1 May 2012

UFOs & video games: guest blogger exclusive

READY THE CROWBAR AND AIM FOR THE HEAD
RPJ's List of UFOlogically Flavored Video Games

By Red Pill Junkie (a.k.a. Miguel Romero)

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I've been a fan of videogames all my life. From my very first console --an antediluvian Sears
Pong home unit I received as a gift-- to the awesome Atari 2600 console my dad gave me in return for accepting to enter a damn summer camp so my fat ass could shrink a bit --it was worth it... barely-- followed by a Nintendo NES that became the first payment I received as a free-lance artist at the tender age of 15, up until my dear Xbox 360 that valiantly perished in the line of duty three months ago, I've spent countless hours fixed to a screen in an ineffable mix of frustration and joy, battling scores of digital enemies that have turned ever more complex and lifelike as the years (and the gray hairs on my head) progress.

Life well spent!

And I'm hardly the only one who thinks that way, which is the reason videogames have slowly risen to supplant Hollywood as arguably the biggest revenue-generating industry in America. Today, the biggest game studios spend as much in terms of time and money in development for a single game than a movie studio for a modest film. And with two thirds of American households owning
at least one console, the sky is the limit as to where the industry can go. Video games are anything but child's play.

The old days of the penny arcade round the corner where you would spend your entire allowance in just a couple of minutes playing games that required no introduction or deep storyline are a thing of the past -- or rather, it's a thing relegated to a quick fix delivered by a smart phone when you have a few minutes to kill. Game designers know only too well that with the increasing offer in their competitive market they need to deliver a product which allows the player to connect to the game at an emotional level. Thanks to Moore's law and the relentless increase in performance of graphic processors videogames have entered an age where they can deliver a cinematic experience no movie theater will likely ever be able to provide: a fully interactive one.

Verily if the comic book is the bastard child of Literature that will never be granted the same recognition by Academia --even though Alan Moore's Watchmen is part of Time magazine's list of best 100 books ever published-- then the same thing happens between videogames and Cinema.

Yet videogames enjoy a freedom that is seldom found in the movie industry: since the very essence of the medium is to create an entire world from scratch, then that world need not be the one we're familiar with. In fact, the landscapes of such virtual realms and the denizens that inhabit them are only limited by two factors: one tangible (the capacity of computer chips) and the other intangible (the imagination of artists and engineers).

That is one of the reasons why game designers have always been compelled to tap into the rich streams of Science Fiction and Fantasy as sources of inspiration. And of all the incredible creatures conformed by an elaborate matrix of textured polygons and inverse kinematic, it is space aliens that have remained a perennial fascination for gamers of all ages. Ever since we futilely tried to avoid the invasion of 8-bit extraterrestrial monsters that kept coming closer to Earth at a slow but relentless pace, we've vowed never to lower the guard.


There might be other reasons why aliens have maintained a predominant role in the industry: the technological constrains imposed by what is known in A.I. research as the

Uncanny Valley for instance -- the paradox of how as a human simulation becomes more life-like in appearance, the more artificial it will be perceived by the human spectator. But as the depth of the Uncanny Valley gets rapidly eroded by new computational innovations, I suspect that even with games that are close to becoming indistinguishable from real life there will still be a psychological necessity to utilize non-human adversaries in a confrontational scenario -- pulling the trigger at an non-human foe will always be easier (or at least more acceptable) than pulling the trigger at an in-human one... and besides, the games in which you get to fight against German Nazis are becoming a tired genre.

And so, extraterrestrials have been part of some best, and also some of the worst games ever released. Spielberg's E.T. the Extraterrestrial is still a staple-mark of sci-fi cinema, and yet, ironically, the game that was released after the film became a mega-blockbuster has the dubious honor of being considered by many to be
the worst game of all time --"Ouch!" said the poor long-necked fellow -- and might have even single-handedly caused the downfall of Atari, inc.! "OUUUUCH!" said the poor Atari stock-holders. That launching a game just as a marketing tool for a movie constitutes a bad idea is sadly a lesson Hollywood has yet to grasp after so many decades.

But what about UFOs? Has UFOlogy and its associated folklore --which has emerged from encounters with *real* non-human entities-- been exploited by the game industry? The answer is a resounding yes, and below we will have a brief exploration of some of the most notable examples:

[The titles marked with a (P) are the ones I've personally played. Each game will be ranked according to the number of UFOlogical elements incorporated in its plot]

Secret Files: Tunguska


A PC point-and-click adventure game developed by German studio Fusionsphere Systems in 2006, Secret Files: Tunguska is centered around the famous and as-yet unexplained explosion that blasted a great chunk of the Siberian tundra in 1908 that has garnered a lot of explanations over the years, from the logical and uninspiring (a piece of comet) to the truly radical (a malfunctioning alien spaceship). From a third-person perspective the player has to solve a series of puzzles that will take you all over the world in order to find the answers to the mystery of the historical event, as well as the disappearance of the female protagonist's father, a Russian scientist named Vladimir Kalenkov. Here, once again, making use of real-life historical events is exploited as a tool to break through the 4th wall. The unoriginal aspect of the gameplay as disclosed by the online reviews I found makes this game worthy of just 1 silver saucer out of 5.



Doom [P]

The classic first-person-shooter originally designed by the great John Romero in '93 that triggered a whole series of bloody gut-spilling releases. The story centers on an anonymous space Marine fighting his way out of a Martian colony overrun by a horde of infernal creatures creeping out of a demonic dimension. To anyone thinking "what the hell does Hell have to do with UFOs?" I suggest you have a good read of Nick Redfern's book Final Events, in which you'll discover why several top-key groups in the US intelligence community have reached the harrowing conclusion that UFOs are nothing but the latest deception employed by Satan's minions in order to deceive mankind and snare as many souls as possible before Armageddon. Because of this, Doom receives 1 silver saucer out of 5.

Gears of War [P]
 

One of the most successful game series of all time, which almost single-handedly ensured the success of the Xbox 360 console over its Japanese competitor the Playstation 2, these games have seemingly nothing to do with the UFO phenomenon, yet I'll presently explain why I believe they do. First released in 2006, the story is set on Sera, an Earth-like planet ravaged by an endless war fought against a vicious subterranean race called the Locust, which oddly look like Reptilian aliens on steroids; the player controls Sergeant Marcus Fenix, who is in command of a squad of soldiers set on preventing the total annihilation of the human race. Although most people believe the UFO phenomenon can be explained with the ETH (Extra-terrestrial hypothesis) there have been some researchers within the field brave enough to entertain alternative theories; one of those researchers was the late Mac Tonnies, who before his untimely passing managed to write The Cryptoterrestrials, a written 'thought experiment' in which he speculated that the true origin of the UFO phenomenon was not to be found in the outer realms of interstellar space but in the hidden realms of the hollow earth, in lieu with the ancient hermetic traditions about Agarthi and Shambhala that had such a major influence in the western esoteric schools of the XIXth and early XXth centuries, as well as with the pulp mysteries written by Richard Shaver after WWII. Because of the success of Gears of War I wouldn't be surprised if Tonnies' book garners more attention in the years to come, and that's why the series should at least receive 1 silver saucer out of 5.

Tomb Raider [P]

Ah, Lara Croft... with her sultry English accent, pony tail and buxom topology accentuated by those oh-so short pants, for many years this adventurous archaeologist was the #1 sex symbol for an entire generation of lonely geeks, which later won her the right to be impersonated by real-life sex symbol Angelina Jolie for the big screen, in a couple of regrettably mediocre movies. But the reason Tomb Raider deserves an inclusion on our list is because central to the theme of the games was the idea of ancient civilizations in possession of technologies so advanced they become indistinguishable from magic; thus it's fair to say the success of the franchise was fuelled by the premise of the Ancient Astronaut theory, so I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Giorgio Tsoukalos is a big fan of Lara Croft --and frankly, who could blame him?-- and so Tomb Raider deserves 1 silver saucer out of 5.

Assassin's Creed [P]

Another very successful franchise developed by Ubisoft which makes an oblique use of Ancient Aliens and Conspiracy theories to shroud the enigmas hidden behind the core of the story -- to the point that they shatter through the virtual 4th wall and entangle the game with real-life historical events in a manner that should delight of any self-respecting tinfoil-hatter. The Assassin’s Creed games explore the war between two powerful secret societies since the days of the Crusades to modern times: the Templars, who seek to impose order in the world by way of controlling governments and, ultimately, the very thoughts of men; and the Assassins, who oppose the Templars and fight for the freedom of mankind -- even if that involves deception and the murdering of important personages. Both factions seek the possession of a powerful artifact called 'the apple of Eden', a very ancient yet incredibly advanced object created by 'Those Who Came Before' as they are cryptically called in the series; it almost makes me wonder if Alex Jones' latest rage against Ridley Scott and Prometheus is partly fuelled by his frustration with trying to reach the next level in one of these games? The badass cloaked assassins deserve 2 silver saucers out of 5 in our list.

Prey

A First-person-shooter published in 2006 for the Xbox 360 and the PC, the game story focuses on Domasi "Tommy" Tawodi, a former US Army Native American who is abducted into a massive alien spaceship called the Sphere --which combines advanced technology with biological elements-- along with his girlfriend Jen and his grandfather Enisi. After Enisi gets killed his spirit bestows upon Tommy ancient indigenous spiritual powers to combat the aliens and stop their invasion, which makes for a great tactical advantage along with some salvaged alien weaponry; this mix of Native American religious traditions and alien themes reminds one of Colm A. Kelleher and George Knapp's Hunt for the Skinwalker. Adding to all this the special bonus of including an Art Bell broadcast, Prey receives 3 silver saucers out of 5.

Half Life [P]

This is not a single game, but a whole series started in 1998 with its last chapter released in 2010. The story of these FPSs center on Gordon Freeman, a theoretical physicist with a penchant for wielding a crowbar --hey, you can't always solve your way out of a problem with a calculator!-- originally employed in the secret Black Mesa research facility located in New Mexico, the all-time UFO capital of the world. After working on an advanced teleportation experiment, Freeman inadvertently opens an interdimensional portal that provokes an infestation of xenomorphic --read 'butt-ugly'-- organisms. As the story progresses, the governments of the world finally submit to an alien/trans-human --read 'hybrids'-- force named The Combine, who have at their disposal an uncanny array of bio-technological weaponry, including parasitic organisms that turn humans into mindless zombies --something a bit more crude and terrifying than all those alleged alien implants removed by Dr. Roger Leir-- and even tripod-like Striders that would have given H.G. Wells nightmares. Considering that many important researchers like Jacques Vallee are of the opinion that the UFO phenomenon is better explained as the meddling of interdimensional denizens than the arrival of interplanetary explorers, and adding to the fact that I personally happen to have something of a passing physical resemblance to Gordon Freeman --if I ever managed to lose about 3 stone in weight, that is-- the Half Life series receives 3 silver saucers out of 5.

UFO: Enemy Unknown

A critically acclaimed strategy game published in 1994 for PCs and the Playstation, the plot manages to incorporate UFO sightings, alien abductions --which were beginning to be part of the mainstream vocabulary thanks to TV series like The X-Files-- and a race of malevolent alien overlords called the Ethereals endowed with incredible mental powers (another important common theme in the UFO mythos) whose main base is located in the Martian region of --wait for it-- Cydonia. For all this, UFO: Enemy Unknown proudly deserves 4 silver saucers out of five.




Destroy All Humans [P]


If there ever was a game series based on the UFO phenomenon, this is it. Released originally for the Xbox console in 2005, the first game begins with the infamous Roswell crash of a scout spaceship sent by the Furon empire in search of fresh DNA that could assist this ancient and dwindling alien race in preserving of its immortality via cloning procedures. The player controls Cryptosporidium-137, a wise-ass stereotypical Gray alien who needs to fulfil several missions, like anal-probing hapless human targets --a rather awkward method to collect DNA samples, but who are we to judge Furon medicine-- and fighting the MIB agents sent by the nefarious Majestic agency --in this game, you root for the aliens, and it's AWESOME-- through several Rockwellian landscapes that Crypto has the chance to joyfully obliterate with the help of a devastating arsenal. The hilarious B-movie tone employed --along with some jewel bonus like the chance to watch Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space in a movie drive-in-- compels me to award Destroy All Humans with the highest rank of 5 silver saucers out of 5.

This list is obviously just a sample of titles, and if I happened to leave out some that you feel should be included, feel free to point them out in the comment section.

So what are we to make of these videogames in which key aspects of the modern UFO folklore have been inserted either deliberately or by happenstance? Personally I feel it's an example of how pop culture in its most modern manifestation --interactive entertainment-- has matured enough to allow the continuous exploring of what Jeffrey Kripal aptly names ‘mythemes,’ archetypical narratives that are to forever be retold in our religions, our myths, and our fiction. And in all those narratives there's hardly one more persistent and alluring than our encounter with The Other, a superior form of intelligence that we recognize as different from us, and by which we might finally measure ourselves from a more objective perspective. The search for The Other is nothing but the need for a mirror.

And this is where videogames happen to excel over the previous forms of mytheme transmission --oral tradition, books and movies-- because without the need of ingesting psychotropic substances or other alternative practices intended to provoke an altered state of consciousness, videogames manage to effortlessly deliver the promise of all the ancient mysteric religions: the embodiment of the god/hero by the practitioner -- and with a kick-ass Lancer rifle to boot.

Alas, these practices are not without risk.

But what about other veiled purposes in the coupling of UFO themes with videogames? We are fully aware of the influence of government agencies inside movie studios as revealed by our friend and host Robbie Graham; and it's no secret that the Armed forces see videogames as a great recruitment opportunity, to the point that they have developed and launched a few titles of their own.

The military have also grasped the power of videogames as teaching tools that help train their troops in simulations close to what they'll experience in real life. And this is where I can't help thinking of a movie that had a huge influence on me when I was young: The Last Starfighter, in which a teenage boy stuck in a small trailer-park community dreams of escaping this dull small life to explore bigger and better things, and it's precisely his skills with videogames that grants him his wish.

So who knows? There may come a day when the sharpened reflexes and agile thumbs of my gaming comrades will be all that's left to protect your non-gaming ass from the evil Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada! Therefore show some love next time you meet a gamer -- just don't stand in front of the screen.

Red Pill Junkie —a.k.a. Miguel Romero— is an interior designer by trade, and student of paranormal phenomena by calling. He's been interested in weird mysteries for as long as he can remember. When he's not searching the web looking for his daily fix of Forteana, he can be found blogging at Mysterious Universe, fooling around, and offering his services as news administrator at The Daily Grail.

8 comments:

  1. Tomb Raider can be included in this list not only for the AAT, but also for the fact that there's an actual UFO and dead aliens in the Area 51 level of Tomb Raider 3. Just FYI. :P

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    1. Aha! well done sir. You've gained yourself a new life ;)

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  2. Steven's comment reminded me of the title Area 51, developed by Midway in 2005 which I forgot to include in the list.

    As the title implies the game's scenario is the US's most famous secret base, where all sorts of despicable genetic experiments using alien DNA have gone horribly wrong --guess naming the name Dulce would have confused parents seeking to buy the kiddies a safe E-rated game.

    The game seems like a generic exploitation of the usual poorly lit creepy maze-like environment crawling with monsters a-la Doom, and the only thing worth mentioning about it is the voice casting of David Duchovny (of X-Files legend) and Marylin Manson, who lends his voice to a gray alien --and if you're looking for a voice that transmits a complete and utter contempt for the human race, you really couldn't do any better ;)

    Area 51 would then receive 3 silver saucers out of 5.

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    1. Is there anything UFOlogical in the 'Mass Effect' series (as you know, I'm a total gaming moron!)? I thought it was about alien invasion?

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    2. Welp... the 1st game tells the story of how humans discovered FTL drive by unearthing ancient artifacts left by the Proteans --a highly advanced alien civilization-- on Mars. So there you go :)

      It also offers a very interesting explanation for the Fermi paradox --there's nobody out there sending messages, because they all got exterminated! ;)

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  3. My condolences on your 360 dying. I was lucky enough that when mine died just over a year ago that it was just under 3 years since i bought it so i got it fixed for free (Fingers crossed it keeps going for a while longer). I think my dad had one of those sears consoles but we can't remember which one it was that long ago in the early 80s (yikes!!)

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    1. Your dad? thanks so much for reminding me of my age, amigo. Now where did I put my denture...

      PS: Say what you will about Microsoft, but the 360 is a tough mule. My console lasted for about 5 years, and through a lot of tough & long games like Elders Scrolls. Treat it right and it will give you a good mileage :)

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