Part 17: Bonus update: Conspiracy... of Apathy!Bonus update: Conspiracy... of Apathy!
I'm not gonna sugarcoat this. When I first played through the game I had no idea what kind of story these devs were trying to tell, because it was crammed full of references for references' sake, some really disgusting shit like the Pizzagate quest, and a pile of quests where you randomly wander the Wasteland and things happen that aren't really that funny. When Xander77 asked the devs, they replied that the game was about living under authoritarianism (it's been a while and Steam deleted the chat, correct me if I'm wrong!) and gave the example of the Strugatsky brothers. This is a very strange connection to make, as on the surface the postwar land of Russia suffered a governmental collapse, with bandits everywhere and city-states carving out local fiefdoms, while Prisoners of Power is about an omnipresent authoritarian regime run by mind control. It's really easy to write off all this weirdly unconnected crap - Dan's bandits! The doctor from Star Trek! Sewer mutants kidnapping women who are into it! Pizzagate! - as a bunch of stupid shit the player suffers through to get to the end of the game, or, conversely, suffers through for precisely 1 hour and 59 minutes to still be able to cash in the Steam refund. However, Prokhanov rears his head once again and when you dig down into all of this crap you get...
Oushakine describes Prokhanov posted:
Everything is virtual, everything is relative, everything is an outcome of conspiracy.
Here, have a diagram.
(I noticed it's Kruul instead of Gruul after making the diagram, but fuck that guy.)
From the very beginning of the game, after you walk into the starting town, this conspiracy is omnipresent, and indeed, this isn't even the only one. As previously noted, the player character works for a shadowy conspiracy, the ATOM organization itself, which is alternatively run on military hierarchy (Morozov is a General) and other times runs on insane conspiracy logic. We have a dossier at the beginning of the game that tells us what to do, but it's missing something very important.
Who are we actually reporting to? Ok, there's a bunker with a tank and guys who shoot each other with rubber bullets for fun, but are we supposed to walk back there with Morozov in tow? If human resources are limited, why was Morozov sent with a whole expeditionary force armed with automatic weapons? We know there were a lot of them for a few reasons:
Earlier in the game posted:
: Funny you asked. A whole squad passed through not long ago. Can't say for sure if they were military, but there were some serious looking dudes among them. Nice weapons, bad attitudes. They even had uniforms of a sort. These guys are no joke, I tell you.
We get further confirmation from the bandits at the bunker as well, but when we actually get to the bunker and Fidel - who, if you'll remember, is using an assumed code name as an ATOM agent - merely says this:
There's nothing about actually reporting to anyone, even though the ATOM briefing claims "Our human resources are limited" and we're supposed to find out what happened to Morozov. Fidel doesn't even bring up the possibility that one of the dead might be Morozov. All we're given is an injunction to go to the Mushroom Cult to seek information on what happened, which is more conspiracy nonsense with their spokesman being far too clean to be a part of the wasteland and his quest to harass crazy New Age ladies. The point I'm making is that maybe we shouldn't be blindly trusting ATOM, as our ATOM contacts are Fidel the homewrecker, Alexander the lazy lying guy, and Gozhin who is clearly intended to be a two-bit con artist and who's maybe pulling a con on you with Pasha the technician and Fidel.
So we have this titanic struggle of conspiracies. ATOM and the Mushroom cult are clearly up to something, as they're both trying to get their hands on what looks kind of like a supersoldier program. The Postmen are contesting RLM Pizzagate's secret blackmail slavery ring that has enthralled the leaders of Peregon and Krasnoznamenny, and we still don't know where ATOM and the Mushroom Cult fit into that plot at all or what their end goals are. I crap on this game for being boring and uninspired when it's not being horrifically offensive, but this is not inherently a bad idea! Shows like the X-Files and authors like Philip K Dick get a ton of leverage out of the characters discovering conspiracies and trying to puzzle out what is really going on, and there's clearly all kinds of paranormal weirdness such as lightning idols, shoggoths, and extradimensional travelers. These are not boring concepts! I find the Redlettermedia Pizzagate reference offensive, but you could replace them with a different conspiracy such as mind control television guys out of Krasnoz or lizard aliens, and have the game be about encountering and unraveling these conspiracies.
This runs into the elephant in the room, which is that the developers are not very good at their jobs, and it's all spoiled by that perennial gremlin, bad writing. I keep making fun of this game's prose and how it's very dry, barely functional, and redundant.
The mustached man has a mustache, but he also is appraising you and thinking you over! The end result of this bloated writing is that it's impossible to get invested in this game's characters or events, because it just comes as a tsunami of excess descriptions that drown out anything interesting happening. Now, I will give the writers credit for giving different voices to their characters, as Toilet Kruul speaks differently than Dan the Bandit, but this is all undone by showering the dialogue in waves of dull narration that resemble nothing so much as stage directions. This is how the writers begin having Fidel reveal that the Mushroom Cult was behind the dastardly massacre of men our character possibly knew:
None of this is necessary, and it resets what should be a high tension reveal - the ATOM operatives turned on each other and gunned each other down! - to yet another boring mash of ATOM dumping info all over you. You could just as easily characterize Fidel as being numb to this sort of thing by just opening with "Did you find anything interesting?" It's calm, it's professional, and it shows Fidel has seem this kind of thing before and is collected enough to focus on gathering the information rather than mourning the dead men or having a breakdown.
Even ignoring the prose, the tone and the plot are incoherent as well. We don't really get a buildup to anything at Bunker 317, the only other conversation you can have is with a strange man in an ant costume who is convinced he's really an ant. It's spun as scary and then what I think is supposed to be vaguely humorous, but it just falls flat on its face as the writers realize they don't have the skills to convey horror authentically and just resort to telling the player that it's Very Spooky.
It goes from horror to farce as soon as Ant Gavrilov opens his mouth, but there's no buildup or rising tension. We know Morozov came this way, but aside from a forgettable dream sequence featuring him, the game doesn't really do anything with this missing ATOM expedition.
This is the only reference you get, and if you're the sidequesting type you'll likely forget it in your encounters with tinfoil hat Nazis, demonic possession, and other random nonsense the developers stuffed into the game.
Lastly, I feel compelled to point out that our protagonist has no reason to care about any of this nonsense. The dead ATOM men are just faceless "ATOM operatives" we don't know, ATOM doesn't seem to have anyone checking in on us to see if we are doing our mission instead of aimlessly wandering the Wasteland trying to get laid, and we have absolutely no personal investment in General Morozov. We're decently fair into the game's main plot and we can't tell you anything about Morozov except for an insane dream about a mushroom god. No one is compelling us and most importantly, none of this conspiracy nonsense affects us! In something like Philip K. Dick, Bob Arctor is involved in the Substance D conspiracy because he is a police officer trying to stop the sale of Substance D. Here we have a conspiracy run in a bunch of places we don't live by a bunch of people we don't care about, and because this is a postapocalyptic wasteland instead of a powerful nation state, you really can avoid all the conspiracy nonsense by going off to live in the woods. The stated goal of ATOM is to restore the Soviet Union to its former glory, but here's how Fidel - an ATOM agent - responds when Hexogen raves on about how great the Soviet Union is and how much he loves the Motherland.
Thus the entire game is just a cynical excuse to get material goods for the sake of continuing to play the game to get more loot. In other words, it's a videogame, and the story means literally nothing - but it's an isometric RPG with barebones graphics made in the Unity engine, so the story has to carry the game! You certainly aren't playing this for the repetitive and clunky gameplay, but it's no surprise that the story lets it down as well.