felt the baroque, ostentatious, pseudo-fascist styles of the great houses pulled more than a little (in a good way) from other big-budget sci-fi films of the past twenty years like The Chronicles of Riddick, the Lynchian Dune, The Fifth Element, the Star Wars prequels’ Coruscant scenes, and maybe even Jupiter Ascending. All that said, it has its own unique visual flare; for instance, the arriving and departing spaceships had a surreal alienness to them, seemingly unknowable, like something out of a first contact film like Arrival rather than a space opera. The rumbling sounds and brooding music highlighted everything pitch perfectly.

And the film is damn-near-perfectly cast, with a lot of incredible star talent. Timothee Chalamet is a striking Paul Atreides, coming across as angsty and thoughtful and sensitive and a little disconnected from the human condition already. His best pouty moments of youthful petulance make me yearn for some way to see him play the role of Anakin Skywalker someday–he’d knock it out of the park. Rebecca Ferguson brings a lot more emotion and sympathy to Jessica than any other adaptation, while remaining capable and confident; her nature as a Bene Gesserit yet also a loving and devoted mother and wife is wrung for every ounce of tortured conflict here. Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa, and Josh Brolin essentially define the roles of Duke Leto Atreides, Duncan Idaho, and Gurney Halleck, respectively, for me now. Even lesser roles that could have been forgotten, like Stephen McKinley Henderson as Thufir or Chang Chen as Dr. Yueh, provided more humanity than I would have expected. On the other end of the spectrum, Dave Bautista portrays Rabban as an almost evil mirror version of his Marvel performances as Drax (to great effect, given the brutish stupidity of the character), Stellan Skarsgard is unrecognizable and terrifying as Baron Harkonnen, and Charlotte Rampling is sinisterly conniving and mysterious as the Reverend Mother. It’s such a large cast, of course, and I could continue to go on and on, but that’s enough. We don’t see enough of the Fremen yet for me to say much about those performances–so far Zendaya seems great as Chani, while Javier Bardem seems a little off and more than a little goofy as Stilgar, but time will tell with the sequel.

This is the best big-budget sci-fi film I’ve seen in a long time. It’s the best Dune adaptation I think anyone could hope for. It’s good, and it should definitely be seen in theaters. (I watched it in 2D IMAX at my favored cinema, the Indiana State Museum.) I recognize, though, that it may not be for everyone.

I am not a huge Dune fan. I’ve only read the first book–though I believe I’ve read it at least a couple times–and grew up with the David Lynch movie and watched the Sci Fi Channel miniseries in high school or college. I’m not disinterested, but I’ve never read further in the series. I have great fondness for the narrow exposure to this space opera that I do have. So I’m not perhaps a Dune faithful and could not nitpick every small detail, but I followed along expecting plot points, I was pleasantly surprised by recasting Liet-Kynes as a woman (whereas I recalled the male character in the book and its previous adaptations), and I even predicted where the first half of a two-part film adaptation would have to end. I think a bigger fan will love this movie too and will probably get even more out of it. I wonder if someone not so fond of or familiar with the source material might find the whole affair a bit ponderous, self-absorbed, and confusing, though. Then again, maybe they’ll get it, too.

If you like sci-fi, space operas, big-idea films, epic fantasy, or Dune itself, you should treat yourself–if you haven’t already–and go watch this soon.

The Alien RPG

As I anticipated when I first brought this up, I didn’t have a chance to run any Alien RPG sessions before Halloween. Still, I’ve looked over a considerable amount of the currently available materials, including the full core rulebook, the starter set with its Chariot of the Gods cinematic mode adventure, the separate Destroyer of Worlds cinematic mode adventure pack, and the Alien: Colonial Marines campaign book. The materials are consistently good, providing wonderful storytelling frameworks for whichever play mode you want to try.

I’m really impressed with the quality of the stories. I’d be tempted to read comic miniseries adapting either of the full cinematic mode adventures, and the Colonial Marines story hooks would make for a great horror novel or television series. Every description, character, and plot point is dripping with the dark, gritty atmospherics of the Alien films. Some suggested passages in the Colonial Marines campaign’s proposed adventures actually startled me with the vividness of the grotesque imagery. Of course, the thing with an RPG is that it’s about a communal storytelling experience, an only partially composed and largely impromptu shared narrative that is adaptive to the input of multiple players working together–or against each other. So a particularly exciting bit of prose doesn’t necessarily translate to a fun adventure in practice. That said, these story details allow for a lot of flavor and texture, but even if you followed the campaign suggestions or story structure of a cinematic module quite rigorously, you’d find that they’re more suggestions for what can happen, elements to pop in among everything else going on, rather than a set of instructions on what should happen.

The rules are fairly simple and straightforward, as well, which continues to put the emphasis on narrative: both the foundation placed by the GM (here, Game Mother, a cute nod to the common shipboard AI of the setting) and the development constructed by the players are geared around horror storytelling. Crafting a character is quite simple in campaign mode, even simpler in cinematic mode, and pre-generated in the published cinematic adventures. Most mechanical actions are resolved by d6 die rolls, and while there are custom dice in the starter set to fit the atmosphere, nothing’s going to stop anyone from using normal d6 dice as needed. The published cinematic adventures use maps, glossy character sheets, and agenda/plot effect/item cards to make things even simpler and more visual. Furthermore, the game explicitly encourages the avoidance of dice rolls except for in high-stress, dramatically important moments, rather than for every mundane situation where a skill check might occur.

I keep using “cinematic mode” and “campaign mode” without defining terms, and the distinction is important. Developer Free League has created two separate ways to play their RPG. In cinematic play, the goal is to represent the horror and impossible odds of the films. Narrative is prioritized over mechanics. Characters and their relationships are predetermined. You’re typically dealing with a xenomorph or adjacent threat, and player death is expected. Very few, if any, characters are likely to make it to the end. A few cinematic adventures already exist, and more should be on the way, but you could also craft your own, keeping in mind the structure provided for cinematic adventures. Meanwhile, campaign play is the sandbox style of a traditional RPG: players develop a group of characters (and the game puts a particular emphasis on backgrounds, relationships, and motivations, in line with the popular shift to narrative-first roleplaying), the GM provides an open-ended framework for a series of adventures, and there’s typically an overarching campaign that ties everything together. Campaign play is also supposed to be a mode where you don’t see the xenomorphs and their kin much if at all; those buggers are lethal threats, pure murder machines, and it would be implausible for a group to keep coming up against them and walking away intact–not to mention that they’d lose their frightful edge with that increased frequency of appearance. As a result, this mode is more focused on the other terrors of space: corporate greed, military overexpansion, pointless war, the exploitation of the working class, the grinding industrial dangerousness of mining and trucking amidst the stars, strange alien species and exotic diseases of different varieties, the alien nature of the synthetic mind, and the simple cold vacuum of the void.

Interestingly, the cinematic adventures and campaign setting in existence so far build atop each other. While the fates of specific characters and the actual outcomes of individual events are left to player-guided outcomes, the larger story is coalescing toward something bigger, developing from one story to the next. In general, it would appear that corporate and military interests have developed a series of amoral research programs focused on weaponizing or defending against the xenomorph and its ilk, and as these living weapons are proliferated, more outbreaks are occurring with whole colonies going dark, even as a mysterious enemy that may just be returned Engineers begins bio-bombing frontier territories. All of this is interspersed within a larger sociopolitical narrative that recreates the Cold War among the stars, with a sizable third option in the form of a collective emerging out of an Anglo-Japanese alliance that seems increasingly frustrated with the Americans and the communists even as it gets danced along on puppet strings guided by Weyland-Yutani (and there are dozens of corporate interests existing in a free zone of space that represent yet another option). I found the explorations of some of the bioweapons projects some of the most enthralling parts, like for instance the body horror take on a mech suit that is the black-ops Project Berserker in the Colonial Marines supplement. The backstories powering this surprisingly dense lore comb deeply through the franchise’s history of films (including rejected/unpublished drafts of sequels), books, comics, and games. Despite this, a familiarity with the original Alien and/or Aliens is all that is required to enjoy this game setting, since all the core conventions of the setting are more or less established in those sources. There does feel to be a core canon that one would benefit from, though, of Alien, Aliens, Alien 3, Prometheus, and Alien: Covenant. On the other end of the spectrum, there appears to be a hard line drawn to separate the Alien franchise from the Alien v. Predator multimedia crossover.

As I mentioned in the past, some seem concerned with the mechanical implementation of features like panic or cinematic agendas, in that they can deprive player agency at key junctures. I can understand that perspective, and I’m limited by not having played the game with a group yet, but I suspect that this could force a lot of interesting dramatic tension and good complicating elements, so long as players are fully aware of this system. To quote myself, the game has mechanics baked into it “to make the players feel insecure, underpowered, under-resourced, and facing threats they can’t possibly comprehend or defeat.” The risk of losing control at important moments furthers that thematic objective.

I think the only point that I’m wary on is the portrayal of mental illness. Horror is meant to terrify, to revolt, to press against taboos and push down boundaries. I get that. And this game is set in a franchise with themes tightly wrapped around fear/disgust with metaphorical rape by an unknowable monster that would be Lovecraftian if not for its blind focus on killing over any higher-function thought. Still, that said, just because something is meant to push uncomfortable boundaries, to scare us and disgust us, it doesn’t mean that we can’t ask questions of it, to push back on it. I actually think the use of “panic” as a system is rather appropriate, as a fear response in a fight-or-flight situation could be unexpected and uncharacteristic especially when facing such horrid monstrosities. The use of panic as an unpredictable reaction to extreme stress, rather than the cruder “sanity” meter employed in too many horror games (a mechanic I’ve recently encountered playing the now roughly year-old Early Access game Phasmophobia), seems like a positive improvement. The game also talks about trauma and PTSD, perhaps a bit too lightly, as an after-effect of exposure to these creatures and the other threats of space. The game has some permanent reactions to mental trauma that can develop and are mechanically described/implemented. Some will cringe at this, but I honestly don’t see anything in the descriptions or effects that seems cruel or inappropriate (potential permanent reactions to trauma include phobia, alcoholism, recurrent nightmares, depression, drug use, and amnesia). So far, the only place where I think Free League clearly slipped up is in one tiny detail: describing an android character in Destroyer of Worlds as having a “bipolar” personality when really they mean to indicate that he alternates between his own personality and an assumed personality of another synthetic who has hacked into his mind (which, by the way, is a very specific example of how character agendas can sometimes override personal player choice in how to roleplay a character). Of course, bipolar disorder is a severe mental illness, and “bipolar” often gets used incorrectly/fliply to refer to someone prone to quick mood changes–or, as in this case, to someone who fluctuates between personality types. They’re really trying to describe the synthetic version of dissociative identity disorder, or if you wanted to go for a more religious/spiritual spin, you could argue that–given that the character really is being taken over by an outside personality–he’s actually “possessed.” And neither of these descriptions, whether the religious flair or the psychiatric diagnosis, reflect an actual personality. But we’re talking about one word on one character sheet in one cinematic adventure module, and as Free League is a Swedish publisher, I wonder if this is really a linguistic or cultural translation error more than anything else.

That ultimately quite minor concern aside, I’m really fascinated by what Free League has designed. As they plan to continue to release more cinematic adventures and campaign books based around the other core careers of space trucker and colonist, I have to imagine I’ll continue to stay engaged at least in reading these new publications. Even without playing it, the on-the-page storytelling has so far been enough to keep me invested.

Finding a way to finish Alien: Isolation

I’ve written before about my mixed experience with Alien: Isolation, and my abandonment of the game after too many failures in the medbay level (only Mission 5 of 18!). That was, amazingly, over four years ago, which was even then almost three years after the game was originally released. My brief attempt to return to it quickly shriveled into nothing as well.

Yet enough time has passed that I’d let go of my frustration, and I was far more curious about experiencing the rest of the story. And after all, I get into a certain mood starting about a month before October anyway. Watching Alien and Aliens again, I wanted to see the story of Amanda Ripley in full, to understand how it connects and adds to those classic films.

So I started again. I prepared myself for a potentially grueling experience, went with the lowest difficulty of novice, and started the game again. And I found myself really enjoying the game! It was very tense, but that was appropriate for the content of the game. I appreciated the atmosphere. I held my breath in adrenaline-pumping games of cat and mouse. I cursed and gasped in fear. I marveled at the considerable attention to detail the designers invested in every prop, every nook and cranny of the space station and starships you encounter along the way. I abused tactics that wouldn’t work on higher difficulties, becoming over-reliant on hiding spaces like cupboards, lockers, and the leg room beneath desks and tables. I advanced slowly and steadily. I had a lot of scary fun. The alien became less intimidating, more of a mechanistic gameplay challenge than a horrific creature, but that was fine. I enjoyed teasing out elements of the story. I enjoyed how the fate of the Anesidora and its crew provided an explanation as to why W-Y never sent its colonists to track down the derelict ship before Ellen Ripley could verify its location decades later, even as they settled on the same world that it was located on. (I don’t need a lot of explanations in space horror, but that was an unusual gap that was filled well here.) And I cared about Amanda Ripley, Samuels, and Taylor.

Yet I didn’t finish the game, and I don’t think I will. I ran into what seems to be the other section besides medbay that frustrates a lot of players: the long hallway connecting cluttered rooms that you must move back and forth along to power a generator, go back to flip a switch, and then return to the generator once more when the power goes out. Suddenly the xenomorph was acting much smarter than it had at any other point in novice play, and it was angry. It was always willing to hop in the vents, to open every cupboard, to creep around the room insistently. I was low on flamethrower fuel and couldn’t just flame my way through–plus, my conservative, over-cautious playstyle always backfired as I waited out useful opportunities and was too nervous to inch around tables to keep Ripley separated and just out of sight from the alien. Even after I decided to take a few days’ break, which became over a week, I still felt sick to my stomach thinking of forcing myself through the same anxiety-inducing hallway creeping and repetitive macabre death sequences. But I also felt horrible about giving up entirely because I really wanted to see the story through, and rather than less than halfway into the game, I was on Mission 17, the second-to-last mission!

This is the last screenshot I took, in Mission 16. That accurately reflects the end of my experience being able to actually enjoy the game. The next mission was just too much for me.

Thankfully, there were some ways I could still experience the story. My first option was to watch IGN’s Alien: Isolation web series. Unfortunately, this brief, seven-part series was inferior in basically every way. For starters, it was incredibly rushed, with no sense of horror, let alone mild fright, throughout. The alien was over-showcased. The character beats were stripped of meaning. There was very little breathing room. Important plot points were rushed or skipped entirely. Two skipped sequences were especially annoying. First, a scene shows the Anesidora‘s crew discovering the egg room on the derelict freighter and being attacked before anyone went off to shut down the beacon, and while they mention that they want to make sure no one else can find the discovery before this happens, there’s nothing to suggest they’d waste time searching for and deactivating the beacon when the captain’s wife has just been victimized by a life-threatening parasite. Second, Ripley is shown to purge the reactors to wipe something out, leading to the release of the surviving aliens onto the rest of the colony, but the series doesn’t bother to show or explain that she discovered the alien hive nestled in the reactor, thus making her choices incomprehensible. Outside of plot, atmosphere, and pacing issues, the animation is crude, coupling together still-good-looking game cinematics with very awkward machinima segments with poorly chosen camera angles that really let you notice the characters’ untimed, floppy-mouthed animations during dialogue that otherwise would have been obscured by various elements of a first-person video game experience. Side-by-side, the difference in quality is exceptionally jarring. Then there are some changes that seem downright unfortunate: Amanda’s discovery of her mother’s final message to her is powerfully delivered by Sigourney Weaver in the game, but the series must have had difficulties licensing the use of the voice again or something, because the context of delivery is slightly changed and this time it’s a combination of warped digital voice and Amanda’s own flat recitation of the dialogue, stripping the sincerity and much of the emotion from the moment. That’s true of the larger project, though: this condensed series plays like reading a Wikipedia plot synopsis.

The second option proved better: finding a YouTube series of playthroughs. I found an impressive walkthrough with no player reactions, just gameplay footage, and watched the one-and-a-half videos that showed me the rest of the game that I hadn’t played. This was tense and sometimes terrifying, even when I wasn’t the one having to get Ripley out alive, even when I knew that the purpose of this video was demonstrating a successful run through the game. I can honestly say that this was an ideal way for someone like me, someone with a low tolerance for the game’s punishing difficulty coupled with its sense of dread, to appreciate the other things it really excels at, like story, mood, atmosphere and visual aesthetic, voice-acting and sound design, lighting and textures, and so on. Given that it looks like most of the missions can be beaten around 30 minutes, I would even recommend that someone who has not been able to beat the game, or who has otherwise avoided it because of concerns about being able to successfully play through the content, just go out and find a good walkthrough series to watch like a single-season television series. For anyone who otherwise would enjoy the setting of the game or who is a fan of the franchise, of sci-fi, or of space horror but who would struggle to play the game to completion because of skill/patience/stress-tolerance issues, a walkthrough series is the way to go and worthwhile.

Having now seen the conclusion of the game, not just via rushed cinematics but through the experience of the final two levels, I feel at peace with my experience with Alien: Isolation, and I’ll remember the story, setting, and characters fondly and without regret.

(For the record, all the screenshots included here are from my own playing of the game. Also, amazingly, even with an incomplete novice playthrough, I managed to earn 40 of 50 achievements. I’ll take my small victories!)

Alien and Aliens: Horror and Sequels

I was rewatching Alien and Aliens, as I like to do from time to time, and a couple thoughts really stuck with me on this viewing.

First, people often like to distinguish the two films as horror versus action-adventure. Not only is that a tired distinction, but it doesn’t sit with me as very accurate. Aliens is in many ways just as much a horror film as the original, just of a different nature and with different themes. After all, our first view of Ripley’s perspective is a horrifying nightmare of a chestburster erupting from her as she recovers from prolonged “hypersleep” in her hospital bed, and we don’t actually know it’s a nightmare until Ripley does, when she wakes up. We see her startle awake, drenched in sweat, gripping at her chest, on a couple of occasions. Sure, the first act of the film has some less intense sequences, as we first navigate the corporate politics in the aftermath of the recovery of the only survivor of the Nostromo and then meet the colorful colonial marines who are sent on the rescue mission to Hadley’s Hope. But this is just a precursor of what is to come, and the gung-ho heroics end with the company of soldiers decimated and terrified. Newt’s repeated imperilment, Burke’s revolting scheme to smuggle xenomorph embryos, the picking off of the last squad members in the vents, the sheer tense dread of Ripley’s solo incursion into the alien hive, and the surprise maiming of Bishop are all at home in a horror film. Sure, you have the macho marines–for a third of the film, before the majority are ripped to shreds–and you have Ripley armed to the teeth, blowing up the nesting grounds and later growling, “Get away from her, you bitch” before fighting the alien queen in a mech-suit cargo hauler, but these are isolated moments. I won’t deny that there are definitely elements of an action-adventure film, as well as a Vietnam-era war film, baked into the movie, but there are plenty of moments that feel, for lack of a better word, horrific. Bruce Kawin defines horror in Horror and the Horror Film as “a compound of terror and revulsion” (p. 3), for instance. Additionally:

Above all, the horror film provides a way to conceptualize, give a shape to and deal with the evil and frightening . . . . As a genre, the horror film is defined by its recurring elements (such as undeath, witches, or gross, bloody violence), by its attitudes toward those elements (such as that transgressing limits is dangerous) and by its goal: to frighten and revolt the audience.

Kawin, p. 3-4.

Furthermore, “A film with a particular monster or threat usually is built around a particular fear or set of fears, including the outright fear of the monster and what it can do, as well as of what it represents, evokes, symbolizes, or implies” (p. 5). Certainly, Aliens capitalizes on many of the same fears as the original film: fears of death, of rape, of parasites. But it also seems fascinated with fears associated with pregnancy and parenthood. These include fears:

  1. of death on childbirth (after all, the characters take note that removing a facehugger resulted in both death of host and parasite, and we witness a couple different chestburster eruptions specifically killing women, once in dream and once in reality);
  2. of the rapid changes and pain and suffering of pregnancy itself (the use of “impregnate” or another variation to refer to the parasitic means of reproduction on display is used on more than one occasion, and Newt asks Ripley if the process is the same as childbirth);
  3. of somehow failing or abandoning a child (perhaps through premature parental death, as is the case with Newt’s parents, or letting them down in a time of need, as Ripley almost does when she goes to rescue Newt);
  4. of outliving a child out of order with the natural trend of events (as Ripley outlives her daughter through her prolonged hibernation); and
  5. of having a child kidnapped/molested (once more, see Newt, her third-act abduction, and the multiple efforts of facehuggers to latch onto her).

And, in channeling its inner war movie, it reflects cultural anxieties of what asymmetrical war can do, and did, to young soldiers. In fact, Kawin discusses many of these horror elements in his write-up of the Alien films in Horror and the Horror Film (p. 77-79). It’s not purely a horror movie, and by adding hordes of aliens the threat of the individual xenomorph is greatly diminished, but it certainly has a place within the horror genre.

Second, there’s a reason that I end with Aliens. My wife commented, as we finished rewatching Alien yet again, that she was fine with Alien by itself, that a sequel was never needed. Of course, with very few exceptions, a sequel is never needed. Star Wars, Jurassic Park, The Fast and the Furious, Dr. No, and many, many other examples would have been fine without sequels, even though, in these cases, there were many good sequels (amidst many bad ones). But it’s especially true that at the end of Alien, the monster is contained, there is no immediate threat of further infestation, and we can choose to assume, if we so desire, that Ripley is eventually found and given a happy ever after. But what I like about Aliens is that it gives Ripley the chance to right the wrongs of the past, to face her fears, and to (hopefully) find peace. Whereas she lost everyone before, she manages to walk away with some survivors by the end of this film, and she has saved a young girl who would otherwise have been doomed. On top of all that, all those alien eggs on the derelict ship are presumably blown away in the massive explosion at the end. Hopefully Ripley and Newt will be free of night terrors for now on. Then Alien 3 undoes all that, killing off Hicks and Newt and dooming Ripley to die a horrible death by the end of the film. It is all for naught. There is something so bleakly fatalistic about it all; now, surviving is not the end goal, but rather simply destruction, including self-destruction. All is lost. Of course, the great thing about a fictional canon is that it’s all fiction, anyway. My personal headcanon is that Ripley and company arrive safely back on Earth, the alien threat eliminated, and this time Ripley is believed and vindicated because she has others, including an unerring android, to support her account; Ripley cares for Newt, and they wait for Hicks to heal, and the three become a family; the trio win generous compensation for the company’s negligence; the company can’t collect any biomaterials because the destruction of Hadley’s Hope wiped everything out; and we all live in a safer universe, at least for a while. There’s not a story there, there’s no needed sequel, but there doesn’t always have to be more to a story.

And that’s it, except for a third and final thought: damn, these remain great movies.

Review – Star Wars: Visions

Star Wars: Visions is an incredible creative treasure trove and probably the single most-exciting and innovative addition to the franchise since…I can’t even say when, but certainly at least since I’ve been a fan. The easiest comparison point I can make isn’t even a work of fiction, exactly, but the West End Games release of the Star Wars roleplaying game, before my time as a fan. That opened the galaxy up wildly, inviting players to take on new roles and tell their own stories while providing a great deal of new lore and settings and story prompts. In the same way, Visions is refreshingly free from the intertangled core relationships between familiar characters that fill most of Star Wars content (brief appearances by Boba Fett and Jabba the Hutt in a single episode of this anthology notwithstanding). But more than that, it feels free from the stranglehold of canon itself. You can choose to align the stories to the larger canon galaxy if you want, or imagine them in alternative universes, but they’re doing their own thing that’s not hung up on continuity or interconnected storytelling. It’s the freedom of creative energy from many creators also found in A Certain Point of View, but with a complete detachment from the films. It’s beautiful and inspiring.

Visions is, of course, an anthology series from different anime studios with very distinctive styles. For someone familiar with anime broadly and a fan of certain works, but lacking some of the cultural touchstones of a true fan (and I’d fall into this casual-fan category), you’ll surely recognize some influences, homages, and familiar styles. I’d be fascinated to know what a heavy anime fan made of the nine unique shorts, though. Just as excitingly, I think this is a great jumping-off point for someone with little to no familiarity with anime as a medium, as it showcases a wide range of art and animation styles, themes, and storytelling methods. Each episode feels quite unique.

It’s easy to binge all nine episodes, as I did; they’re all fairly short and intensely watchable. I can imagine easily re-watching many of these episodes again and again, as well. Every episode feels crafted by an auteur with a unique point of view and intent, and as a result, they’re all worth watching, although I certainly favored some over others. I expect that we’ll see a lot of officially licensed works, fan fiction, and analytical essays exploring the dimensions of each and every one of these episodes over time. I know I’d certainly like to see more, especially of my favorite stories of this batch, and basically every episode has some dangling plot threads that could be woven into follow-up chapters.

Speaking of favorites, there were a few knock-outs for me: “The Duel,” a story of a wandering Ronin who stumbles onto a village besieged by a group of bandits (lovingly rendered like an old black-and-white film with heavy nods to Akira Kurosawa, with splashes of color for lasers and lightsabers), from studio Kamikaze Douga; “The Ninth Jedi,” set in a distant future in which the Jedi have disappeared from the galaxy, where the daughter of a man who’s rediscovered the techniques behind crafting lightsabers must do her part to renew the Order, from Production I.G; and “The Elder,” showcasing a Master/Padawan team during the height of the Old Republic who stumble upon a powerful Dark Sider in the Outer Rim, from Trigger.

While those were the ones I most loved, virtually every episode had some charming character, intriguing idea, or gorgeous aesthetic. “Tatooine Rhapsody,” from Studio Colorido, managed to combine a band story, a gangster story, a Jedi in the Dark Times plot, and one really oddball punk Hutt. “The Village Bride,” from Kinema Citrus, offered another interesting alternative Force tradition and provided an understated redemption narrative for the Jedi exile protagonist that left a lot of intriguing mystery. “T0-B1,” from Science Saru, mixed a quirky, silly tone with some rather dark narrative and a classic animation style with themes that echoed Astro Boy, Mega Man, and Pinnochio–and it offers up a droid that may just be able to feel the Force, or at least who truly understands the concepts of the Force and finds a way of life more authentic to the Jedi way than the dreams of adventure he started off with. “Lop and Ochō,” from Geno Studio, has some truly gorgeous visuals and a strong emotional heart about complicated family dynamics, although the narrative itself is way too rushed and confused, deserving much more room to breathe and grow. “Akakiri,” from Science Saru, feels largely like an even more explicit remake of The Hidden Fortress than A New Hope, with a dash of Obi-Wan’s complicated history with Satine thrown in, up until its very dark twist ending, an ending that perhaps won’t feel so entirely surprising given how George Lucas tended to treat dreams and prophecy in his films–but this, too, is a whole lot of narrative that feels a tad rushed, or maybe ended too early, right when the story gets interesting. The only one I didn’t really like was “The Twins,” from studio Trigger just like “The Elder”; this story, rather than the brooding and tense investigation with a quietly dynamic mentor-student relationship at the core of “The Elder,” was exposition-heavy, flashy and over-the-top, heavy-handed with its ideas, and somewhat absurd in the excesses of its stylized action sequences, although my wife was a fan and could probably explain its charms quite well. There’s something for everyone in this set, and each story will appeal to someone, truly.

There’s a lot more that I could say about each episode. Like I said earlier, I expect there will be a lot of essays exploring elements of every episode, after all, and I think the episodes are worth that level of intense consideration. But I’ll leave this as a broad initial reaction: this was some incredible television, all the more remarkable because I’d felt rather indifferent about it until the opening scene of that very first episode. This is good Star Wars and good animation, well worth the viewing.

And yes, now I’m really stoked for Emma Mieko Candon’s Ronin, a novel that will expand on the world of “The Duel”; I’m sure we’ll see many more works that do similar for the other stories–or, at least, I really hope so.

Jurassic Park Series Summary

This Jurassic Park / World series of posts finally meets its end. I had fun with it, and I’m also glad to be returning to the roulette of random topics for future posts. Especially since this series had some off-topic posts intermingled over the many weeks since this began, a list of all the final individual posts seems useful. So, to recap, I wrote:

  1. The initial introduction;
  2. A comparison of the first novel and the first film;
  3. What I love about the largely panned sequel;
  4. How I’ve come to accept the third movie, flaws and all;
  5. A review of Blue’s character arc;
  6. Which themes made The Battle at Big Rock so exciting to me;
  7. A reading of the Jurassic Park films as metaphors for family trauma;
  8. Gap stories I’d like to see, or a list of fan fiction projects I’ll probably never get around to; and
  9. What’s on my mind about Dominion as we draw closer to its release.