Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Best of the Worst

There's a Youtube channel called Red Letter Media that semi-regularly features a series entitled "Best of the Worst."  Essentially, in each video a group of friends select three bad movies and try to decide which is the least unbearable of the bunch.  I'd like to do the same sort of thing here except for video games rather than VHS tapes.  Also, to keep a theme going for this month all three titles are from the same IP.

The Aliens franchise has a vast collection of licensed video games spanning nearly four decades from Alien for the Atari 2600, in 1982, all the way to Alien: Blackout in 2019 for Android and iOS.  Needless to say I had a lot of titles to choose from, but to make things as interesting as possible I selected one old game, one new game and one roughly somewhere in the middle.  Here are my three picks:

  • Aliens: The Computer Game by Activision
  • Aliens: A Comic Book Adventure by Mindscape
  • Aliens: Colonial Marines by Gearbox Software

I actually played the first one on the list when it came out way back in 1987.  The version I had was for the Apple IIc, but based on some gameplay footage I watched the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum versions that came out the year before are basically the same save for some splash screens and graphical tweaks.  As the title implies, the game is a direct adaptation of the film based on iconic scenes.  There are some quotes in text form sprinkled in like cutscenes, but the actual gameplay begins with the player having to identify various pieces of equipment used by the colonial marines.  After that, there is a dropship piloting challenge which seems to have given a lot of players way more greef than it ever did me.  Following that is an escape from the hive segment wherein the player must try to get four marines to the APC while fending off periodic xenomorph ambushes.  Next is a delaying action.  The player must repel waves of aliens using a flamethrower while marines cut through the locked exit.  Then comes an alien infested maze of air ducts that must be navigated through followed by Ripley's rescuing Newt in the atmosphere processor.  Lastly, there's a showdown between the queen alien and player in a power loader.

Moving on, Aliens: A Comic Adventure is a weird hybrid of pre-rendered 3D backgrounds and 2D character art.  The player leads a team of four in a RPG/Puzzle/Adventure game that feels vaguely reminiscent of Myst...possibly because both were early CD-ROM titles.  The game has voice acting - really bad voice acting, and not in a funny original Resident Evil kind of way.  It's also extremely buggy.  The combat takes place on a grid and has a crude almost MOBA-like feel to it.  Encounters typically consist of only a few enemies such as a couple of facehuggers, a pair of adult xenomorphs, or a madman in a suit of power armor.  Speaking of power armor, each of the four marine characters wears a distinct suit of power armor that look like smaller versions of the loaders used in the second film.  Even though the team is made up of four individuals, the player can only control one of them at a time.  As such, only one of the four participates in combat encounters.  I guess it's safe to assume that the other three are fighting additional threats off-screen, but it still comes across as a strange design decision.  Thankfully, the player doesn't have to worry about experience points or leveling up.  On the other hand they do have to keep each member of the group well fed.  Seriously...it's possible for a character to die of hunger which is another head-scratcher from a design perspective.

Finally, we come to a fairly recent game, Aliens: Colonial Marines.  Oh boy...where to begin?  The visual downgrade from trailers and preview footage rubbed fans the wrong way immediately after launch.  Glitches and bugs added to the outrage.  The xenomorph AI also had a lot of problems, some of which could have been corrected simply by fixing a typo in one line of code.  The biggest offender though has to be the story.  Unlike any Aliens game to come before, not one but two of the original cast members reprised their roles in the form of voice work...and it's a complete waste of their talents.  According to Michael Bean (A.K.A. Corporal Hicks) Gearbox  representatives were not very enthusiastic about the game they were making.  Not to mention the reason for his character still being alive is possibly some of the most contrived writing in video game history.  The gameplay is standard FPS stuff to the point that the player spends a lot more time fighting humans with guns than the xenomorphs.  As for original material, the only notable addition to the Aliens IP is some short sections of gameplay featuring irradiated xenomorphs that are blind, slow, and covered in tumorous growths that explode...for some reason.

So, which is the best of the worst?  Well, I'm going to have to go with Aliens: The Computer Game.  As far as movie tie-in games go it does try to recreate the story beats of the film admirably given the severe hardware limitations at the time.  Even so, it does suffer from the collection-of-mini-games problem in that none of the gameplay segments have much in the way of depth.  In all honesty this game isn't bad though, it's just dull.  Meanwhile, Aliens: A Comic Book Adventure is awful in almost every way, including a number of technical issues.  Unsurprisingly, it is largely forgotten along with a lot of other early CD-ROM shovelware games.  Gearbox is the worst though in that they had all the support they needed to make Aliens: Colonial Marines good, they just dropped the ball, and lied about it to boot.  Congradulations, Randy Pitchford!  Unlike like the dev teams behind the other two Aliens games mentioned here, you will be remembered...as the Carter Burke of video game developers.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Another Breed of Aliens

Originally, the third mainline entry in the Dino Crisis series was supposed to take place in a near-future post-apocalypse and star characters from the first two games.  Basically, it was going to be a zombie survival horror title except with dinosaurs instead of the walking dead.  However, the (then) recent 9/11 terrorist attacks, plus lackluster performance of Jurassic Park III at the boxoffice, convinced Capcom to change course early on in development.  So, instead of a logical follow-up to Dino Crisis 2, we got a far-flung futuristic setting wherein the player is tasked with investigating a seemingly derelict spacecraft orbiting Jupiter...which as one might guess happens to be infested with not just dinosaurs, but mutant dinosaurs.

Dino Crisis from its inception, and especially in the second game, had a lot in common with Aliens in terms of plot and pacing.  Dino Crisis 3 in particular though feels like Capcom was milking the movie franchise for every last usable idea.  Not only is it set in an industrialized outer space environment, but the dinosaurs themselves are skinless monstrosities that only feel vaguely reminiscent of their real-world counterparts.  Of course, the surprise in-game twist is that these creatures are actually a combination of human and dino DNA and the result of the derelict ship AI going off the rails after the entire crew died of radiation exposure.

Gameplay-wise Dino Crisis 3 is a third-person shooter.  Unlike the previous entry in the series, it forgoes pre-rendered backgrounds in lieu of 3D assets generated in real-time (much like the original).  On paper this sounds like a good thing and yet for Dino Crisis 3 it ends up being the worst of both worlds.  One of the advantages of pre-rendered environments is the increased level of detail that can be accomplished even on relatively lackluster hardware.  The trade off is a camera that has to stick to fixed angles, often leading to poor PoV shots for whatever it is the player is trying to accomplish.  Dino Crisis 3 somehow manages to have a terrible camera that is constantly not facing where they player needs to see, while simultaneously utilizing dull-looking, metallic rooms with little to no set dressing.  It doesn't really make sense from a design perspective, both in and out of the fiction.  Why did the developers not provide decent camera controls?  Isn't that the big advantage of not using pre-rendered backgrounds?  Additionally, the spaceship in which the entire game takes place on is designed to support and sustain a large number of people and yet there don't seem to be any crew quarters...or a recreation center...or a medical bay.  An oxygen garden of some kind would make a lot of sense as well.  Of course, the real reason these things aren't present is because original Xbox hardware wouldn't have been able to handle that kind of polygon count.  So, instead players are left to explore lots of relatively empty cargo bays.  To alleviate some of the blandness the development team did try to add some variety by having modularity built into the ship design.  Players can reconfigure the layout and orientation of some parts of the ship in order to solve puzzles and advance the story.  Again not a bad idea on paper, but this approach leads to a lot of tedious backtracking and annoying platforming both of which are aggravated by special encounter rooms that require the player to fight off wave after wave of mutant dinosaurs ad nauseum.

The story is a drip feed of bad voice acting.  That alone wouldn't be all that bad if the protagonist wasn't such a thoroughly unlikable dunce who is overshadowed by the secondary characters at every turn.  As I mentioned earlier, think poor-man's knockoff of Aliens and you're ninety percent of the way there.  If you want the whole rundown of similarities, a Youtube channel by the name of RedScotGaming has a very thorough breakdown of the entire franchise here.  Since it's over an hour long though, here's a select list of similar plot points for those who don't have the spare time:

  • Botched mission
  • Secret artificial human
  • Ship AI is called "MTHR"
  • Heroic sacrifice involving a hand grenade
  • Self-destruct sequence    
  • Surprise 4th act showdown

...and of course there's the simple fact that the player is trapped in a space sci-fi location shooting lots of hideous monsters with a machine gun...a quintessential survival horror premise that was sadly not at it's finest here.  Then again, the same thing can be said of for much of the Aliens IP, official or derived.  Oh well...at least the mutant dinosaurs looked kind of cool.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

The Long Shadow of H.R. Giger

Swiss surrealist, Hans Ruedi Giger, is probably most well known for the creation of the "Xenomorph" and "Sil" from the movies Alien and Species respectively, but his body of work goes far beyond film.  Album/magazine covers, guitars, mic stands, jewelry, anime, and interior design are just some of the areas in which he applied his creative endeavors.  That said, the vast majority of Giger's art is in the form of airbrush paintings (more often than not) done on huge cavansas, which allowed for an impressive amount of detail.  Because of this signature style and imagery it's not hard to to spot his influence when it comes to the visual presentation of certain video games.

Officially, Giger only every took part in the making of two games, both point-and-click adventure titles by the names of Dark Seed and Dark Seed II.  I've mentioned them before in other blog posts so I won't go into detail about them here.  If you are looking for more information by all means poke around Youtube and I'm sure you can find some excellent reviews/retrospectives on what are sadly pretty mediocre video games.  Moving on...what I really want to cover here are games that used his visual style without consulting him or giving proper credit to his distinctive biomechanical look.

Since Alien was his most iconic work it's obvious that video games based on that franchise are filled with examples.  There are over 25 retail video game products and that's excluding crossover media with the Predator franchise...needless to say, I'm going to skip over these titles because they are trivially easy to identify.  Instead, I think it's more interesting to point out some games that use the basic Alien creature design without the licence to do so.  Side-scrolling shooters Metroid, Contra and R-Type are three examples featuring a large number of enemy types and environments reminiscent of H.R. Giger's paintings albeit limited in fidelity by hardware available at the time.  Xenophobe is another example (featuring biomechanical monsters) although it originally existed as an unusual arcade cabinet in which up to three people could play simultaneously on  separate horizontal slices of screen real estate.  Another multi-player arcade title, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time has an encounter with a yellow Alien-like foe in (where else?) a sewer.

Perhaps some of the most out of left field examples of biomechanics in video games can be found in titles like the last boss from Ecco The Dolphin or the entire final stage (including final boss) of AstyanaxSpace Quest 4: Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers similarly has a very biomechanical area near the end of the game, although it somewhat foreshadows this in the beginning.  Last on the list of H.R. Giger inspired surprises is none other than Streets of Rage 2, which features an area within an amusement park about midway through the game that has a very biomechanical look to it.  I guess it's supposed to be an in-universe horror-themed ride or attraction, but my instinct tell me someone on the development team really just liked his/her collection of Giger artbooks.

Increasingly later in his life, Giger created a number of sculptures that often gave the impression of being three-dimensional versions of his 2D artwork.  All the games I've mentioned thus far are flat or forced perspective sprite based games.  Indeed, the 2015 video game Tormentum feels like a continuation of the Dark Seed duology in terms of genre and overall visual presentation.  However, there is an interesting game in the works called Scorn (not to be confused with critically panned Agony) that looks to be a genuine attempt to bring H.R. Giger's artwork into a fully realized 3D rendered environment.  The genre appears to be FPS which is eyebrow raising, but I'm willing to withhold any kind of judgment until the game is actually out...after all DOOM featured a generous helping of biomechanical wall textures (not to mention a cyberdemon) and it was a lot of fun to play.

Of course, there are many other examples out there I could mention.  Side-scrolling beat'em up, Alien Storm has a character select screen that feels practically like a cut and pasted job.  Also, look no farther than the covers of Alien Syndrome, Alien Breed, and Baal by Psygnosis for Giger inspired boxart...all old titles, I know, but if you want something more recent there's the AI constructs referred to as "Rusalki" in Axiom Verge whose visual appearances are largely inspired by two of Giger's more famous paintings, "Li" and "Li II".  It's amusing to think about this eccentric artist's influence, and how it has not diminished despite him passing away half-a-decade ago.  Truly the man has a long shadow, which might well grow longer still in the years to come.   

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Xeno Enigma

The soundtrack for James Cameron's film "Aliens" has an interesting feature.  The musical instruments play especially important roles, brass and woodwinds for the Aliens while percussion and strings represent the colonial marines.  Depending on the scene, audiences might only hear one or the other.  However, certain sequences (such as in the track "Futile Escape") the music mirrors how events playout on-screen.  As the music progresses the alien instruments inexorably eclipse the colonial marine ones.  French horns, in particular, grow to dominate the orchestra while the drums and chimes (which start off strong) struggle increasingly to maintain tempo and rhythm.  Apparently, due to time constraints, the entire score had to be recorded in one go which (as anyone can imagine) led to very exhausted musicians.  Debatably, this may have unintentionally added a subtle layer that most viewers would only pick up on subconsciously.  I certainly didn't notice any of this until someone pointed it out to me.  So what does any of this have to do with video games?  Well...when it comes to adaptations of the "Alien" IP video game developers like their bugs and guns, but fail to really notice the disturbing implications at the core of the whole concept...namely, the erosion of complex technology and organization by raw, organic chaos.

One of the best ways to illustrate this theme is by examining the xenomorphs themselves.  Fans of science fiction and horror are probably familiar with these creatures.  They are slender, hairless, humanoids with elongated skulls, fangs, and claws.  Their tongues even have pseudo-mouths of their own.  Aside from a fairly ordinary pair of arms and legs each alien has a barbed tail as well as a set of dorsal tube-like appendages along the back.  This is where things start to get ambiguous.  Most "Aliens" media depicts these oddities as purely decorative, although the Aliens tabletop RPG suggests that they are used by xenomorphs to cling to walls and ceilings.  Sounds plausible although none of the films explicitly show this being the case.  The purpose of the elongated head is another mystery.  Is it tied to the secreted resin Aliens use to build their hives or does the large cranium contain organs serving another purpose?  Overall, the torso and limbs seem entirely too slender for the degree of physical strength Aliens possess.  I've heard some speculation that the xenomorph's tail spike can inject a paralyzing venom which is how they are able to bring hosts back to the hive intact for embryo implantation.

The Alien life cycle is another case of something that is complex, but makes sense in that it's pretty similar to certain species of wasps.  However, the more you study it the less comprehensible it becomes.  The details are particularly bewildering.  What do Aliens eat?...nothing, appears to be the answer...and yet they don't seem to suffer for it.  The fact that they have highly corrosive acid for blood might lead one to theorize that Aliens are actually big, organic batteries.  That might help explain why they don't eat, but it doesn't really address the next obvious question - "how do they recharge?"  The Aliens preference for nesting in warm environments might be an indicator that they can absorb thermal energy which is somehow converted into matter that can be used for growth, repairs and egg laying, but that's pure conjecture on my part.

The intelligence level of the xenomorph has always been difficult to determine.  Are they on par with insects?...predatory cats?...or near human?  It seems to vary from film to film.  Senses and communication are also largely unexplained, so-much-so Dark Horse comics came up with the idea in their graphic novels that the Aliens were actually psychic.  DNA requisition is another aspect to the Alien physiology that has been around since the original film.  The script writer, Dan O'bannon, admitted that his concept of the Alien was inspired by the Lovecraftian monster Yog-Sothoth.  What's less clear is the potential for RNA requisition.  Do Aliens steal not only the genes of their hosts, but memories as well?  If so it appears that any such information is only utilized in ways that expedite the Aliens' primal goals; survive, kill, reproduce.

What is the ultimate purpose of the Aliens?  Dark Horse comics went with the concept of a xenomorph homeworld whereupon they are the dominant species.  Incidentally by implication it might have been more frightening if they were not, but I digress...The enigmatic, spacefaring giant seen in the first film was simply a victim of its own curiosity.  Meanwhile, in the quasi-prequels "Prometheus" and "Alien: Covenant" the xenomorphs were engineered.  It's certainly possible to treat xenomorphs like a highly invasive species or even biological weapons.  Personally, I'm inclined to think of them as a malignant, unsustainable, almost cancerous disease that infects whole planetary ecosystems rather than individual life forms.  I feel like the best way to convey this sort of horrific vibe isn't with tense FPS action or stealth gameplay, but rather grand strategy along the lines of Plague Inc.  Replace the epidemic with Aliens, countries with other-world colonies, and the CDC with colonial marines.  The Aliens themselves can retain the mutation mechanic based on the inconsistencies and speculation surrounding xenomorph biology that I previously mentioned.  In Plague Inc. it's also possible to get a boost from anti-vaxxers.  In a similarly structured Aliens-themed games the boost would come in the form of a Corporate Bio Weapons Division being stupid/greedy.

Now, I'm sure there are a few Aliens fans who would decry my ideas as being too abstract.  Frankly, the best of what the Aliens franchise has to offer has been milked dry by games that aren't even part of the franchise.  System Shock, Starcraft, Doom, Space Hulk, Dead Space and a whole slew of other survival horror titles did it better than any official game has, so if you're going to make a licensed Aliens game why not go with an-as-of-yet-unused macro viewpoint from which players can watch humanity unravel in the face of a threat they can't control or even truly understand?