Tales of the Navigator
Some of you may have imagined that I came up with Tales of the Navigator whilst sipping a heady cocktail of Grant Morrison and Pete Milligan, but in truth I owe it all to misaligned old-warhorse Chris Claremont.
Back when I was finishing the Strangers off, I'd had the good luck to find an Essentail X-Men second hand containing all the good stuff from the Byrne and Claremont days, including the Dark Phoenix saga. And of course, Jean's heroic death is witnessed by the Watcher and his Recorder - a whining robot who goes on about not understanding human feelings and sort of closes this chapter of the book by doing so. Whining robots have always been a favourite of mine, and so I decided to quickly stick a similar pair into the end of the Strangers to record the momentous events there.
Come to think of it, Ive got more than a few phonetically written accents in there. >Gulp!< Lets move on...
A Navigator, or Navvie, is the name given to the Irish railroad workers who migrated to America and were responsible for laying down much of the network that now criss-crosses that country. Their uniform was moleskin panks and a red kerchief round the neck. This struck me as a good starting point for a character, with a cosmic pick axe to rival Thor's hammer and the mannerisms of Percival towards the end of Boorman's excellent movie Excalibur.
But most importantly, he'd be one of those robots who completely fails to understand human feelings. Adam Zorn is the obvious prototype here, whose personality is heavily based on the satellite era Red Tornado, a character who always bugged me as a kid. When you're an 8 year old boy, you can't think of anything cooler than being a robot, but the ones in comics mostly failed to appreciate their lot.
The Architect's personality was largely based on the Mr Mechanical talking head I used for him - he looked like someone who'd shout all the time.
The original plan
After doing the Strangers, I was planning to start on Strangers 2 almost immediately, and thought I had only a few months before Irrational released FF2, so I dreamed up a small 4 mission bridging mod that would detail a couple of important events. Two missions with the Challengers as the four required characters, two with the four members of NYET, and that's it.
Then things started to get out of hand.
Were the first team I made to play through the original FF campaign. Optical Girl came first as an experiment in alpha maps, a good month before Shirley Manson did exactly the same thing in one of her videos, I might add. Spark and Rocky were recruited later, and though I had the name "Doc Sensation" up my sleeve I couldn't really come up with a good hero file for a stretchy guy at the time. These early characters were much more like the real FF - Spark was a young adult with electrical powers and Rocky was a pure brick.
When I started thinking about the team seriously, a couple of real-life experiences started to shape them.
First, one of my school friends had an annoying younger brother who used to try and hang around with us, and I remembered this story about him moving to London and working at Pizza Hut, where he thought that all the other people at work were picking on him for being the only white guy there. (I always figured it was just because he was irritating.) Spark then became the token white guy on the team, and also a pizza delivery boy to boot. I kind of liked the idea of him as the complete outsider, being the only non-scientist as well without the other's shared history, but they're forced to put up with him because he could be too dangerous without guidance. Around theis time, "JLA: Crisis Times Five" was in my head and I'd discovered that Johnny Thunder's T-Bolt didn't have electrical powers but in fact reality altering powers, so i did the same to the Spark. Except he's too thick to realise this and just manifests electrical/orgone powers.
On to his counterpart. Doc Sensation is based on the first guy I ever worked for in Australia. He was an extremely dour man, and a wet blanket in all aspects of life. Whatever you did was never good enough, and he actually ranted to me once for a good ten minutes about how he didn't really like chocolate much at all, and couldn't see what other people saw in it. So Doc became more and more like this in my head, and one of my favourite characters of all. The fact that he and his brother were of Scottish origin was just there to get the voice right - Scotland really is a sour-faced country sometimes.
And so on. Roddy was then added as the next iritant to this mix - heavily based on "Big Willy" Smith but with a few erectile dysfunction gags thrown in. My girlfriends kids had made me sit through both "Bad Boys" movies and I needed to purge.
Optical girl remained something of a special effect really. Moreso when I added her Daredevil style optical vision power. Personality wise she's just meant to be shy and insecure and I imagine her and Doc don't have a lot of fun together, the poor misunderstood orgone freaks.
It all went wrong with Madame Hydra. I'd designed this character in a sketchbook a while ago, and even started drawing a comic about her pre-FF, but when Beard made his mesh she had to be in. The FF was the first American comic I ever read, aged 8, and this was at the time when Medusa was standing in for Sue during her and Reed's trial separation. So to me she is the fifth member and always will be. And she's hot. Her personality was taken in part from Thundra of the same era...
Men! They're all the same!
I could write pages on Mighty Marvel's ham-fisted attempts at feminism in the 70's, really. Dimly sensing the winds of change in the air at the time, the guys who wrote comics back then churned out a few female knock-offs of some of their more popular characters - She Hulk, Ms Marvel, Spider Woman and so on. In the pages of the Defenders, the Valkyrie was stomping around with goblets on her breasts whilst proclaiming everyone she fought to be a male chauvinist pig, whilst being surreptitiously chatted up by the narrator the whole time, commenting on her graceful lithe body and how she was stronger than she looked. No really, guys, chicks can be superstrong too!
I remember reading an episode of FF at the age of 9 or 10 where Thundra gets kidnapped by the evil sloped-browed muscle-man called Makhizmo who's ruling her home dimension/planet/whatever of feisty amazons. (For those who don't know, Thundra was a member of the Frightful Four, a superstrong amazon who had inhibitions about hitting men because they were the weaker sex, unless it came to the Thing.)
So, yeah. That explains Hydra's attitude to men. Her homeland incidentally, was accessed via a dimensional nexus in South America, and populated entirely by orgone mutates like herself, who bathed in naturally occurring orgone mists that seep out of the ground. Another of the Architects mistakes I suppose.
Finally, I just want to share a line I always wanted to write. A female space bee queen or something saying "Men! They're all the same!" whilst surounded by an army of her cloned warriors, who are actually all the same...
Back on topic..
The problem this introduced was that I now had a team with 5 members- the absolutely worst combination when you're writing for a game where the player chooses up to 4 squad members for each mission. To do this, I had to split the Challengers missions up to introduce the team properly, so I was now at five missions.
So, NYET. They're being lead by Ilya Kuryakin from "The Man from UNCLE", and their missions feature the theme music of that show.
They originally appeared in FFX as example characters, but were streamlined for the mod to actually have properly conceptualised powers and back stories.
Samovar is intended to come across as Brian Blessed, the English shouty character actor. When Brian Blessed roars with laughter and goes cross-eyed whilst slapping someone too hard on the back, that's Samovar.
I first came across Baba Yaga in some D&D manuals (a couple of unique magical items were her's I think) but researched her a bit on the web and really liked what I saw. She stands out in the Navigator story as being the only one who had any real clue as to what was happening. The framing device of her in the woods as the first and final cutscene is pure 50's horror, taken from EC's Tales of the Crypt and so on. There is in fact a movie that starts with the words "Stop! Don't watch this movie!" according to a book on world horror movie industries that I own. I knew I was playing to an established fan-base and that no-one would stop playing the game straight away, but the point here is that if you were an inhabitant of the Stranger's Universe, an played the mod, you'd be horrified at what you saw.
Who is the Great Architect?
Imagine just for a moment that you met God, and he came across as a complete idiot who didn't know what he was doing. That was the sort of existential horror I was aiming at. The Architect talks big, but everything he's ever done has gone wrong in some way.
The early experiments with G.A.M.M.A. are referred to a couple of times. A world with limited superpower availability, with the Greater American Muscle Man Army composed of Hardhat (a construction worker?), Big Chief Two Bears (an American Indian) and Disco Hercules (a guy in a faggy leatherman costume perhaps?). Yep, they're the Village People! There was going to be a line referring back to this in Strangers 2, where the Navigator wakes up in the Spider and Fly's Cave being tended to by the Hunk robots, who at this point would be dressing like the Village People. If I could fins a male hulking feather headdress mesh that is... (Oh yeah, and the tarts would be Spice Girls called Posh Tart, Scary Tart and so on)
I think it was Jerry Seinfeld who pointed out that everything that men ever do, like building bridges or giant cities, is done to impress women. So, the Architect had been creating universes to try and impress the object of his affections, The Beautician of the Fundamentals. The whole Fundamentals idea is like Plato's universe of ideals, a higher order of reality where abstract ideas are given form, but I think I explained that enough in game. The Watchmaker is obviously designed to resonate with the whole "watchmaker" argument for the existence of God, but then talks like Reeves and Mortimers' impersonation of Radio 1 DJ Dave Lee Travis.
Navigator is also metafiction. As the "architect" of FFX, I found that the more options I put in, the more bugs I generated. There are always combinations that I haven't tested (eg a shapeshifter with a heavy footed alternate form) that lead to trouble, either from a game balance perspective or at worse crashing the entire scripting system. Sometimes, the print statements that i put into the code to debug it are the ones that cause the crash. So, in superhero terms, what if the builder of universes put in a failsafe bug-tracking system into his universe that ends up having the unforseen consequence of locking him out and destroying the universe? That was the premise for the whole mod, really. It aimed to show the escalation of any superhero universe - it starts off with a few people with relatively simple gifts fighting criminals with guns (Mission 2), leads to the more "sophisticated" and potentially dangerous world of the Challengers, where we already have kids controlling the fabric of reality (The Spark), and finally to the over-ripe future world of the HIVE, where the universe comes under threat about once a week. And metapowers exist. This is the old - "What if Rogue absorbed Nemesis Kid and Madrox's powers and then tried to fight herself?" question that plagues superhero science when you introduce meta-powers, ie powers that change what powers you have.
Dorky insect superheroes
Somwhere round about this point I added the HIVE in. I dunno, I just loved them so much from their brief appearances in Strangers.
When I was 13 and playing the pen and paper RPG Villains and Vigilantes, I could imagine nothing worse than rolling up a character and getting "Animal Powers - Insect" rather than some cool proper powers like Invulnerbaility, Teleportation or Energy Blasts. To me, insect based heroes are the bottom of the ladder, only now I kind of like them for it. They're not the cool guys, they often look funny and have to jump around like bugs with their knees bent up to their chest instead of just standing there and taking a licking off their steel hard skin. Girls aren't usually attracted to them, either. The joke is of course, that somehow in the deep past, Biff Bateman and Marla Manners inspire a universe-spanning police force who take on their codename and fashion sense, to the point where all superheroes are insect themed in the future.
On that note - did anyone ever notice that the Strangers HIVE unit looks like the Spider, but the future HIVE units all have the Alchemiss head?
In a nutshell, the Queen of Hearts managed to upload her consciousness into the HIVE computers before the Connection killed her. It takes her 7 years to reform it hopping from machine to machine over the net, and this all comes to a head in Strangers 2. The Fly eventually defeats her simply by pointing out that she may as well join them. She'll be alive for ever, there's no point in robbing banks anymore if she controls every cash machine on Earth, and well, how about it? So she does, and becomes the central HIVE network which coordinates the intergalactic police force 25000 years later. I had all this worked out back when Droso and Arachniss first appeared int he Strangers.
A Legion of Dorky Insect Superheroes!
Navigator can be seen in some ways as me regurgitating all my early comic reading history through the distorted perceptions of a kid. I still enjoy comics, but the distorted perceptions of them back in childhood are quite amazing when I think back, particularly when I re-read old reprints and compare them to my memories.
My first brush with DC was the Legion of Superheroes - a team with not one gimmick but many. They were all teenagers. They lived in the future. They each had only one power as originally envisaged. The Legion in the 70's was pretty good actually, this was before Giffen's involvement even. A huge cast, to the point where it took me over a year to be able to name all the members in the groupshot ad, and identify all the couples. Enough of them had distinctive personalities to make them interesting reading. And some cracking stories - when Braniac 5 quietly flipped and made acreature capable of destroying the Legion I was spellbound - the story featured this Omega creature walking across space decimating Legionnaires as it heads towards their base, to eventually be taken apart calmly by Braniac 5 himself. This story probably had a lot of influence on the final Connection battle in the Strangers come to think of it.
But when I started digging back into the earlier stuff I was amazed with what I found - really creaky old stories that often made no sense whatsoever.
Character designs that I could pillage and make my own twisted variants of.
The Fatal Five always seemed to be referred to as the Legion's greatest enemies, and I eagerly awaited their appearance to be confronted with, um, well...
A guy who's literally half robot, as in half down the middle? Why not go one up and divide him vertically, so just his legs are human. And so I did.
Other comments on my villains: The Black Hand Gang is meant to sound sort of crappy low rent evil, a bit like the Fatal Five. Red Admiral is a type of butterfly, as is Cabbage White. Scorpio was the most interesting of the bunch to me. I had intended on writing a death cutscene for him in mission 8. To recap, he's one of those people who loves nothing more than entertaining others, like an amateur dramatics enthusiast, but he wasn't very good. So he made a deal with Abraxas to get real magical powers, and got the undesirable death touch. He now works for Abraxas collecting souls in return for more powers, but always gets gipped and receives the wrong ones. Anyway, my intention was to show him getting up out of his body in the deserted Orbus Terminus after the Catastrophe Bug killed him, and not realising that he was dead. Abraxas appears and tells him he's done very well, and one more soul is all he needs off Scorpio to complete the contract. That soul of course, is his own, but he walsk off blissfully unaware of whats happened.
Back to the Legion ripoffs - Gark the Cyclops is a thinly veiled Tariq the Mute. The same basic distrust of human nature - if someone gets slightly disabled they're going to turn into a homicidal maniac and be obsessed with revenge. I did like the idea of a "seeing eye robot" that always peers over his shoulder and irritates him into madness.
Of my own character designs: Battle Butterfly was a custom I used to test the Strangers. Lord Aeromantula obviously has strong links to King Zero, being a future Antartican soldier. I also wanted to give him superbreath because its somehow Superman's naffest power. I don't know why, but heat vision is somehow much cooler. Even though superbreath would actually be more useful in real life...
Variable Bug is obviously a riff on Ultra Boy. He was one of those comic characters who has to explain his powers every time he does anything because they're so wierd. So instead of "I only have one superpower at a time" I made a "I only have two superpowers at a time". He's also important in that he's the famous dead HIVE member. By the time I started buying the Legion, four members were dead (Invisible Kid, Chemical king, Ferro Lad and someone else...). And of course, his mantle lives on when a new Variable Bug steps up to the plate. And he served as a perfect case of the classic Legion origin story - "Everyone on my planet has these powers". To have a guy with powers that can do anything unpredictably, and then make a whole planet full of them, is shoddy beyond belief for an Architect.
Ego Grub remains a favourite of mine. I always felt that Braniac 5 was designed to appeal to the nerdy, bookish comic readers and made them feel better about themselves (I know it worked for me) but imagine if that attempt went completely wrong and you misguidedly produced a sickeneing little nerd like Ego grub, who hopefully no-one could look up to. Braniac always had this "after all, I do have 12th level intelligence" kind of attitude, so I translated that into an IQ of 451, which sounds even more pathetically braggy.
Droso and Arachniss' presence helps underpin the idea that superheroes aren't what they used to be by now - anyone can get into the once exclusive club, even if they don't act heroic.
The reality TV show aspect of the mod was great - in that I invited people to submit their bug-hero avatars and a good few made it in. I loved working with them and it's probably my fondest memory of my time at Freedom Reborn. I echoed this in Arachniss' introduction to the HIVE missions, where she's obsessing over a reality TV show star.
The Man Himself
The mission where you get to play the Navigator himself is my biggest technical achievement in FF. Ever.
But the story behind that mission has a few points to it.
Its probably not clear, but this is what happens: The Naviagtor follows a scintilla colony from the future down the HIVE's time tube. During its travels the colony grows and forms into a composite creature - the Glorious Shining Engine. The Navigator gives it a few good whacks and shatters it before they all land in 1963. However, its orgone cells are now volatile and ready to explode. The teleporter in the middle is rotating randomly through time and space, so the eggs actually get dropped off in the following places:
Off the coast of Sweden 2000 years, where the fragments are found by the blond fishermen who live there. These "shaping stone" remnants mutate the fishermen and adapt them to aquatic life, giving birth to Atlantis and Anemone's people.
About 150 years ago in Antartica. This fragment ends up latching on to the thoughts of a dying man far from home, who dreams of a meta-England that is rigid, unbending and forever England. Thus retro-actively creating an Antartican civilisation where men are men, women don't understand the offside rule, and any demon who wanders in gets it right between the bloody eyes! That dying man is of course, Albert Chislington, later to become King Zero.
The third creates Madame Hydra's people.
So, the Navigator is much more responsible for the chaotic universe than is ever really let on. If he hadn't whacked the Glorious Shining Engine, there would be no Atlantis or Antartica to evolve over the years and add to the superhuman population. Originally, his little transgressions like helping the Spark in the Negasus mission were supposed to help weaken spacetime, but I couldn't really come up with a good way of explaining that.
The HIVE are also responsible. The scintilla didn't have enough time to evolve to sentience in the lifetime of the universe, but the tunnel backwards allows them to loop over time again and again and do so.
Anyway - I always wanted the moment when the Naviagtor's logo comes up to be a big moment. Like saying - he's finally in the game! Its real! But, I couldn't be bothered making logos for everyone in the HIVE, so it lost a bit of impact there.
The finale to this level, where he leads the Engine off the end of the universe, is a direct rip-off of the climatic battle between the Fury and Mad Jim Jaspers in Alan Moore's Captain Britain. But man, it worked!
The end cutscene, where the Navigator gets stripped of his powers and thrown through the Fundamental Wall remains one of my favourites to date. It was an absolute pain to orchestrate, with the hexed giant figures and everything, but worth every minute for the impact it had on me when I saw it for the first time in its entirety.
And theres more..
Some other random notes.
Uncle Herb grew to epic proportions in my mind. This was the Spark's uncle who ran the pizza place - I imagined Rodney Dangerfield in shorts and a stripey shirt dishing out his ill-conceived advice and really winding Doc Sensation up. The phone call between him and Doc in one cutscene is obviously homage to Willie Lumpkin, the Fantastic Four's postman. He says that they should let him on the team because he can wiggle his ears, and its just a lovable little moment of the FF looking down on him because he's old and has a menial boring job unlike their mega-rich glamour lifestyle. So in my version, this is a joke that Uncle Herb comes out with every time, and Doc gets angrier every time he hears it because he has absolutley no sense of humour.
The missing element gag. At the end of the Catastrophe Bug level, Headmistress wants to join the team. (Everyone looks down on her because she doesn't have a proper costume and doesn't have an insect name - that did get in). Originally Droso was going to tell her that she could join if she discovered a new chemical element - this of course was one of the entrance qualifications that MonEl had to pass to join the Legion. (And he did - I think Element 152 that powers the flight rings). What a crock of shit! Each of the 20 or so Legionnaires at that point had discovered a new element had they, eh? Anyway, this hilarious dig at some 40 year old comics got cut in favour of dialog that advanced the story in the end.
Samovar is Ace's grandfather. There's a few references to the fact that Samovar is a) very randy, b) went to Italy at some point. So the skin colour and powers similarity between him and the King of Clubs is probably more than coincidental.
Demian Triumph: One of my older characters, he gets referred to in her a fair bit, and would have appeared in Strangers 2. Demian = devil/doom, triumph = victor, Victor von Doom? Triumph is basically a reverse-Doom, a sophisticated but insane Viennese "art criminal" who has a peculiar mutation in that anyone who sees his naked face fall permanently in love with him. He typically wears a cloak, big puffy white shirt (or no shirt sometimes) leather pants and a carnevale mask, which he removes to use his powers.
You can imagine the rivalry between this effette illogical pansy and Doc Sensation. He was slated to appear in Strangers 2 for the "96% Love" arc.
Triumph is currently incurable insane after kidnapping Optical Girl - he tried to force her into marrying him, but she tricked him into seeing his own face in a mirror. He is now therefore permanently in love with himself, and any idea that pops into his head seems like the coolest idea ever.
The microwaves in the NYET mission are meant to be Microwave Robots from the neighbouring FF universe. Another omen that things are wrong when universes start rubbing together and characters fall through from one to another. I guess this culminates in the presence of some Marvel and DC props at the end - some naughty people must have been making mods about copyrighted characters, and some of the objects leaked through the membrane into the Stranger Than Fiction universe!