Saturday, June 22, 2019

Retro Cyberpunk

A cigarette...?  That's so last century...
Where's you're vape rig, man?
Out of all the subgenres that compose science fiction, the one that is most clairvoyant when it comes to predicting the future has to be cyberpunk.  Granted, we don't have flying cars or computer jacks going directly into our brains, but we're surprisingly close.  How many drones have you seen in the last couple years?  How many people do you see everyday completely absorbed by their smartphones?  They're not actually in cyberspace but considering how oblivious they can be to what's going on around them, they might as well be.  Cyberpunk isn't always on-point though..."where are all the wireless devices?" is a question lots of younger people might ask after reading William Gibson's "Neuromancer" or watching the original "Bladerunner."

So, what are societies going to look like a few decades from now?  As much as I like SOMA, I highly doubt we're going to be uploading our minds into computers anytime soon.  Neurology just isn't anywhere near mapping, let alone recreating, the fiendishly complex wiring that comprises a human brain.  Nanorobotics are another area that I doubt we'll be seeming much in the way of advancement.  Sci-fi writers love to use armies of these little guys as a universal solution or, on the flipside, the instigators of a grey-goo apocalypse.  Both scenarios are rather nonsensical considering the way physics work on a quantum level...not to mention there are a variety of organic examples of nanomachine-like life that should multiply exponentially, but can't because of a variety of limiting factors.

So, if we're not going to transcend and we're not going to go extinct, what happens to humanity?  Good question...I don't really have an answer except to say, humans have faced (and will face) a vast array of challenges both internal and external.  How effectively these challenges are overcome dictates our future as a species.  The important takeaway is these challenges aren't necessarily the same from one generation to the next.  When you make a movie entitled "Bladerunner 2049" or a game called Cyberpunk 2077, it's not about our future as of now, but rather the future we thought we would get back in the 1980s.  Is it regressive or nostalgic?  Yes...Yes, it is.

Saturday, June 15, 2019


I've been critical of the Electronic Entertainment Expo for many years now.  It lacks the focus of GDC or the compartmentalization of Gamescom.  It also feels very dated compared to newer internet-based forms of promotion like Nintendo Direct.  When it comes to the whole loot box controversy, the ESA (the show organizers) have done a bang-up job of alienated both their contributors and the people they are supposed to be representing.  All this and more has steadily eroded the value of having E3.  Sony isn't there anymore.  Activision decided not to go as well.  An ever growing number of leaks stole a lot of the show's thunder, and various games coverage outlets are finding it increasingly difficult to justify going when pretty much everything of relevance is available on the internet.

It's certainly a lot cheaper not to attend.  When you consider things like hotel fees, taxi rides, plane tickets and the cost of being at the event, the bills add up to a lot of money very quickly.  Considering all the funds, time and effort companies like Bethesda, Microsoft, Square-Enix and Ubisoft dump into their presentations, it doesn't seem worth the hour or so each of them lasts.  Preparing for E3 is hard on development studios too in that they are often asked by publishers to put together a flashy demo that can take months of work, devouring resources perhaps better spent on finishing the actual game.

For awhile I felt like (even though the show itself had become boring) the stuff surrounding E3 continued to be interesting mostly because of the snark, cring, memes and so on.  Even that source of amusement though has faded in recent years.  Perhaps video game companies are becoming more self-conscious?  Of course, it's not all bad...Last Oasis had some neat a Heroes of Might and Magic fan, Songs of Conquest looks enticing...I guess one could also argue that it's still an opportunity for industry veterans to hang out and swap "war stories"...although, I got to say when the biggest thing to come out of a video game expo is a surprise appearance by Keanu Reeves, then it might be time pull the plug.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Another Space Odyssey

Stories Untold was the first release by developer "No Code" and while it oozed style, overall, I was very critical of the game.  The ending, in particular, rubbed me the wrong way.  Sadly, their next outing (a game entitled Observation) has largely the same strengths and weaknesses.

Let me dive in with a bit of positivity by saying this game has top-notch presentation.  Everything from the lighting and environments to the UI puzzles and microgravity physics are fantastic.  The sounds effects are spot-on and the music, most noticeably during the intro credit sequence, is great as well.  Where Observation fumbles though is in the storytelling department.

The basic premise of the game is fine.  In fact it had the potential to be an interesting role reversal.  Unlike most of these kinds of sci-fi experiences wherein the protagonist is a human dealing with an artificial intelligence gone mad, Observation flips things by having the AI be the main character while the humans are the ones losing it.  In this game, players take the role of SAM, a "Service, Administration, and Maintenance" AI severely damaged after an accident aboard it assigned space station.  The human crew are also in a bad way, and need the help of SAM to weather the crisis.  Now, here's the first stumbling block.  Rather than having a branching story path of benevolence, malevolence or somewhere inbetween, the player is essentially railroaded by the plot.  Worse still, said narrative has an awful lot in common with the games Event[0] and SOMA in addition to the film "2001: A Space Odyssey."  While it's possible that the two games are getting a homage treatment, the movie references feel a bit too egregious to be shout-outs.  Here's a list of some similarities:

  • Gas Giant (Jupiter/Saturn)
  • Mysterious Monolith (Hexagon/Sphere/Rectangle)
  • HAL/SAM AI Construct
  • Star Child / Merged Hybrid
  • Gainax Ending

That last bullet point is the real kicker in that despite everything negative I've mentioned thus far, sticking the landing could have been this game's saving grace.  Unfortunately, it's way too ambiguous with far too many questions being left unanswered.  There's also too little information for players to come to their own conclusions.  In my case, I can't really comment on the ending except to say something non-committal like "Uh...okay then."  I think there was some message about global warming and government/corporate obstification, but it was so vague not much (if any) meaning can be extracted from it.  Despite all this, I hope No Code keeps making games.  They obviously have a lot of talent...they just need to work on some of those weak points...

Saturday, June 1, 2019

When Simulators Went Atomic

These days the simulator genre seems to have found its way into all sorts of everyday activities such as cooking, farming, trucking and car maintenance.  Well...what could possibly be more mundane than running an commercial power plant?  Not a whole lot, but what if it were a pressurized water reactor generating electricity through the splitting of the atom?

Released in 1980 for the Atari 400/800 on tape cassette, SCRAM is (as the tagline states) "A Nuclear Power Plant Simulation."  The premise of the game is you, the player, are the operator of a fission power facility.  The goal is to generate as many megawatts of electricity as possible before having to shutdown.  The challenge comes in the form of earthquakes that damage important components, jamming valves or breaking pumps.  The player has a finite number of workers at their disposal who can repair the damage, but once sent out they cannot be used again.  The difficulty can be adjusted by changing the "Risk" factor.  Basically a numerical value that can be set anywhere from zero to nine.  Zero means no earthquakes will happen while nine causes the tectonic plates to start breakdancing.  Overall, the simulation accurately models an actual nuclear power plant in terms of layout and design with some concessions being made for the sake of simplicity.  Also, unlike real power plants there aren't any automatic safety mechanisms...because what would be the fun in that?  Anyway...let's move onto a little word trivia, shall we?

The word "scram," from which the name of the game is derived, actually just serves as another way of saying an emergency shutdown triggered manually by the power plant operator.  Alternatively, if an automatic safety system is responsible for an emergency shutdown then it's called a "trip".  For the longest time many people believed (and perhaps some still do) that the word "scram" is actually an acronym for "Safety Control Rods Activation Mechanism" or "Safety Control Rod Axe Man"...or even "Start Cutting Right Away, Man!"  The latter two being a reference to the guy whose job it was to severe a rope that held the control rods out of the core in the first nuclear reactor ever built, Chicago Pile-1.  In fact it did not work that way, and the word "scram" means just in "get out here!"  I guess at some point nuclear reactor designers concluded that should the situation became so dire as to necessitate someone pressing an emergency shutdown button, said individual should make a run for it immediately after doing so.

Speaking of meltdowns, SCRAM was made as a direct response to the Three Mile Island incident.  Unlike the film "China Syndrome," that came out shortly before the accident (and had no basis in reality), SCRAM was an attempt to educated the general public on how nuclear reactors actually worked.  The temperature and pressure accurately reflect the real thing, as does the underlying mathematical equations used to calculate heat exchange, criticality and so on.  One might be tempted to say the game is pro-nuclear, if not for the fact that SCRAM can only end one of two ways: thermal nuclear meltdown or cold shutdown.  Either way the reactor is no longer producing power, a rather sorry state to conclude things on.  Perhaps SCRAM deserves a spiritual sequel wherein the player must decommission the reactor and gather up any misplaced radioactive waste...sort of like Viscera Cleanup Detail except more educational.