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.

Big ideas in Battle at Big Rock

I really rather liked Battle at Big Rock. It’s a high-concept short film with a very close focus on how just one family is impacted by this new world of dinosaurs coexisting with the modern era. The dinosaurs look great, and the terrified family has enough characterization to really root for them. I would love a lot of little films like this, just showcasing the new reality of that dinosaur-infused world.

Maybe more than the core story itself, the ending vignettes really showcase the big and small ways that the world has changed. That’s where I think the magic really lies with Big Rock. It’s not just the dramatic, life-or-death struggle between humans and big theropods, but seeing dinosaurs as harmless pests, traffic hazards, beautiful wildlife to see when out fishing or camping, invasive species, and so on. Those quieter moments set up interesting questions, prompt fun ideas, and provide a variety of new narrative possibilities. Outside of movies, I could see a variety of storytelling initiatives that all end up under the Jurassic World umbrella.

It’s not exactly comparable to Xenozoic because in that world, the neo-prehistoric life has overwhelmed the natural order in the wake of apocalypse (and that life comes from a much broader range of geologic ages). But still, the idea of a whole world of stories of humans just interacting with these long-lost lifeforms creates the same sort of tingling up and down my spine. It’s an exhilarating concept!

Jurassic World Evolution 2 seems like it’s going to play with this concept of a world adjusting to live with dinosaurs. For instance, in a fairly early forum post, Frontier Senior Community Manager Jens Erik wrote, “Certain modes allow you to transport live dinosaurs into your park from the wild via remote capture and narrative events and in some levels, they’ll be wild dinosaurs in your surrounding area that you need to locate, tranquilise and transport back to your facilities.” That same post discussed how the game would have dinosaurs forming natural territories in their exhibits. Rather than the deluxe destination resorts of Jurassic World Evolution (or the first and fourth movies), this seems more like an effort at conservation and containment among us, not apart from us. But not all stories need to be so big as a story about conservation park-building.

More Big Rock-style encounters with dinosaurs, even quiet moments, even subtle moments, could make for fun stories. I could imagine:

  • A group of biologists and paleontologists study a community of dinosaurs in northern California, seeing whether they’re thriving in their new environment and how the native plants and animals are handling the new arrivals;
  • A Jaws-type adventure as a whaling vessel attempts to hunt down the mosasaur;
  • A group of children befriend a peaceful baby Apatosaurus that becomes a bit of a handful as it continues to grow bigger and bigger;
  • Animal control struggles to keep a compy problem in check in a small city; or
  • Scientists for a rogue state or terrorist organization have bought or engineered some predators that predictably get loose and munch on their overlords.

And I’m still thinking too narrowly, along the lines of movies I’ve seen before. You could do whatever you wanted with the premise of dinosaurs just being out in the wild now. The “big idea” from Big Rock is the promise that you can have any sort of humans-and-dinosaurs story now, that it doesn’t have to be defined by a single genre and doesn’t even have to look like a Jurassic Park movie. I’m sure I’ve said it before a time or two on this blog, and I’ll probably say it a time or two again. But this promise continues to excite me! I hope it gets realized, in more short films, books, comics, and things that don’t really look anything like what the franchise has been so far.

How I learned to stop worrying and tolerate Jurassic Park III

I’ve never really cared for Jurassic Park III. It’s loud, dumb, and mean. It doesn’t truly do anything new. Once more, people return to an island full of dinosaurs, and bad things happen as a result. Sam Neill’s returning Alan Grant seems as fatigued with the tired cycle as the most cynical audience member, and that fatigue only grows as he puts up with surviving a dino-island yet again, accompanied by idiots. His shock and disbelief at having been tricked back onto one of these islands is matched by my own: it’s quite a contrived narrative that gets him there and in the predicament of once more standing down theropods.

But I’m not here to explain why I didn’t like Jurassic Park III. I’d imagine most people who have seen it could understand that well enough on their own. I’m here to explain how I came to tolerate it within the franchise.

The first step is distance. I return to these movies often enough, but it wasn’t too hard to leave III out of the rotation even as Jurassic World and Fallen Kingdom were added in. Yet I still did return to it, with enough time between viewings that my impression could become more muted and less annoyed.

The second step required me to let go of my frustrations as I gave up on my annoyance. And there were a lot of things that frustrated me: the aforementioned laborious way in which Dr. Grant is brought back, the obnoxious Kirbys, Billy’s fake-out death and abrupt return in the rushed final moments, the lackluster depictions of the dinosaurs, the super-monster version of Spinosaurus, the super-intelligent raptors, the mean-spiritedness of the deaths…Even petty things that aren’t inherently flaws within the film, like the writers’ decision to end Grant and Sattler’s relationship, with Ellie settling down to have kids and Alan refocusing on his digs in isolation. Just let it all go. I had to accept that those things exist in the movie and there’s nothing for me to do about it.

The third step was being goaded to return to the film by people who found things to like about it. And yes, there are things to like about it–it’s a technically impressive film if nothing else. Plus, hearing from people who like it and can re-contextualize some of its less-impressive elements can lead to a little altered, more forgiving perspective when viewing. That leads right into the next step.

The fourth step is reframing some of the things that used to bother me. For instance, it always bothered me that Eric Kirby, a 12-year-old kid, managed to survive alone on the island for weeks; his survival skills appeared to outmatch even Grant’s, whom he rescued, and he appears to have performed a series of death-defying stunts in his parents’ absence, for instance collecting fresh tyrannosaur piss or obtaining a claw from a Velociraptor. But the actual events in the movie can provide an implied narrative that isn’t so outlandish and is a little easier for me to suspend disbelief. Eric was lucky. He wandered onto the InGen site, finding a source of food, water, and shelter. The abandoned tanker truck made a perfectly secure abode that could be sealed from dinosaur threats. He didn’t spend his time becoming a hardened survivalist so much as simply hiding and staying out of the way. Maybe he happened to collect the tyrannosaur urine after having observed one of the tyrants passing nearby with compies scattering before it. Maybe the Velociraptor lost its claw in a fight with a rival or in taking down prey, and Eric just collected it later. When Grant is ambushed by the Velociraptors, it’s not because he screwed up; he was carrying their eggs, and he didn’t know it. They could smell them, surely, and their entire objective was in retrieving their brood. Eric then dashed in with his supply of gas grenades. Once more, it was luck that got Eric through. Clearly, the kid is tough, determined, and smart, but we don’t have to accept the notion that he’s the most badass member of the group.

The fifth step is pure happenstance. As this whole process was taking place, years–now literally decades–after the movie was released, I got really into Jurassic World: Evolution. And some of the coolest dinosaur skins in that game were based off models from Jurassic Park III. Most realistic? No. But coolest. The dinosaurs in that movie are really vibrant. I liked those models. It was a small thing, but it let me come around to their depiction in the movie.

The sixth and final step is to find the things I outright like in the movie and to focus on them. For instance, much of III is a big, fun safari adventure just like The Lost World but with a smaller cast and no rival team. This adventure narrative leads to some very cool action sequences, like the initial Spinosaurus attack, the Velociraptor-induced stampede, the boat attack, or the aviary ambush. And while the movie avoids moments of true wonder that balanced out the first two movies, it does at least have a beautiful aerial sequence when the rescue team first arrives, and there’s the slow-paced moment on the river right after Grant lays out his theory about boys who want to be astronomers versus astronauts. And yes, the raptors are way too smart at this point, and the males’ little fringe of quills was a poor nod to the developing notion that dinosaurs like them would have been feathered, but the elaborate communication was still interesting behavior, and it did serve as a further attempt to present the dinosaurs as animals, not monsters (even as that effort is undermined by the wildly inaccurate and hyper-aggressive Spinosaurus that is fixated on hunting down all humans). And okay, the movie has a mean streak, but it’s okay for the franchise to lean into horror a little more–Fallen Kingdom‘s gothic vibes are great–and anyway, wasn’t I just praising The Lost World for being a darker film?

And that’s how I’ve learned to tolerate Jurassic Park III. Of course, I don’t really need to go soft on a movie in a massive blockbuster franchise. But it’s a franchise I’m otherwise rather fond of, and it’s nice to actually enjoy a rewatch of that third entry.

100% at Jurassic World: Evolution

Well, I did it. Spurred on by my excitement over the announcement of Jurassic World Evolution 2, I returned to the original game and spent a couple weeks in the Challenge mode. And last week, I finally unlocked 100% of the Steam Achievements for the game. In so doing, I now have a total of 263 hours logged in the game, beating out by three hours my second-most-played game via Steam, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (which still takes the lead in overall playtime, given the hours I’ve logged in Xbox and CD-ROM versions of that very special RPG).

The wild thing is that the 100% doesn’t even represent a true completion or unlocking of all content in the game. Technically, to do that, I’d have to at least play every Challenge map on Jurassic difficulty (the highest difficulty in the game) to unlock every last dinosaur skin. But I only had to play one map on Jurassic difficulty, and even if I’d kept under the suggested par time, it would have still been an excruciating and tedious hours-long experience. Racing to build and maintain a park as extortionate fees continue to rise and veritable epidemics rapidly hop between dinosaurs in between, and sometimes during, repeated Storms of the Century is challenging once but becomes increasingly stressful, boring, and mechanistic on repeat.

That all said, I got dozens of hours of enjoyable time with the game, especially on the time-challenge achievements requiring at least Medium or Hard difficulty. (If you’re going for the time challenges, I’d recommend using the Jurassic Park economy, which is simpler and is typically expected to reach 5 stars in less time than the comparable Jurassic World economy on the same island and same difficulty.) The Hard setting in particular felt like a fair and fun challenge, and I got sort of good at building parks in that mode by the end. I imagine the same could happen with Jurassic difficulty, as I continued to learn from mistakes and improve efficiencies, shearing off time in each play-through, but the herculean effort and enormous time commitment strongly discourage any further engagement from me.

That all said, I think it’s safe to say that I thoroughly got my money’s worth with this game.

Now bring on the sequel!

Feathers and Parks!

I didn’t really intend another Jurassic Park-related post so soon, but some cool stuff has been revealed in the last week and I’m excited over it!

First up, we saw via Colin Trevorrow on Twitter that feathered dinosaurs are finally appearing in a Jurassic Park film! Literally decades overdue, but I’ll take it.

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Then, we got the news I’m actually most excited about: the announcement of Jurassic World Evolution 2! New biomes, more dinosaurs, and it looks like pterosaurs and the mosasaur will be included right out the gate! And that Chaos Theory mode reminds me of some of the Operation Genesis missions and has me itching for more information.

I can’t wait until I know more about what the Evolution sequel will be like. And yeah, it’ll be cool when Dominion finally comes out next year. And I have to imagine more Camp Cretaceous is just on the horizon as well. It’s a pretty great time to be a fan of this franchise…

Two management styles: Planet Zoo and Jurassic World Evolution

I recently picked up Planet Zoo, and I’m enjoying it. It’s a great spiritual successor to the Zoo Tycoon series, and it has an incredibly in-depth level of customization that I’ve barely scratched the surface of (working through the campaign, relying heavily on the prefab stuff at present). It’s also got absolutely beautiful vistas and lovely depictions of lifelike animals, plus a good combination of animal and visitor AIs with a robust in-game economy.

Since childhood, I’ve always been fond of zoological park sims in particular. That includes Frontier Developments’ Planet Zoo and Jurassic World: Evolution, but I can trace the fascination back to Blue Tongue Entertainment’s Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis; the original Zoo Tycoon and Zoo Tycoon 2 from Blue Fang Games, including their expansion packs, which of course added dinosaurs; and the game that started it all, the 1993 Manley & Associates educational game title, DinoPark Tycoon. I’ve always loved zoos and animals, and dinosaurs in particular, so it’s no surprise that I’d continue to be drawn to these games, even though the broader genre of management sims hasn’t kept me as engaged.

Something I’ve been thinking about with Planet Zoo is how it contrasts with the themes and goals of Jurassic World: Evolution. Given that they’re both games by Frontier Developments, released just a year apart from each other, I find the contrast rather interesting, and I think it reflects conscious choices on the part of the developer to characterize both games quite distinctly.

Jurassic World: Evolution, released in 2018, has a profit-focused, exploitative character to it. You play as a nameless corporate executive brought in to run the Jurassic World parks while balancing the needs of the Science, Security, and Entertainment divisions. All of these divisions are fundamentally guided by corporate greed, and to keep them pacified you need to do things like increase the quality and availability of guest services; raise park revenues; research, modify, and release new dinosaurs; and even engage in rather ethically dubious pursuits that include pitting dinosaurs against each other to attract more guests or even to sell off dinosaurs to who-knows-what other corporations to make a little extra profit. All of the divisions have a darker side. Science is perfectly willing to exploit the animals and endanger lives in the pursuit of more knowledge. Security is interested in weaponizing the dinosaurs for other parties. And Entertainment wants more than anything else to ensure that guest satisfaction, and the resultant stream of dollars, stays high, regardless of what that means for the welfare of the dinosaurs. The Secrets of Dr. Wu DLC expands on this dark side, as you get further caught up in the twisted experimentations of the megalomaniacal Dr. Wu. Claire’s Sanctuary initially pushes back on this, as dinosaurs are saved from certain re-extinction on Isla Nublar, but the “Sanctuary” quickly becomes another money-making machine for the Hammond Foundation and Ingen, with guest revenues fueling profit quotas from the corporate backers. Only Return to Jurassic Park truly bucks the trend by returning to the immediate aftermath of Jurassic Park in an alternate timeline in which Grant, Sattler, and Malcolm commit to making the park a safe way for guests to observe real dinosaurs; their priorities are genuine guest safety and a greater understanding of these restored creatures. Even so, Hammond and his assistant are there to push you to keep making the park bigger, better, and more fabulous to drive profits.

Planet Zoo, released in 2019, can’t ditch the profit motivation essential to management sims, but that wouldn’t make sense to do away with it entirely–after all, without funds, you can’t care for the animals or retain the staff needed to keep the park running. But the emphasis is different, instead focused on conservation and education, themes emphasized as soon as the initial tutorial missions in the campaign. In this game’s narrative, you actually design a friendly avatar for yourself, and you’re introduced to a couple of warm, caring people who manage these parks because they want to help preserve Earth’s biodiversity by spearheading breeding initiatives for endangered and threatened species and by raising public awareness. Rather than selling animals, you can release animals into the wild to gain “conservation credits,” which can sometimes be used to obtain new animals for the zoo in lieu of cash. And you can’t just send off undesirable animals to benefit. The animals to be released are those born in the zoo; they must have reached maturity; and their value for release is determined by factors like their health, age, and conservation status of the species. Poor animal welfare, or allowing inbreeding of animals, results in negative consequences for your park. An inspector reviews your zoo at regular intervals, ensuring that the animals have a good quality of life, the campus is cleanly, and guests are actually being educated about the animals. Profit margins and guest accommodations don’t factor into that rating (although, of course, to keep the park going, you need happy guests to buy tickets and merch and donate extra money so that you can pay the staff to care for the animals to provide the education and conservation benefits that your zoo can offer).

At the end of the day, you’re still doing many of the same things in Planet Zoo as in Jurassic World: Evolution, plotting out exhibits and guest facilities and staff buildings, monitoring income and expense trends, and ensuring a gradually improving quality rating, but the narrative and mechanic differences are part of the reason why these two game experiences ultimately feel so very different.


Bonus cute baby animal content:

Review: Camp Cretaceous Season 2

I watched the eight episodes of season two over their release weekend, but I didn’t feel particularly compelled to put my thoughts down right after. I think that impulse reflects what season two turned out to be: a pleasant but forgettable bit of television comfort food. I suppose that this puts it rather in line with my impression of the first season, but the first improved over the course of its run and set up exciting possibilities for the second, and I just don’t feel like the follow-up season really ran with anything or even attempted anything new. It did, at least, have several exciting action sequences!

As I mentioned in my first review, this show is rather character-focused over anything else. So, after having grown fond of the kids in the first season, I was simultaneously pleased with and disappointed by their portrayals in this season. This time around, there were more moments where the kids could almost relax, where they tried to just act like kids, but there’d always be some harsh new reality to force them back into survival mode. They’ve grown as characters, and they all get opportunities to shine. They’re also a rather tightly knit found family, although the constant stress does lead to inevitable infighting at times. All that said, sometimes the show forced an arbitrary regression of a character to suit the plot of a particular episode. In finding a situation for the star athlete Yaz to truly learn that sometimes she couldn’t help, sometimes even her best wasn’t enough, and sometimes she had to rest, the writers forced spoiled rich kid Kenji back into his obnoxiously lazy and selfish role to act as a foil. Sure, Kenji’s dumb and self-centered, but he’d come a tremendous way in the first season, and this felt like an unnecessary step back for him. At the same time, the show does appear to want to show what trauma looks like for these children, and having moments of regression does seem natural. Clearly, the show didn’t always convince me that that’s what was going on, though.

The best character development this season goes to Ben, presumed dead by the other campers (though the show made clear enough he’d survived at the very end of season one). Once he’s reintroduced as a wannabe-commando figure to a couple of his friends, the show focuses a whole episode on his arc of surviving on the island alone for however many days (or weeks) have elapsed. He was forced to find his own inner strength and courage, he prevailed over a series of hazards, and he eventually reached a point of power and competence. Yet he’s still Ben, the skinny, dweebish little kid, and so he’s also developed the amusing quirk in which he believes that he’s tougher than anyone else, all evidence to the contrary. With a whole episode devoted just to his survival story, however, it was still a little goofy that it conveniently skips over the point at which he’d made some serious outfit adjustments, and it just as conveniently has a brief falling out between Ben and Bumpy that allows Bumpy to mature into a full-size Ankylosaurus off-screen. (Bumpy remains as adorable as ever, even fully grown, and I still cheered for Bumpy whenever she did anything at all.)

The plot is more disappointing. The first season focused on the attempt to reach the evacuation point in time; the group failed, of course. This season again finds the kids attempting to reach a target for rescue–actually, two targets. The first one is an emergency beacon that can call for help. That objective is accomplished rather handily with the group’s new survival skills and teamwork. However, typical chaos ensues involving a Tyrannosaurus, and the kids aren’t sure if their message got through. They soon after stumble upon a small party of “ecotourists” who have made their way to the island in the days since the park shutdown. These yuppie adventurers promise the kids access to their yacht in a few days when it returns from refueling. They’re lying, and how the kids react to their alleged rescuers–and how the rescuers respond–becomes the major point of conflict for the remainder of the season. It’s all for naught because (spoiler alert) the kids find themselves stranded on the island once more, yet again barely missing a boat off the island.

The stakes felt lower this season. The adults could serve as dino food, but the show largely stepped back from any real sense that any of the kids would ever actually die. This made many of the dinosaur attacks (so, so many dinosaur attacks) thrilling rather than horrifying, but if the action-adventure show about killer dinosaurs doesn’t really have killer dinosaurs, it loses its edge fast. Likewise, there weren’t really any great moments of wonder this season. The closest would be the discovery of a watering hole shared by several dinosaur species, but it’s populated with dinosaurs we’re already familiar with, and something about the lighting or dinosaur models or design just made it feel like a bunch of CG dinosaur assets positioned around a flat surface. (Yes, of course, they’re always CGI effects, but the quality did not support the emotional effect needed from the scene.) On the other hand, many of the dinosaur attack sequences looked very real, as though the dinosaurs occupied physical sets, although in a somewhat jarring manner, as though they were claymation.

We get some new dinosaurs, but mostly it’s reused assets from before. That means that at some point, it begins to feel like the park is dominated by Parasaurolophus, Brachiosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Sinoceratops (especially unusual given that the ceratopsian is supposed to be a recent addition to the park, yet we don’t really see Triceratops or Styracosaurus). Where are the herds of diverse dinosaurs present in the films? I recognize the answer to that is that the show has a limited budget compared to a movie, but I can’t help but think how diverse and lifelike the dinosaurs look in Jurassic World: Evolution, a video game that also simulates animal and tourist behaviors, weather effects, and a park economy. There are some new dinosaurs, carnivores pulled from the films: Ceratosaurus and Baryonyx. However, the former only has a couple appearances. Meanwhile, the Baryonyx has been reimagined as a very social pack hunter and terrestrial pursuit predator, which raises the question: why did they use Baryonyx at all? It felt more than a little like the showrunners really wanted a predator to fill the gap left by the Velociraptors, so they just forced an animal into the role. Fallen Kingdom‘s introduction of Baryonyx was already far enough from the real animal, but the creatures in Camp Cretaceous seem rather out of step with the semiaquatic, piscivorous but opportunistic spinosaurid that the real animal appears to have been. (And why do you pick Baryonyx for this role when Allosaurus is also in the park, similarly sized, and an actual big game predator that might have actually coordinated in social groups?! Or why not Ceratosaurus, already an asset in the show??)

All that said, it might seem foolish to once again be hopeful about the next season. But there are several elements in play here that should finally push the story in new directions:

  1. The kids have decided to try to find their own way off the island, rather than being dependent on rescue, and they all now have the survival skills to potentially achieve that without always being on the run.
  2. The kids do not know if the emergency beacon worked, but the audience knows that a successful transmission was sent–to whom remains the big question.
  3. The kids accidentally unleashed some new experimental creature on the island, which will almost surely be a focus for the third season. (Is it a prototype Indoraptor or something else entirely?)

We have the pieces but I can’t see what this jigsaw puzzle is supposed to form. I’ll be interested to see what answers the show arrives at.

My Five Favorite Games in 2020

Continuing the theme from the past couple years, I’m listing my top five favorite games that I enjoyed the most while playing over the past year. As is now tradition, they weren’t necessarily released in 2020; that’s just when I played them.

1. Ring Fit Adventure

Last week’s post should make it clear how much I love this game and how special it is to me. It’s made fitness fun for me. Enough said for this post. I’m so grateful for this game.

2. Jurassic World Evolution: Return to Jurassic Park

I’ve written a fair amount about Jurassic World: Evolution, even before it came out. Steam tells me I’ve put 200 hours into the game. I have unlocked 69 of 73 achievements and finished all story content. I’ve been playing intermittently since the game came out. But I did not include it on my favorite games lists for 2018 or 2019. Partly that’s because I played a lot of great games in those years, but partly it’s because the game felt incomplete and a bit rough around the edges. With a couple years of polishing and enhancements in the form of several free updates and paid DLC packs, the game is in a much better place. Furthermore, the nostalgia of running a park with the aesthetics of the original movie and a slicker, more streamlined economy without some of the more ethically dubious contracts of the base game make the Return to Jurassic Park expansion the singularly best version of Jurassic World: Evolution available. (Its story mode, while not incredible, is also the strongest in the game.) Encountering this new mode finally gave me the ammunition to add this to a year’s best list.

3. Prey

This creepy, compelling sci-fi story grows from survival horror to power fantasy all while presenting a smoldering plot guided by mysterious figures with competing motivations aboard a derelict and alien-infested space station. Moral choice, manipulable environments, a crafting system that requires you to make tough decisions with limited resources, and a varied and robust skill system make for unique gameplay experiences. And as required for a game of this type, the environmental storytelling as you explore the station and uncover its secrets is top-notch.

4. Dishonored 2

This is the peak of the Dishonored series for me. I enjoyed sneaking and fighting my way through the levels, and I loved the intimate characterization of its cast. As I said in my review, its plot was largely a repeat of the original game’s, heightened by an emphasis on legacy at least when playing as Emily. But that just gives it the opportunity to be bigger and better, the Terminator 2 to Terminator. And just like Prey, Dishonored 2 is another example of Arkane Studios’ excellent environmental storytelling.

5. Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition

I didn’t write about this one for the blog before now. Baldur’s Gate came out way back in 1998, and the Enhanced Edition was released in 2012. So even this newer version is still getting up there. Baldur’s Gate was such a formative experience for roleplaying gamers of my age; more broadly, it was hugely influential and came to form much of the basis of the Bioware style and of what people expected from CRPGs moving forward; even those who had never played it, like me, heard plenty about it. I had a disc at some point with several old Black Isle Studios CRPGS on it, and I gave Baldur’s Gate a try then. I didn’t get far. The Enhanced Edition, courtesy of Beamdog and Overhaul Games, provides several modern conveniences and lower difficulty settings, but my first encounter with it a year or so ago didn’t go so well, either. I decided to give the game another try out of the blue, and while the initial hours were still frustrating, it clicked with me enough for me to persevere until I got my party to a high enough level to where the game was actually fun and challenging instead of punishingly difficult. The story is basic, nested in tired tropes even when it originally came out, and the excessive and convoluted lore in this game feels so detached from the actual world-building, but there are a lot of distinctive, quirky characters (to be expected of a Bioware game) and several fascinating side quests that range from weird to funny to strikingly poignant. I might be playing more out of momentum than anything else, but I do generally enjoy myself, and it’s seen a lot of hours logged in the past month or so. I’d been wandering the city of Baldur’s Gate more recently, wrapping myself in the city’s intrigues, but the last play session led me off to a voluntary detour to Ulgoth’s Beard, and now I’m making my way down through the torturous labyrinths of Durlag’s Tower as I attempt to complete content from Tales of the Sword Coast. I’m having enough of a good time that I’m considering more isometric CRPGs for 2021, perhaps building up to another attempt at Divinity: Original Sin II, which I’d given up on near the start of 2020. Heck, maybe my newfound patience for old-school RPG mechanics (and their associated difficulty) might finally lead me to take another crack at Arena…maybe! For getting me excited about isometric CRPGs, Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition deserves to make this list. It didn’t hurt that I lacked strong alternative contenders this year…