Deus Ex Machinima: ‘Cyclops’ vs ‘Insurrection V3.6’

[7 March 2011]

By shathley Q

Part One: Narrative Vectors and Storytelling

Machinima, using video-game engines like that of Halo to animate storytelling, has become a cultural fixture since the highly accomplished production of Red vs. Blue. Unlike level designer modules and expansion packs in earlier games, the idea of machinima was itself groundbreaking; that users could elevate themselves from simply interacting with a pre-designed environment and on to becoming active storytellers. If anything, machinima was a liberation, offering ‘interactors’ the opportunity to become participants.

While both Matz and Jacamon’s Cyclops and Blake Masters’ Insurrection V3.6 rely heavily on effecting a similar ratcheting-up of ‘interactors’ into participants, the two books’ executions of that sensibility are markedly dissimilar. Cyclops is pure intellectual stimulation, an immersion in a sleek, high-profile, high-technology world that holds very little emotional resonance. Insurrection V3.6 on the other hand, is a slow and definite struggle towards what already appears to be an unthinkable end-scenario. Despite its rollicking action sequences, Insurrection V3.6 is at its heart a character-driven piece of storytelling. While Cyclops really is a classically story-driven narrative.

In Cyclops, the newly-married Doug Pistoia is job hunting during a recession. The year is 2054 and the only company hiring is Multicorps Security. In addition to their impressive global contracts, Multicorps has become the first corporation in history to earn an outsourced peacekeeping contract from the UN. With an eye on profits though, Multicorps has signed a multi-billion dollar deal with World News Network to televise peacekeeping operations live. The soldier-mounted visor-cams that allow for command, communication and control functions on the battlefield, also allow for the live broadcast of the war. With a single visor-mounted camera, the soldiers are nicknamed “Cyclops”. “Television loves a war”, as one character remarks.

Interior Art from 'Cyclops: The Hero'

Interior Art from ‘Cyclops: The Hero’

Doug, who for his part simply wants to provide for his wife, his coming family, and his home, finds himself a willing pawn in a global media conspiracy. From the very beginning, Doug’s talent is recognized by Multicorps. As detailed in the first storyarc, ‘the Recruit’, Doug is given access to personal battlefield security, long-range weaponry and a media machine that promotes him as determined and compassionate soldier. The first storyarc is the conspiracy theory behind FIFA, the story of how management became more important than substance. How heroes are subject to economies of celebrity, and ultimately how popularization itself is a marketing strategy.

Set even further in the future (in the year 3000 CE), Insurrection V3.6 tells the story of a utopian earth sustained by the slave labor of worker- and military-grade androids. Rebel factions, who threaten to disrupt the flow of necessary minerals to Earth, find themselves subject to military operations coordinated and executed by slavishly loyal androids called Auts.

Focusing on the Aut “Tim V3.6”, Insurrection V3.6 seems to be heading in the direction of an Aut rebellion led by Tim. In Cyclops: the Hero, the now-media darling Doug finds himself wanting to unravel the compromises and moral inequities that lie behind his new won celebrity.

It helps to think of Cyclops (particularly with the new storyarc, ‘the Hero’), as John Grisham’s the Firm. Undoubtedly there are clear parallels between Cyclops’ Doug Pistoia and Grisham’s endearing Firm protagonist Mitch McDeere. Insurrection V3.6 however, is Ben Hur. It is the moving portrait of Tim’s first steps into individuation.

Interior Art from 'Insurrection V3.6'

Interior Art from ‘Insurrection V3.6’

Ultimately though, both books are essays in their creative teams not playing to their strengths.

What proved seductive about the runaway hit the Killer (Matz and Jacamon’s first collaboration at Archaia), was the psychological intensity they managed to sustain. The unidentified killer who narrated the series managed to evoke a kind of Stockholm Syndrome in readers. You wanted him to succeed, for no other reason than he was coldblooded, single-minded. That kind of emotional immersion seems absent from Cyclops on the whole. While the world is opulent and lavish in its design, the book seems to fall short of the previously high standard for psychological immersion this creative team has already set with the Killer.

Blake Masters, the creator of Insurrection V3.6 co-writes the book with the formidably impressive Michael Alan Nelson. While there certainly is a sense of loss at not having the exuberant, caption-based monologue from a project like Hexed, the sheer lack of emotional connectivity works wonders for the story of an android taking its first steps into actual (rather than artificial) intelligence. For Michael Alan Nelson then, holding back is a win.

This review will be continued tomorrow.

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