The Sci-Fantasy World of Bungie’s “Destiny”

Oh, science fiction. It’s my favorite genre, and I’m always intrigued by a new sci-fi IP. That’s why I’ve been so excited about Bungie’s new game Destiny for a very long time now. This past weekend, Stephen Rhodes was kind enough to hook me up with an extra beta code so I could give it a try, which totally made my day!

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So far, playing Destiny feels a lot like living in a crazy dystopian Star Wars-type of universe where I get to be a robot. It’s kind of perfect, but it brings to mind something I’ve talked about here on Robo♥beat before: the science fantasy genre, for which I am also a sucker.

As much as I love science fiction — pure, hard sci-fi — I often find it to be either too cold/scientific or a terrifying post-apocalyptic wreck. Neither of those feels very inviting to me. I prefer the warmth of worlds like Mass Effect, Borderlands, and Firefly. Sometimes they’re sleek, other times they’re dirty or quirky, but what they have in common is a big focus on rich lore and the “people” side of what makes the fictional universe ticks. That’s what I care about.

So far, Destiny has very little character development — yet it still manages to feel inviting. There’s a warmth to the world that goes beyond the MMO-style play. If I had to compare it to just one other world, I would say Destiny reminds me most of Star Wars, and to me, Star Wars isn’t pure science fiction — it’s science fantasy. I believe Destiny is, too, and that’s a big part of what makes its worldbuilding feel so different than that of other sci-fi shooters.

The Traveler

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First off, there’s a massive sphere in the sky called the Traveler. At first glance, it looks like a small planet, but it’s actually the size of a city. Its appearance over Mars sparked a Golden Age for humanity, as the Traveler was able to terraform planets like Mercury, Venus, and Mars. This allowed humanity to expand across the solar system for the first time.

The creators of Destiny at Bungie call the Traveler an “ancient artifact.” I think they chose the right name for it. Calling it “the Traveler” feels comfortable, albeit mysterious and powerful and possibly very old. This is not (just) a cold piece of technology or an alien sphere from a distant solar system — this is something people welcome.

But how does the Traveler work? If we had some explanation for how it terraforms planets, we would have science fiction on ours hands. But the Traveler’s technology is a mystery. Its origins are a mystery, too. Nobody knows its reason for existing or for helping humans colonize the solar system.

Interestingly, Bungie’s developers held a panel at the 2013 Game Developers Conference to talk about Destiny’s worldbuilding, and in it, they said the Traveler is supposed to be mysterious. They want players to use their imaginations to fill in the blanks about what the sphere is, and I believe that’s true for the people within this fictional world, too. The mystery of the Traveler’s origins and motivations has led people in this world to concoct all kinds of theories. Maybe the Traveler is an ancient machine, a sentient alien, or a god — all things the people in the world of Destiny imagine. This type of speculation grants the Traveler an arcane quality.

Space Wizards

The Guardians make things even more interesting.

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Apparently, The Traveler has an enemy known as the Darkness, which has destroyed everything except one single city on Earth. The Traveler sacrificed itself to protect this city, which is now humanity’s last safe haven. Yet the Traveler still sits in the sky above the city, granting energy to the Guardians who protect it. The Guardians use this energy to unleash special powers. (It reminds me of the “magic” of the Force in Star Wars.) The character class that can do this is known as the Warlock class — and if you set aside the Traveler for a minute, what you really have here is a space wizard.

Sure, Mass Effect has its biotic powers, but these are explained in a scientific way. Whether or not that explanation is plausible is unimportant here — at least you have the attempt at science. In Destiny, you have something much more enigmatic, because the powers are not immediately justified by reason.

Maybe the game will unveil how the technology works that allows Warlocks to brandish their unlikely abilities. In the meantime, all of this feels like magic to me. That’s part of the fun of this world.

The Inspiration Behind Destiny

In their GDC talk, Bungie’s developers talked about how they built the world of Destiny to feel “hopeful and inviting,” so people would want to spend time there. That hits the mark for me exactly. It’s why I’m personally not a big fan of zombies or post-apocalyptic worlds that are too dark. I know those can be fascinating, but I prefer them in TV shows and movies more than video games — because frankly, I don’t want to spend a lot of time in them.

Mystery and adventure were also important pillars for Destiny’s developers. And after working on Halo, one of their first inspirations was something totally different: fantasy. They liked the idea of monsters and heroes, ancient ruins, rich history, and an emphasis on exploration. But they couldn’t shake their love of science fiction, either — which is why they ended up blending the two genres to create something unique.

That’s why Destiny has heroes who wear cloaks and fly spaceships. You have tombs filled with loot, but you also have advanced technology and weaponry. The Awoken race is partly inspired by vampires and elves, while the Exo race is a robotic species.

As the Bungie team conceptualized, this was the image that hit the mark for them:

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That white space tiger gave Destiny its original code name “Tiger.”

Another thing that gives Destiny the warmth of fantasy is the personal spaceship. Very early on in the game, you get access to a personal jumpship that you can upgrade and fly around as you explore. This gives players incredible freedom.  Bungie’s developers say these personal spaceships are the equivalent of horses in fantasy.

Destiny ship

The Bungie devs talk a lot about how arbitrary genre rules are, and that art can lead the way to a more unique and flexible worldbuilding. An example is souls visibly leaving the bodies of the Fallen when they’re killed — something that cropped up in the artwork for Destiny. Although the devs toyed with the idea of explaining this in a scientific way, in the end, they left the explanation as souls being ripped out of bodies. It might be mystical or magical or unscientific, but it feels right in this world.

That’s the key to good science fantasy, really. You don’t have to explain everything from a technological or evolutionary standpoint, but it has to feel like it belongs. For me, Destiny‘s world feels very true and inviting, even if much of it remains a mystery.

– Ashley

Assassin’s Creed: The Fun of Easy Games

I have to say that there’s something special about Assassin’s Creed games.

The first things that drew me to them were the historical settings. As a former history major, I’m always on the lookout for games set in past time periods — but they’re few and far between. Assassin’s Creed games piqued my interest for making the past seem like an exciting place to be, and they do a riveting job of transporting players to another time and place. Sure, they may make history a little too glossy and over-the-top, but I still love the vintage feel of their escapism.

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However, playing Black Flag recently, I realized there’s something else I love about Assassin’s Creed games: They’re easy. It’s hard to go wrong with these games. Occasionally I’ve failed a mission because I wasn’t paying attention or didn’t manage to distract that one last guard, but it doesn’t feel punishing to try again. And if my protagonist is trying to be stealthy but instead attracts the attention of a dozen armed guards, I rarely sweat over it. As they attack me — often one at a time — I just time my counters with care and then flip them onto the ground or fire a quick gunshot to finish them off. It’s no big deal.

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Black Flag also features the good old naval combat. Sometimes you’re just steering the ship. It’s really beautiful and relaxing when you’re in the middle of the ocean, with nothing in sight except maybe a picturesque little island off in the distance. It captures a feeling rarely found in action-packed video games: the bliss of a quiet day. Other times, you’re carefully maneuvering the hefty ship around obstacles or navigating through a storm, but these are often slow-paced sorts of challenges. And other times times, you’re caught in the midst of a major naval firefight, cannons smoking. But it’s not complicated. It’s a breeze. There are very few buttons to remember, and the pace is comfortable enough to give you a little time to set up your shots across the water. Maybe it will get more challenging later in the game, but so far, I’ve loved the excitement of the atmosphere without the stress of the protagonist’s imminent demise.

assflagIt’s refreshing to play a video game that just lets me play. I don’t always have to prove that I’m skilled at everything it throws at me; Black Flag is more about having fun. In Assassin’s Creed, the stories are never very realistic, and neither is the action — but that’s the beauty of the franchise. These games ask their players to dive into this glamorous recreation of the past and make it their playground. And because the combat is so easy, everybody feels like the coolest kid there. It actually helps with the immersion, in my opinion. I’m not thinking about myself as a video game player — “I didn’t press the button fast enough!” “Oh no, not another super hard stealth mission!” — I’m just running around a coastal town, recruiting aspiring young pirates and dropping into haystacks sometimes.

Not everyone is as enamored with how easy Assassin’s Creed games are. Kirk Hamilton’s 2011 Kotaku article gives an argument that it’s a little boring to be so invincible, especially if you compare it to games that are refreshingly challenging, like The Witcher 2.

But does every game need to be challenging? Stealth games can be particularly punishing, and that’s why I often get too frustrated and fed up to finish them. I believe Assassin’s Creed does a great job of encouraging stealth by setting up missions for them. For instance, there might be a cluster of guards in one area and a clear shrubbery-lined path to the next set — so you know exactly who you should take down first and where to go next. Maybe it’s a little bit of hand holding, but I don’t mind in this case. And while it’s sometimes bad to get caught, a lot of times it doesn’t matter; you’ve got your sword and pistol ready for those moments. I appreciate that lack of punishment. Assassin’s Creed is nice to me. It feels friendly.

I haven’t played all of the games in the series, so I’m sure some feature more difficult combat than others. I do remember that one of the first PC games I bought was the first Assassin’s Creed, and it was challenging to use the keyboard for all of the maneuvers. I was just getting used to PC gaming; I’d probably do better now. But a shooter would have been a much more natural introduction to the mouse-and-keyboard style!

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In any case, playing Black Flag lately, I’m happy to be playing a game that lets me just shut off after work. It also lets me take my time waking up on the weekends, when I don’t feel like being conscious quite yet. Black Flag just ushers me through a gorgeous, cinematic experience and lets me have fun.

– Ashley

 

Time to Play Catch Up!

Lately, I have been playing catch up on my hobbies — mostly playing video games, reading, and watching my favorite TV shows. It’s been a crazy year for me so far, with issues like lack of internet, commitments every weekend, and a little bit of sad stuff happening that made me stop pursuing some of my own personal hobbies. Blogging is a big one there. I have no real excuse, but I am sorry for my long absence from Robo♥beat! I’m happy to be back (with internet!) and to have the opportunity to catch up with everybody here on all the things we’ve been doing the past couple of months. =)

What I’ve Been Playing

Black Flag's combat at sea is easy and fun.

Black Flag’s combat at sea is a refreshing feature for Assassin’s Creed.

Video games, I have missed you! The past few weeks, I have dedicated most of my gaming time to Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. I expected it to be fun, because I already enjoy the franchise… but it has exceeded my expectations so far. It’s popcorn gaming at its best: gorgeous scenery, a cool character, and a combat system that asks for just a tiny bit of strategy without ever being punishing. Plus, it’s got pirates.

I’m also slowly but surely playing through some old favorites, like the entire Mass Effect and Dragon Age series, as well as Skyrim. And last weekend, I picked up Borderlands 2 for my Vita, because frankly I don’t have many Vita games and felt that was the perfect one to try. I decided to play as Axton this time around, and I’m actually liking his combat more than I liked Zer0’s! Although I had major issues with the rear touch pad on Vita — like accidentally hitting it with my fingers and throwing grenades at inopportune moments — an update has just been released that should improve that. Borderlands-2-PS-Vita This morning, I also played the latest chapter of The Wolf Among Us by Telltale Games. It is a very solid installment, with less agency than usual but a lot of plot progression. I also loved that the achievement titles for this one told the story of a wolf who tried to fix his old bad ways, which sums up the story of the protagonist Bigby Wolf, however you play him. I intended to make him a hardass, but in this episode, I couldn’t help but play him as a softie. Having learned so much about these characters, I wanted to go easy on everybody — even Mr. Toad, to whom Bigby always gave a hard time in past episodes.

What I’ve Been Watching

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Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones and Continuum have been my go-to shows the past two months. I haven’t had time to watch much else, but with Game of Thrones’ best season (seriously, the best) over as of last weekend, it’s time for me to find a new science fiction or fantasy show to fill the void! As for Continuum, my love of the show continues, but it’s not quite as strong as it was in previous seasons. It has taken some rather dramatic and convoluted turns, which was what I worried about when I started watching the show. I mean, it’s hard not to get convoluted when you’re talking about time travel, but Continuum always surprised me with its refreshing clarity. However, this season the show has introduced a secret society, multiple timelines, and a new time traveler. It’s not that all of that is bad… it’s just a lot to take in. And perhaps my biggest issue is that one of the show’s main characters, Alec — easily the most grounded in the bunch — has made questionable decisions and really ruined his friendship with the protagonist Kiera. It’s interesting character development for him, but I really hope we see more of the “good” Alec soon. I miss that guy.

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Continuum

On the plus side, Continuum has lately had some great flashback sequences (and even episodes) that provide insight into Kiera’s history as well as one of the antagonist’s, Sonya Valentine. Those are my favorite episodes.

What I’ve Been Reading

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Grimspace

My reading habit has been very hot and cold lately — but hot for the past couple of weeks. I’m finishing up the Sirantha Jax Grimspace series by Ann Aguirre, which I absolutely love. It gets better as the series goes on; the prose softens into a comfortable fit for the brash person Jax is, the worldbuilding deepens, and one of the alien characters (Velith) becomes so well-developed, I believe he feels more real than any of the human characters in the books. If you like a light science fiction read that’s very character-driven, I highly recommend the series. I’ve also been reading a great pick from fellow blogger C. T. Murphy. It’s called The Stars My Destination, written by Alfred Bester, and already talked about here on Robo♥beat in C. T. Murphy’s guest post earlier this year. I won’t give away my thoughts yet, because I’ll be reviewing it here soon! =) — Ashley

Do You Read All the Codex Entries in Games?

This month I started a new playthrough of one of my favorite video games of all time, Dragon Age: Origins. But as seems to happen every year that I replay it, I forgot just how much reading there is to do while you play. Because it’s a role-playing game with all kinds of lore and history, it has loads of codex entries on everything from mabari war hounds to the history of the Circle of Magi.

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Codexing in Dragon Age: Origins 

And the thing is, I didn’t read all of them the first time I played the game, because each playthrough brings new entries. For instance, this year I’m playing the dwarf noble origin story for the first time (out of six different origin stories in the game), which means I have pages of information about dwarven politics, my character’s noble family, the dwarven caste system, the city of Orzammar, and how the dwarves revere exemplary ancestors almost as gods. I never needed to know all of this when I was playing a human mage or elven commoner, but now it’s relevant to my character who has grown up in this culture.

I know a lot of people play video games without ever reading  the codex entries. I’ll admit I used to skip or skim most of them, too. When you just finished battling monsters, it feels so unnatural to stop everything, open up your journal, and read. And it doesn’t help that even the most entertaining codex entries tend to read like history textbooks.

I always found it much more engaging to pick up information from in-game dialogue. All that fact-dropping can make the dialogue sound a little stilted, but it’s a more interactive learning experience. The auditory aspect helps me remember things, too — and there’s the added bonus that you can’t skim, so the information sticks better.

However, for most games that feature epic worldbuilding, there’s just too much information to drop into dialogue. That’s why I can’t see codex entries going away any time soon. And they shouldn’t. After all, reading them is always optional… so they’re really there for the fulfillment of major fans.

Slowing down and savoring all the little tidbits of information that make the fictional world I’m in feel so rich and realistic can be truly rewarding. It takes some patience — even for me, someone who loves to read and plays RPGs for their stories first and foremost — but I’ve come to love those codex entries a whole lot.

– Ashley

“The Wolf Among Us” Review — A Crooked Mile (episode 3)

Ashley Hagood:

My review of the latest episode of The Wolf Among Us for Geek Force Network. I played it, I wrote the review, and I published the review all in the same morning because “A Crooked Mile” is just so intense!ep_3_bigby

Originally posted on Geek Force Network:

So this morning I played the third episode of Telltale Games’ The Wolf Among Us, and I’m still recovering. It is by far the best episode of the series yet. Proceed with caution, though — it’s hard to talk about this series without giving away spoilers!

The first episode, “Faith,” has Fabletown Sheriff Bigby Wolf (a.k.a. The Big Bad Wolf of fairytales) joining up with Snow White to investigate the murder of a call girl. It’s a point-and-click mystery adventure, which I reviewed on my blog here. The first episode leaves you with a cliffhanger, and I couldn’t wait for the second episode to begin.

However, after playing the second episode, “Smoke and Mirrors,” I just couldn’t find the inspiration to write a review of it. After how much the first episode sparks, “Smoke and Mirrors” just felt lacklustre to me. The story in episode…

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Continuum: “Minute by Minute” Review (S3, E1)

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Kiera Cameron.

This post is for my fellow Continuum fans! The Syfy show is back, and I feel like I’ve aged 100 years waiting for season three because I love the show so much. So of course I have to review the first episode and talk about what the new season might have in store for us…

Now, before I get into this, please be aware that we are definitely spiraling into die-hard territory, where you better not plunge unless you’ve watched the show from the beginning. It’s not confusing — it’s just extremely complicated, and it’s worth seeing how everything evolves to this point. I won’t recap all of it here. Skip reading this post if you are going to watch it, or at the very least, perhaps skim my summary of the first seasons here.

If we really break down the season 3 premiere “Minute by Minute,” there are two big storylines. The episode switches back and forth between them, but I’m going to separate them here for clarity…

Alec’s Story

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Alec using the time travel device = bright explosions!

We pick up right where we left off, with Alec Sadler using the time travel device to travel back in time and save his girlfriend, Emily, from dying. He goes back one week — but within a few minutes of arriving, he sees himself walking with Emily and realizes there are now two of him.

Jason shows up and agrees to help him in his quest to save Emily, but he leaves when Emily shows up and Alec promptly begins making out with her. Alec invites her to go to Thailand with him, apparently figuring that getting her far away from Vancouver will keep her safe from the bullet that would have killed her, you know, a week from now. Of course she wants to go.

Alec has arrangements to make. He goes back to the lab, where he runs into Kellog and talks about all these things that are going to happen. Of course, he doesn’t tell Kellog he’s from the future, but his attitude and knowledge surprise Kellog. This inspires Kellogg to go talk to Escher. It’s the same art gallery scene we saw last season, but this time, after the conversation is over, someone shoots Escher with a silenced gun, clearly on Kellog’s orders. The shooter is Emily.

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Emily shoots Escher.

Alec also stops by the police station to give Kiera and her (cop) partner, Carlos, some intel. But later, when he’s back at the lab later getting his passport and stuff together, he spots Kiera Cameron, dead on the lab floor with a bullet in her forehead. Alec is upset, blaming his time travel for what happened to her. But…

Kiera’s Story

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When Kiera goes back in time a week, she frees Garza.

Okay, snap back to the beginning of all this. Remember at the end of last season, when the Freelancers had Kiera locked in a cube with a bunch of other time travelers from Liber8? That’s where we pick up with her.

Kiera is taken to meet the head Freelancer, Catherine, who says that the Freelancers are not actually time travelers themselves. Apparently, the discovery of time travel in 2077 inspired all kinds of people to travel back in time for selfish reasons, and it wasn’t good. In fact, a war began 100 years after Kiera was born. Eventually, laws were enacted to prohibit time travel, but one man went back in time 1,000 years to start an organization of people dedicated to keeping the timeline intact. That’s who the Freelancers are. Kiera likens them to a cult.

But what really freaks Kiera out is that there’s someone there she recognizes: Curtis Chen, a member of Liber8 who was killed by Kiera’s own gun when he shot it and it backfired on him. Now he’s alive and well — and a Freelancer. None of this is explained (yet…).

Catherine wants Kiera to go back in time one week and stop this whole Alec mess. By going back in time, Alec has started a new branch of the timeline, which essentially means that the Alec that’s supposed to exist — the one who creates SadTech Industries and all that — isn’t there anymore. He’s left the current timeline, and now there are two of him in a new branch of the timeline that he has sprouted. And who knows what this new branch of the timeline is going to bring about.

At first, Kiera doesn’t want to help the Freelancers. On her way back to her cube, she encounters Garza, and together they knock out the guards and try to escape. Along the way, Garza is shot while distracting the guards for Kiera. And then Kiera is caught again.

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I just love Garza’s face here.

But seriously, this whole sequence was one of my favorite parts, even though it’s basically just the two of them running around damp corridors for 10 minutes. I love it because they’re two women in slightly baggy men’s suits they stole from the guards, and the fight sequences are the best. I forgot how much hand-to-hand combat Continuum shows off; it’s really well-choreographed, and those scenes are surprisingly long.

After being captured again, Kiera agrees to help the Freelancers. Catherine insists that they want the same things, after all: They both want to keep the timeline pure, with no glitches that could change history. For Kiera, this is because she wants the future to remain the same, so her husband and son will be waiting for her when she gets back to 2077. (If she gets back to 2077…)

And so Kiera hops in the Freelancers’ rusty old time travel chair and heads back in time one week. When Catherine and Curtis meet her here, Catherine says something along the lines of, “Have we met?” and Kiera shows off the new tattoos between her fingers that prove she is now a Freelancer. (Apparently those tattoos are codes that Freelancers can scan for authorization, so they recognize each other as legitimate.)

Kiera explains to Catherine why she’s here: There are two Alec Sadlers in this timeline, and it’s now her job to figure out which one of them will bring about the future that she and the Freelancers want. It’s implied that the other Alec will have to die. (And how do you tell the two Alecs apart? Just before traveling back in time, our Alec got grazed by a bullet on the side of his forehead. Great idea.)

And then we have Kiera showing up at the lab where Alec is hovering over dead Kiera — but that’s just dead Kiera from the past. It’s not completely clear what happened to past-Kiera, but this means there’s only one of her to deal with. However, it does bring up questions about who killed her and why…

In any case, it’s intense, guys.

Thoughts. . .

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The time travel device!

I was really impressed by this episode. Although there are still a few questions to resolve this season, so far things are pretty clear. The story may seem confusing if you haven’t been following along (and I had to refresh myself on what happened by reading old posts and forum threads about the show), but already season 3 is setting up a pretty tight story. Kiera has to kill one of the Alecs. That seems to be the major thread — though there are surely going to be lots of other subplots and crazy things happening along the way.

The only slightly silly thing about the episode is how much explaining there is. Catherine goes into great detail about who the Freelancers are, and then Kiera goes into great detail about why she went back in time a week and what her purpose is in chasing down Alec. I mean, I get that you need some explanation when the story is so complex, but it feels a little heavy sometimes — like it’s not what the characters would really say, it’s just dialogue for the viewers so they don’t get confused. Still, I guess it’s better to have things spelled out at the beginning than to be completely lost the entire season.

The main things I’m currently curious about are regarding the very end of season 2. When it seemed Kiera was already locked up in the Freelancers’ prison, we saw two things happen:

Carlos and Betty meet Julian (who is set to become the leader of Liber8).

Dillon, the Vancouver Police Department inspector (and Kiera’s “boss” when she’s in our current time period), is reading up on City Protective Services, the future of the police force. The CPS is what Kiera is a part of in 2077. Sounds like the seeds are being sown for it in our time…

If these two things are happening when Kiera is imprisoned, then this means that when she (and Alec, for that matter) go back in time a week, these things don’t happen. Or at least they haven’t happened yet. Are they integral to shaping the future? Will something that Kiera or Alec does throw these off and cause a different future to develop? Though brief, both moments are so prominently featured at the end of season 2 that I’m sure they are going to come up in some form soon…

I’m also curious how, if there is only one Kiera right now, she used to “remember” being in the Freelancers’ prison. I thought it was her CMR linking with the CMR of another version of her — like there were two of her — but it looks like there will only be one. At least for now.

Also, there are already additional timelines happening, because the future has changed. The biggest event I can think of is Kellog’s grandmother being killed. This means that no matter how long Kellog lives from 2012 on, he will never run into another version of himself, because he won’t be born in this timeline. However, the Catherine pointed out that 1,000 people can die with no effect on history, but one single person (such as Alec Sadler) can change the course of history. If that’s the case, then Kellog must not be important enough to change history. (But if he’s responsible for murdering Escher, then is Escher not important either…?)

Finally, why does Jason want to help Alec save Emily? I wonder how important she will be. It even made me curious about whether she’s Jason’s mother, which would explain why Jason wants to make sure she stays alive.

Really, what I love about Continuum is that in addition to the excellent cast, the writing is smart enough to surprise me on a regular basis. Storylines go in different directions than I expected, and even when the show treads “familiar” territory — like testing out the grandfather paradox with Kellog’s grandmother — it feels fresh. Rather than trying to make a sci-fi spectacle of itself, Continuum thoughtfully explores the nature of time travel in new ways.

– Ashley