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.

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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.