Bow To Your New Overlords: Cats

It seems I’ve got felines on the brain lately, what with the recent passing of a lifelong pet that stretched away into the annals of my childhood. I’ve been coping pretty well, I’d wager; and was even faced with something you might call heartwarming very recently– But more on that later. For now it seems like I’ve got some more healing to do. What are blogs for but to be used as the tools for writer-ly expression? Or just plain venting.

It’s time to focus on a new series that I pulled out of thin air. In Overlords, we’ll focus our speculative powers on what species might take the mantle of world dominators from us. When we pass the buck, who will be there to scoop up the pieces? It’s all tongue-in-cheek, but I’m sure that’s just a defense mechanism for all the hypothetical drivel I purvey.

“On your knees!” Complements: akreon

First up we have domestic cats, in all their aloof, love-em-or-hate-em glory.

When they inevitably usurp us, what would become of those conniving fuzzballs? Evolution would unquestionably have its way. Ah, evolution: the speculator’s whore. You could branch off into a million-trillion directions. Or you could if you were a mental case like me.  But what does popular culture have to offer on the subject?

Humanoid cats in spec fiction and fantasy are a literal dime a dozen. They clog books and video games so much, you’d think everyone would get sick of the hair-balls. I even covered a game that chronicles an adventure across a whole planet of ‘em, and Outwardbounder is still causing birthing pangs! But as per our mission statement, what might future cats evolve into? We’re talking felis catus here.

The undeniable authority on the subject #Tongue-To-Cheek Alert# can be found in the British television series, Red Dwarf. One of the characters is actually a super evolved descendent of the protagonist’s pet. When Dave Lister is accidentally left in suspended animation for millions of years, his pregnant cat Frankenstein gives birth to a whole race of (suspiciously) humanoid catpeople.

The Cat. Pinnacle of interstellar feline evolution.

An entire culture and religion is sprung up around Lister and his pie-in-the-sky plans to retire to Fiji. The show really tears society a new one and is a marvel to behold. As for Cat, (capital c) he becomes the recipient of all of humanity’s stereotypes about felines. Fashionable, uncaring, cool… he’s got it all. The Cat has maintained the most elaborate, funny, and original origin story for any comedy series that I’ve ever seen. Hell, I might go as far as “any sci fi series, period.”

But now we’re getting ahead of ourselves. How would it all start? What would go down in the first place? Some might argue that they’d need thumbs. Others have presented scenarios where humans personally uplift animals through diabolical technology.

In the bloody and beautiful comic We3, a group of fluffy animals have been engineered into competent killing machines. Things take a turn for the heartfelt when the robotic creatures break free and are hunted down by the military. Naturally, throughout the story, characters remark at how viciously proficient the cat appears to be.

There’s something hauntingly plausible about humanity falling because of its own hubris. Evolution made cats into perfect killing machines. Might humanity push the scale even further? Or would we just end up with this?

I could see something like this eradicating all mankind…

How might our Overlords view us? Would they stamp us out completely with no remorse, or perhaps; would they see something of themselves in us? Strangely enough, this might not be completely speculative. In 1999, scientists at the University of California studied how neurons fired inside cat’s brains. They managed to project the data picked up by their retinas onto screens; effectively revealing what the cats were seeing.

As amazingly cool as eye-cameras and dream recorders would be, the study did manage to pick up a snippet of delicious spec fodder on the side. When it viewed a human face, the cat seemed to interpret it in its own felid-centric way. Check this amazing video and judge for yourself.

And there you have it. Cat Overlords, though maybe not completely terrifying, present a particularly wide array of possibilities to ponder. Be it your typical Man Vs. Kzin laser weaponry genocide-fest, or your slow and calculating tabby on a windowsill, you never can tell just how they’ll pounce and steal the stage from under us. Somehow, you wouldn’t put it past them. It’s something about that cold and distant stare. The purr is just to lull you into a false sense of security.

As George Carlin once put it, you can’t really relate to cats like you can with dogs. Cats don’t have eyebrows. Cats have a bunch of shit sticking out of their head.

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Deacon or Queen: Where’s the space monarchy in Prometheus?

Like, WTH? Ammiright?

So what’s the deal with Prometheus?

We’ve all heard the story. A film with staggeringly high expectations, destined to be an instant classic in the genre. It would be a return to form for Ridley Scott’s gritty, mood-horror universe. It was going to make sci-fi scary again.

Well I suspect that’s the problem right there. Anticipation is a razor’s edge. All too often, opinions are split down the middle. Say what you will about the flick’s wonky literary values, hard to follow motivations, and flat characterization; Prometheus just couldn’t live up to the hype. In the business, this is what they call a nonstarter.

But wait, I hear you say. Didn’t some of the great cult classics of old start off clogged in negative reviews? John Carpenter is still haunted by the world’s initial reaction to The Thing. Hell, even Alien had to find its footing, way back. Won’t Prometheus follow suit?

No. I’d love to be proven wrong on this, but I’m not. I’m always right. End of story.

Why? One reason. The special effects are too good. Anyways —

A bunch of people I admire completely tore Prometheus apart. And you know what? I think it’s warranted. To an extent. Those’re some gaping plot holes you got there, movie. But at the same time, I’ll confess. Yes, I’m one of those people that took the movie up on its intrinsic entertainment value. I was happy to overlook a few weaker points supporting the ‘more or less’ derivative plot.

Was it the eye candy? The brilliant score (C’mon haters, you know it had good tunes)? The strangely prevailing leniency I have with these sorts of movies? Maybe it was some other magic ingredient that lifted Prometheus out of the mire. I don’t know. Just… let me come back to this.

I’ll throw all of that aside. There are better reviewers out there than me, and they’ve put forth some fine cutting-slash-insightful takes. I’ll share what stood out to me.

The aliens! What else? Moreover, the relationships of said aliens posited by this movie and how they connect with the canon of previous films. Holy crap. I sounded like a real reviewer just then! Back on track – Mr. Scott answered some long standing questions, and left a whole lot more unfulfilled. Ergo: insidious plot holes!

Such as: The Space Jockeys. Redubbed Engineers. Good or bad? To this, I can only shrug. So the elephant guys turned out to be strangely effeminate body builders. With melanin deficiencies. It’s safe to say these beings are a major point of contention. If you like your space gods decked out with proboscisesprobosci? – you will probably dislike this film.

How do the Engineers stack up with the original film? Well, for one we learn what conniving jerks they are. They created us. And possibly all life on earth. They also guided humanity in its infancy, becoming a part of myth and legend. Alien astronauts anyone? It’s also revealed that the Engineers are spread throughout the galaxy err… at least two separate planets (Three if you count their presence on Earth… uh – four if you count their home world..). Prometheus takes place on LV-223, whereas the original involved LV-426. Engineers are predominantly genetic manipulators, so it’s safe to assume that most of the life appearing on screen was tweaked by these dudes.

Bringing us to phallic parasites and black ooze. Creepy, perverse, disturbing. It’s unclear whether these things are just elaborate WMD’s (as the characters assume) or part of some religious system. (Lots of alters, giant statues, fancy chambers. Seems religious to me.) It’s been suggested that the Engineers worship death, while their creations (humans) worship life. Are the creepy crawlies designed specifically for the purpose of destruction? Probably. How do they fit into the canon? Pretty well, though they are unlike our traditional facehuggers, you can still connect the dots. Maybe these Engineers engineered a different strain?

Do they prefer variety? Were the different Engineer ships on the different LV’s destined for the wholesale destruction of different worlds? Strains of xenomorphs tailored for each? What stopped them? Infighting? A change of heart? A civil war? Pro-Human Rebels? Or did they just lose control of their own weapons?

Here’s where I found the greatest divergence from the original canon. By original, I mean the first quadrilogy. It’s all about the birthing sequence. Scott wasn’t a fan of the Queen from Aliens. In fact, he’d planned for the xeno in the first film to have a completely self-contained life cycle. Prometheus does see a return to form in this respect. A newborn #in quotes# “Alien species” is introduced, completely divorced from the Queen aspect.

The Deacon; so named for the head-point. This creature has received a chilly reception. It’s goofy looking, though Ridley gets points for playing with the pharyngeal jaw.

Meet the Deacon. He may not be pretty, and I’ll agree – he ain’t as cool as the traditional xeno, but he raises an interesting plot conundrum. What kind of wild divergence is the alien species capable of? Did the crew of the Nostromo stumble upon a “humanity killing” craft? Or did they mix into the gene pool by mistake? Were xenos bred to wipe out something even gnarlier than us? Did we in turn, produce a rogue strain?

Like introducing a virus to a human host, it needs to evolve or die. Maybe the Queen life cycle is just a fluke. In the end, did human tampering agitate the evolution of something greater than the sum of its parts?

Like I said, I don’t know. But herein lies the fact of the matter. It could be that I like asking these questions. Open-endedness, interpretation; the whole connect-the-dots motif. I like doing that. As an audience member, I like having my creativity challenged. Perhaps that’s why I tolerated Prometheus so well.

There is a sequel on the way, however; and I wholly expect Mr. Scott to ruin every bit of construction I just made. When he does, I’ll be with you guys. Keep a seat warm. I’ll make sure to practice some snide remarks about story logic.

[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.

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?