Helix Ate My Balls

The implication is that your mind will be blown. It won’t be.

Helix is to science what Lost is to lazy writing. It’s kind of like how SyFi did Z-Nation as a slightly more bearable, low-budget alternative to The Walking Dead. This feels like their dollar store knock-off of The Strain, alternating layers of Michael Crichton and Richard Matheson beneath a thick icing of John W. Campbell — if they were all Suzanne Collins. Overall, it’s about people vomiting into each other’s mouths. I spent most of the show hoping that the protagonists would fall into a plot hole, but honestly, I watched it for the monkey torture.

The show starts out with Dr. Alan Farragut explaining the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak to his colleagues at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s a surreal lecture from a condescending prick (and I’m no stranger to those). Everyone in Farragut’s audience has an advanced medical degree, so they should be yawning and texting, not listening with expressions of rapt fascination. They memorized this story as undergrads! It’s like flight-splaining the Wright brothers to a professional aviator. Even the cafeteria workers and custodial staff at the CDC probably recall Broad Street from high school.

“The balls in question are here . . . and here, at the intersection of Broad and Jump Street.”

The conceit is understandable. It’s like reading a Michael Crichton book. He wants to make sure that everyone understands how much research he put into his story, so he shoehorns 90% of it in there. This epidemiology stuff is fresh, new, and imposing for the show’s writers. They assume the same of the show’s viewership, which leads to two pitfalls, underestimating your audience and diminishing your protagonist. Both undermine a story and destroy the narrator’s credibility.

During his lecture, Farragut nonchalantly tosses a vial of cholera to a woman in the audience. Everyone loses their shit, because if that vial were to break then . . . the janitor would have to clean the floor with bleach. We are talking fecal-oral transmission here, so the human centipede lurking in the background, he has a lot to worry about. I love watching TV extras overact, and this scene did not fail to disappoint. One extra holds a hand over her heart with an “Oh my lans” expression for the rest of the scene. Let me reiterate that she is playing a doctor, not someone watching cat fail videos at Walmart. It’s beautiful.

This is a recurring problem. Later in the first season, the CDC protagonists discover a vial of Yersinia Pestis. They react like someone just opened the Ark of the Covenant. In another Crichton-esque moment, they take turns namechecking it as the black plague and Plague of Justinian. Scary right? Except that Americans can still contract the bubonic plague from squirrels and prairie dogs. It’s not quite exotic, and not nearly as terrifying as the Ebola that they were nonchalantly handling. It is curable with readily available antibiotics.

Helix - Season 1
“Careful, these balls may be infected.”

Not everyone is going to know that, but the characters really should. A youthful Arnold Schwarzenegger can’t fail to bench press 300 pounds and then crush a parking meter with his bare hand in the second act. His physique sets an expectation. Viewers unfamiliar with bodybuilding may overlook the initial discrepancy — 300 pounds, 500 pounds, whatever — but it becomes incongruous when he then performs a superhuman act. Likewise, mental powerhouses can’t be stupid half of the time, especially not if the plot hinges on them being extraordinary. Characters who brag about the string of letters after their name definitely should not begin the show reciting a high school history report. It only takes one maven in a room full of laymen to point out the inconsistencies, and then we all know that it is the writer speaking down to his audience, not the character patronizing his peers.

Better Off Ted resolve this by having the protagonist break the fourth wall and address the viewers. It works in a comedy, and House of Cards proved that it can work brilliantly in a drama. Contrast that with Kolchak: The Night Stalker or Burn Notice, which are as semi-serious as a show with voice-overs can get. One work-around, which cracks the fourth wall but maintains the audience’s voyeuristic role, is having the character narrate into a audio recorder. We watch the protagonist as he rants, hear it as a voice-over, or listen as the tape plays a not so final confession as the character gurgles in a pool of blood. That approach would have suited Helix. Speaking to the audience establishes a rapport, whereas remedial shoptalk establishes an adversarial relationship, because either the viewer or the protagonist is not especially smart.

— Derek Kagemann


Blue-letter Theists: An Open Letter

I wrote a letter to my congressmen last week. It is my first attempt at affecting the political process, although I know full well that it will be read by an aide, deleted half-read, and that I will receive a reply along the lines of “Thank you for your input. Lolz!”

What I am enamored with is my coining of the phrase “Blue-pencil Theists.” I feel that it encapsulates modern day Christian conservatism, which expurgates the Bible to justify a partisan political agenda in true Pre-Enlightenment fashion. Blue pencils were once commonly used when making corrections to a manuscript. The term has since become a metaphor. A blue-pencil theist is a selective believer in expedient doctrines of moral convenience. With one broad stroke, the blue pencil abolishes the red-lettered, Biblical teachings of Jesus Christ. What remains is purple prose and legalism that can be hurled like barbed invective. It is the antithesis of Red-letter Christianity, an emergent movement that is itself a refutation of politicized evangelicalism. As with the legal concept of “blue pencil doctrine,” God’s covenant is rendered only partially enforceable. I’m trying to think of a good example . . .


The complete letter is as follows:

My name is Derek Kagemann, and I am a constituent in Indiana’s 9th District. My attitudes regarding these matters represent our household of four.

Last year, police arrested a student at Bedford North Lawrence High School for plotting a shooting. We are fortunate that students and officers cooperated to avert this crisis, but flagging a landmine does not equate to clearing the minefield. Three years ago, the CDC ranked Indiana as the worst state in the country for bullying. State legislation now requires schools to report bullying, and so, many schools in your district now obfuscate these incidents by haranguing students who report a problem. This pervasive culture further disenfranchises students. In 2014, teenagers in Lawrence County murdered a man and stole money and guns from his home. The means and motive are present for a school shooting. It is a question of when.

Please take action to enact gun control laws. There has to be a point when Republicans start valuing life outside of the womb and interpret the 2nd Amendment as a collective, not individual, right. If not, could you please ask your colleagues to stop referring to themselves as “Christians.” Explaining this discrepancy has become embarrassing for those of us who try to emulate Christ’s example. May I suggest “Blue-pencil Theists” as an alternative. If you guys are going to parse the 2nd Amendment into two separate clauses then at least start regulating our militias, because the proliferation of anti-government, white supremacist militias is nearly as unsettling as mentally ill teenagers with the right to bear arms and discharge them in a public space. Much like a blatantly out-of-context Bible verse, it seems like the first half of that amendment is not enforced as fervently as the half that validates our worst impulses.

Secondly, I recall naively conjecturing as a young man that cutting a criminal’s hand off would be an effective deterrent to crime. The counterpoint to that argument was that anyone missing a hand would then be deemed a criminal. Veterans and machinists who lost a hand performing an important service would be regarded as pariahs. We face a similar dilemma with the present opioid crisis. The media is quick to cite a drug epidemic, and our president has suggested a Duterte-esque death penalty approach as a solution. I am glad that my perspective matured with age, because chopping off hands and heads is a solution best reserved for Conan movies and third-world dictators.

What I see now are insurance companies using this crisis as an opportunity to stop covering medications that are vital for the well-being of those with legitimate pain conditions, like crippling rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and cluster headaches. Like the aforementioned hand-less veteran or machinist, these people face a social stigma based in chronic conditions that drastically diminish their quality of life but have few visible symptoms that would validate their disorder in the eyes of a layperson. I have been shocked to discover how many of my neighbors with legitimate medical conditions are now struggling to pay for medicines that doctors are increasingly unable to prescribe. These people don’t want to take pain medicines, it is not a moral failing on their part, and treating pain that would otherwise leave them disabled or drive them to suicide is not part of a cycle of abuse.

Contrary to Ben Carson, poverty is not a choice or a state of mind. A person saddled with a disabling condition gifts those with talented hands cause to practice their vocation. The former party is tasked with suffering the human condition, while the latter party is burdened with the moral imperative of humbling oneself in service to the needy. As Jesus said in Matthew 25:45, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Please remember that what you do for the least of your constituents determines your legacy as a politician, as well as your worth as a human being. We find an avenue to escape poverty only when afforded human dignity as a foothold. That fundamental value, upon which our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is contingent, is steadily being eroded. Things that you take for granted — getting out of bed, urinating without pain, having functional limbs — are overwhelming obstacles in the daily lives of people that you represent. It is easy to take that for granted.

Thank you for your time.

Best Regards,
Derek Kagemann

Dork Tuesday: Trenches and Terrain

I have been crafting a lot of terrain lately. Most of it is for a Shadow War:  Armageddon game that I intend on playing with my son. Making it reminded me how much fun I used to have selling terrain online, so I expect to have several pieces available for sale in the near future. The photos here are a little rough. I took them to show a few friends without worrying about lighting or composition.

DSC_0027I was inspired to start this project by the huge pieces of Styrofoam packaging that came with my wife’s printer. I didn’t have space to store them for later, and I didn’t want to just throw that lovely garbage away. I have also wanted to make some trenches for quite some time now, so it was a great opportunity to use up some irregular scraps of blue board that have been sitting around for years. I am especially pleased with the utility poles, which started out as plastic sprues from an old Thunder Road board game.

I have treated this project as an opportunity to improve my technique. Each game board section is a 1’x1′ segment on a hardboard backing. This modular arrangement allows me to rearrange the battlefield for each session. The barbed wire is hardware cloth cut into pronged strips and then rolled around a pencil. The effect wasn’t quite what I wanted, but I think I have an idea of how to perfect it in the future. Those sandbags were made by Fortress Figures and are over twenty years old.

The second piece is an abandoned comm relay center, which can serve as an objective in some game scenarios. I put a lot of effort into painting Styrofoam white. Even funnier, the grime and streaks of green algae were inspired by foam litter out in the woods. The satellite dish is made from an old Games Workshop flying base, a PVC pipe cap, a spent Scotch tape roll, and a couple bits of sprue. A good friend of mine was kind enough to gift me with tons of bits that feature prominently in each piece. I had yet to apply any weathering pigments at the time that I took the photos. I also added some graffiti cribbed from sidewalk scribblings and the opening sequence of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

Apocryphal Review: Dead Rising 5

Dead Rising 5 is a fresh take on a familiar premise. You play Chip West, great-grandson of the legendary Frank West. Like his ancestor, Chip is a wiseacre journalist, but the medium has had nearly a century to evolve. Chip’s holocam can record, transmit, and project holographic images. Conveniently enough, these convincing duplicates can be used to distract and confuse enemies, much like the holograms in the original Total Recall movie. “Hahahaha! You think this is the real Chip?”

Chip West is at the ribbon cutting ceremony for the lunar Westplex 2100, a state-of-the-art lunar habitat. It’s a self-contained, domed environment that includes a Frank West museum, multistory office building, eateries, shopping center, and more. Even though half of the habitat was under construction in my playtest copy, I had a massive area to explore. One of my favorite details is how the story interrupts Chip’s ribbon cutting, which leaves me holding a gigantic pair of gold scissors. They break after a couple dozen uses but are one of the most gory and spectacular weapons in the game.

*MASSIVE SPOILERS* One of the things that had me wary about this franchise entry was the conspicuous absence of any zombies. There’s a whole Westworld thing going on with androids running amok, along with the perennial batch of lunatics. The action was the same, but the premise felt a little alien and off-putting . . . until I took a close look at one of the downed “androids.” I had to zoom in with my camera to realize that I had been fighting zombies all along. Not long thereafter, the expository stranger, Nadia 01, showed up and confirmed my suspicions. The developer behind the Westplex 2100 had figured out a way to control zombies and employ them as service workers. He encased them in faux android costumes to avoid public outcry. The story went from Westworld to Disney’s The Black Hole in an instant. There’s even a transmitter dart tied to a short range remote control that lets you hack zombies. The inclusion of animal zombies in plush teddy bear exteriors is a fun touch conceptually, but they are miserable to fight, especially in zero-gravity. The Ted-e-torium is one of the hardest locations in the game.

The logistics of transporting so many zombies to the moon isn’t ever explained, but why was the population of the entire county at the Williamette Parkview Mall? Something, something Zombrex . . . something, something, newer, more aggressive strain . . . yadda, yadda zombies. There are clusters of zombies, rather than the wall-to-wall hordes in previous iterations. There are even unsettling moments without a zombie in sight, which may be a deal-breaker for some players. That said, they are relentless. Even with an upper tier arsenal, you can hit a zombie ten times and still end up being grappled and injured. Knock them down, and they crawl after you. Cut off a hand, and it crawls after you. The hands are the worst! Head shots are vital, but you have to knock off their armored helmets in close combat. The hands-down best feature of the game are the spontaneous ambushes that can occur nearly anywhere in the game. I was caught completely off-guard when zombies broke through a wall and attacked me while I was jogging down an empty hallway. They reach through grates, burst out of closets, and silently wander up behind you whenever you think that you are alone. DR5 went with quality over quantity. That choice may defy the franchise paradigm, but it feels like the first step toward a game that will marry both approaches when technology permits. My favorite zombie spawning point is the ball pit at the Play Palace. How did all of those zombies get there? Was there a pedophile convention in there before the outbreak?

I was initially frustrated at having to find a safe house. There are several options, but you have to locate them, clear out any zombies or hostile survivors, reinforce, and stockpile supplies before you can deposit any survivors there. The survivors are holed up in different locations. Each has a timer keeping track of how long they can hold out, but you won’t be aware of any given time constraint until you find them. Some only require that you have a safe house, others demand certain concessions before they will accompany you, and a handful are just overtly hostile. That last category comes with a caveat. After killing several hostile survivors, I ran into a couple groups whose attitudes shifted once I accomplished a particular goal. In one case, they decided I was enough of a “bad hombre” to follow after I’d killed half of the group and had the rest down to a sliver of health. The others stopped attacking when I picked up a Chip West cutout to smack them with and they realized who I was. It is possible that I could have convinced the other hostile groups to join me if only I had realized that there were conditions to be met. It’s important, because . . .

Saving people really matters. The number of rescued survivors determines the game’s outcome. You can dispatch survivors to accomplish numerous side quests, including rescuing other survivors, but you have to be very picky about your decisions. Sometimes the six survivors that you send to rescue a dozen people will fail, and you lose all eighteen. There are even sleepers who will turn into full-blown psychopaths if you dispatch them on a quest. One will turn your safe house into a cult compound if left unchecked, and another survivor . . . takes a much, much darker turn (I have a hard time seeing this make it into the final game). The petty bickering and whining gets tedious, but a lot of effort went into humanizing the survivors. Luckily, you can upload your photos of them to an online database, which will provide a few insights into their personalities and quirks. It is a tedious process though, especially considering the number of people you are managing. I gave up on it and just let the dice roll where they may.

One issue that I was happy to see addressed is that everyday objects have some value in the game again. Previous installments had veered further and further into the realm of the wild and wacky. There were numerous objects strewn about and nearly anything could technically be used as a weapon, but they only had real worth when combined into some goofy Rube Goldberg contraption. The zany weapons are still present, but the wackiness is dialed back just a tad. You can make it through the entire game just applying some slight tweaks to normal objects. For example, a stack of twenty steel cafeteria trays sounds underwhelming, but it only takes a couple of seconds to hone the edges to razor sharpness on a futuristic grindstone. Throw a bag of gemstones on the ground and fire a laser at them. The laser refracts and splits into a score of beams, which blast in all directions. The weapon system is more about spontaneous synchronicity than hunting down the components for optimized combos. You can go at it either way, but the game makes it consistently fun to use everything as a weapon.

I still can’t decide if some of the game’s quirks were intentional or just massively buggy. Zombies fall out of the sky on occasion. I think that they are falling out of upper-story windows, which would be kind of awesome, but there is no tinkle of broken glass, or even a splat, to signal their impact. I suspect that they are spawning in the wrong places. The gang of golf cart-riding geriatrics are obscenely tough. I quit the game for two days out of frustration and nearly gave up entirely. Even when I realized that I could cut down the palm trees and the importance of the golf balls, I just barely scraped by. Maybe this part is easy for other people.

I have probably spoiled more than I ought to, but I want to share a little about two of the endings. The worst possible outcome is that the dome gets blown open and everyone is sucked out into space. It is disheartening, but it is undeniably the coolest cinematic in the entire game, so polished that it feels like they started with it and worked backwards on designing the rest of the game. About the only way that you can get this result is if you have only rescued a handful of survivors or failed to dispatch them on maintenance runs. Harvey Flores, the custodian, is invaluable here, whereas Nadia 01 gets to be an annoying pain-in-the-ass. The “A” ending plays out a lot like an old James Bond flick. There is a bonus stretch in which you confront the man who designed the androids, an orange-skinned braggart, named Duterte Fuego. But, first you have to fight his “wives.” Hopefully, you can figure it out from the quotation marks, because the Stepford Wives implications are pretty disgusting. Fuego is a fun bad guy, a caricature of Donald Trump who aspires to be Walt Disney but can’t help becoming Idi Amin. Ultimately, he claims that it is better to be feared than loved, but he spends the big fight scene desperately fishing for compliments and approval. There is a break in the action while he puts on a mix tape of his experimental prog-rock. “I won’t kill you without blowing your mind.” If you lose, he begs, “Wait! Wait! Don’t die yet. What did you think of my music?” before you bleed out and the screen fades to black.

The sad news is that this version may never see daylight. Dead Rising 4 did not meet expectations, so Capcom Vancouver hedged its bets and started developing two potential sequels in tandem, Plan A and B. I received a copy of Plan A but have been told by multiple insiders that Plan B is gaining traction. There are a lot of factors at play, some tragic. Plan A’s lead developer dropped out after his wife was diagnosed with cancer, and two high profile software engineers died in a car accident on their way to lunch. The project lost its momentum after that and had a hard time finding the leadership that it needed to move forward. The game is engaging, but it is still very rough and clearly unfinished. This is definitely the point in development when it would be easier to cannibalize the game than to complete it for commercial release. The new lead wants to dial back the scope of the game, change the lunar dome into a terrestrial bio-dome, drop the android angle, and adjust the time frame to the more immediate future. Essentially, he wants the game to mirror the Plan B model that the other team is working on. Layoffs ensued, and so the writing is on the wall. It’s a shame, because this is certainly the Dead Rising that I want to exist.

Cybernetic Buzz Saws to the Face!

Modern prosthesis aren’t keeping up with one fundamental cyberpunk promise — gimmicky inbuilt weaponry. Science fiction assures us that every replacement appendage will be augmented in some fundamentally lethal way. Will your cybernetic finger double as a lighter or a vacuum cleaner? No. Will it pulverize concrete or conceal a hidden spring-loaded blade. Absolutely!

Awww, hell no.

Prosthetic arms are a miracle of modern science. When I was a kid, there were ultra-deluxe hook hands and the mannequin leg from the lamp in A Christmas Story, which is still amazing compared to a wooden peg leg. Modern artificial appendages are inching into William Gibson territory. All that’s missing is for a buzz saw to emerge as the hand recesses back into the metallic arm. “Let me slice that,” Gordon says as his office co-workers wheel in a birthday cake.

Carl Weathers And Adam Sandler In 'Happy Gilmore'
This is what prosthetic arms looked like when I was your age.

I suppose the problem is that in most fiction, war veterans with weaponized prosthesis are inducted into covert organizations or criminal syndicates, where buzz saw arms are practical upgrades. Insurance isn’t going to cover the twelve-inch titanium foldout blades for the guy who does office work for a government contractor. Ultimately, you can’t blame someone for turning to crime to cover the costs of their blowtorch hand or bladed running legs. Medicaid doesn’t cover those upgrades. You’d be lucky to get a corkscrew thumb or a micro-missile index finger hypodermic needle loaded with a paralytic agent. Thanks Obama!

Ultimately, human evolution has only one logical outcome . . .


Ugh . . .

I am behind schedule on my Orcs Killed My Parents book. Our old printer generates image scans more washed out than a Ralph Bakshi elf marinating in a bucket of bleach. The new art printer was a Christmas gift for my wife, so it was off limits until just now. But, that’s the good news. I now have access to a high quality scanner, received a nice set of Derwent Inktense pencils for Christmas (which are phenomenal, by the way), and have nearly completed two other projects that I will launch as a trio.

My original book is looking more suitable for Drive Thru RPG, and so I’ll be using the second title to experiment with the DM’s Guild. The third is a first entry in a series of micro-RPGs, a double-sided page in length, that I intend to sell for $1 each. Things are going to start happening to me now.

Regarding the old printer . . .

I added Aaragorn to make it twice as dorky.

Getting Back Into Gaming

I’m compiling thirty-years of gaming notes, wisdom, angst, and a twelve-pack of whoop-ass into an upcoming series of Dungeons & Dragons supplements. If you like informal writing that enlightens as it insults the reader then this series is for you. Each book includes my very own crappy ink pen and watercolor pencil art. Expect the first book in the next week or two, which I will be offering through Dungeon Masters Guild. It’s going to suck be awesome!