What I’m Into: Fall 2021

It’s been a long time since I’ve had posts just talking about what I was into at a given moment. Not review, or analysis, just an overview of everything engaging me at the moment. Those posts were sort of aimless, but also sort of fun, because I’d just talk about whatever was absorbing me at the moment. I’ve had so much narrowed focus on big franchise things lately on the blog that I think one of these sorts of scattered, aimless, free-form posts is long overdue.

So, what am I into right now?

What I’m Reading

I’m reading quite a few things, hopping between them. I’m finally around to Michael Crichton’s posthumous Dragon Teeth, which so far has been an enjoyable Western adventure romp with the fairly unique focus on the Bone Wars and early field paleontology. Marsh and Cope are characterized quite colorfully but the rest of the cast, including the protagonist, are fairly bland. I’m simultaneously reading Star Wars: Master & Apprentice by Claudia Gray, which does a great job portraying Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan at an especially fraught moment in their relationship before the events of the prequel trilogy, alongside a lot of cool Jedi Stuff. Then I’m reading Jon Dubin’s Social Security Disability Law and the American Labor Market; it’s been a while since I’ve tackled a truly academic book, and so I’m making slow progress through this dense text despite the rather slender physical packaging, but it’s very worthwhile, and I’m sure it would be a tremendous resource not just for disability law scholars but practitioners like me and perhaps even a general reader seeking to better understand the arbitrary and archaic way that the Social Security Administration attempts to account for an individual’s ability to perform other work and to determine how much of that work actually exists, and in what form, in the national economy.

I’ve also been churning through the published materials for the Alien RPG from Free League. This is just tremendous stuff. I’m not particularly interested in published adventures in general but the cinematic mode gameplay modules that have been published so far offer some really tense, vivid, horrific scenarios. And mechanically, there are a lot of ways to make the players feel insecure, underpowered, under-resourced, and facing threats they can’t possibly comprehend or defeat. (I’ve seen at least one reviewer suggest that agendas and effects like panic take the roleplaying out of the players’ hands, but players would still have to play out how things happen–this if anything just sets up more dramatic opportunities and encourages a feeling of loss of control at key moments that reflects the horror focus of the game.) Just as importantly, the RPG recognizes that the Alien franchise has been about a lot more than the alien from the very beginning, and it builds out enough complicated politics between interstellar governments and mega-corps to provide entertaining storytelling possibilities for their open-sandbox campaign mode. I hope to get some friends to play through at least one or two of the cinematic games in the near future. I think I’ll have more to say about all the materials when I’m through reading them, but of course a proper review of a game is rather incomplete if not based on play experience, so you’ll have to take it with a grain of salt unless I get a group together for this quicker than I think likely. In fact, there are a few different Alien/Aliens posts coming up, but I’m going to keep them to a single day, rather than another series spanning multiple weeks; Halloween seems appropriate.

What I’m Playing

I’ve been in a bit of a tabletop gaming mood lately. Way back in February, I wrote about a routine I had of playing Ring Fit Adventure, a single-player RPG, and then Star Wars: Squadrons with friends over the course of the week. All of that’s changed since then. Ring Fit Adventure play is now quite sporadic. The single-player video game of choice varies a lot as well. And the Squadrons play changed over to (virtual) tabletop roleplaying with those friends; one of them has always been an exceptional gamemaster and has been leading us through an Edge of the Empire campaign, and I haven’t had this much fun with a tabletop RPG in years. I’ve even led a couple of sessions with some side characters set within the same continuity. So between that and reading the Alien materials more recently, I’ve been really energized to try to get to more tabletop roleplaying. As usual, I’ll probably spend a lot more time thinking about settings and stories than actually playing any of these systems, but it’s generative creative energy either way. In addition to the aforementioned materials, I broke down and purchased the Cypher System Rulebook and its Predation supplement because the Terra Nova-meets-Dinotopia-meets-Xenozoic setting looks too damn cool.

I also just pledged on Kickstarter to back a physical printing of Matthew Gravelyn’s survival-adventure journaling game Clever Girl because I can’t get enough of dinosaurs in games and fiction. It’s not the only unlicensed work heavily inspired by Jurassic Park that I’ve recently purchased–about a month ago, I got Dinosaur World from Pandasaurus; it’s a delightful competitive game about building the best dinosaur park you can, producing dinosaurs amid other attractions and amenities and attempting to keep interest in your park maintained through constant expansion and greater risk (it’s also a sequel to their previous Dinosaur Island, which I haven’t played). My wife and I have only played Dinosaur World once so far, and it took a while for us both to get a feel for how the rounds flowed and everything that we should be keeping in mind during the different phases. Once we got that down, it was a lot of fun, and I’ve been itching to play again with a full four players (it’s for 2 to 4).

We technically attended Gen Con this year, but we were only there for part of a day (Sam really struggles with crowds and being in public now). Nonetheless, between Gen Con and online purchases, I’ve picked up quite a number of board games–nothing super-new but certainly games released over the last few years that I’ve been wanting to play. Aside from Nemesis, the ones I picked out this year have been mostly licensed stuff. I’ll write more if/when I get around to these games. I also might write about some of the older games we haven’t played in a while if we pull them out in the coming months–which I hope to be the case more and more as we’re trying to set aside some time for board games, both between the two of us and with a couple friends, on a recurrent basis. Hopefully, there will be no dramatic new developments in the pandemic that would require us to back off from that.

Normally, I would have brought up video games sooner, but I haven’t been playing as much lately. I’ve been intermittently playing Mass Effect: Legendary Edition. I’m trying to do three playthroughs of each game in the trilogy (on top of the playthroughs I had in the original releases of these games). I’m currently on the second playthrough of the second game with my only Renegade character, and even without being a pure Renegade, I don’t enjoy how much of a dick you are with this playstyle. But I’ve been just as likely to play a little bit of Jurassic World: Evolution (yes, I keep coming back to it after all) or The Sims 4. I’ve even given Alien: Isolation another try, finishing…most of it. I’ll have a post about that experience on Halloween, as well. The video game I’m most excited about isn’t even out for about another month: Jurassic World Evolution 2 looks like an improvement on the original in about every way–and at 280 hours recorded, I’ve now put more time into this game than any other in my Steam library.

What I’m watching

I re-watched “The Ninth Jedi” and “The Elder” from Star Wars: Visions this weekend. They’re so good. I’ve also been watching Letterkenny, Marvel’s What If…?, DC’s third season of Titans, and Only Murders in the Building. I’m only current on Only Murders, which is hilarious while simultaneously being surprisingly heartfelt and mysterious. Martin Short, Steve Martin, and Selena Gomez are all delivering fantastic performances every episode. Lastly, for television at least, I’ve started watching The Haunting of Bly Manor, just as most people are now talking about Mike Flanagan’s latest Netflix series, Midnight Mass. Ah, I’m forever behind the times.

I don’t think I’ve watched very many new or new-to-me movies recently, or at least not since The Suicide Squad, which has already been nearly two months ago. Once more, it’s what’s in the near future that my attention is more focused on. I’ll be seeing The Many Saints of Newark, actually in a cinema, sometime this week, and I’ll also be going to Dune in theater later this month or early November. I’m sure I’ll be posting reactions to both when I can.


I’ve written before about trying to balance consumption of big franchises and existing IP with original creative works. Looking at my blog posts this year, and paying attention to what I’m currently engaging with, I am a little disappointed to realize how heavily my consumption has favored the former this year. But since 2020, life has been tumultuous for a lot of people, and that’s certainly been true for my house. Plus, work has remained quite busy for about a year now. So I guess it’s okay if I’m taking in more junk comfort entertainment. I’d also argue that even though these creative works most benefit large corporations and often regurgitate existing ideas, characters, plot structures, and so on, some of the current franchise productions are managing to mine new territory and do really interesting things. Still, it’s something worth being mindful of, and it might gradually lead to a rebalance of what I’m spending my time on.

I think I’d like to sign off by doing something a little differently and talk specifically about what I’m into creating instead of just consuming. Outside of this blog and the briefs I prepare for work, I haven’t written consistently in a long while now. But I do have sporadic bursts of creativity. I try to jot ideas down in a journal. Over the past few months, a few dreams have connected with other, older ideas and led to two full outlines for fantasy stories set in a shared universe. I think they’re each maybe novella length, at least, and I’d really like to devote some time to writing those stories in full. I’ve also been dabbling with fan fiction, though I haven’t completed any of those projects. Some of it’s been related to those Jurassic Park gap stories I mentioned in that series of posts on here. The fantasy stories are closer to my heart and so even if I finish them, I probably won’t post more than some excerpts here, but I think I very well might just post any finished fan fiction to this blog. Maybe writing this here, publicly, will get me to commit to completing some of these projects.

And that’s just about everything I’m into, for now.

Two Apocalypses

I think I’ve demonstrated by now that I have great fondness for animation, and I tend to prefer an optimistic and positive outlook in fiction. As such, it should come as no surprise that I rather enjoyed The Mitchells vs. The Machines. Despite ostensibly being a family-friendly movie about a robot apocalypse, it’s really an action comedy that at its heart is about a somewhat dysfunctional nuclear family finding ways to practice empathy to understand each other better and repair the faults in their relationships. The animation was fantastic, the art style had a lot of quirky flair, the voice acting was top-notch (though the younger brother was very distractingly voiced as Not A Child), the writing was sparkling with humor, there were some tremendously silly-yet-epic action sequences, and yet what stuck with me was the family’s struggle to bond and eventual ability to reconnect as the oldest daughter prepares to leave the home for college.

I could perhaps force myself to write a larger review of The Mitchells vs. The Machines. And I had originally planned to do so. But I write enough reviews already for a personal blog. What I found more interesting was what this movie says about me and my values, especially in contrast to the even-more-recently-released Army of the Dead. The latter film, a Zack Snyder feature, is nihilistic and amoral, unconcerned with presenting a clear message. The characters are broad tropes, entertaining at first but just blank enough that it is unsurprising when they die off one by one. Snyder ends his film by allowing two characters to survive–one sure to die but perhaps only after setting off yet another zombie outbreak. The film delights in stylized violence and gore, in big sweeping frames of zombie hordes rallying to battle, and I suppose I should expect as much and nothing more from a Snyder flick (although I’m one of those true believers in the artistry of Snyder’s directorial vision in his DC superhero movies, despite my reservations about that dubious distinction).

It is probably not very surprising to those who know me or have otherwise read this blog for a while that I am really disturbed by depictions of gore or prolonged physical torment. I don’t have the stomach for it. So zombie movies are usually outside of what I’ll watch. There are exceptions, just as there are exceptions to my general avoidance of the horror genre as a whole. I’d made the poor decision to make an exception for Army of the Dead just because of Snyder’s association with the project, coupled with the trailers that suggested this might be a little bit of a winking farce. I was clearly very mistaken, but I stuck the movie out, despite its bloated length for something that boils down to a story about a team of mercenaries fighting their way into a zombie-infested Las Vegas for a big score of abandoned loot and then failing to fight their way out.

What I want to emphasize, though, is that it wasn’t the gore that turned me off to this movie. That would be an easy, and wrong, assumption to make. No, it’s not as simple as Eric Can’t Handle Scary Gross Things. Rather, it’s the emptiness at the heart of the film. They’re fighting and dying for money, dealing with repeated betrayals, in the final moments before a nuclear strike makes the zombie threat irrelevant–or, you know, it would have become irrelevant if not for their fucked-up heist attempt and resultant infected survivor. The characters have no larger goals to fight for. Found family tropes are used sparingly, presumably in an attempt to make you care about the doomed team’s fates, and you could argue that this is a movie about a father reconnecting with his daughter–but if so, that fails too. The father and daughter don’t reconnect. The father dies saving the daughter, who was only at risk, at the end of the day, because her father got her involved in the first place. I refuse to accept that the daughter’s grief over losing her father–and having to put his zombified form down–represents a healing of the relationship. There is no relationship. The father failed to fix that relationship, only managed to even understand how he had screwed up their relationship toward the very end, barely managed to save the daughter but saddled her with a lot more trauma, and doomed everyone else on the team.

That’s a much darker, more depressing version of the apocalypse than a movie in which the tropes of apocalypse are used to metaphorically represent the fracturing and healing of family bonds as children mature and leave the home. And that movie about family, hell, it has an actual theme, an actual message, something to think on afterward. Something more than we can all be assholes or the desire for wealth makes us make bad choices or people can die at any time as life is unfair or some other tired trope requiring no deeper examination.

I don’t need happy endings or family-friendly ratings to appease me, though. The first two Alien movies rank high among my favorite sci-fi movies, despite their thematic (and literal) darkness, violence, and gore. Yes, they’re well-crafted movies with great special effects, distinctive settings, and actors that manage to sell the sheer horror and despair of the situation. But they’re also about scrappy, normal humans fighting for something bigger than themselves. In the first film, the team of blue-collar workers tries to clear out the xenomorph to keep each other alive. Sure, only Ripley makes it out, but not for lack of trying–and she even makes a point of returning for the cat! Then, in Aliens, she’s willing to join an expedition back to the planet that doomed her crew because she wants to ensure that any remaining threat is eliminated. And even despite her trauma and loss, she fights to save who she can. The suggestion of a found family in Newt, Hicks, and Bishop gives the movie some heart even amongst all the death. On the flip side, it’s one of two reasons that I’ve never been a fan of Alien 3. First, Ripley once again loses everyone she cares about in the opening moments of the movie. Second, she dies not fighting for someone but only against the threat of the xenomorph queen in her that would have killed her anyway (not to mention that even this sacrifice is undone in yet another sequel with Alien Resurrection).

Look, I get it. There are evil people who do evil things in the world. And many more people often make selfish, self-serving, amoral choices. And good does not always triumph over evil; evil often wins. Evil still wins day to day, in oppressive and corrupt systems of governance and in small-minded bigotry and in interpersonal hostility and in petty crime. But I try to act on my principles, and I like to look to people who made a difference by acting on their principles, and while I make many mistakes I still have something I strive for. I get that the world can be a dark place, and I don’t think it’s wrong that there is art, dumb and smart, that is dark and nihilistic. But nihilism repulses me, and even in darkness I look for light, I look for principles and guiding purpose, I look for what people are fighting for and not just the odds they’re fighting against. I’m uncomfortable with settling for meaninglessness. Maybe some people, maybe many people, think that reflects a naivete on my part. Maybe that’s what it really does mean. But I will still always favor stories that have heart, that have purpose, that aren’t just showcases of loss and suffering.

To be clear, I’m not trying to snipe at the horror genre as a whole. But Army of the Dead–which really isn’t a horror film, despite the use of zombies–uniquely highlighted the unsettling hollowness I find when pop art portrays atrocities for their own sake. Most fiction has some level of escapism baked in, anyhow. Please don’t begrudge me how I choose to escape.

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!

Alien’s 40th

Alien released in theaters to American audiences on May 25, 1979. The franchise keeps slithering forward in myriad directions, and this year marks its fortieth anniversary. It is clear that 20th Century Fox plans to celebrate that, starting with a series of short films produced in partnership with Tongal and released on IGN. The six titles–“Containment,” “Specimen,” “Night Shift,” “Ore,” “Harvest,” and “Alone”–serve as an excellent representation of the larger constellation of films, novels, comics, and games: rough, uneven, curious, often fascinating and genuinely terrifying, and occasionally just plain disturbing. Additionally, Sam and I are both intrigued by the recently announced Alien tabletop RPG, which sounds quite promising to me. I can’t wait to be an underpaid, disgruntled space mechanic who gets swiftly killed by an alien!

One of the most unusual fandoms that my wife and I share is that of the Alien movies. Neither of us are fans of horror, but we both watch Alien with dread fascination at least every Halloween season, and we delight in the high-octane adventure of Aliens. More than the horror, and even more than the scary and very cool creature, set, and prop design, I really like the characters and burnt-out, working-class setting. I like the idea of a larger, drab, hyper-corporate galactic society. And I like that the xenomorph, for all its terror, represents one very horrible but isolated threat in a small, out-of-the-way part of that galaxy. The feel of the films is like Star Wars without hope (and with even more banged-up, retro-futuristic technology), except that instead of focusing on a great hero, we’re following the space trucker who’d refuel Tosche Station.

Because of that, I’ve lost interest in the franchise’s more recent shift toward increasing gore and body horror (though I’m not kidding anyone: from the very first film, that’s been an important part of the visual storytelling, tone, and even the themes of the film, so I’m not opposed to it on principle). I also could care less about the positioning of the xenomorph in the context of some greater mythos, some half-baked reconstitution of Chariots of the Gods with biological warfare. And sometimes, even when I really like what an Alien title is doing, it’s still just too scary and intense for me to press on with (I’m looking at you, Alien: Isolation).

These short films were, thankfully, very much my cup of tea, even though I didn’t love them all. They’re all small vignettes about working-class people trying to survive one very shitty situation after another. The basic premise is shared from film to film: xenomorph shows up, people die. But each film explores a different little corner of a much larger universe.

That said, I’d like to share my thoughts on those short films, in no particular order.

“Alone” is a fascinating premise–what would happen if a facehugger and an android are left alone together? The execution isn’t perfect, but it goes in some weird and interesting directions.

“Harvest” is a rather blunt story. Alien couldn’t be more obviously about sex, sexual violence, and pregnancy as body horror, and yet “Harvest” makes the implicit subtext explicit with the presence of a pregnant woman, with the title, and with the theme of procreation and preservation (at least through the eyes of the android). The title made the “twist” ending expected, and the flat acting and illogical actions of the party leader make it clear what she actually is all too soon.

“Specimen” is a creepy, intense survival horror set in a locked-off greenhouse. It kept me on edge throughout, the ending was satisfying, and it also introduced the idea of non-human androids. This was a cool episode and, I thought, had one of the better performances from its lead.

“Containment” is forgettable. Alien runs amok in closed quarters. Nothing we haven’t seen before. The title alludes to the crew’s efforts to keep the infestation contained when salvagers recover their escape pod. That’s…more or less the whole story right there. Much of the nuance, such as there is, comes in how the survivors react to their impending doom.

“Night Shift” is kind of fun, and the ending–with our protagonist momentarily victorious and momentarily secure in her locked-down storeroom even while a full-on alien infestation breaks out in the larger colony–is dark and fatalistic.

Finally, “Ore” is fucking amazing. The lead is an awesome, sympathetic, blue-collar hero. Tensions between management and mine workers are escalated not only by the alien but by the fact that management is actually an android company plant. The characters and their working conditions and lives are pretty central to the story being told. And the final scene, with the miners rallying together in the face of the alien threat, is incredible. If you only watch one, I’d pick this.

All told, as a series of fan films, I was impressed by the production and acting quality and the variety of stories told, even though I didn’t love every single one.