A thing I just realized about RPGs

I like single-player computer role-playing games a lot, but there are only a few that I’ve stuck with until the end.  Usually at some point I get bored or frustrated and put it down for a while, and end up never coming back.

Lately I’ve been playing a lot of Skyrim.  Actually it has consumed most of my free time since I bought it three weeks ago, and it has made me realize the nature of one of the qualities that sets a good RPG apart from a mediocre one.

A good RPG makes you want to tell stories about things that happened in your game.

Now that I think about it, this generalizes in some sense to other kinds of games too.

Here’s the specific story I told, the formulation of which made me realize this thing: Once I emerged from looting a dungeon in Skyrim to find a dragon fighting a giant. When I realized neither was about to turn on me, I watched them fight and when the dragon was almost dead, I finished them both off with two arrows each.

What made this experience inspire storytelling was that it felt emergent – for all I know it was scripted to happen when I exited that particular dungeon, but based on other things that happen in Skyrim, it really felt like the dragon had just happened to be cruising by at that time and decided to pick on a giant. It felt like something that probably hadn’t happened in my friends’ instances of the game.

A different example is from the first Neverwinter Nights.  I played all the expansions for that one, and in one of them there was this epic battle where you were supposed to defend a gate from an attacking army.  It was supposed to be a very challenging battle, but by that point in my game I was at a higher level than the designers had perhaps anticipated.  I had two dragons on my side, and a few other summoned creatures.  On seeing the dragons, the invaders mostly panicked and the dragons simply roasted them while they tried to flee.  So the battle was a cakewalk instead of a challenge, but it was really enjoyable because the ease of it felt like a reward for all the effort I had put into reaching such a high level.

More emergent behaviors, please.  More alternative ways to progress through the game, even at the risk of sometimes making the challenge level lumpy (err on the side of the occasional cakewalk here, as frustration is more, well, frustrating.)

But the take-home message is that I will get excited about games that sometimes produce unique-feeling experiences that I will want to tell other players about.

More on Prometheus

One of my cow-orkers pointed out there’s a popular theory going around that Prometheus is all about classical mythology in an SF setting.  Most SF movies are, but the theory outlined here actually does a pretty good job of explaining some of the more baffling aspects of the movie.  I’m not equipped to spot this kind of stuff, not having a religious background and not having studied mythology.

The links and videos at the bottom of his post provide some good counterpoint though, and if you invest the time to read the article I suggest you also watch the videos – especially the first half of the Akira the Don one (the second half is irrelevant).

In addition to what is said in the latter, an obvious flaw with the Space Jesus theory is that wiping out humanity because we nailed their peace teacher to a tree is a pretty hypocritical lesson in peaceing out, space dudes.


While there’s nothing wrong with weaving mythological references all through a movie, even an SF movie, it still doesn’t feel like a well-put-together story.  Also, I wish people would stop relying so heavily on this material – consider the underlying values behind things like the Prometheus myth.  They’re outdated in that they severely undervalue life – depending on how they’re told, they’re almost death propaganda.  I’d like to see some more sensible SF flicks made to establish new, pro-life mythology.

On Prometheus

Actually not just on Prometheus, but on how it ties in with the Alien movies.

I enjoyed Prometheus.  It was an entertaining film.  But it wasn’t what I was expecting – namely a prequel to Alien.  At best it’s the first half of a prequel.  But I’ll get back to that.  First, some comments about standalone flaws of the film:


The opening scene and comments made later in the movie suggest these humanoid aliens set the ball rolling to produce human life on Earth, and that they’ve visited Earth many times over the last few thousand years and had contact with primitive humans.

So what about our primate ancestors then? What about the amazing genetic similarity between humans and other mammals?  Did they start all life on Earth instead – in which case their first visit would have been many hundreds of millions of years ago, and in that case why are they themselves so unchanging?  Or are we to suppose that it’s a coincidence that their DNA happened to be nearly identical to that of Earth life in general?  Do we have a Progenitor situation here where most life-bearing worlds were initially seeded by some long-gone civilization?  And why did the alien at the start of the movie have to sacrifice himself to make life happen?  And why by drinking what we’re later told is a bio-weapon?  Couldn’t they just engineer something in a lab and send it to Earth in a missile?


So, a pair of archaeologists, Dr. Holloway and Dr. Shaw, who are also lovers, found a series of cave paintings from different cultures and different eras that all feature a tall humanoid figure pointing at a uniquely identifiable constellation.  From this Dr. Shaw (an admitted religious nutter with psychological problems related to her infertility) somehow concluded the tall figures were aliens that created humanity and that they invite us to visit them in this constellation, and she convinced Peter Weyland to fund an expedition to look for the aliens.  He agreed, secretly hoping that she was right and that the aliens would therefore be able to cure him of old age, somehow.  Weyland was also a nutbar; while he quite rightly wanted immortality, he inconsistently called his android “son” unfortunate for possessing it.  This is probably just the same anti-android racism we see in the other movies.


Weyland put 17-odd people on this mission aboard a spaceship that took 28 months to reach its destination at the aforementioned constellation.  Given that relativity does’t seem to have a huge impact on travel in this universe, let’s assume ship time is 1:1 with Earth time – this still means these people signed on to a mission that put them at least five years out of touch with friends and family.  Without knowing anything about their crew mates – indeed, in most cases without having met them before the mission.  Without having been given a thorough psych evaluation.  And without even KNOWING WHAT THE DAMN MISSION IS!!  WTF!  Clearly the Weyland Corporation had the dumbest recruiting department in the history of for-profit exploration.


Once on the destination planet, identified as LV-223, the ship landed near a line of artificial structures and half the crew entered one to explore.  The geologist released some robot probes that started mapping out the extensive network of corridors inside. The air inside the building was mysteriously breathable, and like a bunch of fools the exploration party all took their helmets off.  Breathable is a long way from safe!  It could be a temporary condition, and there could be pathogens in the air, in the water dripping everywhere or on the surfaces they touched.


The android, David, found inscriptions carved in the walls and correctly identified them as controls, using them (with his deductions about the alien language resulting from two years of language training during the journey) to open doors and trigger apparent security system recordings to play back.  The security recordings showed a group of the humanoid aliens running from an apparent immediate threat, into a room that proved to contain a giant head bust, a lot of drums full of the black goo bioweapon, and relief murals on the walls that started dissolving on exposure to the carbon dioxide exhaled by the explorers.  One of the murals clearly depicted a xenomorph queen, though the implication is that the first one is born at the end of the movie.  Why did this room even exist?  The aliens clearly go in for ornamentation, but why put a small collection of bioweapon containers in a room with a giant bust of what could be either a human or an alien head? (Ignoring scale the aliens’ heads look identical to human ones.)

The aliens sealed their containers with something that dissolves on exposure to carbon dioxide, which is a good idea if you want to set a trap for oxygen-breathing carbon-based life forms, buy why did they also make the murals on the walls out of the same stuff?  Did they just have some left over and decided to paint with it out of boredom?

The aliens in the security recording were likely fleeing from one of the tentacle monsters that we see later on.  But why did they then run into a dead-end room full of the same stuff that gave rise to the monster in the first place?  They would have had a better chance going outside and splitting up.


The explorers found a 2,000-year-old alien head and stuffed it in a bag for later study – completely ignoring any risk of damaging it or contaminating it in the process.  Grossly incompetent!

The geologist and the biologist got freaked out by the security recording and the bust room, and left the group to return to the ship.  But they got lost along the way and ended up trapped in the alien building when a storm arose outside.  How did they manage that?  It was that same geologist who released the mapping probes, and they all have reliable radio contact with the ship where the results are being collected – plus, entering an alien edifice for the first time would kind of make an impression in your memory.  There’s no way in hell they should have been able to get lost.   Anyway, later on these two (now with helmets back on) encountered a snake-like alien life form, and in a complete reversal of character they tried to pet the damn thing, even ignoring what in an Earth animal would unmistakably be a threat display.  They got attacked and died horribly, of course.


Back on the ship, Dr. Shaw determined that the alien head (the same vaguely elephantine type we saw on the dead alien pilot in Alien) was actually a helmet encasing a large humanoid head.  The head had been exposed to the bioweapon and was undergoing some sort of biological activity, presumably triggered by the same exposure to carbon dioxide.  For some reason she thought that sticking a giant electrode into the alien’s head would wake him up – not only ridiculous, but what an awful thing to do to any being!  Anyway, it worked, and alien head predictably freaked out and then exploded.  WTF?  This makes no sense.  And then the alien DNA proved to be identical to human DNA – wait, what?  Then why are they larger and white-skinned?  Why did that one alien sacrifice himself and undergo an apparent DNA restructuring at the start of the movie?


When David found the bridge of the alien ship, why does the moving chair at the console react to the holo replay but not to him?  Makes no sense.


Things went further south when David deliberately exposed Dr. Holloway to a small amount of the black goo.  That David did this makes sense, as he was following orders from Weyland and needed a human guinea pig to see what the stuff did.  It did the same flesh-eating thing it did to the alien at the start of the movie, but at a slower rate and not before Holloway had sexy times with Shaw.


Dr. Shaw found herself knocked up with an alien tentacle monster and rushed to the autodoc to have it removed, but the machine objected that it was only programmed to deal with male patients.  But when we were shown the autodoc earlier, it was clearly the personal property of a female character, so this makes absolutely no sense at all.  Anyway, she made the machine remove the creature from her abdomen anyway, at great risk of killing herself in the process.  When she later returned to the same area, the creature had not only survived but grown to about a hundred times its size at time of extraction.  On what? Did it find a food dispenser in the sick bay?

In the end the tentacle monster that came out of Dr. Shaw used an organ that looks just like the snake-creature from earlier to impregnate the one surviving alien, who then hatched a creature that looks a lot like a xenomorph.  When I first saw this scene I took the implication to be that the crashed alien ship is the one we see in Alien, and this creature will be the one that lays all the eggs in the cavern (now known to be a hangar) below the ship.  But it doesn’t work because the dead alien pilot in Alien was found in the pilot’s seat with his helmet on, whereas this one died in a human escape pod that was somehow missed later.

Fortunately it doesn’t need to work, as this is a different planet.  The planet in Prometheus is referred to as LV-223, whereas the one in Alien and Aliens was identified in the latter film as LV-426.  (I take the names to be Leviticus references.)


At the end Dr. Shaw states the conviction that the crashed ship was intended to deliver large quantities of the bioweapon to Earth.  This is hard to make sense of – why would the aliens create humanity and then destroy it?  Regime change at home?  Why would they get primitive human tribes to document their invitation to a planet that turns out to be just a weapons dump?  If it wasn’t an invitation, then it must be a warning – and why reveal the location of your weapons dump to a bunch of savages?  And if they were actually going to wipe out humanity, why wait for us to find them first?


Others have documented some flaws of the film elegantly here and here and here.


Here’s how I rationalize a few of these things:

I think the easiest way to explain all this is to accept the evidence that Dr. Shaw was high on godcrack, and that we still have absolutely no idea what the relationship is between humanity and the aliens or what their motivations are.  The scene with the dying alien at the beginning was some fantasy of hers.

If the alien ship was really intended to deliver the black goo to Earth, the reason it didn’t was because of some accident on LV-223 that caused the incident recorded on the security holo; the one alien survivor survived because he was in stasis when the rest of his crew was wiped out.  So it was really just an accident that humanity wasn’t erased 2,000 years ago.  This is supported by the fact that the surviving alien attempted to resume that mission immediately on being awakened.

The biology of the xenomorphs just got a lot more complicated too.  We have this black goo that is apparently an engineered bioweapon.  Humanoids exposed to it get their DNA unwound and their bodies fall apart and/or explode, and rate of decay being proportional to the quantity of goo that gets in them.  A human female who copulates with an infected individual bears a squid-like tentacle monster, which has a detachable tongue that can impregnate any humanoid with something that comes out as a proto-xenomorph.  Xenomorph queens lay egg-traps that hatch face-huggers, which in turn impregnate human hosts with more xenomorphs.

What is all this?  It was simpler when the xenomorphs were just a species with an odd reproductive cycle and a high suitability to be used as antipersonnel weapons.  Now we have some kind of nanotech-like weapon that gives rise to them, as well as doing a bunch of other things?  Is the black goo supposed to be some kind of genetic randomizer?


Fixing this

Here’s what we know.

  1. With farfetched evidence, Dr. Shaw somehow convinced Peter Weyland that possibly-benevolent aliens could be contacted at LV-223.
  2. The events of Prometheus took place on a different planet than the events of Alien and Aliens.
  3. Therefore the two crashed alien spacecraft are different ones.
  4. Weyland-Yutani knew there was an alien lifeform on LV-426, as documented in Alien.  How they knew is unknown.
  5. Dr. Shaw and David absconded with a third alien vessel and departed for points unknown, intending to find the homeworld of the humanoid aliens and get some answers from them.

Obviously there is a hell of a lot we don’t know.  What happened to Dr. Shaw and David?  Was there ever a return mission to LV-223?  Given the caginess of the Weyland corporation, I would expect them to have been transmitting all data live from the Prometheus, so they would have a pretty good idea what went down.  How did the Weyland-Yutani corporation know there was something interesting on LV-426?  Did they plant the supposed distress signal?  Was it really a warning, as Ripley suspected?

Here’s how I would fix all this:

  1. Peter Weyland already knew intelligent aliens existed, but didn’t know where to look for them.  Dr. Shaw answered that question, and that was all he needed.
  2. In order to pilot the alien craft, Dr. Shaw had to put on one of their spacesuits – namely the one built into the pilot’s chair.
  3. Towards the end of Prometheus, Dr. Shaw was frequently gasping and pain and clutching her belly.  This was not an after-effect of the surgery, but was because she was gestating another monster.
  4. The crashed ship found in Alien was the one piloted by Dr. Shaw; that was her in the pilot’s chair, having been killed by the emergence of what became the first xenomorph on LV-426 and laid all those eggs.  Presumably it tossed David’s remains outside somewhere.
  5. Dr. Shaw activated the distress/warning beacon that the Nostromo picked up, and it was actually received and decoded by Weyland-Yutani long before then, which is how they knew to look there.

On having re-watched Alien and Aliens for this post, I’m struck by how well they hold up – they’re still awesomely good movies.  The rest, not so much.