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Friday, 22 May 2015

A brandy with the monster

I've talked about Frankenstein's Legions on this blog before. Here, for instance. And here. I'll be talking about it more over the month ahead because I'm involved in a Kickstarter with Cubus Games, who will be creating an interactive story set in that world, under its new title The Frankenstein Wars.

The concept is simple. In the 1820s, Victor Frankenstein's secrets are recovered. Some of them, anyway - specifically, the ability to sew a body together from scavenged parts and bring it back to life. In France, a new revolution brings the Zeroistes to power. Named for the their "Year Zero" mentality, they are willing to do whatever it takes to usher in a new society. And that includes recycling the bodies of those killed in battle to create an endlessly-respawning army.

And what about Frankenstein's monster? He represents something more than a patchwork revivified man. In Mary Shelley's novel he was a new lifeform, a homo superior, with greater strength, endurance and intellect than any normal man. If you want to read his origin story, it's a lot more interesting than the Universal sparks-n-stitches version, and my interactive novel is as good a place as any to start.

But here in The Frankenstein Wars, the monster is thirty years older. He's learned to be warier and more ruthless - and this is a guy who was willing to strangle kids and murder innocent people even in his formative years. He calls himself Mr Legion now. Here's a scene between him and Lord Blakeney:
That night. Blakeney warms himself in front of a crackling log fire, a glass of brandy cupped in his hand. In the leather armchair opposite him sits Mr Legion, also slowly swirling a brandy. His cigar glows in the gloom of the dining room, where they have just finished a meal.
“I think Miss Byron’s vacation might need to come to an end quite soon,” remarks Blakeney.
“You know, Blakeney, when I was thirty years younger I would have thrown you in the fireplace, burned down the house, and killed every man between here and Hastings. I also would have settled for the cheap brandy.”
“Why is that? The burning and the killing, I mean.”
“You were expecting them to kidnap Ada Byron.”
“Not exactly. I merely made sure we had a contingency in case you failed. As sometimes you do.”
“And now you’d like her back.”
“Her improved revitalizing serum, at any rate. I’m sure Napoleon doesn’t care for the cheap stuff either.”
Mr Legion blows a smoke ring and watches it drift in the firelight, like a god contemplating the constellations he has made. “You’re not counting on Clerval for that?”
Blakeney smiles. “Doctor Clerval is one of those men you can count on utterly. Their moral code is so predictable.” Blakeney gets up and walks to the window, pulling aside the curtain to gaze into the night. “And he’s a man who doesn’t shirk from a challenge. So also there’s that. But what’s really at the bottom of it all, I suppose, is love.”
Legion drains his brandy in one gulp and tosses the cigar stub into the fire. “All right,” he says, rising. “I have my own reasons, of course.”
Blakeney watches the door close behind him. “Of course you do," he says to the empty room. "But in your case it's a long way from love.”
Lord Blakeney, as you will have guessed, is the former Scarlet Pimpernel. Now in his mid-60s he commands the British secret service (officially known as the Alien Affairs Committee). In a very real sense he is the “M” of his day.

The Frankenstein Wars app is based on my world and story, but that's not all. It's being written by Paul Gresty, who is also the talent behind the new Fabled Lands book, The Serpent King's Domain. At Cubus's request, Paul is adding some steampunk tech to the mix. There was a little bit there already in my story outline, in the devices Ada Byron had constructed. Personally I'd have have left it at that, not feeling the need to add a gilding of steampunk to the lily of Frankensteinian body horror. But I'm not writing it so I've given Cubus and Mr Gresty carte blanche to take whatever liberties they need to. Without a doubt Paul will be adding his own unique style of interactive storytelling to the bare bones of the plot and characters that I provided.

You'll be hearing more of The Frankenstein Wars over the next few weeks - not just here but on the project's Kickstarter page as well.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Designing from the bottom up

More tips on game design today culled from my and Andrew Rollings's book Game Architecture and Design. (Sure, it was published a whole fifteen years ago and game development has moved on - but hey, some people still get advice from the Bible and the Koran.)

If you throw a ball and take many high-speed photographs of its flight, you'll see that the trajectory the ball took is a parabola. But the ball didn't follow that path because gravity told to move in a parabola. A parabola is just a symbolic concept in the analytical domain of mathematics, and the universe doesn't know anything about mathematics or analysis or symbols. These are human concepts. In reality, there are just a bunch of physical processes, each of which deals only with the processes and circumstances just before and just after it. So, the ball is at one position, and gravity tells the ball's velocity to change, and the ball's velocity tells its position to change.

This is the opposite approach to that taken in most software applications. There, processing power is at a premium, so the sooner you can go to symbolic constructs, the better. The tradeoff is that software can crash when your symbolic "shortcut" misses something that the one-step-at-a-time approach would have taken in its stride.

Researchers in artificial life have identified an analogous problem:
"The classical AI approach has been criticized because the symbols and symbol structures on which planning and decision making are based are not grounded in the real world. The problem is that unequivocally decoding sensory data into a symbol and turning a command without error into its intended action may be unsolvable."
—Luc Steels, "The Artificial Life Roots of Artificial Intelligence" in Artificial Life (MIT Press, 1997)
Here is an example: suppose you are putting a monster into your new Frankenstein adventure game, and the idea is that it will jump out of its vat when the player enters the laboratory. Instead of putting in a lot of complicated AI to do with detecting humans and having the goal of wanting to kill them, you just choose the shortcut of placing a trigger tile inside laboratory door. When the player steps on the trigger, the monster will appear and attack.

Okay so far, but what if the player manages to get onto the tower roof, jumps down, and, by some fluke, manages to land safely on the balcony of the laboratory? Now he can explore the lab, get all the power-ups, and read the journal about the monster (an entry that is supposed to be poignant if he's just fought and killed it, but is meaningless otherwise). Only when the player goes to leave via the door does the monster climb out of its vat and growl, "You shall not steal my master's secrets!"

When cutscenes were pre-rendered, ones of the purposes of tying events to a trigger point like that is that you could be sure of where the player’s character would be standing (and the state of the laboratory, in this example) when the cutscene began. Nowadays, it is more likely that the cutscene will be generated in the game engine. The cutscene thus becomes an example of “machinema” which can be slightly different every time, depending on the game state at the time it is triggered.

The use of the trigger point illustrates symbolic design. The designer assumes there is only one way for players to enter, and that’s via the door. The alternative nonsymbolic, or equation-free, approach would recognize that the true trigger event is the monster’s awareness of intruders in the laboratory. Whatever way the player enters the lab — even if by teleportation — the game still responds appropriately.

Discussing Deux Ex at the GDCE conference in London in 2002, designer Harvey Smith of Ion Storm cited how nonsymbolic design is changing games. In testing a maze level (the walls of which were set high enough that the player couldn’t jump them) the developers discovered an ingenious way to escape the maze. A player could fix a limpet mine to the wall and use this as a stepping stone to jump out of the maze. Harvey Smith pointed out that old-style designers might have regarded this as a bug, but in fact it was an extra opportunity that enriched the gameplay.

“We need to reward the goal,” he concluded, “and not the method the player uses to achieve the goal.”

In the past, the nonsymbolic, step-by-step approach was not practical. The processing capability wasn't available to deal with that and graphics too. Hence design used a symbolic approach and the idea of one correct solution to every problem became ingrained. But now much of the graphics work is done by the video card, and computers are doubling in power every 18 months or so. At last, it is starting to be possible to create "uncrashable" games by avoiding the need to design using symbolic shortcuts.

Comparing Nonsymbolic And Symbolic Design

In the original Warcraft, peasants collected gold by entering a gold mine and bringing sacks back to your town hall. At the start of the game it was always worth spawning peasants because the more peasants you had, the greater your revenue stream. However, there came a point when the peasants started to get in each others' way. Adding more peasants would then lead to traffic jams as the peasants encountered each other on the streets of the town and would have to back up to let others get past. The situation was alleviated if you planned your town with wide streets. Additionally, it was not a good idea to place your town hall too close to the gold mine — giving a little more space also helped avoid traffic congestion.

Now, an economist could derive an equation to describe the flow of gold to the town hall. The factors would be the number of peasants, the placement density of the town buildings and the distance from the town hall to the mine. We can imagine that it would be a pretty complex equation. The point is that the designers of Warcraft never needed any such equation. They simply programmed in the basic rules and behaviors and the economic simulation emerged directly from those.

Contrast this with a game like Caesar 2, which used underlying equations to create a simulation of an ancient Roman city. This approach is less satisfying because the player is not directly viewing the reasons for success and failure. Instead, when playing a game like Caesar 2 (or any simulation of its type) you are trying to build an abstract match to the game's underlying equations in your head. The simulated economy and the gameplay are less visible, lessening the sense of immersion.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

When a man is tired of Whedon...

Age of Ultron, then. I know you don’t want spoilers. How would I spoil it, anyway? You already know the arc of the movie long before you see it, because it’s the arc demanded by the sheer weight of franchises and star contracts, by the simple need to toss bread to the international circus-goers, never mind selling an SUV-load of toys to their kids.

Scientists create an artificial intelligence and it’s benevolent and means only good for mankind. No? How about: scientists create an artificial intelligence, spurn it, and in doing so teach it only to respond with loveless rage and destruction? Uh-uh, for something as sophisticated as that you need an 18-year-old girl. The AI tries to take over the (yawn) world, then. Hilarity ensues. (No, really.)

Taking over the world starts by Ultron getting into the Internet. Possibly that explains why he also becomes artificially dumb, as whatever the software you’re equipped with, the entire Internet doesn’t have the processing power or complexity required to simulate one human brain. That could explain why he wastes time looking for the Pentagon’s nuclear missile launch codes, which even with staff cuts are hopefully not actually connected to the freakin' Internet. And don’t get me started on how a super-genius AI copes with global bandwidth.

OK, so lots of dumb decisions later, the inevitable big-as-Dumbo climactic battle. My main takeaways from this are, first, that robots are pretty fragile, especially the armour-plated variety. You hit them with anything hard, even the butt of a gun, and it’s likely a limb will fall off. Also, they become weaker in proportion to the number of robots in the army. Oh, and they are really, really stupid.

Maybe the problem is villains, period. We know that the world’s problems go so much deeper than one bad apple, so the villain just seems like a trivial and ineffectual pantomime bully. And villains’ dialogue always sucks. It’s like everyone involved knows that the villain is a lame carry-over from moustache-twirling landlords in old silent movies, doomed to talk a good fight till the final prole-pleasing punch. Next up in this never-ending Marvel merry-go-round: acromegalic alien beetroot Thanos. Oh god, kill me now, just don’t monologue like a silkily smooth thesp for five minutes before you do it.

Second takeway: if you’re putting a new superhero into a movie, you really need to give them powers that the viewer can easily grasp. You need it to be show not tell. Spider-Man shoots webs, climbs walls, and is strong and agile. Reed Richards can stretch. We don’t have to know exactly how strong the Hulk is, but we know he can bust stuff up and lift a really big weight. Being flesh rather than metal, no limb will ever fall off him. Well, maybe one tooth, if a building is dropped on his head.

But when we’re told that a character has powers of “telekinesis, telepathy, other psionic effects” then we are never going to have a clue what they can do. Whatever the plot requires, probably, just as long as they prance like a tit while doing it and a CGI geezer is on hand with his particle effects package in Autodesk Maya.

I said hilarity ensues, and I wasn’t kidding - unlike Joss, who never stops. Each character has a stock of quips. It soon feels relentless, as though Buffy Summers has taken over everyone’s heads and given them a snappy teen one-liner to see them through the gruelling times when the sticky tape holding the story together looks like giving way. The cinema audience laughed and laughed, but that doesn’t mean much. The same kind of people also gave a snigger when Nero set Christians on fire. I just thought: Joss, baby, don’t you want me to care? I think he was desperate. In between all the shouting and ‘splosions and the damned soulless CGI, he just clung to what he does well.

What he does well, he does very well. The scene when Cap tries to lift Thor’s hammer, the look on Thor’s face. That’s gold, a lovely character moment. A shame, actually, that it turned out to just be set-up for a payoff scene that came later. The payoff wasn’t nearly as good and in retrospect it cheapened the earlier scene. Oh well, it came towards the end – and then again, the same payoff with added joke, in case we missed it the first time.

And a nice scene between Clint Barton and his wife, gently ribbing him for failing to notice an Avengers office romance. (And by the way I’ve never seen any evidence in real life that women are so much better tuned to that stuff than men. Possibly they’re more interested in feelings, on average, unless that’s a myth too, but they’re certainly no better at intuiting them.) And here I was thinking Joss was really down on gender clichés after his remarks about that Jurassic Park teaser. Anyway, quibbles aside, he does that stuff well and the “Hawkeye” line was perfect.

And then – like hope flitting up from the bottom of the jar – there’s Mark Ruffalo. Oh, such brilliance in every expression, every line reading. He’s worth the price of admission just on his own. If only Joss could give us a Hulk movie. A Banner movie, I mean. Fewer characters, more time to develop a story, more character moments so that when the stomping and growling kicks off we might actually care. That would be worth your 15 bucks for sure.

Look, I honestly don’t have the time or the will to review the movie, but Sady Doyle did and I agree with much of what she said. Here it is if you’re interested, but I know it won't change anything.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Rock, paper, scissors - and bots

Back from the arena of politics today to something much saner, calmer and more logical: game development. (Sure I'm serious. You'd rather crash-land on a white dwarf than a neutron star, right?) This is a fictionalized case study from my book Game Architecture and Design, co-authored with Andrew Rollings.

Some of the case studies in GAD read like horror stories, and the scariest part is they were based closely on real projects we'd worked on or had first-hand accounts of. I'm happy to report that the game development process has got a lot better in the decade and a half since we wrote the book.

Here's one case study that was entirely invented, and rather than being a cautionary tale of team-dysfunctional disaster (we're perilously close to politics again there) it was intended to illustrate intransitive game systems. That's Rock Paper Scissors in plain English, or strictly speaking Scissors Paper Stone, as we called it in the English Home Counties where I grew up. You'll appreciate that there's a spherical cow aspect to simplifying a discussion for teaching purposes, but the game design points made are interesting.

Picture by FangtheTyphoon used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License

Peter, the lead designer of Warbots, is discussing some gameplay ideas with Charles, the project manager. Charles had requested a circular unit relationship, similar to Warcraft 2, and Peter is sketching out some possibilities.

"Say we have three main combat units," he suggests. "The Drillerbots are fast. Frighteningly fast. They can do lots of little attacks in quick succession that take the slower Hammerbots apart. They make this horrible sound as they do it, too... Nyeeowmm."

"I know, like my root canal work!" laughs Charles. "Ouch."

"Then you've got the Juggerbots. They're slow too, even slower than the Hammerbots, but they're massively armored. The Drillerbot can't even scratch them – sparks everywhere, but no damage. Meanwhile, the Juggerbot is pulling the Drillerbot apart like a crab taking a leisurely snack"

"And the Hammerbots? They can get through the Juggerbots' armor?"

"Crack 'em like nuts," grins Peter. "Only it's not so one-sided as those other matches. The Hammerbot wins, but it's a brutal slugfest with scrap metal flying everywhere."

"Good," says Charles. "So there's no best unit. Have you thought about what the player can do to change the odds?"

"I'm going to talk to Nick about that. He's still working on the physics system, which will affect a lot of things besides combat. It could be that the Drillerbots use laser drills, and they might get less effective as they move away from the player's power pylons, or maybe they weaken over time and then have to recharge."

Charles nods. "As long as it's an automatic recharge, like the units that use energy in StarCraft. We don't want players having to fiddle about sending energy to 'bots from their resource stocks."

"Agreed. Also, we could dispense with the mining 'bots. Drillerbots can mine as well as fight, so they have a versatility advantage."

Charles thinks about it. "No, keep the mining 'bots, but make them cheaper and have the Drillerbots better at blasting the ore but not collecting it. It'll give the player some interesting choices. And what about Hammerbots versus Juggerbots?"

"Underwater - under liquid methane, I should say - the Hammerbot's attacks will probably pack less punch. The Juggerbot fights with these kind of vice-grip pincers, which won't be affected so much."

"It all sounds fine," says Charles. As a longtime Warcraft fan, he is quite satisfied. "So much for combat. What about other factors? Visibility range, say. Can you get that to fit a cyclical pattern, too?"

This takes Peter by surprise, "Of course not - " he starts to say. Then, after a moment's thought, "Hey, maybe we could, at that! Suppose A has the longest radar range but the shortest sight range. B has the longest sight range, just a bit under A's radar range, but has no radar itself. C has a medium sight range and again no radar, but also is invisible to radar."

He writes on a pad, plugging in some numbers. "Yes. A spots B before being spotted itself. Same with B to C and C to A. Hey, that's nifty! I never would have thought you could get an intransitive relationship with visibility ranges."

"See, I'm too dumb to know what's not possible," laughs Charles. "But enough of this algebra stuff. Which units are we talking about here, A and B and C?"

Peter smiles as another realization dawns on him. "This has a big impact on gameplay. Say we have the Jugger spot the Driller, and so on, so that each 'bot can see the 'bot he's best equipped to take out. That'll make for a fast-moving aggressive game. The predator can always see his prey before he is seen himself. But, if we try it the other way around, so the Hammer sees that Driller coming, the Driller can avoid the Jugger, and so on... then you have a slower, more considered kind of cat-and-mouse game."

"Where the cats are made of titanium steel and the mice weigh eight tons apiece, sure." Sensing they could be one up on his favorite strategy game, Charles looks a little bit like a cat with cream himself right now. "Anyway, which way is better?"

"Better?" Peter looks up from his notepad. He couldn't look more astonished if Charles had just asked him to calculate the value of the truth-beauty equation. "I can't say which is better. It depends on the kind of game you want. We could even arrange it so that it sometimes works one way and sometimes the other. Making it vary depending on weather or the day/night cycle is one option. More interesting is if radar is messed up when there are lots of scrap robot chassises lying about, when metal buildings are nearby, that kind of thing."

"I see," says Charles. "So 'bots might see their targets, pounce, there's lots of vicious infight¬ing, but the more the bodies pile up the more difficult it gets to spot your victims...”

"And the easier to spot the 'bots to avoid. Yes. But even that's only part of it. We also have to settle on the attribute balance between visibility range and combat ability. Because, if the cost of building new 'bots is very high, winning every combat becomes critically important. If they're cheap, it doesn't matter so much. And then there's the question of not just whether a 'bot sees another, but the ability of each 'bot to close the gap or to get away."

Charles nods. "Okay, you're right. I was hoping for an easy answer for once, but there's only so far you can get with hand-waving and whiteboards, isn't there?"

“I'll get Nick to knock up a testbed. You'll be amazed what a couple days of tweaking can achieve."

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Not so Green as cabbage-headed

It's the General Election tomorrow. (That's for those of you who live in the United Kingdom. If you don't, never fear; normal service will be resumed on this blog on Friday.)

I like a lot of things about our democracy. It's got its flaws, but if you know anything of history you'll be aware how enormously privileged are the citizens of a modern country like Britain or the USA. I appreciate the fact that we have a representative democracy, which helps stop political debate from sliding into an abyss of impulsive opinions. It would work better with some modification such as single transferable vote, but at least our first-past-the-post system palliates the kind of horse trading where a mad patchwork of single-issue parties get together and in which the balance of power may rest with a tiny minority.

(I'm not saying Western democracies don't all need drastic reform, mind you. Just that there could be some takeaways from how the UK system operates - or used to operate. We have the problem that, whatever the outcome of the election, it will almost certainly lead to Scotland leaving the UK - something that almost nobody in Britain, and only a minority in Scotland itself, actually wants. That's a pretty inadequate form of democracy. So reform is needed, but that's a question for another day.)

What I dislike, what I loathe: the slippery, button-eyed evasiveness of politicians when faced with direct questions. Try this interview conducted by Andrew Neil for the BBC in which he tries to pin down Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party, on basically any policy her party is advocating. When "it'll be on the website" or "I can't reveal that now" fail her, Ms Bennett resorts to the platitudes that presumably must always earn a rousing cheer from the party faithful. "We want a more egalitarian society," she parrots in place of hard facts. Sure sure, we all do; now tell us how you plan to go about it.

Especially revealing is this line from 12m 45s: "We believe in democracy. Possibly not all of your listeners do." That smug little aside is the steam escaping from a cornered politician's dudgeon at having been put on the spot by a smart interviewer. Where is our respect? they wonder, never realizing that they do nothing to deserve any.

This happens to be a Green Party candidate, but it might equally well be one of the others. Why can't we have politicians who will argue honestly? Is it hopeless to think that a politician could respond to a plain question with a plain answer? Behind their eyes there seems to be some vital component missing, the part that makes people like Simon Singh and Kenan Malik and Alom Shaha and Stephen Fry esteem truth, honesty and reason. By contrast, most of our politicians are like a dull child who, having once got faint approval for some feeble party trick, keeps repeating it in the expectation that it will be endlessly entertaining. To get themselves elected, they pander to the very kind of tribal thinking that they should all decry as a real existential threat to mankind.

When, at 14m 50s in the video, Ms Bennett resorts to the hoary red herring fallacy (= that issue isn't important because this other issue is more important), it's not the contempt of logic or the outmoded rhetoric that annoys me so much as the way she was so desperate to get the point about Saudi Arabia across that she didn't mind how clumsily she crammed it in. That's the rub: politicians are just so crap; if they were acts on American Idol they wouldn't get past the first show.

Democracy is something for which people are willing to face torture and even death. It deserves better than the tired circus into which British politicians are willing to drag it with their tribalism and empty slogans. Louis Heron, former deputy editor of The Times, once said, 'When a politician tells you something [...] always ask yourself "Why is this lying bastard lying to me?".' All I want are politicians to choose between who have respect for the voters' intelligence, who are intellectually honest enough to argue cogently and clearly, and who value inquiry and evidence over doctrine and opinion. Is that really too much to ask?

Friday, 1 May 2015

Not fading, sea-changing

I wonder what it's like for Woody Allen or Mick Jagger. Maybe not so bad for Jagger. People might keep screaming for him to sing "Sympathy For The Devil", even though we all know it's never going to be as good as this again, but nobody expects the next Stones album to be a follow-up to Their Satanic Majesties. Woody, though, must get pretty cheesed off with well-meaning fans quoting that Stardust Memories line.

I experience a much-diluted form of the same thing whenever I'm asked to write another Fabled Lands book. That is not a gripe. I'm very glad that the FL books connected with so many people. It's what you aim for as a writer. But you can't step twice into the same stream. Twenty years go by, you've got a whole bunch of new experiences, new influences, new concerns, new things to say. You're a different person. Ridley Scott is never going to make another Duellists - more's the pity.

This blog ranges far and wide but it mostly tends to stick to either roleplaying or interactive storytelling. I never tire of the former, the hobby I love and that is the crucible in which everything I work on is first reacted. My storytelling these days is usually of the traditional variety (ie you sit back, I'll tell it) and when I do mix in some interactivity I'm interested in character rather than puzzles. The old dungeon-style gamebook is all about closing the narrative back onto a linear path. Look, here's an orc; get what you will from it, or kill or bypass it, and the adventure flows on with barely a ripple. On the other hand, if you've been having an affair with your best friend's wife and you have to decide whether to confess - well, whatever you choose to say, the story is going to spin off in an entirely different direction after that. This is more interesting but it makes for a more complicated design, more suited to digital than print.

A very simple example: in my interactive version of Frankenstein, Victor can end up referring to his creation as "he", "it", "Adom" or "the fiend" depending largely on some very early choices that have far-reaching implications. That was easy for me to implement in the markup language I used to write the book, given that you'll be reading the book on iPad, but it would make for a fine old mess on the printed page. Digital gamebooks and print gamebooks are moving into different places. Speciation is inevitable.

Hence if I write a gamebook these days, it won't be Fabled Lands 7 or the sequel to Heart of Ice. (All right, in HOI the universe blew up, which I have a habit of making happen in my books, but even if not I wouldn't be going back.) I might not even end up with something that a purist of the medium would call a gamebook. And much of the time I'm working on other things in other media: novels like the Dark Lord and Starship Captain series, which I co-created with Jamie, or comics like Mirabilis, the labour of love that I work on with Leo Hartas on the rare occasions that our different schedules permit.

Just because you like one thing a person creates doesn't mean you're going to enjoy the whole oeuvre. The Sandman is probably my favourite comic book of all time, but Neil Gaiman's prose fiction doesn't work for me. Hounds of Love still gets played regularly chez Morris, but the Moon would have to go ultraviolet before I'd willingly throw on 50 Words for Snow. So when my other projects leave roleplayers or gamebook fans indifferent, I get it. And don't worry, I'm not going to be bursting into a rendition of "Jumping Jack Flash" any time soon.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

So, Interstellar...

I don't put up a lot of movie or book reviews here, figuring that my Mirabilis blog is the appropriate place for more personal interests like that. Still, you might find this one of Christopher Nolan's big ol' SF flick Interstellar worth a look. It's a bit spoilery, but at least it's over faster than the movie...

So, the Earth is dying because they can't figure out to use hydroponics. And Cowboy Farmer finds mysterious symbols in his ramshackle old house (= Signs, Close Encounters). And he says, "It's not a ghost. It's gravity!" (Though why shouldn't that mean a ghost?) And he looks at a bunch of numbers in binary and he doesn't say, "WTF are these numbers?" he goes, "They're coordinates." And they are the coordinates for a secret base within driving distance of his house. And he gets there and they say, "Oh yes, those are mysterious gravity things sent by these aliens who put this wormhole near Saturn" (2001). And nobody says, "Hang on, you're our best pilot and the gravity fairies told you the coordinates of NASA? So let's think about that for five seconds."

But you soon realize why nobody tries to have conversations like that, because one guy would say, "Could the arrival of the wormhole have anything to do with Earth's climate getting messed up?" but then another guy would say, "Faith is about reaching your hand up and knowing there will be something there to hold onto." And then they'll all nod gravely and the first guy will be secretly thinking, "I'm locked in here with the crazy people." So they get into the ship and even though the robots seem to be the only intelligent ones, nobody pays any attention to them, probably because whenever you go, "I have a cold, maybe homeopathy and love and peace will cure it," they would say, "Are you absolutely sure you're the species that created us?"

OK, so off into space and more running about like a bunch of teenagers forced to go on a survival weekend (this crew could get a job on Prometheus, no trouble) and when they come back after 23 years in a gravity well, and Lady Scientist says, "Let's go to planet A" and Cowboy Pilot says, "Hang on, planet B is better but your boyfriend is on planet A, right?" she doesn't say, "Ya got me," she starts coming out with asinine twaddle about maybe that's the best criterion for judging stuff, and love is energy, like, innit, and it's the only thing that transcends time. (And also hate, lust, fart jokes, etc, in that case.) And the others don't say, "Oh, stop wriggling. We caught you out and you know it." No, they listen to her whole critically-failed Fast Talk roll as if it was a valid point. And then Dr Man (geddit?) turns out to be yet another famous actor, and he is mad and evil and tries to kill them, saying that nobody would go on risking their necks to save the whole human species, they'd only do it to specifically save their own family - even though history is full of examples of people putting the group first, and that is kind of the whole USP of homo sapiens. Obviously not a regular churchgoer, Man tries to kill everybody and take over the mission for HAL-like reasons, but everyone is saved thanks to the robots (what did I say about them?). This doesn't stop Cowboy Pilot from telling the robots they have to be sacrificed in a black hole. Lady Scientist doesn't come out with one of her love-is-energy speeches there, but she does at least query whether you should tell an intelligent, loyal being to sacrifice itself for your sake. Luckily Cowboy Pilot has an answer: "They have to do anything we tell them." (Hah, you fool, Aristotle, why did you waste all that time on that Ethics book, ya booby?) Anyway, Cowpoke sacrifices himself too, and he falls through the event horizon into Inception, where he gets a view of his daughter's bedroom as she's growing up and he can send her messages by pushing books and making the dust spell out binary messages. This would all be very confusing, but luckily one of the robots is on hand to explain absolutely everything to us (ya see? ya see?) and it turns out not to be God doing all this, but the gravity fairies are are, like, 5-dimensional people from the future. And they have just enough vestigial interest in the fate of the entire species (from which they evolved, let's not forget that) to give Cowboy Pilot limited access to one room on his farm over a 30-year peiod. Contacting humanity and giving us the answer to climate control, terraforming, wheat blight and wormhole tech would have been just too easy. And you can see the discussion (imagine this in 5 dimensions): "Shall we explain what they need to do to survive?" "Explanations are a bit too sciencey. Love is energy, dude." "Oh yeah. Just give this one guy a mystic experience, then. After all, we already know he must succeed or we wouldn't be here." "Point. Also, without the woo there's no movie. And we're shooting for M Night Shyamalan to direct."

No good points? Oh sure. I liked the explanation of why wormholes are spherical, the black hole FX, and the robots.