Sunday, January 13, 2013

Prototype - Part IV - Curse Your Sudden But Inevitable Betrayal!

Picture of Karen Parker, from the Prototype Wiki
This is Part IV of my analysis/reimagining of Prototype (2009)'s story.

Part I - Missed Opportunities
Part II - King of the Gods
Part III - My Dear Sister

Karen Parker is really a baffling and frustrating part of the story of Prototype.  Just a quick rundown of what she does in the story should alert anyone that there's something really wrong here.  She first appears in a photograph in Alex's apartment, triggering memories in Zeus.  Zeus then goes and rescues her from Blackwatch.  She implies she has unfinished business with Alex and that their relationship ended painfully.  She is able to make significant progress on studying the virus working alone (!)  She explains a little about how the infection works - the only character in the entirety of the game that ever does so.

Then, Karen betrays Alex to Blackwatch for no discernible reason, and disappears from the story.

What. The. Hell.

Two optional scenes give us the only closure we have for Karen.  One, a Web of Intrigue scene, depicts a captured Karen being pressured by Blackwater.  She demands a lawyer, scene over.  But it's the second scene that's worse.  Zeus completes the absorption of several Web of Intrigue targets and learns where Karen is hiding out.  He goes in disguised as a Blackwatch soldier and tricks Karen into fleeing the facility, looming over her in the elevator threateningly as the scene fades to black.

I don't even know how to describe how bad a scene this is.  Just watch it.

There are so many things wrong with it that it's hard to know where to begin.  First of all, this establishes Zeus not as an edgy antihero but as a brutal, revenge-driven character.  Remember that even after Karen's betrayal, Zeus doesn't know the motive for it or how or why it happened.  She literally just stops communicating in the middle of a mission that goes awry.

Furthermore, in previous scenes, Karen was developing (to her, re-developing) an emotional connection with him.  The memories of Alex that Zeus experienced on seeing the photograph of Karen were not nasty or unpleasant, though they may have been confusing.  Zeus doesn't attempt to question Karen, or understand why she made the decision to betray him any more than he asked her why she decided to help him.

By contrast, he does this kind of even questioning with McMullen, when he has every reason to just kill McMullen.  The willingness to ask questions is not a bad thing about Zeus; it shows us that his desire to know and understand people's motivations is important to him (especially since he could simply consume someone and absorb their memories if he wanted to.)  Yet in Karen's final scene this character trait of Zeus is thrown out the window for what is basically a Women in Refrigerators moment...but one that the hero commits rather than the villain!  Zeus metes out the death penalty for something that Karen may have very well been forced into doing at the point of a gun, or had a very good reason to do. 

Indeed, when Zeus realizes that Karen has set him up for capture by a Blackwatch super-soldier, his voiceover, quite properly, sounds disappointed and shocked, not necessarily angry, at Karen.  That's good voice acting (again, shout out to Barry Pepper for his work on the game.)  But a few missions later, Zeus very casually murders her.  This is the moment when I stopped caring about Zeus and whether or not he succeeded or failed.

Is there any question that this scene would have been very different if Karen were a man that had betrayed Zeus?  Hey, we don't actually have to guess at what that scene would be, because the game shows us what it would be.  Remember, McMullen unquestionably betrayed Alex and the confrontation between Zeus and McMullen was an interrogation.  It was rough, Zeus was angry at what McMullen had done, but it revealed both information about the plot and about Zeus' character.  The game reserves the nastiest punishment for an ex-lover.  That is a very, very serious problem.

Okay, am I just critiquing the equivalent of the "dog ending" for Silent Hill?  Is this just a bit of extra fun for people who take the time to grab a lot of collectibles, with no real story significance?  Fine, then, even as a joke this scene doesn't work at all.  Remember, until this moment, Zeus never expresses anything about Karen's betrayal except in that first moment where he's disappointed and shocked.  Basically this joke is "lol Zeus kills her" and by this point in the game your body count is already in the hundreds, so what the hell kind of joke is that?  What is funny about killing Karen Parker when Zeus kills people just by running down the street too fast?  It's not funny - it fails as a joke within the universe of the game just as much as it fails as a scene capping off Parker's (un-explained) betrayal.

Karen Parker is nevertheless a good idea for a character. Let's see if we can't make her an actual character in our reboot.

Breaking Up Is Easy To Do

The main thing we're going to keep from the game's version of Karen Parker is a fact about her that I found very interesting but which nobody in the game commented on or seemed to recognize at all.  Karen broke up with Alex, and, given what kind of person Alex was, this was a very, very good move.  Nobody remarks on or comments on this.  This demonstrates that whatever else we do with Karen, she should have good judgment about people - someone with a highly developed sense of empathy that can throw up red flags when she's being manipulated.  So who is Karen Parker in our reboot?

Karen is one of the most brilliant GenTek researchers in the company, even more talented at genetics and medicine than Alex Mercer.  A child prodigy, her working class parents struggled to give their symphony-composing, math-genius little girl every opportunity to shine, and she always did.  She has also been grateful to them for their hard work, though she is so intellectually advanced that she finds it difficult sometimes to relate to ordinary people.  Certainly she has no real love for "the people" in the way that "Dana Mercer, Journalist!", does.  Because of her amazing mind, she has, for most of her life, lived in sheltered conditions, from private schools to Ivy League colleges.  It was a natural move to the highly over-secured GenTek.  She even found the enclosed and compartmentalized life at GenTek comforting.  She was happy there.

As with many genius scientists in cautionary-tale fiction, Karen lacks an understanding of how her work impacts the world.  Although she focuses on theoretical development and medical applications of the GenTek biotechnology, her research can and has been weaponized for Blackwatch in the past.  She's too smart not to know this, but has uneasily rationalized it as the price she pays for the good she's allowed to do with the virus.

She is probably even indirectly responsible for the (very rare) super-soldiers that we see in the game.  Her cluelessness about the real impact of her work led to Karen becoming the joke of GenTek, something she resented and didn't understand.  Our re-written McMullen might have protected her somewhat (more on McMullen later), but it was Alex Mercer who really saw her potential and pursued her romantically.

Alex recognized that Karen was unbelievably brilliant and that her talents could easily be channeled into success at GenTek.  His romance of her was initially calculated, but he might have had real feelings for her mixed in at some point.  For her part, Karen was swept off her feet.  Alex was handsome, roguish, powerful and more sexually experienced than she was.  But as the affair solidified into a relationship, she began to realize something was wrong with Alex - very wrong.  When he took advantage of her work to advance his own division at GenTek, she saw where things were heading and broke off with Alex.  The epic, childish, destructive tantrum he threw only confirmed her judgment of him.  His revenge - pushing her out of the way and out of several top GenTek projects - also meant she had made the right decision.  When the game opens, Karen has been relegated to simple side projects that are almost pathetic compared to her amazing intellect.  She has been continuing some of her projects outside of work, using a jerry-rigged computer system to run simulations and using her contacts at other companies and university labs to pursue what she could.  Karen also has a growing sense of anger at how she was treated, not just by Alex, but by the rest of GenTek as well.

Karen hears about the crackdown at GenTek and the military attack along with the outbreak on the news.  She's so out of the loop that she doesn't even get a phone call when dudes with machine guns shoot up her workplace.  She doesn't know about Alex's involvement in the attack, or what happens to him.

Blackwatch, always a little more perceptive than GenTek, sees Karen's capture or execution as a high priority, since her intellect, prior access to GenTek secrets and (until now useless, but now potentially problematic) conscience makes her a threat.  Not to mention her connection to Alex.  When Zeus shows up as Alex, seemingly infected, to save her from Blackwatch crackdown, she is grateful for the rescue, but uncertain.  It appears that he's willing to make amends, and Karen's perceptiveness serves her well - she sees Zeus' blank-slate willingness to help rather than Alex's cold calculation.  At first she reacts cautiously, perhaps even with snarky hostility.  After all, their romance ended badly and she made it clear she didn't want anything to do with him.  However, she needs Zeus' protection since Blackwatch is coming to fill her full of lead, the city's on lockdown, and there are monsters everywhere.

Karen Parker in her workspace, courtesy of the Prototype Wiki
For Zeus' part, Karen seems like the only person in Manhattan capable of independently beating the bioterror threat that spreads as the game continues.  Those that know of her genius will think it credible that one Karen Parker working alone could beat GenTek's best teams to a way to slow the spread of the disease(s) or even develop a cure.  The only other one that could do it was Alex Mercer, and his biological genius is dead, the memories and knowledge not transferred to Zeus.

After Elizabeth Greene's release, Parker becomes Greene's worst nightmare.  She is concocting antivirals, sending Zeus out with vaccination sprays, pushing back against the spread of Greene.  Behind Karen's front line, Blackwatch grows stronger - Karen doesn't really understand what that means.  "They'll go away when the threat is gone." she says blithely, not realizing that Zeus is also a part of the threat, as far as Blackwatch is concerned.  A lot of Karen's dialogue is like this.  She has enormous insight into the scientific and pseudo-scientific threats that the diseases pose, tremendous insight into what the people around her intend and feel, but as far as a broader impact to what she's doing, she has no idea. Once she really gets moving on her research, she can even be callous about it.

As the events of the game progress, Karen gives in more and more to her old feelings for Alex.  She isn't really immediately romantically interested in him (the situation is too dire for that), but she softens towards him, shows some affection and at one point may even imply that she's willing to talk things out, or give him another chance: "once all this is over."

But then Zeus does something that Alex did before: take advantage of Karen's work for his own purposes.  Karen gives him a vaccination intending that he take it to a colleague with a special piece of lab equipment so that it can be analyzed and broken down for redistribution.  Instead, Zeus deploys it against an attack by Greene on a civilian shelter controlled by Blackwatch.  The colleague is killed in the meanwhile.  Karen is livid.  Zeus' actions are dangerous and desperate, and have set her understanding back greatly.

The key line in this exchange is this: "I knew you hadn't changed.  I knew it. You're the same as you always were."

That key line emphasizes that Alex didn't used to be like Zeus is now.  Alex used Karen for his own purposes, and she is very sensitive to Zeus doing the same.

Tumblr suggested Uma Thurman to play Karen. Yipes! OK.
This makes Karen's betrayal of Zeus make sense to her character - she now believes Blackwatch when they say Zeus is a threat.  Evil, nasty Alex Mercer now seems to be developing cosmic power on the level of Elizabeth Greene.  She will begin working with Blackwatch willingly, because Zeus turned on her first.   More importantly, this gives her betrayal consequence - Blackwatch soldiers and missions begin to turn up with anti-Zeus weaponry and tactics developed by Parker and they should be devastating, pushing Zeus into the same corner as Greene whenever they are deployed against him.  This way we feel in the action-arena gameplay the weight that Karen used to bring in your favor has now turned against you.

It's totally okay for Karen to betray Zeus - there's nothing wrong with that plot twist, and the action-thriller imagery and music in the game actually make it a pretty good idea. But for it to work, it has to happen for some reason associated with her character, some experience or belief that she has that conflicts with a belief or value that Zeus has.  Karen's caught up in her research and her brilliant plans (they have to be brilliant or else this doesn't work).  It's not a mistake for her to be pissed at Zeus for throwing it away, even though the consequences of him sticking to her plan might be (from his perspective) more horrific.  Most importantly, the betrayal must have a lasting impact on Zeus and on the gameplay. Now instead of being able to deploy her plan, Karen's plans are being deployed against Zeus.  Everything that was going well for us before is now going well for the enemy.

How do we resolve Karen's situation in the end? Perhaps she is rewarded by Blackwatch for her ingenuity and genius with a high-ranking post and she is swept away into a much darker protected place than she has ever worked in before.  Or perhaps after he discovers his true identity, Zeus reconnects with Karen, leaving her confused.  As it turns out, her feelings were not false, but they were for a creature that was not her old boyfriend, and his "lapse" (in her mind) was not a return to old form, but a step taken for his own values and reasons.  Even if we don't alter Prototype to have multiple endings, either of these outcomes leaves Karen and Zeus changed by their relationship, and that's what a story is all about.