Making Games at the End of the World

The Bus Station

At three ‘o clock in the morning, the St. Louis Gateway Transportation Center is a hostile environment, but it isn’t the passengers at fault. This is a bus station, after all. Some of the people there are sprawled out across a few seats. Others are a day or two behind on a much-needed shower. But there is nothing glamorous about bus travel, especially trips stretching across multiple days and several layovers. Anyone forced to put up with those circumstances deserves a certain level of leeway.

The St. Louis Gateway Transportation Center is oppressive because it is a strange little building nestled away behind the home of the St. Louis Blues. Most directions to the SLGTC force drivers to arrive at the wrong part of the facility. The heat (more on the heat in a moment) is turned on. Everyone is sweating, even people who just arrived. And there are no water fountains.

A television above the waiting area blares an infomercial for a product called Astaxanthin. Astaxanthin is a chemical compound found (in extremely tiny amounts) in salmon and greater, but not terribly meaningful amounts, in krill and shrimp, giving the flesh of these sea creatures a pink-ish hue. It is also produced synthetically and injected into fish-based pet food, to give the cheaper meal a more healthy color. It is not approved for human consumption, but it can legally be fed to other salmon (which is messed up) to improve the pink tint of the inner meat.

The infomercial playing in the waiting room of the St. Louis Gateway Transportation Center claims that Astaxanthin will reverse aging. It will remove and prevent wrinkles. It will restore eye function. All for the perfectly reasonable price of sixty dollars a bottle .

At three thirty, the infomercial mercifully ends, only to be replaced with (presumably) the late-night edition of the local news. I hear the stories you expect from the local news in 2017. A suspect has died in an officer-involved shooting during a drug bust. Hundreds of headstones in a Jewish cemetery were defaced. Donald Trump tweeted again. The high temperature today, on February 22, will be in the mid 70s in St. Louis.

I wonder what the hell I’m doing in this bus stop, waiting to go to a conference about making video games.

The bus outside honks twice and I line up inside the stuffy terminal to board. The first thing I hear when I’m inside is a passenger telling someone he just met how he lost his finger on the job and was then fired for it.

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Star Trek Online, The Tomorrow Children, and Collectivism in Games

I want to tell you all about The Tomorrow Children, a strange online survival/exploration/building game from Q-Games (of PixelJunk fame) but I don’t know where to start with it. So I won’t. Instead, I’ll start with another game that came out of PS4 on the same day, Star Trek Online.

If Star Trek Online sounds familiar and old to you, that’s because it is. STO originally released in 2010. It came out in the same month as Heavy Rain, Deadly Premonition, and Bioshock 2. Like most video game properties, no one really knows how much money the initial launch of STO made, but it probably wasn’t enough. Less than two years later, it was re-released as a free-to-play title. To give an idea of how long ago that was, the STO re-launch happened a few weeks before the initial release of Crusader Kings II. That’s an eternity for games.

I have no idea why Star Trek Online suddenly came to PS4/Xbox One in TYOOL 2016. Maybe it was phenomenally successful as a free-to-play title, and finally decided to follow Neverwinter, DC Universe Online, and Warframe several years late. I have no idea! It’s quite frankly bizarre, and that’s part of the reason I downloaded it. For some reason, an MMO from 2010 was on consoles and I had to see what it was like.

I'm on the bridge of my own ship! This is awesome! And also looks like an early 360 game

I’m on the bridge of my own ship! This is awesome! And also looks like an early 360 game

Well I mostly have my answer. Star Trek Online is exactly what I should have expected. It is an MMO from 2010. Granted, there is a ton of content. This thing has been running for over half a decade. Just looking at the Starfleet “episodes”, there’s probably a hundred hours of single-player missions in this damn game. And there are two other factions you can choose to join (Klingon and Romulan which I guess are the best choices for a three-faction ST game). The only problem is that it is all MMO content. As far as I can tell, every mission is just a couple space battles and a couple away team missions (that always involve combat) stitched together in a different order.

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Echoes of the Fey: The Fox’s Trail out NOW on Steam

Hey everyone! Just a quick post to let you know that my latest game, Echoes of the Fey: The Fox’s Trail released today on Steam! Go check it out here!

If you haven’t seen any of my other posts, Echoes of the Fey is a visual novel that blends a high fantasy setting with the mysteries of an old-school detective series. It’s an idea I’ve had for a long time–mashing up two genres that don’t often get paired together, in order to explore a part of fantasy worlds you don’t usually get to see. Our protagonist, Sofya Rykov, might have magical powers. But she’s not a hero, a queen, or a Machiavellian schemer. She’s an outcast from her family, scraping by in a small town on the border as a private investigator. As such, Echoes of the Fey will tell more personal, character-driven stories and less fate-of-the-world fare that you typically see in high fantasy.

The Fox’s Trail is the first episode of the series, but in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes and other famous detectives, each episode is a stand-alone tale. This time around, Sofya is hired to find a missing Leshin who was presumed dead during the long war between Humans and Leshin. To solve this case, Sofya will have to use her unstable magic power–in this episode, she can transform into a cat–to find the truth.

Get Echoes of the Fey: The Fox’s Trail on Steam

We’re WHEN Now? – Zero Time Dilemma and Narrative Pacing

This week, I finished Zero Time Dilemma, the third and presumably final game in the Zero Escape series, and it got me thinking about one of my favorite subjects: the difficulty of pacing in games. Zero Escape isn’t the most niche series, but it’s fairly obscure so I’ll go through a brief introduction.

The ZE games are often classified as adventure games because they feature puzzle rooms, but fans know the truth. They’re visual novels. In fact, the core mechanic that sets the ZE series apart from other adventure games is a play on the core visual novel mechanic of branching story lines.

The core story of every ZE game is the same: nine people are abducted by a hidden figured named “Zero” and forced to play a game to survive. They are trapped in various rooms with various other team members and must solve a puzzle to survive or escape the room. Occasionally they are forced to either turn against each other or risk betrayal to stay loyal. Think Saw. Someone in Japan really liked Saw and decided the conceit needed time travel and telepathy.

Like most visual novels, ZE games multiple paths and multiple endings. Most paths lead to death, and it is impossible to get the good ending (where most people live and the mystery is solved) on your first or even second, third, or fourth playthrough. The reason for this is the central conceit of ZE–your character needs information from multiple time lines to fully unravel the mystery. ZE protagonists all have the ability to either “SHIFT” or send information through the “morphogenetic field.” These are two different things in-game, but they both amount to the same idea–once you see the events of one ending, your character knows it when you re-play the game or go back and make a different decision to try and get another ending.

To give an example, your decisions may end up with your character trying to defuse a bomb. The bomb requires a password, which you don’t know (you as the character or you as the player, the game actually does both). Your character dies. You go back and make new decisions to get a better ending. You still get a bad ending–everyone gets sick with a time-accelerating disease–but along the way you learn the password to the bomb. You then go back to the timeline with the bomb, defuse it, and advance the story.

This happens a lot, especially in the second game, Virtue’s Last Reward, which introduces a flowchart that allows you to jump around to all the different decision points you’ve reached and skip dialog you’ve already heard. It plays faster than it sounds.

The story, and how the player affects the story via seeing other time lines, is the core appeal of the ZE series. Everything else is a bit underwhelming. Each game has a few characters that are underwritten or dull. In general, the cast pales in comparison to the very adjacent Danganronpa games. The delivery of the (otherwise good) story is bogged down by pseudoscientific tangents that would make Hideo Kojima blush. It’s fun the first time someone waxes on about how the brain could be like a computer terminal tied to a central server, but these tangents are often repeated ad naseum and there’s no way to skip dialog you haven’t heard–even if you just heard another character saying the same exact ideas. And the puzzles range from stupid easy to bizarrely obscure. What really makes the ZE games work is the narrative and the way it plays with the visual novel convention of the branching path.

This brings me to the conceit of Zero Time Dilemma and why it ended up something of a disappointment.

Don’t get me wrong. ZTD is good as the third game in the ZE series. It was a game we absolutely needed after Virtue’s Last Reward and does an admiral job of tying up a ton of the series’ mysteries. A lot more was resolved in the story line than I expected, and better than I expected. The only problem was how it was delivered.

In 999, the first ZE game, every new playthrough was just that–a new playthrough. Once you got an ending, you had to start all the way over and do it again, making different choices along the way. You could speed through dialog you already saw, but it was a tedious process. Virtue’s Last Reward added the flowchart mentioned above.  You could go back to any decision point in the game you already reached and replay from there.

Zero Time Dilemma takes it one step further. The nine abductees are divided into three teams and from the start you can choose who to jump to. You can also choose when to jump to. Multiple scenes with each team, scattered across the various timelines on the flow chart, are available from the start.

How does this make sense in the story? Well, at the end of every segment, all the characters are injected with a drug that makes them forget the events of the segment. So it doesn’t matter what order you play in. Each time they wake up, the last thing they remember is the end of the first segment. They don’t know what (if anything) happened in the interim. Each section plays out like its own little episode, and you as the player have to piece together how they all fit in each respective timeline.

If this all sounds confusing, I’ll boil it down simply: outside of the very beginning and the last ~sixth or so of the game, the player decides the order in which the story is presented. And the game goes out of its way to obfuscate when (and on which timeline) each segment takes place, almost as if to prevent you from playing in any particular order.

It’s a bold move. I loved it at first, for audacity if nothing else. But then I started to get annoyed. The format basically prevented any character development. Scenes were robbed of drama because I didn’t understand what was happening or what had happened before. That confusion was intentional. It just sucked.

The biggest problem games face as a storytelling medium (outside of developers writing with no experience) is pacing. I know I’ve written about this before, but controlling pace is nearly impossible in games for a writer or developer. And controlling the player’s focus is almost as hard.

My go-to example of a pacing problem is The Last of Us, in my opinion an excellent game that manages to have an excellent narrative despite itself. The story in TLoU is broken up with various enemy encounters with a wide range of difficulties. There are a handful of encounters that are serious difficulty spikes, which can lead to several deaths and forcing the player to repeat the same bit of game play over and over again. This completely strips the narrative of momentum and the repetition of a sequence can sour any emotional response evoked by the story surrounding it.

Uncontrolled focus can also ruin pacing. Optional objectives and gameplay freedom will destroy any sense of immediacy or drama unless tightly controlled. At the end of Final Fantasy VII, a giant comet is about to smash into the world and Cloud is the only person who can stop it. However, I managed to breed several generations of Chocobos in that time, which took several real-world hours and presumably at least an in-world decade. That’s an extreme example, but illustrative of a problem any kind of game can have, as long as that game allows players to decide where to go next.

Visual novels typically eschew giving so much control to the player that pacing and focus aren’t a huge problem. On one hand, Zero Time Dilemma is relentless in this effort in-game, giving players no way to even skip through dialog if they read faster than the voice acting. On the other hand, the whole ZE series interjects a bit of pacing concern with its puzzle rooms. A frustrating puzzle or riddle can stop momentum just like a frustrating action sequence. But that is completely overshadowed by the way ZTD in particular gives up control of its pacing and focus with the extra layer of non-linearity I described above.

For a game that entirely relies on its story, this is a problem. The game gives no indication of how long each sequence is, how important it is, or where it fits into the narrative. You can stumble into an important, dramatic scene. Or you can run into a whole stretch of disjointed sequences. Outside of choices that lead to immediate death within a sequence, you rarely get to see the consequences of your actions unless you happen to pick two sequences that happen in the same timeline.

I don’t have any problem with nonlinear storytelling in general. And I also don’t mind games that let you switch between teams or characters with interwoven stories. But combining the two–and not even curating the nonlinear order at which players see each team’s sequences–abandons far too much control over the story, especially when there are sequences that are less interesting, and sequences that go nowhere without a password from another sequence.

Most of the time, I am loathe to use movies to explain games because I think that’s a disservice to both mediums. But I can’t help myself. Imagine if Pulp Fiction’s sequence order wasn’t curated? If you could accidentally start with Butch and Marcellus’s imprisonment at the gun shop? That section of the film barely works as is, but without the context behind how the two characters ended up together (and the time we’ve spent with the more interesting characters) powers us through.

I understand what ZTD was trying to do. I’m always trying to think of ways to merge interactivity and storytelling, and the ZE series has been pushing that forward with each iteration. But unfortunately, this newest elaboration undoes a lot of the pleasure of the series. Not only do plot points lose impact because they aren’t deliberately paced or sequenced, but the fun of experiencing the branches and changes in the story are gone because early ones are robbed of context.

The memory wiping of all characters between sequences also frustrates any character development. This exacerbates the series’ long-running problem with the non-central team members being rather dull. Even the interesting characters (the protagonists of 999 and VLR) aren’t allowed to develop further. All of this put together makes the early-middle portion of the game feel rather meaningless, even if you know by the end you’ll have enough to piece the story together.

In the end, I still enjoyed my time with Zero Time Dilemma but mostly because of the final portions of the game that (by necessity) are intentionally sequenced. Characters don’t lose their memories between sequences because one (or more) is shifting between timelines intentionally. The story gets wrapped up, there’s the usual insane viewpoint twist, and all the right pieces fall into place. But I can’t really recommend ZTD. Why? Because if you’re already into the series, you’ve already played ZTD or you’re going to play it no matter what. You need to play it. You need to see how the strange stuff at the end of VLR ties back together.

If you aren’t committed to the ZE series? Zero Time Dilemma is going to make literally no sense. It completely assumes you’ve played the other two games. In fact, context from the other games is especially necessary because of the nonlinear gimmick described above. Without that context, all the characters will seem like boring ciphers for the first part of the game rather than just a few of them. I don’t think I would have made it past the the long stretch of out-0f-order sequences if I didn’t already have a reason to care about what happens to Sigma, Phi, Junpei, Akane, and Diana.

The good news, though, is now I can fully endorse picking up the series, because (outside of the iffy puzzle design) my only real caveat on suggesting it was the lack of an ending. VLR ends with way too many mysteries for a game that didn’t definitely have a sequel in the works. Fortunately, for all its problems, ZTD provides a satisfying conclusion that wraps up almost everything in the series.



Echoes of the Fey Out TOMORROW! (And new trailer)

We’re just one day away from the release of my first visual novel in fully collaboration with Woodsy Studio, Echoes of the Fey: The Fox’s Trail. So today we have a release trailer, inspired by classic noir detective films.

If you’re interested in the world of Echoes of the Fey, check out the Woodsy Studio blog, where I’ve been publishing (in installments) a short story/novella that takes place before The Fox’s Trail. This story introduces a number of characters that will be important in the first two Echoes of the Fey visual novels.

You’ll be able to buy The Fox’s Trail tomorrow at, which will get you a steam key when we release on steam (with trading cards and achievements) as soon as we’re through Greenlight!

Echoes of the Fey: Building a Better (More Equal) Fantasy World

Fantasy realms are pretty shitty places for women. Women generally aren’t in recognized positions of power. They are used as chess pieces in political machinations. They are constantly under the threat of violence and that violence is used to motivate male heroes (and inspire hatred towards male villains).

In modern fantasy, there are usually exceptions–women who wield power behind the scenes or who take on traditionally male roles within society as established in the setting–but these are explicitly portrayed as exceptions.  That’s progress of a sort, but it still leaves something to be desired. Daenerys Targaryen is great, but she doesn’t make up for the fact that the majority of female characters in Game of Thrones wield little-to-no power in-universe.  And I don’t just mean major, viewpoint characters but also background characters. (To stave off criticism, I’ll say that the TV show at least puts the occasional male prostitute in the brothels and female warrior among the wildlings, and GoT is hardly the worst offender in this field.)

I don’t think this is a controversial statement, though I know there are plenty of people who don’t think it’s bad. And for those people, there’s plenty of books, movies, and games out there for you. I’d just like to see something different. So when I’m crafting my own fantasy setting for my own game, I want to do something different.

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I Watched Left Behind (2000) So You Don’t Have To

ProA few weeks ago, I took a look at the 2014 adaptation of the Evangelical Apocalyptic Bestseller Left Behind, mostly because it starred an underutilized Nicolas Cage. However, I was disappointed to find that the film was nothing more than a typical Airplane-but-with-a-straight-face Hollywood thriller, veneered with an awkward Christian finish. Other than the central concept–the rapture–all of the bizarre sci-fi/fantasy and niche Bible interpretation of the books was stripped from the story. There was no conspiracy, no Antichrist, just a man trying to land an airplane that was (somewhat inexplicably) damaged shortly after the rapture.

When I realized that the film lacked almost everything that made the books intriguing to me, I decided to see if the earlier adaptation–which went so deep into the series it received two sequels–had the meat I was looking for. Once I saw that one of the first credited roles in the 2000 adaptation was for Nicolae Carpathia, the aforementioned Antichrist, I knew what I had to do. I had to watch it.

I spent a long time trying to find the source for this "compelling, engaging" quote to find the context. I suspect it was probably said by Kirk Cameron in an interview that happened to be televised on CNN.

I spent a long time trying to find the source for this “compelling, engaging” quote to find the context. I suspect it was probably said by Kirk Cameron in an interview that happened to be televised on CNN.

Left Behind 2000 is not a glossy, quasi-high-budget bore like Left Behind 2014. No, this is a rougher, stranger beast that ventures deep into the weeds of the book’s bizarre world. So, in other words, it was actually kind of entertaining.

chap1It’s like a flashback to my Atlas Shrugged posts, because it’s time again to introduce a whole new cast of actors playing the same damn characters. Fortunately, these folks reprise their roles for the rest of the trilogy, which hilariously gives these slapdash films a leg up on the pyramid scheme that somehow funded the Rand adaptations. This means it should be the last time I go through this song and dance for a while.

Replacing our Lord and Savior Nicolas Cage in the role of everyman hero and aspiring cheater Rayford Steele is Brad Johnson. You might think you know who Brad Johnson is, but that is probably just because he has the world’s most generic name and looks like someone tried to create Dennis Quaid in the Skyrim character generator. His most significant credit is a supporting role in the Steven Spielberg film Always. Right now I bet you’re googling to see if I’m lying about Steven Spielberg directing a film called Always. I’m not. Brad Johnson also had a role on the TV series Soldier of Fortune, Inc. along with Dennis Rodman. I’m not lying about that one, either

I'm Brad Johnson and you probably remember me for movies I wasn't in and don't believe my actual credits are films that exist.

I’m Brad Johnson and you probably remember me for movies I wasn’t in and don’t believe my actual credits are films that exist.

Rayford’s daughter, Chloe (also pictured above) is played by Janaya Stephens. Like Brad Johnson, she has an incredibly familiar looking face but I haven’t seen a single thing she’s credited in so either this entire cast is teaching me that I dropped in from a parallel universe or I watched a lot of the CBS procedural Flashpoint in my sleep. Did you know that Amy Jo Johnson, aka the Pink Ranger, was a lead on Flashpoint? Jesus Christ, at this point even I feel like I’m just making all of this up.

Most importantly, though, is the role of intrepid young reporter Buck Williams. Rayford Steele was easily the hero of Left Behind 2014 but Left Behind 2000 puts Williams front-and-center. And instead of being portrayed by Chad Micheal Murray (who at least looks like a war reporter), Williams is now played by Kirk Cameron. Yes, that Kirk Cameron. In fact, this whole series of films was basically a passion project for Kirk Cameron, who is perhaps the most outspoken hard-Evangelical voice to somewhat intersect with Hollywood. That’s right, Mike Seaver is all grown up and he wants to tell you about Jesus.

Kids, let me tell you about the real growing pains: the pains experienced by our lord and savior on the cross so that we would grow closer to him.

The film opens with Buck Williams reporting from Israel, interviewing scientist Chaim Rosenzweig in the middle of a wheat field. Dr. Rosebranch has developed a miraculous way to grow food in the desert. This will supposedly solve the problem of world hunger, which vastly oversimplifies the actual problems that cause world hunger and overlooks the fact that the target audience for films like Left Behind 2000 would protest the hell out of this GMO menace.

In the middle of the interview, the sky suddenly fills with planes. Only a few minutes in and we’re already well off the rails of Left Behind 2014 because that film sure as hell didn’t start with a war against Israel.

"Who could be attacking us?" "Well with this many planes it's literally either the US or maybe Russia."

“Who could be attacking us?” “I don’t know, Israel usually has good relations with D-list CGI artists.”

As the bombs begin to fall, Dr. Rosebranch and Buck run into a nearby bunker that turns out to be Israeli military command, conveniently located right next to the rural wheat field developed by the good doctor. There is a lot of hacky military ops speech and doomsaying that Israel is unable to scramble its own airforce to defend itself.

Then the sky goes black and the planes start blowing themselves up.

As I walk through the valley of death, I fear no falling debris for I have plot armor in my heart.

As I walk through the valley of death, I fear no falling debris for I have plot armor in my heart.

Ever the plucky reporter, Buck runs out to the wheat field to get video of the exploding planes where he meets a mysterious old man who says a bunch of cryptic shit to him.

BUCK: Sir, why are you dressed like a caricature of god? OLD MAN: You are going to live through this and still be a nonbeliever until the end of the film.

BUCK: Sir, why are you dressed like a caricature of god? OLD MAN: You are going to live through this and still be a nonbeliever until the end of the film.

The mysterious attack on Israel, the identity of the attackers, the unexpected eclipse, and the sudden self-destruction of dozens of aircraft are barely ever mentioned from this point on in the film. I think Buck Williams does, once, ask “what went on back there?” but the world proceeds like everything is generally normal and not absolutely batshit insane. Well, up until people disappear.

When Buck returns to the U.S.,he meets up with a conspiracy theorist friend who works for a major bank. The friend claims to have inside info that he can’t hand over yet, but insists that Buck investigate the international bankers he works for because they’re up to something big–specifically in relation to a global currency. Buck thinks this is crazy until a story comes across his desk about Europe unifying its economy with Korea (what) and he realizes that conspiracy dude was right.

They want you to believe it's the chemtrails but I know that my morgellons is caused by the adoption of standardized data transfer via USB.

They want you to believe it’s the chemtrails but I know that my morgellons is caused by the adoption of standardized data transfer via USB.

Over in Chicago, we pick up with the plot of Left Behind 2014. Rayford Steele is an airplane pilot who has to leave his family for an unexpected flight to London. He does this a lot, because his wife has become a born-again Christian and is really annoying about it. Rayford and his daughter Chloe fight over this but he puts his foot down and leaves. His flight just happens to contain Hattie Durham, a stewardess who Rayford has been flirting with, and Buck Williams. I don’t think the movie ever explains why Williams was in Chicago or when he went there, but there he is. Maybe he just flies out there for the pizza.

In this version, Hattie is played by Kirk Cameron's real life wife because of course she is.

In this version, Hattie is played by Kirk Cameron’s real life wife because of course she is.

Hattie reveals to Rayford that this is her last flight as a stewardess and that she is departing the airline for a position at the United Nations. No, this does not make any kind of sense. Just go with it. Rayford is disappointed and Hattie tries to get him to give her “a reason to stay.” Just as they’re about to kiss, a bunch of people on the plane disappear.


He should have upgraded to first class.

Panic breaks out on the plane and Rayford decides that they need to turn back and land in Chicago. If you recall, this was the primary plot of Left Behind 2014. In this film, Rayford merely deploys the oxygen masks and lands the plane at a runway (you know, the traditional method) less than a third of the way through the running time.

That’s right, folks, we’re already past the plot of the recent adaptation and there’s over an hour to go.


chap2With Rayford and company off the plane, Chloe isn’t forced to carry the entirety of the plot on the ground. A huge part of Left Behind 2014 featured Chloe wandering silently around the city and giving pained looks in the general direction of catastrophe. Now everyone’s around to do it.

Chloe is on the way back to school when she comes upon a huge car accident. A crazed man steals her car as she’s trying to figure out what happened.

How the hell is this truck still upright if its driver disappeared in the middle of the highway?

How the hell is this truck still upright if its driver disappeared in the middle of the highway?

Rayford heads home to find his entire family is missing.

This is all actually very morbid if you remove it from context but in context it is hilarious.

This is all actually very morbid if you remove it from context but in context it is hilarious.

And bizarrely, Buck follows Rayford home because Buck really needs to get to New York and all the airports are shut down. Rayford says that he knows a guy who can help, but Rayford immediately falls apart when he realizes that everyone he cared about is gone. He doesn’t know at this time that Chloe is actually just wandering around somewhere else, so naturally this is a dark time for him.

He threw a bible, which is like kicking a dog in the world of this film.

He threw a bible! A BIBLE!

Chloe comes home and this should really cheer up Rayford more than it does. He remains in his room, moping, and Chloe is left with the answer of which child was Rayford’s favorite: not her. Their reunion is short and played without any emotion and Rayford just keeps staring at the television because there are more important things to get to. What are those things? CONSPIRACIES.

Around this time, we’re introduced to a new character who was never even mentioned in Left Behind 2014. That’s right, we meet Nicolae Carpathia, a UN politician who is beloved by the world. He talks with an Eastern European accent, wants to bring about world peace and nuclear disarmament, and is handsome in a way that recalls the guy at the last Republican debate twitter was freaking out about.

Am I a robot wearing a human mask or a human wearing a robot mask? It matters not. Carpathia! 2016

Am I a robot wearing a human mask or a human wearing a robot mask? It matters not. Carpathia! 2016

Even though we, as the audience, know better, Carpathia appears to be a great, stand up fellow. He’s only got one problem: all of his power comes from a couple of international bankers who have been working behind the scenes to hoist him up into the halls of power. And they’re the same international bankers from the Conspiracy Theorist’s rantings earlier. They have a nefarious plan involving Dr. Rosebranch from earlier and someone is going to have to uncover it. Who better than Intrepid Reporter Buck Williams?

Back in Chicago, with Rayford barely managing a smile at Chloe’s return, Chloe decides to help Buck Williams (who is sleeping on the couch and, I guess, planning to nap until Rayford snaps out of his funk). They meet up with a private pilot who takes Buck to New York. With all the crazy stuff that just happened–not to mention the even crazier stuff in Israel the film has already forgotten about–Buck is ready to give his conspiracy theorist friend another shot at a story.



Unfortunately for Conspiracy Theorist, Buck isn’t the only one who wants to give him another shot. Get it?  Because he’s dead. He was shot. By a gun. Buck shows up just in time to find his body and find the secret minidisc that he hid in his watch. Remember minidiscs? Yeah, those were a thing for about five seconds.

Buck also takes a look at Conspiracy Theorist’s computer because, like anyone else, he’d rather not have to track down a minidisc player in The Year of Our Lord 2000. This is almost a fatal mistake, because there is a sniper watching over the apartment. At first, we believe that this sniper is taking aim at the fuzzy head of Kirk Cameron/Buck Williams. But then…


Luddites have gone too far.

Believe it or not, the assassin choosing to scare Williams by destroying the computer rather than kill Williams by destroying his head is explained later in the film so I’m not going to explicitly shit on that particular plot point. But I do think that Kirk Cameron’s dive was, at best, a 6/10.

Buck makes it out of the apartment alive and takes the minidisc to a couple of his friends over at his news network, the barely-cleverly named GNN. They review the disc and find a bunch of cryptic documents and a plan for rebuilding Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. The images are exactly the sort of thing you’d expect to find on the minidisc hidden in a conspiracy theorist’s wristwatch, but Buck takes them seriously (probably because of the sniper) and arranges a meeting with a government friend who was also in contact with Conspiracy Theorist.

chap3With Buck gone and Chloe floating somewhere on the periphery of the story, Rayford Steele finally pulls out of his funk and starts to realize that maybe his wife was right. All the kids are gone, as well as select adults. And his wife was one of those adults. And she was always talking about that “rapture” thing where all the believers would disappear.

Mulling over these thoughts, Rayford heads to the church where he finds one of the pastors, left behind himself, engaging in one hell of a monologue to God.

This is definitely a dude who sits on a chair backwards when he raps about Jesus to the teens.

This is definitely a dude who sits on a chair backwards when he raps about Jesus to the teens.

Pastor BanisterJumper isn’t just angry with God. He’s also angry with himself because he knew the words from the Bible and spoke them, but didn’t believe them. And now it’s too late because God’s already made his rapture calls and there’s no second chances when it comes to being saved from the times of tribulation.

There’s an interesting discussion to be had on this ethical quandary: if Pastor BanisterJumper had a truly altruistic spirit, then the fact that his words saved others while he was left behind should actually make him happy and not mad. Then again, the fact that he’s still on Earth proves his frailty of spirit and– fuck, I’m giving this movie too much legitimate thought.

Oh god, why wasn't I a good boy when it mattered. Now I am stuck here and you will never tell me I'm a good boy again.

Oh god, why wasn’t I a good boy when it mattered?

Pastor BanisterJumper’s speech inspires Rayford, who was lurking in the back of the church, to fully accept what is happening and devote his life to Jesus. Together, they find a tape left by the lead minister at the church, explaining why he and everyone else disappeared. Mercifully, the film doesn’t show the entire speech made by the minister, but apparently it answers all the questions Rayford has. To me, however, it raises a lot more questions.

Specifically, I really want to know how many IRL preachers have made videos to be played to their congregation in the event of the rapture.

I also made a tape to play in case the Scientologists were correct. If you are the person discovering these tapes, please destroy whichever one is no longer needed.

I also made a tape to play in case the Scientologists were correct. If you are the person discovering these tapes, please destroy whichever one is no longer needed.

While Rayford is sitting in the corner, finding his religion, Buck Williams is meeting with his friend at the U.S. Government. He finally outlines the conspiracy as he sees it: the international bankers have loaned the United Nations billions of dollars and are planning on calling in the debt. They are waiting until Dr. Rosebranch hands over his formula for growing wheat in the desert and the UN seizes 10 vast tracts of previously uninhabitable land to use to feed the world. Then they will bankrupt the UN, take over the land themselves, and the international bankers will control the world food supply.

The US official tells Buck that he will get the FBI and CIA to investigate this and warns Buck to head somewhere safe and lay low. Buck is then distracted by a beggar while the US official gets in his car. We all know what happens next.

This dive, though? Solid 8/10

This dive, though? Solid 8/10.

With nowhere else to go, Buck returns to Rayford and Chloe Steele and tries to enlist their help in getting to the United Nations to stop the transfer of the Dr. Rosebranch formula to the soon-to-be-bankrupt UN. Buck is shocked to find that his new friends have converted to Evangelical Christianity in the mere days since he last saw them. Rayford tries to warn Buck that there is more to the happenings around the world than just a follow-the-money conspiracy, but Buck isn’t ready to believe.

Remember that this is a week after Buck watched the sun disappear in Israel and dozens of fighter planes explode without a good reason. But the movie has forgotten about that.

Buck heads by himself to the United Nations, where Nicolae Carpathia has just been named Secretary General with the help of the nefarious international bankers. Even stranger, Hattie Durham–you know, the woman who was a stewardess just days before–is working as his personal assistant. Listen, I’m aware it’s entirely possible that she was qualified to be in a highly-placed position at the UN but for unknown reasons was working in an entirely different, largely unskilled field. But, uh, pretty unlikely.

NICOLAE: I am the Secretary General of the United Nations! What do you mean I cannot have the whole can of soda?

NICOLAE: I am the Secretary General of the United Nations! What do you mean I cannot have the whole can of soda?

This strange placement is incredibly fortunate for Buck Williams, however, as Hattie (who knows him from the plane earlier) is able to help him get an audience with Nicolae so that he can explain the conspiracy and prevent the international bankers from enacting their terrible plan.

Nicolae looks over the minidisc that Buck retrieved from the body of Conspiracy Theorist and feigns horror at the contents. He claims that he knew nothing about any of this and vows to make things right. We, as the audience, know that this must be an act. Because look at him.

I really wonder about the licensing/product placement issues that came up with the Antichrist conspicuously using an Apple product.

I really wonder about the licensing/product placement issues that came up with the Antichrist conspicuously using an Apple product.

Buck is about to leave satisfied when he notices a blueprint for rebuilding Solomon’s temple on Nicolae’s desk. He asks Dr. Rosebranch why he would want the temple rebuilt when it would inevitably cause a war. Dr. Rosebranch explains that Nicolae has found a way to rebuild it without destroying the Muslim holy site and that this is all part of Nicolae’s great vision. Nicolae explains further that the temple, along with nuclear disarmament and the Grow Wheat In The Desert Project are the three prongs of his plan for seven years of peace.

This throws up a ton of red flags for Buck but, apparently, no one else. I don’t know about you, but when a world leader is going around saying that he’s about to create seven years of peace, I think someone needs to ask him what he intends to happen in year eight. But maybe that’s just me and Buck Williams. Buck is also unnerved because all of this mirrors (an interpretation of) biblical verses that Rayford and Chloe were warning him about.

This creepy map that remakes the world? It is just an art project. I am just an artist. Do not fear me.

This creepy map that remakes the world? It is just an art project. I am just an artist. Do not fear me.

Nicolae invites Buck into the meeting of the UN Delegates where he intends to complete the handover of Dr. Rosebranch’s research and expose the shady international bankers before they can complete their plot. Buck hesitantly joins them along with Hattie (who has completed the most amazing career path in history by being invited to this meeting).

At the meeting of the UN delegates, Nicolae begins to rant about uniting the world in a new era of peace which will make the delegates kings among their people. This freaks out Dr. Rosebranch, who is slowly beginning to realize that (if nothing else) Nicolae is power-mad. Before the good doctor can object, however, Nicolae uses the Jedi Mind Trick to make him sit down.

These are not the antichrists you are looking for.

These are not the antichrists you are looking for.

When the time comes to expose the dastardly international bankers, Nicolae informs them that news of their conspiracy to bankrupt the UN has already reached the press. Then Nicolae takes a gun from one of his bodyguards and murders both international bankers on the floor of the United Nations, in front of everybody.


And people say nothing gets done at the United Nations.

And people say nothing gets done at the United Nations.

Nicolae explains that this had to be done to ensure world peace and literally brainwashes everyone in the room (except Buck) to believe that the international bankers died in a murder/suicide once they realized that their plan was exposed. The police rush in, Nicolae is painted as a victim in all of this, and Buck can’t find one person who will admit to the version of events that he witnessed.

Horrified, Buck realizes that Nicolae is the Antichrist and Rayford was right all along. To make matters worse, Buck even helped Nicolae with his ultimate plan–the assassin from earlier shot the computer because he wanted Buck to live, publish the story about the conspiracy, and give Nicolae cover for killing his international banker friends/benefactors.

Buck returns to Chicago and the church where Rayford, Chloe, and Pastor BanisterJumper have set up a new ministry to convert folks post-Rapture. He joins them and the film ends like all good films should end: with an evil man in absolute power and everyone smiling.

BUCK: I just helped facilitate the rise of the Antichrist. CHLOE: Well we all make mistakes.

BUCK: I just helped facilitate the rise of the Antichrist.
CHLOE: Well we all make mistakes.

epiThis is a terrible movie but it’s also god damn crazy. It can only get crazier in Tribulation Force: Left Behind II, which is a real thing that was made by human beings because the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince us that he doesn’t exist.

Stay tuned for that in the next couple weeks.


I Watched Left Behind (2014) So You Don’t Have To

ProlPart of me really wants to read the Left Behind book series. Just load up the description of any one of the 16(!!) books and you’ll understand why. They are absolutely, off-the-wall bonkers crazy. From what I can tell, the later books devolve into low-rent Christian Metal Gear, and they sound kind of amazing. Just for example, the anti-christ is a genetically-engineered UN Secretary General descended from Roman emperors named Nicolae Carpathia. And his right-hand man is a Catholic (these books are firmly evangelical) who can call down fire from the sky with power given to him by Lucifer.

The only problem is that the Left Behind books are terribly written and there are better ways to consume batshit crazy stories, so I never got around to reading them. However, I was always curious. And when I found out that the first book was being adapted into a film starring Nicolas Cage? Well, you could say I was a little excited about that. I knew there was already a series of movies, but this was before I was writing long blog posts about bad movies, so I never sought them out. But for Nic Cage I was willing to make an exception.

Left Behind came and went in theaters with such little fanfare that I barely noticed it. Then it slipped onto DVD and finally emerged on Netflix, where it reminded me of its existence. And just in time, since I was wrapping up my Atlas Shrugged recaps.

Unfortunately, Left Behind strips the book of almost all its high level insanity. There’s no anti-christ, no global war, nothing. The movie doesn’t even cover all of the book, just the first day after the rapture and a single airline flight. When I was done, I realized I really should have watched the first adaptation, which does touch on the crazy.

But I was too late. I already made all the gifs and everything. So without any further statements of regret, here’s 2014’s Left Behind.

chap1The film opens with Chloe Steele returning to New York to visit her father, Rayford, for his birthday. Yes, his name is Rayford Steele. And yes, he is the character portrayed by Nicolas Cage. Unfortunately, Rayford Steele is an Important Airline Pilot and he has been called to work to fly a plane to London on his birthday. Everyone is really sad about this.

I can't believe I married Nicolas Cage.

I can’t believe I married Nicolas Cage.

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I Watched Atlas Shrugged Part III So You Don’t Have To


jamestripsRead Part I

Read Part II

proIf there was anything that Ayn Rand loved more than her friends’ husbands, it was the free market. This was not a view shared by the producers of Atlas Shrugged Part III.

Very few people asked for Atlas Shrugged to be adapted into a film, let alone three films. The first installment earned less than five million dollars at the box office, and only a few million more on DVD. It failed to recoup even half its budget and was critically panned across the board. Nevertheless, the producers pushed forward with their plan, even if they couldn’t bring back the director, most of the crew, and all of the cast. The second film was financed through a debt sale and filmed over a single month, the dying gasp of a dream that should have never been brought into reality. Part II debuted on three times as many screens as Part I, likely due to its release near the 2012 election and the hope that money could be made off of the politically charged subject matter. Nope. Part II bombed even harder than the first installment, barely squeaking out over three million dollars.

The promotional materials for Far Cry 3 have taught us that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. So, naturally, the producers of the first two Atlas Shrugged films made a third one.

“How?” you ask, and I don’t have a good answer. No one with any sense would invest in a project like this–the third film of a trilogy that twice failed to earn a profit and consists, notoriously, of the worst parts of the book it is based on. Atlas Shrugged isn’t a masterpiece from the start, but it falls apart spectacularly in the last third, mostly because of a 70 page speech by one of the worst Mary Sue characters to ever be realized outside of

Part III reportedly cost 10 million dollars to produce, which is considerably cheaper than the first two films but still 10 million dollars more than anyone should have been willing to pay. To top that off, a kickstarter campaign was drawn into the mix. Allegedly, none of the money was used to actually produce the film, which begs an important question: where did it go? The page is really vague on that–“expanding the production and marketing” is the official wording. The producers elaborate on this in their video and FAQ, stating that the main purpose is to allow fans to be “part of Atlas Shrugged history.”

In other words, the kickstarter was a way to take money from people who were willing to give it. And can you really blame the producers when there were six people who paid $7,500 to have their name written on John Galt’s wall in the film?

rewards The idea of paying a bunch of money to get your name associated with the prime mover capitalist heroes of Atlas Shrugged is maybe the most amazing thing to come out of this whole series of terrible movies. It’s so dumb and it’s even vaguely even predatory, though I can’t feel sorry for the prey of this particular scam. And maybe, in the end, they’re onto something. Anyone who had their name put up on that wall has something in common with Ellis Wyatt: they basically set a bunch of money on fire.

In keeping with the fine tradition of continuity, the entire film has been recast once again. Gone is Samantha Mathis as Dagny Taggart, replaced by Laura Regan who you might recognize as (a) Harry’s wife on Mad Men or (b) the actress who portrays Robin Wright’s character in Unbreakable during flashbacks. That’s how little there is to say about her. Hank Rearden is no longer a mob boss, but played by Rob Morrow (in theory; we’ll get to that later). And the standout of Part II, Patrick Fabian, is sadly missing in action as James Taggart, but gleefully replaced by yet another in the revolving door of unsettling expressive actors, Greg Germann. Or, as you probably know him, Fish from Ally McBeal.


Everyone else has been recast as well, including Ray Wise as President Thompson. Which is a hell of a disappointment because President Thompson is actually in this film for more than a minute and Wise is sorely missed.

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I Watched Atlas Shrugged Part 2 So You Don’t Have To


Atlas Shrugged Part I: Full Post

proIt shouldn’t surprise anyone that Atlas Shrugged Part I was box office poison. It was a dry adaptation of the first third of an unfilmable book, starring Taylor Schilling pre-Orange Is The New Black. The studio presumed that it would find success because it courted a conservative market that is largely ignored by Hollywood. This was a huge miscalculation, because nakedly conservative films have (typically) been driven to profitability by church groups and Rand isn’t exactly a fan of religion. Also, while plenty of Republican politicians cite Atlas Shrugged as an influence, I’d wager that most either (1) haven’t read it or (2) didn’t understand it because otherwise they’d have to realize modern American political conservatism has way more in common with the regulatory capture and obstructionism of the villains than the ambitious drive of the protagonists. Socialism wasn’t the only windmill Rand tilted at with Atlas Shrugged, after all.

The misguided quest to film a book that didn’t need to be filmed should have ended with the failure of Part I. The free market spoke. But the producers didn’t listen. They still had a vision to complete, even if it would have to be reduced in scope and, hilariously, funded by selling debt. The entire cast was replaced. Jason Beghe took over for Grant Bowler as Hank Reardon. And Taylor Schilling was swapped out for Samantha Mathis, who is probably best known by readers of this blog as Daisy from the Super Mario Brothers Movie.

Sorry, Sam, but it looks like talking to a puppet dinosaur won't be the career low point you assumed.

Sorry, Sam, but it looks like talking to a puppet dinosaur won’t be the career low point you assumed.

When we last saw our heroes, Hank Rearden was fuming over yet another set of governmental regulations that would make it illegal to produce his “Rearden Metal”, which may or may not just be a type of steel. And Dagny Taggart was screaming at a burning oil field after tycoon Ellis Wyatt decided to torch all his product rather than let the government tax the state of Colorado. Wyatt then disappeared with a mysterious fedora-wearing dude, John Galt, whose very name has become a rhetorical question that no one has an answer for, because this world is very much like our own but does not have Google.

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