Shared Bloodlust: When inter-species pacts go horribly right

Killers of Eden

We’re comfortable with our position on planet earth. As relatively new to the scene as we are, it does appear as if we’ve taken to the role of World Dominators with peculiar ease. We’re not exactly imposing in and of ourselves. Hell, we’re not even from predatory stock! No claws or fangs… though yes, we do tic the “forward facing eyes” part of the checklist, but that’s only thanks to some ancient ancestor that needed to be able to hop to the next tree over. It was only after we came up with a novel little weapon of our own that we started staking our claim.  We’ve adopted the predatory lifestyle with much gusto; but really, we’ve only been at it for a few million years. We’re really just glorified banana eaters. But I digress, the enemies that we haven’t hunted to extinction have been relegated to wildlife reserves or zoos. It was once thought that it was in our nature to elbow everything else out of the way. Our modern sensibilities tend to look down on this view of things, claiming that it’s done nothing but alienate us from the natural order.

We’re at the top of the ladder and, looking around, it’s pretty lonely up here. Or is it? Are there animals that would do the same thing, given the specific sequence of random events that might culminate into what we’d refer to as a chance? I’ll take a step back. Are there animals who find it in their nature to help man further his diabolical ends? Yes, actually. Plenty.

I could go on and on with a list of ‘Budding World Dominators’, but we know how that would end. My posts tend to be long enough as it is! Today, I’ll focus on one of my favorite groups of creatures. The cetaceans. Not only do I like the subject of whales and dolphins, but I like the subject of whales and dolphins acting like completely heartless killing machines. It’s much more fun, and probably closer to reality. So really, we’re not so different.

The advent of modern science has only recently shown us just how intelligent some of our fellow earthlings are. From tool use to culture, the list of candidate creatures continues to grow. One of the more popular entries is, of course, the dolphins. They’re up there in what I call the Famous Four: apes, elephants, corvids, and cetaceans. Communication is key when we’re talking about interaction between species. And not only interaction, but coalitions as I’m proposing. Luckily, it has been recently found that just such exchanges are well within their capacity. Dolphins are expert linguists. Just ask Brin.

Fishermen and bottlenose dolphin coordinate in an attempt to catch mullet.

Is it just me, or is the thought of an animal intelligence reaching out to communicate with us really freakin’ cool? Let’s begin in Brazil. Off the Atlantic coast of a small town called Laguna, the local fisherman have taken advantage of a strange outreach program doled out by a group of bottlenose dolphin. They (meaning the dolphins) drive shoals of mullet into the shallows near the beach, where they come into the range of the humans and their fishing nets. But it gets better; the dolphins actually signal when and where the fishermen should cast their nets. By thrashing their heads or slapping the surface of the water with their powerful tails, the dolphins appear to be communicating the presence of the fish. On the face of it, it seems a selfless act on the part of the bottlenose pod. Why would they act this way around humans? Please.. don’t get your rain sticks and prayer crystals out just yet, brethren. It turns out that the escaping fish are easier for the dolphins to scoop up individually. It’s a fully fledged, everybody wins, exercise in teamwork. Everybody but the mullet. This isn’t a new behavior either. This collaboration has been going strong since 1847.

But in a post touting blood pacts and promising heirs to earth’s destruction, this may seem kind of weak. What’s the big deal about coordinated fishing? Aren’t they just fish after all? It’s not much of a reach for dolphins to want to fish. Well, yeah – but if you don’t see the fact that dolphins having created a culture that integrates another intelligent species, our species, into the equation as extremely cool, I can certainly up the stakes.

An orca leads a group of whalemen to a baleen whale.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, there had been a particular pod of killer whales that would journey to the mouth of the Port of Eden every year during their annual migrations. For over one hundred years, these over-sized predators visited the south east coast of New South Wales, Australia. They came to be know as the Killers of Eden and they were unlike any other pod of orcas known, before or since.

Old Tom featured with his primate pack-mate in 1908.

The killers of the Port of Eden were transients; meaning, they were the variety that have a taste for mammalian blood. For generations, these killers would chase baleen whales up and down the coast of Australia, as they had throughout the rest of the world. While all other killer whales were happy to keep their hunting “in-house”, the Killers of Eden fell upon a very interesting strategy. They would herd their quarry into Twofold Bay before commencing to attack. And this is where things got weird; several individual whales would peel off and cross the bay. Oddly, they would then begin to display at the mouth of the kiah river. Same story as before. The orcas would breach, crashing onto their sides, or pump their flukes through the water. This behavior was called ‘flop-tailing’. All of this was to gain the attention of a certain group of whalers, who would row out to, and be guided by the whales.

That’s right, the killers would inquire for the assistance of human whalers to help bring down their prey. The two deadliest super predators of their respective domains joining forces for mutual, bloodthirsty gain. The humpback whales never stood a chance.

After the deed was done, the killers were allowed first access to the carcass. A kind of accord was made between the whalers and the killers. It was called the Law of the Tongue. It was called this, I’d guess, because orcas feast mainly on the lips and tongue of their kills, leaving most of the valuable portions of the whale untouched. It was only later when the humans would return to the scene, having lashed an anchor to the rotting body, and claim the rest of the remains, such as the valuable bones for scrimshaw and the blubber. It was claimed that this was a kind of subsistence hunting, where the humans rarely took more than what the killers brought in themselves.

As you might imagine, the whalers grew very fond of their fellow hunters. The men went out of their way to free the orcas from fishing nets and in return, it was said that the killers would protect the men from sharks when their boats capsized. Some even called them family, going as far as naming some of the regulars. Names like: Skinner, Hookey, Jimmy, and Montague. This was pretty impressive in itself, as the whalers would usually recognize the whale by it’s particular fin shape and notch pattern of scars. This is the same procedure modern day naturalists go about recording individuals in a pod.

Carcass of Old Tom, found in 1930.

The most famous killer, however, was called Old Tom. He was said to be one of the most outgoing of the killers. Old Tom was usually at the forefront when it came to alerting the whalers to another kill. Because of his proximity to people, many legends sprung up around Old Tom. It was rumored that he was over eighty years old and that (naturally) he was the leader of the pod. He was said to be clever, even pulling the row boats out to the site of an attack by hooking the whaler’s tow lines in his mouth. Old Tom would also grasp harpoon lines after they had been thrown and appeared to play with them. Out of joy or blood lust, we’ll never know. It turns out that such activity might have doomed Old Tom in the end. His corpse was found after it drifted into Snug cove in 1930. When it was studied, it appeared as though his jaw had become infected due to the damage done to his teeth. Some had been worn to the gum line. *It was also discovered post mortem that Old Tom was closer to 35 years old when he died.

Because of overhunting of their prey species, it was theorized that the Killers of Eden eventually disbanded. Breaking up into several pods, they eventually moved on. The last of the original killers to be seen was none other than Old Tom.

The consequence of chewing on tow lines. Viewing the skull, it’s easy to make out the damage done to Old Tom. Also note the teeth on the left side of his lower jaw.

It’s interesting to see just how successful such ventures can be. A stable arrangement was made for more than a hundred years at the Port of Eden. It’s fun to speculate just what kind of legends might have sprung up on the other side of the waterline. Did the killer whales have their own equivalent to the Law of the Tongue, and did we somehow break the pact, causing their eventual dispersal? We have learned just how intelligent these creatures are in recent years, but perhaps the whalers of Eden knew so all along.

What sorts of arrangements would we find ourselves fostering when we finally break the language barrier with other intelligences? Would we stand back in horror when we realized how violent they really are? Would we stand by and allow them the right to pursue their own traditional or social ends? Would we even concede that they’re intelligent at all?

[NSFW] Greetings from Earth Part IV: Memorable first contact moments in video games

Let it be stated right off the bat: This post is not particularly safe for work.

There are a lot of aliens out there. A species for every mood. For every one of H. G. Wells’ notorious martians, you’d also get your share of green-skinned Orions for Captain Kirk to test his moves on. I’m sorry to admit that my list thus far has fallen into that first category. I’ve been a little one sided. So much for journalistic neutrality! Too many tentacles, teeth, and bad intentions. Lets do something about that. Why don’t we finish with something a little different?  Lets have a look at a practically unknown game by the practically unknown German developer Blue Byte.

If you’ve heard of Blue Byte, odds are you’re probably familiar with their series of strategy games called The Settlers. What is less known, is that the Ubisoft owned company is actually pretty damn prolific in their own right. Publishing a slew of games through the eighties, nineties and the aut-auts, Blue Byte is still going strong to this day. They’ve also managed to come up with some very original contributions on the side. One of their more ‘unique’ games was a science fiction role-playing game called Albion published in 1995. Odds are, you haven’t seen anything like it.

Albion. Complete with a box the size of your torso. How I miss the 90’s.

Albion has you filling the role of a shuttle craft pilot named Tom Driscoll; just another cog in the wheel of Terran expansion into the frontier of space. You’re aboard a large interstellar mining vessel called the Toronto intended for a remote world where (why else) you’ve been designated to begin excavations. The game features a strong storyline, weaving with plot twists and mysteries that hook like any summer bestseller. Intrigue early on propels the story forward. An unexplained murder aboard the ship has you teaming up with a government official named Rainer Hofstedt who is also a physicist/xenobiologist. Lucky to have, as we’ll soon see. (Oh! And also.. if you plan on playing the game, be sure to seek out the pistol before departing! You never know when a bit of human technology might come in handy.)

During a scouting foray to the unnamed world, things go awry. As they tend to do. Tom and Rainer find themselves plummeting into the planet’s gravity well with little chance of survival, much less rescue. The marooned men soon find themselves on a world they wholly didn’t expect. Not only is the air breathable, but there’s an entire ecosystem of living creatures, from fungi to top predators.

But oxygen isn’t always a good thing, it turns out. Fire and the shuttle’s fuel don’t mix, and our intrepid heroes end up being rescued by Albion’s local denizens. A catlike race of aliens called the Iskai. And herein lies our memorable moment.

Space ships are always cool.

Up to this point, Albion has been a game that sat soundly in the science fiction camp. It featured stark and metallic surroundings, shuttles and outer space. The sudden shift to the planet is one of those Wizard of Oz ‘black-and-white to color moments’. Stepping out into a riot of color and sound is change enough.. but the moment you greet your first alien rescuer is the real kicker. I understand I’m shooting my own foot here when I say this – but if you want the full effect, I suggest you stop reading now and just play the game. There’s nothing like going into this game without a clue in the world to go by and then getting suddenly slapped in the face.

Bet this was the last thing Tom thought he’d see after coming to from his weeks-long coma.

Maybe it’s just the conservative culture I live in, but there’s something about an alien species that seems so liberated like that. They’re the creatures that our hippies and Naturists would point out as being highly advanced. Most of us would ignore the fact that nudism only makes sense in a rainforest environment. Our catpeople should be like those blue dudes in Avatar. At least the Navi had the decency to cover up their naughty bits with loincloths and seashells.. or whatever they did. Perhaps the Iskai are just too proud of what they’re packing? They do put that lady from Total Recall to shame.

There’s something refreshing about a game that decides to be forthcoming like that. We don’t have to be childish about it, even though we still totally are. What will we find out there? Something that would make our immature inner child piss itself laughing? There’s as good a chance as any. Thank you Blue Byte for taking the chance. Lazer-toting lizard men on steroids are a dime a dozen. Seeing things a new way are rare. This American appreciates the gesture. It isn’t every day you get to see such boldness to push the envelop in storytelling. Especially in the video game industry.

Sira: Daughter of a guildmaster. Practitioner of the Dji-Kas branch of magick. One of the most potent spell casters in the game. Also, completely comfortable when partially topless.

A shot featuring Albion’s entertaining first person fighting system. Also note that male Iskai were equally represented.

Albion is a good game. More than strong enough to stand on its own in areas of gameplay and story. Its use of both twodee and threedee palates was great. The in game library that you accessed through typing words to the various NPCs just goes to show how much depth was involved. The planets culture was fleshed out and vibrant. Its use of magick (the extra “k” included) and technology was refreshing. Its fantasy elements were novel. In an industry where fantasy almost invariably includes elves and dwarves, Albion was more than a decade before its time. Take me to Nakiridaani over Azeroth any day.

Greetings from Earth Part III: Memorable first contact moments in video games

Here’s a bold statement for you. Many of us would sacrifice our left foot for a chance to meet a being from another world. Sure, it’s not the most rational thing to do. When you stop and think, it might be better to wait for the next saucer to pass by – you know, for one filled with aliens that aren’t foot fetishists! Regardless, I don’t doubt that there would be legions of one-stumped, otherwise sane members of the human species lined up around the block to catch their own look. Such suicidal tendencies are bred into us. I suppose it’s related to the same gene that urged us to venture out of the caves in the first place. It goes with that inkling desire to see what’s over yonder hill. Complacency isn’t in the nature of our species or we just wouldn’t have branched so far into the globe. (I’ll give you that complacency may be in the nature of many of our individuals – i.e the couch potatoes, but that should be left to another post.) There are just too many questions to be asked, facts to be gleaned, and limitations to be vaulted for us not to take that chance. And if you’re like me, you want to know just how many more appendages they end up having!

It’s all a very strong fantasy. One which many outlets have sought to capture. Countless writers of immeasurable talent have gone to task creating worlds that could rival the milky way galaxy in complexity. Artists make works that boggle the mind. But there’s one medium that gets to approach the subject unlike any other. We’re here for video games. If ever there was a truer conduit for the so-called ‘geek fantasy’, it would be found in video games. Until we can actually live the experience, nothing gets quite as close to the real thing as playing an expertly crafted firsthand simulation.

Speaking of expertly crafted: there’s one series that must be mentioned if you’re deciding to go down that road. Valve’s nigh immortal franchise of games beginning with Half-Life.

There’s not a whole lot I can say about the game that other, better reviewers have said since the games release in 1998. Just let it be known that there is a reason why it’s so celebrated. If there were memorials for games, this would be right there on Mount Rushmore. As first-person shooters go, Half-Life is the grandaddy, Mount Everest. Good enough? You get my point? Lets move on.

We’re here to discuss a single aspect on a multifaceted diamond stud of a game. I’m going to talk about how Half-Life handled aliens and their interactions with us.

Don’t doubt that the Half-Life series boasts all the bloody combat first-person fanatics crave. Not only does this game have it all, but it actually got the ball rolling in many respects. Pictured here is Half-Life: Opposing Force

First off, we’ve got the aesthetics. (Don’t worry, I’ll try to get this bit over as painlessly as possible.) Half-Life was a revolution in game physics when it first arrived in the late 90’s. Its level of immersion was unheard of in previous titles of the genre as well as elsewhere. The first fifteen minutes of gameplay was basically a giant slideshow that more or less blew its own trumpet. And it had us all salivating. Not only for graphics and engine quality; Half-Life showed that it wasn’t afraid to introduce a new bar in storytelling as well. It took its time building the right atmosphere, leading you through an underground complex called Black Mesa. There, you played the role of Gordon Freeman; a theoretical physicist who was more of a glorified button pusher than anything. As I alluded to earlier, this is another place where Half-Life excelled. The game managed to seamlessly integrate you into the fantasy, pacing it correctly into every rewarding twist and turn of the storyline. Everything was in balance, from gameplay to plot.

What really got to me was its ingenious use of sound design. Noises actually originated from a true source in three-dee space. When you heard a distant snarl, you knew that something truly was making its way toward you. And there was just something about the sounds themselves. The slight echo to them that really strengthened the sense that you were part of something vast and active and living around you.

Ah, the scientists in Half-Life. Not a very promising start to human/eatee relations, I must admit. But would the alien equivalent do so well if great whites, kodiaks, and Bengal tigers leaped into their mothership?

What occupied that space? Well, aliens of course; among other things. And with that, we’ve finally arrived at the heart of this post. It was a roundabout beginning, but we’re here. Half-Life introduced us to a plethora of alien flora and fauna (and possible floral/faunal hybrids). Many of the early interactions took place in the Black Mesa facility itself. Thanks to their meddling with not-completely-understood teleportation technology, the scientists found themselves unwitting emissaries to a whole host of alien creatures. A nice cross section of an alien biosphere begins pouring through a tear in the fabric of spacetime, much of it largely predatory. You can imagine the types of interaction that led to…

So what sorts of lifeforms does Gordon run across? The statistics aren’t promising. Lets start with the series’ most popular baddie. We have parasitic tick-like creatures with a penchant for overriding its host body’s nervous system. The aptly named headcrabs physically mutate it’s biological mate into shambling, long-taloned zombies. Not good for scientists. There are the bulky Cthulhian bullsquid (you just knew I had to fit in another squid somewhere!) that seem to fit the role of a deeply carnivorous boar. When it isn’t flinging acidic globs of spit at you, it’s charging in with a particularly hungry ferocity! Not good for scientists. Later on, we have the Tentacle. Something like a Redwood sized articulated anaconda with a hatchet for a face. That comes in threes. This monstrosity is blind, relying on sound as well as touch to seek out prey. Touch with said hatchet. One has managed to teleport inside of a silo during the events of Half-Life. Definitely a memorable, if heart stopping moment. Aslo: not good for scientists.

The infamous headcrabs on the attack.

But what could you expect? These creatures are obviously the lions of their environment. Would you rather face the pack of hyenas or the Masai warriors? Who would you have an easier time communicating with? Wouldn’t things be different if Gordon Freeman was dealing with sapient life? Nothing to fear, Half-Life features just such a scenario. Well, it features intelligent beings at least. I’m sure you’re well aware that we’ve hit on a theme here. This isn’t Spielberg’s ET or anything.

Meet the Vortigaunts, Half-Life’s answer to bipedal, weapon wielding extra terrestrials. They’re eerie, smart, and use strategy to try to outflank you. Perfect bullet fodder! The first moment you encounter a group of them is when Gordon Freemen first sets off the resonance cascade that breaks down the fabric between dimensions in the beginning of the game. During a series of uncontrolled teleportations, he finds himself in a darkened room with a line of these strange one-eyed creatures. I remember being supremely creeped out by these guys. Once they start popping into our dimension with those green flashes, you instantly get the impression that they aren’t happy. I first wondered whether I had stepped in on some kind of ritual or ceremony and displeased their gods – maybe I’d done something nasty in their equivalent of a punchbowl. I wont spoil the twist ending, but suffice it to say that you do learn the driving force behind the Vortigaunt’s aggression. But as it stands through the bulk of the game: not good for scientists.

The G-man as seen in Half-Life and Half-Life II.

Another possible, though problematic case for an intelligent alien species comes in an all too familiar form. In the early moments of the Half-Life story, the G-man was seen as a mysterious corporate or possibly governmental entity. (He is called G-man after all!) He could be spotted throughout the game, watching over your progress without voicing any kind of guidance. Many people thought of him as nothing but human, despite his strange speech pattern and seeming omniscience at the end of the first game. [Slight Spoiler Warning] The G-man mentions the government and does offer Gordon the choice to either join him or perish at the game’s climax. It’s only in later games that we learn that the G-man could indeed be some sort of extradimensional intelligence, not unlike the Q species from Star Trek. In the style of the series, however, much of it is left vague, allowing fans to color things in as they see fit. My verdict? After playing several of the games, I reserve the right to pass judgement. Some things are best left a mystery.

The awesomely named ‘boids’ flying through the skies of Xen.

So it seems that aliens on earth equate with very bad things. There is room for hope! Things do take a slight turn for the better towards the end. As memorable moments go, Half-Life is liberally chock full of them. None are as powerful as Gordon’s return to Xen. The discovery of Xen will always stand out as a strong moment of awe and inspiration in gaming history. You remember me mentioning Gordon’s inter-dimensional outing at the beginning of the game? In the later stages, our intrepid scientist must amend the tear, attempting to fix the instability. A good enough reason as any to explore the home of these creatures we’ve grown so familiar with! Xen can be described as a series of floating islands amid a nebula – from another dimension. It’s connected by a network of teleportation nodes and seems to be the hub of all attempts at similar transport, even branching as far as Earth. As we hoped, Xen is also home to an entire system of creatures, as well as beings with their own culture. There’s something to be said about seeing these terrifying creatures in their natural state. Especially after you’ve received a healthy respect for what they could do on your own home planet!

As amazing as such explorations sound, you have to remember that it’s all just a small part of what makes Half-Life such a great joy to play. Its handling of the topic was bar none at the time, and stands head and shoulders above most of the competition to this day. Sure, I can praise this game until I’m blue in the face (and I apparently gave it one hell of a try; look at the size of this post!) but it’s just a small drop in the pool. Everyone who’s ‘in the know’ knows that Half-Life is one of the legends. This is as big as you can get in the gaming world, and I just hope I was able to bring a little bit of flavor by adding my own take at a different angle.

Vortigaunt scientist says “Hello from the sequel!” Who’d have thought they were blasting ionized holes in our own scientists in the first game?

I’m also happy to report that the sequel, Half Life II expounded on just about every factor that made the first game such a powerhouse. It also brought humans and aliens together in a way that we could have only hoped for in the first game. Scientists don’t need to shun our alien brothers in fear any longer. Gone are the days when parasites feasted on your delicious gray matter. Now they’re actually kind of cute. You might even want them on your head. Well, sometimes.. you still need to de-beak them.

Wow. After all of that, I think a nice quick addition might be in order for next time. I have one more game lined up, so we’re finally reaching the end of our epic, week long saga. I really have to work on pacing myself. It’s kind of funny to think that I dove into this thinking I could cover it in one post. Sad to say, I ramble way too much for that!

Lets get this bad boy over with! Until then.

Greetings from Earth Part II: Memorable first contact moments in video games

Welcome back! This is our continuation of interesting first contact scenarios in video games. Sorry about the impromptu nature of these posts. I literally had no idea I’d be stretching this out into such an unwieldy beast. It seems that I have a lot to say on the subject, and it can only be covered by a rash of articles! Whether that’s better than a single novelette sized mother, is yet to be seen. I might try that approach later… Thanks for your patience as I get the hang of this blogging thing. It’s all still very new to me – which goes without saying, really!

To the main event: We’re back with the subject of alien incursion in video games. The possibilities when star-crossed consciousnesses collide are truly limitless. Though we all have a good idea what we’d do in a situation, mainstream popular opinion would suggest that our Eatee visitors would undoubtedly have something dastardly in store for us. Video games wouldn’t have it any other way. Nine times out of ten, anything with extra appendages, a disc shaped ship, or a collection of shiny probes on standby doesn’t necessarily have your best interest at heart. (Or whatever equivalent nutrient sifting organ they might have evolved.)

This next installment is in the same vein. (Wow, forgive me for that!) Horrible pun aside, this next game presents a compelling case for why aliens equal bad news. It’s done in such an entertaining and above all else memorable way, that you’ll find yourself wondering why most games don’t handle the subject half as good! This is a tangible take when a super soldier runs afoul of an ancient intelligence as it awakens from a centuries long dormancy.

I promised more detail on this go-round and you can’t get much more of a stark jump in technology than by comparing the Sega Genesis to the heights of modern PC graphics. (Okay, you could say Atari to modern day PC graphics, but you get where I’m coming from.)

Breaking out at our number two spot is the action-oriented first person shooter, Crysis.

Crysis

You begin as a United States Special Forces Operator whose code name is Nomad. Resplendent with a sweetly decked out nano suit that basically gives you every power that the greatest military technology can provide, such as lightning speed, super strength, crazy agility, bullet absorbing armor, and (my favorite) a Predator-esque cloaking field. The first half of the game’s focus is mainly on facing human opponents. Which is perfectly fine, as in the beginning it is you who feels like the outsider. Early missions involve saving hostages from North Korean terrorists, high exploration across an open island environment, infiltration of enemy encampments to gather intel and a slow build up of what promises to be a thrilling story early on. Crysis was renowned for its graphics engine on release, and I was mighty impressed myself as I played it four years later. This game has aged beautifully.

But all is not well in ‘made-up-island-land’ when Nomad and his team are systematically hunted and tracked by unknown forces. The first reveal that things are not quite as they seem and the subsequent scramble propels you to the inevitable conflict that truly ‘made’ the game for me. For someone who is something of an archeology nerd, the idea of finding the remains of an ancient (and decidedly squidy) mystery creature struck all the right nerves. I found myself yearning to learn more about these things, intrigued by their origins, and wondering just what their mores might be. That, coupled with the systematic attacks on my squad made me both wary and totally hyped for what was to come.

And what better place for that confrontation than that looming mountain at the center of the island?

The Ceph spaceship is revealed after the remnants of the mountain have fallen away.

When Nomad finally investigates what is called “The Temple” by the locals, he promptly deals with his human adversaries. He’s too late to stop the inevitable, however. The mountain crumbles around him as whatever is inside begins to awaken. Now trapped, Nomad is faced with his only possible choice. He must push forward into the eerily lit and equally alien looking entryway, leaving the devastated chamber behind. It’s that unknown that Crysis manages to capture so well.

Inside the ship. I enjoyed how limited you felt as you tried to pick your way through the alien craft stuck in your gravitationally locked two-dee horizon that humans are so used to. It’s only when you escape the earth’s pull that you can fully explore the ship.

This translates into the design of the alien interior. Dark-lit halls and meandering passageways.. odd plantlike growths tipped with what seems to be bio-luminescent buds waving as you pass. Things really start to get interesting when the earth’s gravity is somehow canceled and you must drift through vast open sections of the ship with no real orientation to guide you. Everything opens up as you navigate in three dimensional space as the ship was undoubtedly built for, but it can be very confusing at times. Yet for me, this fit and only added to the immersion.

The game earns points in modelling their aliens after squid and octopus.

Things get a little hectic when you meet up with the denizens of the craft. They’re called the Ceph after their passing resemblance to cephalopods. And if you know me, you know that is a good thing! Similarly to Ecco’s notorious Giger squids from part one, Crysis’ Ceph aren’t too happy that you’re invading their space. Call me a sucker, but I didn’t want to start slaughtering them wholesale with my shotgun. I was trespassing after all. But when they began swarming me like those frenzied Humboldt squid, I knew it was time to bring the hammer down before they started taking away chunks. It is an action game after all… and I can’t really be trespassing if they’re on my damn planet to begin with!

There was something arresting about wheeling around at the sound of an approaching alien, only to catch a flash of a bio-luminous tentacle disappearing around a corner.. and something extremely satisfying about punching a shell into one and watching it drift in the zero-grav environment, leaking its see-through blood all the way.

What’s not to love about an alien cephalopod in battle armor?

The rest of the game branches out into satisfying battles as the Ceph begin with their plans of world domination. You escape their vessel only to find half of the island flash frozen by subarctic temperatures. The Ceph idea of terraforming, as they evidently require frigid temperatures to survive. It also does gangbusters on the battle front, as you pass by crystalline statues of your fellow homo sapiens.

Things get really fun when you hook up with the remnants of your team. Your leader, codenamed Prophet. The Ceph aren’t going to make it easy on you as you take on squadrons of exo-suited baddies while they pour from the ship, seeking to eradicate all humans who managed to avoid their sphere of chilled doom. In the end, you are forced to evacuate as it’s soon learned that stemming the tide is all but impossible.

I’m almost certain that these exosuits were piloted.

As you could imagine, there are amazing protracted battles against overwhelming forces in the final stages of the game. Troops of Ceph scouts swarming the only fleet of battleships that humanity has standing between them and an upcoming genocide. Huge mechanized monstrosities that have your imminent demise first up on their to-do list. It’s all very exciting and I highly recommend you play this game if you haven’t already.. but for me, nothing will beat those first moments of exploration. Discovering an alien intelligence that could very well have lain dormant for millions of years on your own planet. Everything that happens afterwards is just semantics. We’ve seen it done a million times and while I greatly appreciate how well Crysis tackles the genre, it can’t be overstated how they handled those first moments. It was superb. All of the thought and detail that went into it really shows.

Now, I haven’t played the sequel yet, even though I hear that the Ceph feature prominently. The fact that they have been relegated to humanoid battle suits might have something to do with that. (I have a fundamentalist’s fervor for un-anthropomorphizing our aliens. I’m a hopeless case!) I get it that it makes sense that they would imitate human form and function to better fight us on our own turf. I totally buy into that! I was also so thoroughly impressed by Crysis, that I’d be more than happy to give the rest in its series a try. Though it has stepped away from the aspects that made it so compelling to me; namely its open world gameplay and exploration elements, the fact that Crytek included Peter Watts in production as a consultant (even going as far as having him write a novelization) should make Crysis 2 an instant purchase for anyone with a sci-fi bone in their body!

Screenshots from Crysis 2. And I know… they’ve gone bipedal on us. But! You can clearly see tentacles sprouting from that Ceph trooper’s back. I think I can forgive on those grounds.

Crysis earns its place on this list and I wont be forgetting it any time soon.

Next up is a game with non-swimming/free floating aliens. I promise! Aliens that put the T in ET definitely need their fair shake. I wont give in to the humanoid brigade just yet though. There’s likely a few posts left in me on this subject, and I’ll be sure to put off that pain-in-my-ass as long as possible!

See you next time.

Greetings from Earth Part I: Memorable first contact moments in video games

Aliens and video games. The two go back to the beginning, when you could count the data bits that powered a game on one hand. Representations of human/alien interaction are just as old. Think of those gnarly little pixels from Space Invaders. Sure, it’s not the happiest of close encounters as you lay huddled amid the remnants of your precious bunkers – waiting in vain as they descended to seal your fate! It’s safe to say that this common sci-fi trope has been resurrected time and time again throughout the history of the media. And with good reason! There’s something powerful about that moment when you encounter your first alien. If the game handles it well enough, you may end up like me and retain some fond memories of some of those first contact moments – even if (more often then not) the confrontations rarely turn out well for everyone involved. Blame the genre!

A few guidelines to help us before we get underway: This is strictly a list of video games that I find personally memorable. This post has nothing to do with their playability and does not reflect any kind of rating system, though I will be commenting about gameplay sparingly. They’re all good, in my opinion. I’ll mostly be referring to the story or background in which these inter-species exchanges will be taking place. A little build up to set the stage. There will also be some spoilers. But I’ll be sure to keep them minimal if I can help it.

Also! I do realize how prolific aliens and sci-fi are to the fabric of video games. Trust me. I’ve played my share of them. Many games handle the subject beautifully. Recent examples include  the Halo series, Starcraft 2, Gears of War, and of course the Mass Effect trilogy. These games are pinnacles in their own right. People love them for good reason. Yet most of these stories include species and cultures that are already well established within the fiction. Wars are already being fought on a galactic scale! My list will focus instead on those brief moments in video games where the character in question is first running into his oft-scaly extra solar friends. With a few exceptions: the encounter with the Flood in the first Halo comes to mind, most games forgo introductions for the benefit of just getting to the damn running and gunning already. I’ll try to stick with the first-offs.  This is a tenuous rule, as we’ll soon see, but I think it holds up; more or less.

If you guys have any suggestions of your own, I’d love to hear them! My list is kind of piddling.. though I’ll just say that it’s a work-in-progress. These are current standouts. Burned into my vision centers most recently or most prominently. Forgive me if I leave out a few good ones. Like I said.. let me know. I’m always willing to hack away at my own ignorance one bit at a time! So now, without very much more ado, and in no particular order:

Memorable moments of first contact in video games!

*Edit:* It has now been decided that this post will be extended to include a kind of “saga” of video game first contact posts. Who’d have known I could be so long winded?!

Ecco the Dolphin

Hey, why not set off this list without humans whatsoever! Ecco the Dolphin is one of those rare gems that involves alien confrontation that cuts out the need for humanoid bipedalism completely. Maybe that’s why it stayed with me over all of these years. Yes, me and this game go way back. I was poking around at a Sega controller long before I was capable of playing a game so notoriously difficult. Many of my friends couldn’t get past the beginning stage where Ecco’s pod is mysteriously and violently hoovered up into the sky by a mysterious and jaw droppingly violent force. If this were a blog post about “Video game moments where idyllic scenes were suddenly replaced by supercharged-nightmare-fodder that can give you a heart attack” this would be right up there!

Anyways, to the important stuff. For a game about cetaceans, Ecco the Dolphin was a real powerhouse when it came to its science fiction content. I remember it being kind of off putting to some of my friends. “Since when did Flipper get super powers that involved breathing water, laser-like echolocation bursts, and a general demigod power over all sea life?” This bottle nose dolphin would do Aquaman proud.

Sure I remember lots of bits here and there. Like who could forget that damn octopus? There was time travel which involved pterodactyls. A trip to the frigid arctic to find a sagacious old blue whale that could fill the entire map. Navigating the submerged annals of Atlantis, and a very strange DNA being that had lost some of its double helixes… heli… whatever. That’s all well and good, but when it comes to the parts that still shine decades on.. it’s that twisted ending with the aliens. It really isn’t often when you’re treated to the dolphin version of Odysseus butting heads with a few hostile life forms from another ocean. And we’re not talking the Atlantic here.

In your jaunts through time and space, you return to the beginning of the game and end up traveling up that cyclone from hell that I mentioned earlier. And where do you end up? Why, in a kind of unholy marriage of H.R. Giger and H.P. Lovecraft’s vision of a Sea Park. And those are bad enough as it is. You’ve got Giger squid things chasing you through a maze of vents and ducts… all under a time limit. If the claws of the green freaks don’t dice you first, you’re liable to get crushed by the edge of the screen as it continuously moves and shifts, trying to propel you forward.

Flee or fight? Just get used to that piercing squeal Ecco makes every time he gets hit. Every. Single. Time.

As powerful as as a dolphin demigod might be; I died. A lot. And all of this was before meeting her highness, the Vortex Queen. The floating alien head with a penchant for using Ecco like a blubbery toothpick. Good luck saving your pod now.

I’d like to give you a happy ending after all of this, but I literally can’t remember if I beat the game or not. All I can see are those thrashing teeth and those creepy red eyes.

In the end, I appreciated Ecco the Dolphin for its originality. Its take on the plight of the hero was pretty ingenious. It was the complete lack of humankind throughout that really stuck out to me. It gave the game its own feel, and made the encounter with extraterrestrial non-terrestrials that much more poignant. And who says a tail fluke can’t kick as much ass?

I remember cries of “Go for the eyes!”

Okay, wow. It turns out that this post might be a bit longer than previously anticipated. Only one game down! I suppose I’ll end up stretching this out into several posts. I have two or three more games in line for a proper description!

Alright… so!

Ahem – On our next installment: A video game with a bit more fidelity for our discerning readers. A newer game that stands on its own as a prime example of doing some exploration of an alien vessel right! Ecco the Dolphin could have taken a few notes.. but alas, time is a one way street. Until then, I’ll see you down the road.

Welcome: Where’s your destination?

Like the first part of the title said; Welcome to Outwardbounder. A blog where big ideas are tackled by a fresh-faced wannabe writer who is (in all fairness) completely under qualified. The goal is to keep those seemingly insurmountable limitations at bay with a mix of enthusiasm, creativity and a whole mess of respect for what is undoubtedly a very large and complex pocket of what we call reality. Because I’ll admit it right here in the first paragraph – as much as I’m in absolute awe of the front row seat we’ve been given, (access to an ever expanding knowledge base of the universe’s inner clockwork! Are you kidding me?!) I still have this nagging tendency to reach out further into the vastness that I know I can never fully comprehend and just lose myself in the inescapable wonder of what else we might be missing.

Believe me; I’m far from unsatisfied. There’s so much here that generations to come will be mulling over the particulars! Disciplines spanning entire cultures will be wrapped up in this ever-unfolding mystery for centuries to come. And I for one am completely content to realize that we probably will never know it all. Yet at the same time, we all know it’s fun to give that endless game a shot. For many of us, it all begins with an upturned chin to that familiar night sky.

But enough of all that reverent crap; this is just a blog after all. And as first posts go, I want this to swing more toward informative than expository!

So: What’s all this, then?

Simply put, Outwardbounder is a space for like-minded people to get together and ruminate on topics that the not-so-like-mindedly inclined might say “will never happen, could never happen, should never happen, or have already not happened.” Ah, but we know better.

Subjects like:

  • An alternate history where there was no other white meat!
  • A grim and distant future where meerkat-like creatures have enslaved us all!
  • A time and place where a galaxy spanning corporate empire plies the spaceways, yet never cracked the nut on cordless phones!

I aim for Outwardbounder to be a place for open discussion on a variety of topics. As long as they’re “mostly interesting”, and more or less “decidedly cool.” If you deem them worth a read, I’d be more than happy to write about them. Expect everything from musings on popular media like film, TV, and video games, to personal takes on not-so-popular media like eBooks and their soft/hard cover brethren. I would eventually like a place to post some of my own fiction: as long as it falls into those relevant categories of cool and/or interesting-ness. General appeal is always a plus.

Above all else, this will be a blog about conversation. I want it to be as open and friendly an environment as I can make it, so please feel free to pull up a chair. In the end, I hope you go away feeling refreshed, entertained, or mildly amused. Your concerns, criticisms, and input are always appreciated, so please feel free to join in the discussion.

There are many places to go from here, so the first thing I’ll ask…

Picture thanks go to vmilligan at deviantart

Where’s your destination?