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Monday, October 8, 2012

Tripping the Greedy Fantastic


greed (noun): excessive or rapacious desire, especially for wealth or possessions.

Ask a hundred people if “greed is good”, and probably ninety-plus percent of them will look at you strangely, wondering why on earth you’d even ask such a question. Greed, after all, has the dubious honor of being listed among the so-called 7 Deadly Sins (along with lust, gluttony, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride)--not exactly a point in its favor. Recent history hardly endears it to us, either (considering all the fallout from those banking and investment scandals). 

Still, there’s not much we can do to combat the existence of greed; we’re compelled to tolerate it in others simply because we don’t really have a say in the matter.   

Now, imagine for a moment a world in which greed isn’t merely put up with... but is praised, encouraged, and rewarded. Such is the mindset in the not-too-distant world of Culpa Innata, as envisioned by B. Barmanbek (and based on a popular computer game of the same name).

✦ / ✦ / ✦ / ✦

Some forty years in the future--after a worldwide economic collapse known as the Great Meltdown plunged everyone into the worst financial depression in history, only to be followed by decades of deadly civil unrest and warfare--things are very different. Rather than a handful of countries with great economic and military might regaining power, the countries boasting the greatest technological minds were the ones which survived and thrived, eventually forming a global coalition known as the World Union. (Nation-states not on the technological forefront are excluded from the union and deemed “rogue” territories.)

The World Union is a formidable presence, priding itself on having the best of the best, from the smartest, cleverest, fittest, and richest peoples... to all the finest things for them to acquire. (WU school kids don’t just study science and the “3 R’s”; they learn that being prosperous--and able to show it--is the ultimate goal, and that selfishness--focussing only on one’s own needs and desires, above all else--is the optimal way to achieve it.) Crime is rare in the union, people are healthier than ever, pollution is nearly non-existent, and murder, well... murder is almost unheard of. Almost

When thirty-something Phoenix Wallis, as-yet mostly untested in the field--is promoted to senior agent with the Global Peace and Security Network, eyebrows are raised. That’s nothing, though, compared to the reaction when a WU resident is murdered a week later--in the rogue state of Russia--and Phoenix is given the lead in the investigation. How could the director give this newbie such a prestigious case... especially a woman with a history of being far better at analyzing data than interacting with other people?

Inwardly daunted (and suffering from a serious lack of sleep due to the childhood nightmares that have recently returned to haunt her dreams), Phoenix nonetheless picks an assistant and gets to work tracing the dead man’s last days. Why would a middle-aged businessman--an immigrant who’d studied and worked for years in order to become a WU citizen--ever go back to the rogue state from which he’d escaped... and why would someone murder him, once he did? None of it makes any sense, and nor do the odd bits of information Phoenix and her assistant discover.

The investigation itself wouldn’t be so bad, if Phoenix didn’t also have an arduous task to complete at the GPSN offices--the annual academy graduate interviews. (Each member of every graduating class undergoes a rigorous, one-on-one interview conducted by GPSN agents, who evaluate whether or not the graduate is worthy of permanent admission to the World Union. Anyone who passes is accepted; a “strike-out”, someone deemed unworthy--having ulterior motives, unstable, or otherwise unlikely to live up to WU ideals--is returned to his/her homeland, put into psychiatric care, or even imprisoned.) To say the interviews are intense for both parties wouldn’t be understating it.

Nor are her co-workers making her job any easier... not with a stern, unyielding Scandinavian director (coerced into hiring Phoenix by her boss) watching every move; a rival agent (and chauvinist pig) wanting to bed her before ousting her from the position he’s sure he really deserved; a naive assistant (literally) jumping into bed with said rival; a mysterious company boss (with who-knows-what agenda of his own) operating in the background; and a creepy, lifetime-student/janitor roaming the halls, nicking small personal items (such as Phoenix’s all-important earbud communicator), making dire predictions, and uttering nonsensical gibberish as he goes about his job.

Then there’s the mysterious man who comes into contact with Phoenix for the space of only a few seconds... yet somehow manages to leave her with a bizarre sense of happiness, which returns at unexpected moments. 

Finally, someone is controlling things she isn’t even aware of (a la the Wizard of Oz performing behind his curtain)... things which will ultimately affect everyone in the agency in very permanent ways.

No one expects the unassuming, under-qualified Phoenix to solve the murder--or to solve the subsequent ones (which she alone is convinced are related). 

No one expects the analytical, aloof agent to ace the graduate interviews, either.

But Agent Phoenix Wallis--sleep-deprived, confused, and freaked-out as she may be--is about to surprise everyone... including herself. 

✦ / ✦ / ✦ / ✦

I’m not a gamer, so the world of Culpa Innata was new to me. Still, it didn’t take long to figure out the basic premise (although, in truth, it did take rather longer to get into the story and actually care). 

Phoenix is a sympathetic-enough character--a survivor of a horrible war, with a stash of dreadful memories (some accessible, some thankfully buried), who has somehow managed to carve out a little niche for herself--but she’s also an incredibly-aggravating one. (If she inappropriately used “Sweet!” as an interjection just one more time, I was going to scream. Seriously.)

Several other characters have similarly-annoying habits and tics, such as winking (who on earth has ever winked as much as these people wink?!?), and also using the same catch-phrases again and again. Hard to take, that sort of thing... and please, please don’t even get me started on the schmaltziness of the “romance” (for lack of a better word). 

So, is there anything I liked about Culpa Innata? Actually, there is. First, the concept of a world wherein Greed is God is an interesting one, and how the author got from where we are today to that point made enough sense to seem feasible. Some of the behind-the-scenes characters could use more fleshing-out, but the gist of what they’re after comes through, and is interesting, as well. And, a few scenes--particularly the interviews Phoenix conducts--are so fascinating to watch that they make up for a fair portion of the negatives. 

Bottom line... if you’re into playing the game, then Culpa Innata is, of course, a must-read. If you like sci-fi or fantasy tales with a sort of alt-reality future setting, it’s worth considering.





Note: Culpa Innata is set to be released around mid-October, so keep an eye out for it if you're interested in checking it out. :)