Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Prototype - Part II - King of the Gods

Promotional image of Alex Mercer
So it's been over a year since I started looking at my Prototype story reboot. Whoops!  These posts do take a while to put together. Hope you haven't forgotten what I said earlier.

In our re-imagining of Prototype, we have to begin with the progenitor, Alex Mercer.  Mercer, who released the virus, is the template for Zeus, the viral being that the player controls throughout the game and the cause of the crisis in New York City.

The Prototype Wiki, and several reviews, attempted to convince me that Alex was the antagonist of the game, and Zeus the protagonist. This is a mind-blowingly good idea - it would have made a great game.  But it just isn’t true in Prototype as-it-is.  Alex's plans are not still in motion. Alex's actions do not have any particular consequences during the game other than the spreading of the plague, which is more a biological inevitability than part of something Alex wanted.  To make Alex Mercer an antagonist, he has to have a goal that’s still achievable even in the event of a viral outbreak, otherwise he's simply not a threat, nor even really relevant to what Zeus is trying to do.

Let's remake Alex.

Concept art of Alex Mercer
From the Prototype Wiki
Alex Mercer was the puppetmaster of GenTek.  Cruel, sociopathic, paranoid, he clawed his way up the chain from a simple research scientist position, using blackmail and skullduggery to advance.  He romanced Karen Parker out of cold calculation for who could be most advantageous to him, but they split when she discovered his true nature.  His sister Dana hated his guts and wanted nothing to do with him.  In fact, she became a journalist and blogger almost exclusively because she wanted to expose unethical corporate researchers like her brother.

However, Alex couldn’t breach the security protocols surrounding the inner questions of GenTek, due to its control by the Blackwatch military faction.  Blackwatch seemed immune to Alex’s manipulations - a blunt instrument, with no way for Alex to leverage them.  It didn’t matter what Alex tried, they were more than willing to murder anyone who was looking or going where they shouldn’t.  Alex was stymied.  He had gained access to GenTek's secrets, including the identity of Elizabeth Greene, but he didn't know about the origin of Blacklight, or what had happened at Hope, Idaho.  From inside, there were no obvious ways for him to find out, either.

Frustrated, Alex went to his sister Dana and pretended to have turned over a new leaf.  He shed crocodile tears over losing Karen, over losing his way.  What he really wanted was Dana to crack from the outside what he couldn’t crack from the inside.  Because he was Dana's brother, he would be uniquely situated to solve the problem she posed (silencing/ruining her), and this would be his ticket into the inner circles of the Blackwatch/GenTek conspiracy.

However, Dana did her job too well (more on Dana in a future update).  Other journalists and even government officials that had been kept out of the loop began to look very suspiciously at GenTek.  Congressional hearings were launched.  (These are ongoing as the game opens.)  Criticisms of GenTek from environmental and ethics groups began to gain traction.  As the pressure built, GenTek researchers began to leak information, heightening the problem to the corporation and to Blackwatch, even though they were not directly under Alex's control.  But Alex's plan went awry;  Blackwatch didn’t see Dana as the primary problem, they saw GenTek as the problem, with Alex as one of the likeliest leakers.  Torture and interrogation began throughout GenTek, with whispered rumors of disappearances and suddenly empty offices and cubicles. 

Blackwatch and their top controllers determined that GenTek needed to be liquidated, all research mothballed until the heat was off, when a new scientific front company could be created.  Under the guise of a biological accident, Blackwatch would eliminate everyone at GenTek that had access to even a sliver of information that could be used to track their involvement.  They could sterilize the computers just as easily as they could the buildings once they were called in to control the situation.

As Blackwatch developed this plan, Alex discovered his GenTek contacts and influence were becoming worse than useless.  They were turtling, ratting him out to Blackwatch, getting petty revenge for all the mistreatment he had ladled out over the years.  Incensed at what he saw as unfair treatment, Alex stole a sample of the virus and fled.  Blackwatch contemptuously found him, ridiculously easily.  Alex is a scientist and a boardroom plotter, not an action hero or a trained military man.  The spooks from Blackwatch had him nailed to the wall within a matter of hours.  Now beyond incensed, petulant and crazed, as he was boxed in and targeted, Alex intentionally released the virus, a monstrous act that would cause the crisis of the game.  Alex Mercer dies at this point and we see him no more.  But what was his plan in releasing the virus?  Why did he steal it in the first place?

Alex had something that nobody else in the game had - he had a cure for the virus.  A real, full-on cure. He could cure Greene (if there was anything of Greene left in her body.) He could cure everyone who was infected.  And he would, if Blackwatch would come under his control.  Alex was willing to put the whole world at risk for one last gambit, with the ace in the hole being the cure.  Alex is a planner and a schemer, and he had complete access to everything at GenTek except the blackest of the black secrets of the progenitor virus.  His plans are still be in motion, and his associates, like virtually everybody else, should believe that Zeus is Alex.

So far so good. We have paralleled what was already in Prototype, focusing more on Alex's motivations than on the creepy sci-fi aspects.  How, then, do we establish Alex’s character in a more effective way than just the narration of Zeus being horrified at what Alex did?

This is a trick question.  There is only one effective way to establish a character in any sort of fiction: through character action.

The first part of the game (after the tutorial-type missions to acquaint the player with the controls and game mechanics) is about Zeus’ search for “his” identity.  One mission could take him back to the GenTek facility, where Alex Mercer’s personal effects are being stored.  A smartphone is there, that Alex used to communicate with his co-conspirators.  This smartphone will pop up text messages at various times, relating where Alex is to go to make contact with his underlings and minions.

GenTek scientist model, from the Prototype Wiki
The conspirators are pissed.  Alex was supposed to protect them, and give them the cure if the virus was released.  Now he’s kicked over the hornet’s nest, they can’t get off the island and the only person who knew where all the pieces of the cure are has amnesia. They have GenTek equipment, including protective gear, so they’re protected from the virus, and are even able to slightly infiltrate GenTek operations, but they're hopeless against attacks by the military or the infected. They’re scientists and executives, not combatants, so most of their demands are for combat support.  This “Alex” is well-situated to provide, with his new powers.

These conspirators should have a single face, someone who was Alex’s pointman in GenTek, and under the tightest control.  Let’s give him a name, randomly selected off the original Web of Intrigue: Dr. Jon Tynes.
We will detail Dr. Tynes and our re-imagined Web of Intrigue later.  The important thing is that someone in the game world needs to know Alex’s truly evil nature and can respond to “him” accordingly.  Dana only knows him by his “reformed” persona that he lied to her with.  Karen’s response to "Alex" is colored by her feelings for him.  Blackwatch knows Zeus isn’t Alex and so we can’t learn anything about Alex by their responses to him (we may need to alter some of the soldiers' call-outs to be clearer on this: "there he is!" should become "there it is!")  We need someone reliable to lay the foundation for what Alex did.  Tynes will do that for us.

Working backwards from that, let’s suppose that Alex didn’t want to just crack the upper eschelons of GenTek/Blackwatch, but that there was a very specific person who he wanted to kill to achieve that – Dr. Raymond McMullen, the founder of GenTek and one of the few people to “bridge” both GenTek and Blackwatch.  Both GenTek and Blackwatch would want to protect him, he could easily survive an outbreak (he did, in the original Prototype).  Dr. Tynes, Alex’s other allies, and, circularly, Zeus in Alex's body, will be forced by Alex to participate in this plot to isolate and kill McMullen.

Now that we have a reason for Alex to want McMullen dead, we need a reason for Zeus to keep McMullen alive.  This creates dramatic tension, a conflict between Zeus the protagonist and Alex the antagonist.  It can’t be that McMullen has information – Zeus can get that information by killing him, thus ending the tension and the conflict without resolving it.

Let's give McMullen something redeeming about him.  He's a GenTek muckety-muck, but he isn't military, and indeed is a virtual prisoner of the military for most of the original game.  What if McMullen was brought in after Hope, and decided to make the best of a bad situation by taking care of Elizabeth Greene and trying to find peaceful applications for the biotechnology?  He's weak, and therefore a valid target for the bullies (Alex and Blackwatch) but he also has some kindness in him.  He may be the only one that can bring Elizabeth's humanity out.  He is the key to reaching the human being inside the Hope virus.  And thus, he represents the hope that Zeus may have some kind of humanity inside him as well.

Once Zeus discovers his true identity, he now faces a choice - does he continue to pursue Alex's power-oriented plans, which have been dumped in his lap by Tynes, and kill McMullen, or does he let McMullen live in hopes that he can find something human in Green (and him)?  Now we've got a situation where Zeus might be working very much at odds with the deceased Alex.

The key to creating an actual antagonism between Zeus and Alex Mercer is character action. What does Alex do - not just in his convoluted backstory, but on screen, right now, that Zeus must take action to stop/thwart?

Next, we discuss some of the side characters and how they can be fleshed out.