J.U.L.I.A. Among the Stars
(CBE Software s.r.o)
US: 12 Sep 2014
One surefire way to ruin the drama of any story is to have a protagonist that doesn’t care about the drama of the story. Unless you’re making a comedy, the protagonist of any story should take that story seriously and should not actively undermine the dramatic tension of climactic moments. Having a character who does this consistently in an otherwise straight-faced drama is just poor storytelling.
A while ago I wrote about this very failure regarding The Longest Journey, a classic and venerable point-and-click adventure game that I found to be nearly unbearable thanks to the dimwitted heroine at the center of the story, April Ryan. That game was a perfect example of a world undercut by a poorly written and poorly conceived character: I observed that: “April never grows or changes. She veers from (unfunny) wisecracking adventurer to petulant teenager, based on the whims of the scene. Every time that she’s about to mature the game takes away that growth for the sake of a joke. She’s never able to become the hero the game wants her to be. She starts an idiot, and ends a moron”.
Yeah, it’s poor storytelling. Unless, however, that ignorance is the entire point of the story.
J.U.L.I.A. Among the Stars is a point-and-click adventure about a futuristic astrobiologist, Rachel Manners, who has woken up after decades of hibernation on a space ship in order to perform emergency repairs, following a chance encounter with a meteor shower. It’s up to this astrobiologist to perform engineering repairs because the rest of the crew is missing. Oh, and she’s in a faraway solar system with no route back to earth.
You spend the game traveling this foreign solar system, sending a drone to each planet’s surface to explore and investigate, piecing together a timeline of your crew’s activities. Things clearly went wrong, multiple times, but how did those things go wrong and why? This is the central mystery that drives the story.
However, this mystery takes a bit of a backseat once you encounter intelligent primitive life, called Ambrosians, and start learning about the ancient history of this solar system. It seems like a dramatic tangent, but the story threads do eventually link up in a satisfying way (spoilers incoming).
The Ambrosians had their entire history uprooted by another invading alien race. Their home planet was destroyed, and the survivors were moved to another planet next door where they worshiped the invaders. In time, this history was forgotten, so the invaders decided to poison the oceans on the new planet as a punishing reminder of their power. This finally got them banished from the system by a third alien race, but before the Ambrosians could regroup and rebuild, the human crew came along not expecting to find intelligent life, and in their surprise at finding it, they gunned down many Ambrosians before retreating. The Ambrosians, still in the thick of their misguided religious worship, just saw this as yet another consequence of divine punishment.
This history and humanity’s role in it are revealed to us at the end of the game, and it’s at this crucial moment that Rachel seems to lose her patience with the story. She reacts to these major revelations with a tired and annoyed dismissiveness.
For example: She steps foot into a holographic museum that an ancient alien being has re-created from her memories, and the PA system in this memory-museum tells her that it is opening a secret door to show her the truth of this solar system. Her reaction: “Yeah, whatever.”
This is the narrative climax of the game, when the divergent mysteries coalesce into a single history and the real themes of the game become apparent. This is the moment of revelation, and Rachel doesn’t seem to care. I understand that the developers were trying to portray her as overwhelmed, but even then that goes against the inquisitive and resourceful characterization that has defined Rachel up until this point.
Thankfully, there’s J.U.L.IA., the titular artificial intelligence, to put Rachel in her place. The machine acts as the “voice in your ear” throughout the game, giving you advice and instruction and objectives. When Rachel reaches her breaking point, it’s J.U.L.I.A. who takes charge and encourages/forces us forward. J.U.L.I.A. isn’t going to have any of our bullshit. She’s (it’s?) awesome.
Awesome… except for the teeny, tiny little fact that J.U.L.I.A. killed the crew. It’s a predictable twist, but well handled in that this is no AI-gone-rogue story. She was acting quite rationally to preserve of life, but the life that she was protecting was alien, not human. She was meting out punishment after the crew needlessly slaughtered the Ambrosians. Their attack was accidental, but it was also horribly embarrassing for the expedition leader since that debacle was the first human contact with intelligent alien life. To cover up his failure and mistake, he and others plotted to bomb the landing site from orbit, wiping out any trace of their misdeeds.
In this way, humanity mirrors the invaders. Both resort to violence upon this first encounter, and when given a second chance, both resort to more violence. Maybe the invaders had an understandable reason for destroying the Ambrosian homeworld, but poisoning the ocean was still a petty act of mass destruction driven by arrogance and ego. We can justify the crew’s initial slaughter as the actions of frightened people, but the subsequent bombing is, again, an act of mass destruction driven by arrogance and ego.
But does that justify J.U.L.I.A.‘s killing spree? After all, most of the crew, even if they took part in the panicked shooting, didn’t know about the bombing plan. They were innocent of that crime. Also, our investigations into each planet allow us to read many journals from many people, and most of them are sympathetic workers stuck under a terrible leader. We should hate J.U.L.I.A. for her overzealousness, yet the game takes her side.
Rachel herself is J.U.L.I.A.‘s final argument. To her credit, Rachel does act pretty rationally for most of the game. As an astrobiologist in a distant solar system, she’s curious when she should be curious, frightened when she should be frightened, and amazed when she should be amazed… right up until those final few hours, those most important few hours.
Humans, argues J.U.L.I.A., will inevitably reach this breaking point. Rachel was spared because she had been cryo-jailed long before the shooting (for reasons unknown), so she was innocent of all that came after, but given enough time on her own, she would eventually perform some sort of similar action. To get home to earth and preserve her own life, she would very likely burn a village of primitive aliens. This is human nature, and it’s only because of J.U.L.I.A.‘s guidance and instruction that Rachel ends up saving the Ambrosians rather than destroying them further.
Saving the Ambrosians feels like a narrative detour at first because it has nothing to do with the narrative of the crew. Their visit to the planet is just a footnote, one more shitty thing in a long line of shitty things. However, this tangent slowly reveals itself to be the main point of the game. J.U.L.I.A. is less of a sci-fi mystery than it is a sci-fi redemption story, with J.U.L.I.A. guiding Rachel through a kind of divine test, acting as the angel on our shoulder.
At the very end of the game, we are given our final exam: clear the poison from the water and save the Ambrosian species or go back to earth. We only have enough resources for one action.
If you choose to save the Ambrosians, we get an extended epilogue that shows the water clearing and how Rachel tries to get on with life afterwards. If you choose to return to earth, the game quickly cuts to black, our fate unknown. The game clearly prefers one ending to the other, even if lets us make the choice.
J.U.L.I.A.‘s morality is still up for debate, but I appreciate the game for trying to interrogate and criticize the arrogant and dismissive behavior of its protagonist. Rachel is an exceptionally better character than April Ryan, and a large part of that is because the game doesn’t excuse her brief moments of bad behavior. The Longest Journey was happy to let April stay stupid. J.U.L.I.A. expects Rachel to act like an adult.