And Do the Other Things

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The 2016 film Houston, We Have a Problem! was released as an English/Slovene language film, premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival. It received some attention at various film festivals at which it played and was nominated as Slovenia’s entry for the Academy Awards Best Foreign Film category. However, it received far more attention for its premise.

The film purports to be an American-made documentary made based upon newly-declassified documents. Those documents show a previously-unknown historical basis for the U.S. manned space program; that it actually was intertwined with Yugoslavian-developed space technology.

As a foreign made film, Houston is bound to appeal to a much smaller audience right of the bat. Also, despite the attention it has received, seems to be difficult to get a hold of. I watched it on Netflix* streaming, but don’t see it available in the other usual places. Amazon doesn’t seem to have it for sale, either as a DVD or as a download, and Netflix has streaming only, no DVD. Netflix must have pushed it on me at some point. I’ve told you all before how I try to avoid reading the synopses of a movie before watching it. In this case, I kind of misread the blurb and thought it was going to be a “the moon landings were faked” film. Once I watched it, I realize the premise is both a lot more interesting, and a lot more complex.

If you want to watch the movie before I discuss it, do so now. This isn’t one of those films where there is a “big reveal” somewhere towards the end. Nevertheless, I believe that most films are meant to be presented in a certain way and are therefore enjoyed best coming into them cold. Fair warning.

So the first half the film develops a premise that the Yugoslavian came into possession of engineer Herman Potočnik‘s advanced rocketry work in the aftermath of the Second World War. The engineering has designed, on paper, a launch vehicle capable of sending humans to the moon. Using this work,  they jump start a space program which, initially, is competitive with the superpowers, getting so far as to launching a pig on a sub-orbital trajectory. At some point, Tito realizes that an expensive space program is a liability, particularly to a nation whose socialist policies are failing to provide for the basic needs. At the same time, the U.S. program is experiencing difficulties in their manned space programs and so Tito markets the Yugoslavian efforts to the Americans.

What’s interesting here is that the film is done absolutely straight. Comparisons are made with This Is Spinal Tap, but while that grandfather of all mockumentaries was made for obvious comedic effect, this one gives only very subtle hints that it is being less than truthful. The packaging material (if you can call it that for a streaming film) heavily emphasizes that the movie is “fake.” Perhaps such warnings are felt to be necessary given how believable the film might be to the unforewarned. The style is exactly what you would expect in a true documentary on the subject. There are current interviews with the participants mixed with archival footage mixed with the documentary crew visiting the key locations in the narrative.

The film proposes that the U.S. and Yugoslavia came to an agreement to transfer the entirety of the Yugoslavia space program to America for a substantial financial sum ($2.5 billion). It then explains that the April 8th, 1961 visit of Tito to Morocco was actually a coverup for the physical transfer of the Yugoslavian space assets to America. In Yugoslavia, the result is that the country succeeds above all the other countries in the Soviet orbit using this injection of Western cash. Meanwhile n the U.S., NASA engineers find out that the Yugoslavian technology is not a solution and, in fact, it has put them even further behind the Russians because now they have dumped billions of the space budget into propping up Tito.

The second half of the film characterizes the entire history of Yugoslavia, from 1961 through to the breakup of the country thirty-one-years later, in light of the ongoing conflict between the President(s) of the United States and Tito to either make the space technology work, or return the money. Again, there is heavy use of period footage shown in a way that clearly (?) supports the proposition. The narrative includes, amusingly, the sale of the failed Yugo automobiles in the U.S. and, ultimately, that the CIA engineered the disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1992 so as to make it easier to recoup the payments made for the space technology.

So the film isn’t really about the space program, U.S., Yugoslavian, or otherwise. In some ways it is about Cold War Yugoslavia, but even that is somewhat incidental. I see several themes here that are what this movie is really about.

First of all, it can be seen as a commentary on “fake news.” As the small print at the end of the credits finally says, some parts of the movie are real and some are utterly false. Watching the movie, could you spot the difference? The only way to discern between the two is to know, a priori, the true history for yourself. An early You Tube teaser for the film apparently resulted in leaving more than half of viewers convinced that, indeed, Yugoslavia had a space program and sold it to the United States.

On top of that, there is another level, presented by philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who opens the film and comments frequently throughout. He is portrayed on a set nearly identical to the one in The Matrix, where Morpheus instructs Neo as to the true nature of the world which he thought was real. Throughout, Žižek questions the nature of reality, deception, and conspiracy theories. One amusing scene has him reacting to his own involvement in the Yugoslavian space story, where he is portrayed as being on the payroll of the CIA.

At least one reviewer also suggested the film is a stab at jugonostalgija (Yugo-nostalgia), the sentiment that life was better under Tito as well as perhaps a hope that someone like him might restore the region to better times. Yugoslavia was a gateway between East and West during much of the Cold War. Tito was allowed some political independence, with which he was occasionally critical of Russian policy. Yugoslavia was allowed more economic interaction with Western Europe which, in part, accounted for a greater level of prosperity compared with the Soviet Republics. Being open, it also served as a showcase for the success of Socialism and thus it was in Russia’s interest for it to have a higher standard of living than the rest of the communist world. As the movie suggests, at least part of that prosperity resulted from playing both sides of Cold War game – itself one of the jugonostalgija legacies of Tito as a shrewd statesman and negotiator.

All-in-all, this is an excellent piece of filmmaking. The same article linked above suggested that the film might pass over the heads of even the more intelligent of viewers, both in the former Yugoslavia and in the United States. That may be true, but the filmmakers have cut a gem for those that can appreciate it.

*Since this post is largely appreciative of Netflix for providing access to a work that might otherwise be unavailable, I’ll mitigate that with a complaint. Netflix has changed the way they display search results. I don’t know how new the change was, but this movie made it obvious. Searching for a movie in the DVD panel will not turn up any results that are streaming only. Likewise, searching in the streaming panel will not turn up the results for available DVDs. When looking for something you want to watch, therefore, it is necessary to search both places.

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I End Up in the Same Old Place

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Fifteen years on, the Cold War looked very different that it did at its start. Initially, while the United States assumed the Soviets had the largest and most powerful army on the planet, the Russians themselves knew that wasn’t so. The Kremlin may well have had a desire to project power globally, but they lacked the resources to do so. Recovery from the Second World War was a huge task, and Stalin knew he did not want to take on the West.

By the early 1960s, the Soviet Union seemed to be much more aggressive internationally, even if it was more bluster than action. Khrushchev emphasized his (largely illusionary) arsenal of ICBM missiles in combination with their early “space race” advances in an effort to force the United States into a negotiation position. For the public, it was seen as a threat of Russian superiority in an eminent World War III requiring rapid advancement in weapons capabilities. The shooting down of Gary Power’s U2 and then the confrontations in Berlin indicated a willingness of the USSR to resort to military force. In May of 1960, the Soviet Union established relations with the communist government in Cuba. The governments of China and Cuba also extended their reach into promoting communist revolution across the globe, leaving the United States with what appeared to be an ever-growing enemy.

Within this context, I am revisiting my look at the Cold War from a strategic level. Before, I looked at the board game Twilight Struggle. This time, I want to focus on computer treatments of the period and I’ll start with the scenarios available for Civilization IV.

Civilization, at its most basic, takes you from the founding of civilization, through today, and beyond. As such, it is bound to pass through the Atomic Era and the post-World War II technologies. Naturally, it is neither particularly suited as a representation of that time nor is it in any way a given that you’ll end up with a binary confrontation between superpowers when that time comes. As the Civilization franchise has evolved, however, the ability to create scenarios with their own special units and technology trees adds the ability to focus on specific eras, perhaps bringing some unique insights to the game as a historical tool.

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The Mexican drug lords have been causing chaos in Texas. Time to send in the troops to bring order to the southern border.

Within Civilization IV, mod-maker MaxRiga put considerable effort into a series of modern mods, specifically targeting on 1901, 1941, 1961, and 2001. There are two scenarios created for the 1961 start, differing in the number of starting civilizations. I decided to start slow and went with the lower number of opponents and an easier setting. I also played as the United States, who starts the game pretty much on top of the world.

I also tried to, at least as far as is possible, funnel my play into the terms of history and interpret what I’m seeing likewise. Of course, this is Civilization. So divisions of Mexicans coming up over the Rio Grande was met with an occupation of both Mexico and Venezuela. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union was seizing smaller, independent African countries.

Civilization isn’t a political and economic simulator, even in so much as it has any realism. So eventually the Cold War is bound to become a hot one, otherwise its going to be a long, boring couple of decades of clicking “End Turn.” In my first game, it was some kind of Suez Crisis type indecent that pushed the world over the brink. Egypt and NATO got into a shooting war. While the United States was able to distance herself from that one, the it was the start of the domino effect. By 1968, I was sucked into a Vietnam-style war in Argentina. Well, not quite. I smoked ’em in about a year and a half.

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High tensions in the Cold War. NATO and the Warsaw Pact glare at each other across the Iron Curtain.

While asymmetric wars with third-world countries abound, a true Cold War situation prevails in Europe. (I think) it is a side-effect of Civilization mechanics, rather than anything too particular about the scenario or the mod. The Soviets have declared war on NATO. However, the border between the two remains rather calm. What I think is happening is, on the outbreak of war, I moved troops into Western Europe, augmenting what the scenario already stationed there. Because the NATO border cities are garrisoned with U.S. troops, it appears the Ruskies can’t make a move without declaring war on the United States. Like the real 1968, proxy wars are one thing, but the Kremlin doesn’t really want full-on war with the Americans.

So each turn has become a tense affair. Is this the turn that the USSR will hit me with a surprise attack? Will they find a hole in the NATO armor, forcing me to intervene? Am I going to regret  diverting all those resources to South America? For a fairly one-dimensional simulation, it actually serves up an interesting parallel of the Cold War. Of course, it can’t hurt that I’m deliberately interpreting everything that happens in that light.

Of course, when it comes down to it, it is still Civilization. When the wars do come about, it is a matter of stacking units in adjacent squares and trying to knock each other down. Rinse and repeat for each city until you get tired of warring. Again, you can try to stretch it into a plausible scenario. For example, I had forgotten how resistant cities were to permanent occupation in Civilization IV due to culture. When the war (above) eventually turned hot, I was able to grab Cuba, Poland, Kiev, Leningrad (NATO took this one), and Moscow before I called it a day. I also took Rostov, which oddly enough is located where Sevastopol should be. While holding on to Cuba was doable, Kiev and Moscow both had to be reverted to the Russians. Poland, now liberated, joined with NATO. Rostov (not Rostov) turned Islamic and joined the Caliphate. All-in-all a better (from the standpoint of the story) outcome than I would have hoped for.

The mod obviously was a lot of effort. There are some oddities, many caused by the Civilization IV palette itself, but others integral to the scenario/mod design. The tech tree gets a little unwieldy, with the U.S. getting a bunch of WWI era units (and German ones at that) when resources get a little thin. The deeper, Cold-War-themed tech tree adds some nice chrome, but it sometimes seems a bit unwieldy.  Particularly if you want to stick to the historical theme. I would like to engage in the Space Race starting in the 1960s, but the mechanics seem to make that prohibitive.

An army-group strength cohort of Navy Seals was representing something for the scenario design, but I’m not sure what. My Apache gunship can really slaughter me some commies in 1968-9, having been an initial placement in the scenario. The new units’ graphics can vary from a pretty nice add to the South Park-y “Modern Infantry.”

The biggest gap, to me, is the absence of nuclear weapons. An inverse missile gap, if you will. Nuclear bombs and their delivery systems would seem to me to be a defining feature for a Cold War game. The presence of a nuclear deterrent also should have kept me from (as I did) rolling through Western Russia in 1969 and completely eliminating the Red Chinese in 1975. One well placed nuke could completely neutralize my forces, but nobody has any nukes. I poured some research into the Manhattan Project and had, at least theoretically, some atomic capability by 1970, but nobody else did, and throughout the 1970s it does not appear that anyone has built a functioning bomb. A Cold War without an Arms Race? Why bother?

Now, Civilization IV is addictive as it ever was. So there is that. Think of it not as a Cold War game, using Civilization as the programming medium. Think of it as a Civilization game with some Cold War chrome. At the latter it is successful.

I’ve not delved too deeply into Civilization V and the modding capabilities, and I haven’t even taken a first glance at Civilization VI (V is hard enough on my graphics card). Civilization IV, with the expansions in place, seem to be the golden age for mods and user-made scenarios. If support for that really has been weakened in the new versions, it is a shame.

Can’t Take Me Home

Following a number of mods, the maker of the Cold War scenario formed his own company and set out to make a Cold War game from the ground up.

I first looked into this game a couple of years ago, when I first started writing about wargames. I was noticing the absence of strategic level Cold War games but came across his website through the above Civilization mods. At the time, the game The Cold War Era was only available as a download from the website. The download options included both a pay version and a demo.

The demo itself was well conceived. In single-player mode, the game is limited to 10 years of play (1950-1959). When playing multiplayer, the most permissive of the two installations prevails. In other words, if you download the “limited” version, but want to play against someone who has the full, paid-for version, you can play the entire game, unrestricted, in multiplayer.

The game itself gets less praise from me.

As I’ve said before, it pains me to be too harsh. This is not a product from some big game company, but from a fellow player and enthusiast who is trying to create games for which he sees a need. In this case, however, he has made a product which he is selling, and so while it may not be fair to compare it to triple-A titles, it is reasonable to compare to other products in the same price range.

The game is a continuous time, grand strategy treatment of the period from 1950 through to (I think) 2000. While it can be paused (and you can still do everything while paused) in single-player mode, when playing multiplayer there is no pausing. At least in the version I have, there is also no saving. So if you are going to play, you had better be prepared to play straight through.

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Two months before the demo-version times out, and I am about to lose. I don’t always know why I lose, I just know that I always do. This was the only game I’ve played that featured armed revolution in West Germany.

Graphics are simple but functional. The user-interface, however, feels less than functional.

The game is a simple one. The world is divided into countries/regions, each of which are either pro-U.S., pro-Soviet, or neutral. Every one of these countries has three areas that you can influence. One is called Influence, and represents the relative domination of the superpowers within the internal politics of that nation. The second is the military, which has the government forces versus insurgent forces. The third is espionage. Having espionage within  a nation allows two other options to either enhance or undermine the stability of that country. Each month, you are able to add influence to any nation on earth in one of these three areas (subject to a couple of caveats), up to the ability of your budget to support it. And that is the entire game. Click, click, click, and then wait for the clock to tick forward (or tick, tick, tick in the case of the actions that take 3 months).

There is more to it. Some of it obvious and some of it under-the-hood. The user manual is, well, let’s just call it a work in progress. For example, it describes the conditions in which “revolution” can be launched, but says nothing about what happens from there. From play, it is clear that an armed revolution prevails when it is unopposed by military forces from the other side. I think. But nothing is said about how military forces are eliminated. One assumes there is some additional random function which uses the relative strengths of the military, but who really can tell?

The user-interface feels patched on to the top of this “real-time spreadsheet” model, as opposed to being designed to present the best gaming experience. It’s not the worst design I’ve seen, but it means the game becomes less one of strategy than a challenge to see if you can keep track of all the moving parts within an interface that doesn’t necessarily highlight them. Winning likely involves being able to click away on a country that your opponent isn’t paying any attention to. Of course, playing single-player can eliminate the frantic feel of the game – I have been playing by pausing at every month to review all of the “hot spots” one-by-one.

Now the biggest caveat in all of this is that I am playing the demo version. The demo version is restricted to a 10-year period up until 1960, but it also seems set up to be nearly unwinnable. Unlike what I think is the normal scenario start, where the two superpower budgets are equal, the demo starts with the player having vastly inferior monetary resources. Add to that, it might be impossible to “win” given only 10 years in which to collect whatever points contribute to that win (again, not explained in the manual). It seems all kind of pointless.

And yet, there is some actual strategy in it. The basic move seems to be to identify neutral countries where you can slowly build support and stoke opposition to that neutral government, and thus be able to flip the government to your side. But the revolution option is a kind of a wild card in this pure-numbers strategy. Winning an armed revolt means flipping all the “opposition” into government, which can suddenly turn a battleground country into a solid lock for one of the superpowers. Within the plan to gain control, you also have to be budgeting for defensive moves as well as advancing along the tech track (Space Race in the basic game, but more to follow). Nothing will ruin your day like discovering that the opponent is about to execute a decisive move, but realizing you don’t have the budget to counter it.

Since I downloaded the demo, it no longer seems to be an option. The Cold War Era has moved its distribution to Steam, and advanced a few version iterations beyond what I have played. The company has also released a sequel, Arms Race – TCWE. The original game now sells for $4.99 and the sequel for $14.99 (the same price as Twilight Struggle, I might point out). The sequel appears to be more of the same, but with better graphics, deeper gameplay, and more bells and whistles. Let’s just say that the cost/benefit hasn’t yet tempted me to buy in at this point.

Another way to look at The Cold War Era is to think of it as a real-time simplification of Twilight Struggle. I say this, because as I was programming my Twilight Struggle opponent, I was thinking of the viability of just such a game. Gone are the Event Cards of Twilight Struggle, and you are left with simply placing Operations Points as a way to vie for control across the Cold War landscape. I think the idea is sound, but I’m not sure the real-time implementation of it actually works.

Sometimes I Feel So Cold

So if Twilight Struggle remains the standard, lets return to that.

My own programmed AI is theoretically capable of making it through an entire game, yet practically speaking, I’m usually met with a thrown exception rather than a victory. It also isn’t that good at winning, although it is good at matching the arc of game play to the historical timeline without being entirely stupid.

Shortly after I wrote my previous Twilight Struggle article, I did in fact spring for the computer version of the game. While much of what I’ve read treats the game as merely an adjunct to table-top play, I think many a gamer would be quite happy with the computer version plus a downloaded copy of the board game rules.

Much of what I’ve speculated upon before purchasing the game has been confirmed now that I’ve played it. The computer opponent is aggressive and challenging and it takes a decent player to beat it. Out the window are any concerns about how the play might conform or deviate from the course of history and, instead, you must concentrate on maximizing your cards’ value within the rules. Well into a game, I’m not sure I even know what countries are controlled or not. Instead, I focus on scanning the board for battleground states with the right combination of own-side and enemy control markers.

Of course, this isn’t a criticism of the computer version. As I said, this stems from the game design and the same would be said about a tabletop game between two competent players. To the contrary, the fact that the computer AI takes the role of “competent player” rather than the more haphazard, exception-throwing personality of my own model is an indication that the programmed opponent has been well done.

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As the U.S., I’m attempting to draw Egypt into the North Yemen Civil War in an effort to destabilize the Nasser government and reduce Soviet influence. It didn’t work.

It is also a well done game all around. It’s an attractive interface that straddles the potentially conflicting needs of looking good on the computer while preserving everything about the board game. The controls work well and are easy enough to be intuitive. I’ve yet to see any crashes, glitches, or bugs. The game is designed to play either against the computer or against another player. I will think more often than not, playing against a friend on the computer would be a nice way to save the trouble of dealing with all the little pieces and such. Especially if you want to split the game over multiple sections, and you have cats, children, or a small apartment to deal with.

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In addition to not having to deal with all the bits and pieces, the player no longer has to do so much math.

Back when, when I first bought the game, I played a couple of times and lost every game. The computer was clearly able to keep more balls in the air than I could, and while I fought him on one front, he finds a continent that I’m not working on to put a solid hold on. I intended to write this article explaining how I was unable to beat the AI.

It was a bit of an embarrassing position to be in. Shortly after I bought the game, I was telling a another gamer (of both computer and board games) about my purchase and he said something to the effect of , “yeah, that’s a good little game. I like to use it as training tool to prepare for board game nights.” Similar conversation has surrounded the game since it was first obvious that a computer version was coming out – that the audience was going to be the tabletop player who wanted a fix between opponents. To find that the game was too good for me to play against, well that is kind of embarrassing.

So I picked the game up again before I started writing so it will all be fresh in my mind, and I actually won my first game (both first game this year and first game I won). This win came despite being a little rusty with the rules. So I guess the AI isn’t the master that I’d assumed before. But though I am winning, the games are tense affairs with everything I do seeming to be critical. The game has a setting to handicap the game one way or the other, but I’m not entirely sure how that works or how effective it would be once one can reliably beat the AI.

While it’s nice to have some options for the cold war conflict on a strategic level, what I don’t feel here is a sense of the early 1960s. The Berlin Wall, The Bay of Pigs, Gary Powers U2 downing, Kennedy’s announcement of the Moon race, and the Tsar Bomba all hit the public consciousness in a matter of a year or two. So while strategically, we can’t really capture the spirit of the time, perhaps we can do better with some specific, nuclear-themed scenarios from CMANO.

(on to Part 2).

 

Crimes Against Humanity

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There are some technologies that mankind was never meant to possess.

At the top of that list must fall the artificial intelligence technology being used to digitally alter the faces in movie performances. I first witnessed it in the film Rogue One, where deceased or just aged actors were recreated digitally. It looked really unpleasant to me (and to many others), traveling deeply down into that uncanny valley.

Since that time, the technology has been spread. The Rogue One work was done by the Industrial Light & Magic team, but other companies now make the technique available to movie makers across the industry. At the start of this year, an open-source version of the technology was made available under the name FakeApp. The program allows anyone to upload videos and imagery, which is then processed using Google’s AI, to create a version of a video with the subject’s face swapped out with another. The primary user for this technology seems to be to make celebrity porn.

In the film I, Tonya the technology was used to put actress Margot Robbie’s face on her stunt double during close-up scenes reproducing Tanya Harding’s most famous skating performances. To me, the digital cut-and-paste leapt off of the screen like a sore thumb. I suppose any technique used to obscure the fact that you are using a stunt double will be a distraction, but this way seems more wrong than most. One wonders how far and in what direction this will be taken, to what detriment for acting and the art of filmmaking.

That aside, I, Tonya is a great film by nearly every measure.

I See the Works of Gifted Hands

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Once again, I start my experience with a new (to me) game with a rude surprise.

After installing the game Bioshock and clicking on the opening menu, nothing. The mouse buttons had reversed from my left-handed mouse set up. Fortunately, the actual control which takes place through the mouse buttons (namely using your weapon) can be reprogrammed, so I could switch, for in-game use, to the natural (for me) set up. For the menus, however, I’ll just have to get used to it because, as a whole, the mouse is not configurable.

Having got used to that, I started the game with its opening plane crash. I hit the water and emerged, apparently, deaf.

There is a problem with the game installation, not just for me, that the sound doesn’t work. The sound during the intro worked fine, but once I was into the game engine – no sound. I tried fiddling with the settings to no avail and finally did a search on-line. Turns out, if you have a microphone connected to your computer, then the sound works. If not (at least with my setup), then nothing. There may be other ways to fix it, but I’d rather not dink around with settings if I can just plug in a web cam while I play.

Of course, The Zuck can listen in on me now, but its the price I pay for playing games.

It also turns out that the game is a lot spookier with the sound on. It’s an impressive game overall. Nice graphics rendered in the Unreal Engine (version 2.5, if you are counting) and, with the graphics/sound combination, an immersive horror movie ambiance. It may be fifteen-year-old good-looking, but when you’re used to looking at old games on an old computer, that’s still good-looking in my book.

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Lookin’ good. By the way, there is a lot of water.

Bioshock imagines the world of 1960 wherein a wealthy industrialist creates an underwater city that will allow him and like-minded thinkers to prosper without the heavy hand of government. You, the player, start the game in a plane that is about to crash. You manage to get free of the wreckage and find yourself in the ocean near one of the access points to this city below the sea. Entering, you find that something has gone wrong and the city is in chaos. You need to navigate the city (Rapture), figure out what is going on, and (of course) survive.

The release of the game in August 2007 was a combined Xbox 360 and PC release. While making it technically not a console port, it was clearly developed targeted to the console world. Some initial criticism of the PC version, particularly around the SecurROM copy protection, probably bent initial sales towards the console version. Current sales, in excess of 4 million units, may well favor the PC.

I’ve never been a big player of the First Person Shooter genre. Up to this point, I can probably count the number of FPS games I’ve played on one hand. While I spent significant time with a couple of them, the only one I think I’ve ever “finished” is Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. So in many ways, what is old hat to the rest of the world is still new to me.

That in mind, I can see the DOOM roots of Bioshock’s gameplay. The gradual upgrade of weapons, the scattered first-aid kits – its a variation on a well-used theme. The trick for much of the genre is that the game has to shepherd the player through, essentially, a linear progression of events while at the same time making the player feel he is in a fully-developed world where anything is possible.

In DOOM, there wasn’t much of a story behind it. There are these monsters all around and if you kill them all, you’ll find your way to another level where there are – more monsters. Once I moved on to Allied Assault, there is a story story that starts to mask the linear nature of the gameplay. It took me a couple of deaths and replays to realize just how linear the game still was. Until then, I actually felt that I was rushing forward to complete my mission, fighting in some corner of the World War II. A game like Bioshock adds yet another layer, with a complex story underlying the shooting and the missions. There is a mystery to be solved. Who are these people and what went wrong? And what does that have to do with me?

True story. When I first started playing DOOM (handed to me by the same guy who gave me Civilization II), I spent a lot of time on the first level. It took me a while to get a handle on being able to find, shoot, and kill the zombie/marines. Then, at some point, I managed to clear the level and find all the hidden goodies. What I seemed to be unable to do was to find the door to the next level. I’m not even sure I knew there was next level, exactly, but I was pretty sure that the game wasn’t over. The funny thing was that, because the idea of a first-person view of a 3D, explorable world was so novel to me, I spent far more than you’d think possible simply wandering around that first level. Eventually I found the door to the next level, and progressed through a few more, but I may have had my most fun with that initial, introductory level, where I could enjoy the scenery and not worry about the game being too hard.

Similarly with Bioshock, as the game ramps up in difficulty I’m worried that it could come at the expense of enjoying the environment. Fortunately, the “easy” level that I’m now playing on seems quite manageable even for a non-FPS player with naturally slow reflexes.

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Hacking the control system of some Rapture machinery.

One interesting aside in that environment that I’ve included in the above screenshot. One of the minigames is the ability to hack the control systems of various pieces of machinery. Entering that game, you are displayed what appears to be a sort of hydraulic computer. More ambiance, subtly placed to amuse those who look for it.

As the backstory goes, Rapture’s founder Andrew Ryan, left regular American society some time in the 1940s. In 1949, back in the real world, a computer was constructed using hydraulic logic circuitry (MONIAC) as dedicated economic simulator. One must imagine, I suppose, that Rapture’s development into the 1960s, isolated from the rest of the world, has perfected computer design much faster than on the surface (obvious, we have intelligent, autonomous machines about), but followed a completely different path from the surface’s electronics evolution.

Point being, it is a good game and an engaging world in which the game takes place.

Inspirational/Demotivational

Th origin of the Bioshock concept came when project director Kevin Levin was visiting Rockefeller Plaza. He took the art deco style of the plaza and the statue of Atlas that resides there and began to build the game around it. The story of Andrew Ryan is very loosely based on John D. Rockefeller and his private funding to create Rockefeller Center. In game terms, that turned into Andrew Ryan’s construction of the underwater city of Rapture as a Galt’s Gulch stand-in.

It is worth noting that this theme-epiphany merely put the chrome icing on an already baked cake. Levin, a key player on the System Shock 2 team, had been working on a sequel to that game. Already developed was the three-way mechanic. The first leg of the trio are the low-level attackers, always after you and, while easy to kill, also carrying a valuable resource. Next is a defenseless harvester, who collects the resource. The third is a powerful protector that exist only to guard the harvesters.

Nonetheless, reviews of the game (which were very positive) often focused on the political dimensions of the game. In interviews I’ve seen, Levine has made statements about drawing from works such as Atlas Shrugged, 1984, and A Brave New World. But one of these things is not like the other. While dystopian art often (perhaps necessarily) draws on the dystopian works that preceded it, with Atlas Shrugged, the script is flipped. The dystopian portion of Atlas Shrugged is caused by government intervention. It is Ayn Rand’s proxy and heroine of the story, Dagny Taggart, along with her friends that are out to save the world. In Bioshock, Ayn Rand’s proxy, Andrew Ryan, has created the dystopia. So far, so artistically-licensed.

The press, however, glommed on to the anti-Rand angle with a gusto. As I said, the “political” component of the game was praised and the relationship to Atlas Shrugged was emphasized in many of the written reviews. The first article or two I read, back when the game was new, lead me to believe it was actually a straight telling of the Rand story.

Atlas Shrugged is ripe for ridicule. Upon its release, it received many negative reviews both for its writing and for the content. Even positive reviews admitted that the book was “no literary giant.” It is an extraordinarily long book consisting of unfathomably long soliloquies. Despite all that, it was immediately popular. Three days after its publication, it was #13 on the New York Times Bestsellers List. Within a few months, it had risen to its peak slot, #3. The publication of the novel also launched, for Ayn Rand, a life of expounding up the them of the book as a new philosophical theory. Throughout the 1960s, she gave lectures and published newsletters endeavoring to develop Objectivism as an influential philosophy.

I, personally, have a hard time taking the “scholarly” component of Rand’s work too seriously. Attempting to derive all human interaction as laws formed from first principles doesn’t seem to be a productive activity, particularly when few are going to agree with that derivation in the first place. While many of the ideas are sound, and find broad acceptance among libertarians, the various Objectivist groups somtimes seem to elevate interpersonal drama over actually improving society.

I don’t know how much one should really blame Levin for this. It is an easily defensible proposition to say that if a John Galt were to form a Galt’s Gulch, it would become a utopian paradise but if an Andrew Ryan were to form a similar Rapture, the result could be a societal and technological collapse. Some folks on the development team may have relished skewering Rand more than others, but I’m not sure that the game is explicitly saying Libertarianism = Somalia.

That said, Bioshock was released in 2007 (I know, I said that already). In that same month, it became apparent to the world that the subprime lending market was in serious trouble. In September, the Federal Reserve began lowering interest rates in an attempt to stave off crisis and in October the Bush administration announced a program to assist subprime borrowers. Following both of these announcement, there was a huge spike in purchases of Atlas Shrugged. So huge was this renaissance that the book hit the #1 Literature and Fiction spot Amazon.com in April of 2009.

Within this new world of Tea Partiers and anti-Obama sentiment, it would seem like a mass-media attack on laissez-faire capitalism was just what the Obamacare-funded doctor ordered. Before the backlash election of 2010, it seemed that if I mentioned libertarian politics, I first had to explain that I wasn’t talking about the John Birch Society. Post 2010? I recall hearing a teachers’ union activist outside a polling place railing about how Republicans were bad enough, but at least you could deal with them. “But those Libertarians!!!”

Will less government turn Galt’s Gulch into Rapture or turn America into Somalia? Do even the most zealous of progressive activists really believe that? I have to doubt it. My guess is it is simply political rhetoric meant to influence the less committed who, nevertheless, might take their side with the right prodding. Particularly in that context, the glee that one might greet a mass-market media anti-Capitalist indoctrination makes a lot of sense, if you are a reporter on the left.

But as it always must, that pendulum may be again swinging the other way.

The events at the end of the aughts made common cause between many conservatives and libertarians. All could largely agree that Obamacare, Federal Debt, massive stimulus, etc., were what needed to be stopped in order to save the country. Whether one came about that through American tradition, a belief in free markets, the Non-Aggression Principle, or “A is A” seemed fairly immaterial.

Recently I’ve seen a couple of conservative attacks on Libertarianism as an inferior basis for guiding principle, vis-à-vis conservatism.This is not so out-of-the-ordinary. Even at its best, the alliance is an uneasy one. Add to that the surge in third party support as a result of the 2016 election, and conservatives start to see a threat in Libertarian candidates throwing close elections to the Democrats.

This past weekend, I read an article in the Wall St. Journal* attacking the Enlightenment which, to me at least, is a new one. The article is meant as a riposte to a new book by Steven Pinker and a year-old editorial** by David Brooks, the latter criticizing the Brexit movement and the political support for Donald Trump. This is the first I’d encountered, second hand as I did, the argument that The Donald and Brexit are anti-Enlightenment movements. Such an thesis, if I am understanding it, is that modern conservatism no longer has its roots in the Enlightenment Age which founded this country, but that it must be the progressive left which defends this foundation of the modern world.

Of course I’m reading a lot into some specific arguments and generalizing the sentiment, which has its dangers. The point is not to set up a strawman just to knock it down. However, this argument from the left is merely and extension of the Science! exclamations; the assertion that conservatives are fundamentally anti-science and anti-logic. That is, I think I see a coherent part of a larger narrative.

The counterargument in the Journal claims that when pinning all that is good onto the lapel of the Enlightenment you are, quite simply, wrong. In what, in some other political climate, might take the form as an urge toward moderation, the article describes how the glories attributed to the Enlightenment have their roots in pre-Enlightenment conservatism; “a blend of tradition and skepticism.” While America’s Enlightenment experiment produced 200+ years of prosperity and happiness, France’s did not turn out so well. (Echos of the Galt’s Gulch versus Rapture outcomes here). The author (Yoram Hazony) follows the logic of Enlightenment thinkers through the French Revolution, Karl Marx’s theories, and the massive slaughter of Communism.

I guess I am too underdoctrinated in leftist theory to automatically translate a critique of Kant, Descartes, and Locke into a knock against feminism, linguistic philosophy, or other standards of the left academic elite. What I do see within Hazony’s criticism, however, is a reflection of several of the libertarian philosophies, including Objectivism. Furthermore, it would seem that Libertarianism is much more the heir to the Enlightenment than Progressivism. Even the Brooks article cites Marxism and the governments of Lenin, Stalin and Mao as an anti-Establishment force.

So is this actually a criticism of libertarians? Or more of liberals? How about just of Pinker and Brooks, and one shouldn’t read too much between the lines? For myself, my mind immediately jumped to those other critiques of libertarians as unsuitable allies for the conservative cause.

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She was low down and trifling and she was cold and mean. Kind of evil make me want to grab my sub machine.

After all this cogitating, I come back to the thought that maybe I should take Levine and his creation on face value. Maybe he has just developed a narrative that combine various vintage, dystopian stories into something new for his video game. Maybe all these political layers were created by the reviewers and commentators, who wanted to see more to it than there is. Playing the game, I am not overwhelmed by moralizing***. Yes, there is a backstory, but I’m more focused on shooting my enemies while trying to solve the mysteries than mull over the role of government in society.

*The Wall St. Journal articles are generally behind a paywall. In this case, I was able (using Google) to get a version that is available in its entirety, without a subscription.  The link, above, is that result. If that doesn’t work, perhaps Googling the article name would work. It is called The Dark Side of the Enlightenment, not to be confused by the book with the same name.

**The New York Times payroll can also be pretty strict. The same caveats apply from the previous footnote.

***The Little Sister mechanic (see last screenshot) in the game is, in fact, an attempt to introduce morality into the game. The play must make a choice (SPOILER ALERT) as to whether to kill or save the little girls in the game. In saving them, you forgo some of the reward. But will doing the “right” thing be better in the long run?

Evil Woman

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I continue making my way through The Scottish Chiefs.

It continues to be a tough row to hoe. Occasionally barely readable, sometimes ridiculous, and once in a long while actually exciting. The story continues to pit the saintly and honorable true Scotsmen against those venal and greedy curs who would sell dear Scotland out. It has also become clear to me that much of William Wallace’s tragic troubles spring from the machinations of one particular woman – a woman whose unrequited longings leave her preferring to destroy Scotland rather than allow Wallace the affections of another. (Not that he would bite at that, being so pure and saintly as he is).

Porter (a woman herself, I might remind you) refers to all women as the “dangerous sex.” Nevertheless, there are a few good and pious souls to offset our antagonist. It is an interesting view to try to make sense of, some two-hundred years on. The author clearly sees that a woman’s virtues are in her intellect and independence, as well as moral character. They also seem to suffer (at least the good ones) from anemic constitutions, being terribly prone to the vapors at nearly any emotional strain. Yet, it is also clear that the author sees these virtues as being fundamentally opposed to the nature of women. Unlike men, who can find their manly virtues flowing effortlessly through them, women must always be on guard against their baser desires conquering them.

Last night, I came across another bizarre scene, as seen through modern eyes. William Wallace is ambushed at night by a bunch of traitorous rogues. They come upon him sleeping in a barn, snuggling with a teenage boy. Here, read for yourself:

The moon shone full into the hovel and shed a broad light upon their victims. The innocent face of Edwin rested on the bosom of his friend, and the arm of Wallace lay on the spread straw with which he had covered the tender body of his companion. So fair a picture of mortal friendship was never before beheld, but the hearts were blind which looked on it, and Monteith gave the signal.

Is it just me, or do you find that a bit… odd?

In the midst of all this sexual tension, the Lords of Scotland hear tell of an incursion by King Edward’s army and, not being Wallace, panic and freeze. Fortunately, the much persecuted Wallace once again rides off to save the day.

What follows is a pitched battle, during which the exhortations of Wallace wins the day. It seemed to take the story a step too far – making up an entirely fictitious battle for Wallace to prove his saintly manhood by, once again*, winning against all odds. There were some geographical references in the text, so I did some searching wondering if any of it had some scant basis in fact.

Turns out, this was perhaps the most accurate portrayal of the historical battle so far in the book.

The clash being described was the Battle of Roslin (February 24th, 1303). It really happened, was accurately placed by the book in both place and time, and played out very much as described in the book. Far from being some obscure encounter, it may have been the largest battle of the First Scottish War of Independence. While most present day accounts do not place William Wallace at the battle (and certainly not as the Scots’ commander), there are accounts that suggest he was in fact present for that fight. It is not impossible, given what is known about his post-Falkirk activities.

The battle occurred when an English army moved north into Scotland to plunder and otherwise retaliate against the rebellious Scots. They had thus far met with little opposition and did not expect the Scottish armies to be capable of challenging them. When they moved into the vicinity of Roslin, the invading army of some 30,000 had been divided into three “battles,” and were split into three separate camps.

Scottish cavalry, roughly 8,000 strong, were under the command of Wallace’s replacement as Guardian of Scotland and claimant to the Scottish throne John Comyn as well as Scottish knight Simon Fraser. Having performed a night-march, they fell upon the first of the three English camps with complete surprise, routing or capturing the entire English army. Replenishing their horses, supplies, and weapons from the English camp, they move to engage the second Battle. By this time, the English had been warned of the Scottish attack and had formed up for battle. The result was considerably less of a route, but the Scots were again victorious, and again fell to plundering the English camp.

At this point, the third English Battle had been organized and arrived upon the field, ready to fight. Even facing but a third of the English army, the Scots likely were outnumbered. Besides that, they had just fought two battles, at least one of which was a fairly close fight. It is recorded that this desperate battle was about to go against the Scots, but a few great speeches from their leaders (Comyn and Fraser, for real, Wallace in the the novel) turned the tide and gave the third victory to the Scots.

Details of the battle and tactics do not seem to have been preserved beyond the description, above. Losses were not recorded, save for some of the nobility who were captured and killed. While a great morale boost for the Scots at the time, the victory had little strategic value. The loss motivated King Edward to do better the next time and his invasion of 1304 gained nearly complete control of Scotland.

I’ve yet to come across even maps of the battle, much less a scenario created as a wargame. With the right engine and the right design, it could be worth putting together. I’m imagining something similar to the treatment of Jackson’s flank attack at Chancellorsville, which has been done.

Sadly, all I seem to have is The Scottish Chiefs.

*In the book, Wallace even manages to emerge victorious at Falkirk. While during the battle proper he is defeated by a vastly larger foe (who include the Bruces in their ranks) as well as treachery from his own side, he salvages the situation afterward. In the night, he leads the remnants of his armies against the British camps, and routes the entire English army from Scotland. Even Mel didn’t take it that far.

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To the Stars Through Difficulties

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The Scarecrow listened carefully, and said, “I cannot understand why you should wish to leave this beautiful country and go back to the dry, gray place you call Kansas.”

“That is because you have no brains” answered the girl. “No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home.”

The Scarecrow sighed.

“Of course I cannot understand it,” he said. “If your heads were stuffed with straw, like mine, you would probably all live in the beautiful places, and then Kansas would have no people at all. It is fortunate for Kansas that you have brains.”

B-B-B-Benny and the Jets

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Playing Twilight Struggle put a focus on an otherwise little-considered arena of the Cold War, the newly-independent nation of the Philippines. The islands of that country provide a key node in the game, being the only link between Japan and Indonesia, the latter of which connects into the battleground (not, literally, in Twilight Struggle terms) countries of Southeast Asia.

When I was last looking at that game (surprisingly, it been a year-and-a-half), I did a little reading about the Hukbalahap Rebellion as a historical equivalent to the early war machinations in the Philippines. That insurgency saw a peasant organization which had fought against the Japanese occupation now at odds with the new and newly-independent (from the U.S.) government. The government had a number of reasons it didn’t trust “the Huk,” (as the insurgent group is called), from its anti-landlord politics, its close ties with other communist organizations, and alleged bad actions during the Second World War. The counter-insurgency lasted from fall of 1946 through the spring of 1954, when it largely petered out.

A CMANO scenario set in June of 1958 imagines that the Huk was more successful that it really was and, by 1958, has control of a significant portion of Luzon and threatens, with Soviet help, to expand the revolution country-wide. The United States finds itself intervening on the side of the Filipino government with an available carrier task force.

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The Bennington Task Force of the coast of the Philippines. I’ve managed to take out one bridge so far, but the airport (that clump of three enemy targets) seems better defended. My carrier is right in the path for non-hostile planes landing at the airfield, so tensions are high as unidentified planes pass right overhead.

The scenario is purely hypothetical. The Huk Rebellion was entirely over by the time the scenario takes place. Furthermore, in May of 1958, the USS Bennington was between cruises. Bennington was actually deployed during the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis during a cruise that began on August 21st, 1958. The “Benny’s Sweep” incident imagines something like a Korea or a Vietnam, but with a technology that straddles the two periods. The air groups are pretty much what one would have expected from a Korean War deployment, but some newer technology is involved. For example, the first combat deployment of Air-to-Air Sidewinder missiles occurred during the Second Taiwan Straight Crisis. In this scenario, the missiles are ready to use in the Philippines. These are an earlier (less capable) model of those that would be used in Vietnam, but we also are facing the relative less effective anti-aircraft cannons rather that Surface-to-Air missiles.

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Some advanced tech showing its stuff. Some AGM-12, really still in R&D in 1958, are peppering the runways. Bringing up the rear, I got some advanced-design air-launch rockets which I’ll be unloading on an anti-aircraft battery.

The scenario is user-made, but it seems to be a pretty solid (and fun) one. It doesn’t really explain why the U.S. needs to start blowing up stuff in the Philippines with only a single carrier at the ready, except to cite “other international obligations” preventing other forces from being there. It also mentions that the U.S. finds the situation in the Philippines “intolerable” implying, I suppose, that delaying an airstrike is impossible.

Spoiler Warning (perhaps) in the next screenshot/paragraph.

 

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The Russian cruiser Dzerzhinsky lurks off to the Southwest of the operational area, but could get dangerous. See also the contact designated GOBLIN #103. Who else but the Soviets have submarines?

The Huk’s forces aren’t terribly effective, and as the U.S. you can operate from a position of superior firepower. I do like these scenarios. This superiority is tempered by the presence of Soviet forces in the vicinity. While not hostile initially, it is a fair bet that they would be happy to sink a U.S. carrier if given half a chance. A cruiser against a pair of destroyers is not a fight I want to have. While the Huk also have naval assets, they seem easy enough to steer around or defeat as needed.

In 1949, American was fairly certain the Soviets were behind the rebellion in the Philippines. The U.S. had close ties to the Filipino government and provided counter-insurgency funding, but the conflict ended without escalating into another Korea or Vietnam.

In 2018, we are just as certain that the Soviets were not involved with the Huk. While the movement found fellow political travelers among the communist groups in the Philippines, those communists tended to look down on the peasants as too simple to understand and advocate for Marxist theory. Even still, it would surprise me if the Soviets weren’t at least interested in causing heartache for a U.S. ally as well as exerting a global reach. In 1949, however, their resources were rather limited and it is quite possible that whatever aid they might have tried to provide to the Huk would have been limited on that account.

By 1958, however, it may well have been a very different story. I find it hard to believe that the Soviet Union would not have backed a Filipino uprising simply because they were peasants and, as such, not fully up-to-snuff on dialectical materialism. A post-Sputnik Russia, on the other hand, may well have had the resources to do what they may have been unable to do in 1949 or 1950.

Hectored

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I’ve watched Troy before. Many times. I saw it for the first time through a rather freak invitation to the U.S. premier. To relive my night amongst the stars, I picked up the DVD.

Now, Troy is being removed from Netflix, so I’ll watch it again before it goes. It’s late, I’m tired, and I’m in the mood for something I don’t have to pay much attention to.

Troy is not a great movie, but it is better than the criticism would imply. The movie takes its story from the Illiad, but fairly loosely. One negative review I read complained about the absence of the gods from the movie which, I suppose, they considered the key element of the story.

Instead, Troy is a particular genre of historical fiction that imagines a fictional story as if it were true. One can’t possibly swallow the narrative of the Illiad whole, but if the epic is based on historical fact, what might those historical facts have looked like?

Given that as a goal, the movie is almost absurdly anachronistic, featuring weapons and armor nearly a thousand years offset from the likely timeframe of the Trojan War. The drawings of the Trojan War, created during the Greek Classical Period, reflect the reality of the time in which the artists lived, not lifetimes of the subjects. The mindset of mankind 3000 years ago did not much consider the advance of technology, and therefore people generally imagined the people of hundreds of years earlier existing much as they, themselves would live. The same can likely be said of 1000 years ago (or less). So using the Greek’s own art to portray “realism” in the illustrated story is, right away, going to cause some problems.

In spite of this, the film offered to me some enlightening images of what might have happened in a real-life Trojan War that could eventually be remembered as the what happens in the Iliad. To put it more accurately, what if modern minds were put into 7th century BC Greek arms and armor and sent to re-fight a, perhaps mythical, 13th century battle. Even still, film weaves this modernized portrayal of a “realistic” Troy with allusions to the mythological aspects of Homer’s version as well as portions of Homer’s dialog.

I am reminded of Michael Crichton’s book Timeline. In that novel (also a movie, although we don’t like to think about that), modern university students are transported back in time to the Hundred Years War. One of the those students, who is a modern expert in Medieval weaponry, is shocked by the style of fighting he sees. From today’s perspective, we imagine knights in plate armor stumbling around under the weight of all that steel, clumsily bashing at each other with swords. In reality, these combatants must have spent their entire lives perfecting the ability to move and fight. Our fictional observe inherently knew, but was still surprised, to see the speed and skill of the medieval warrior.

This was my first impression when I watched Troy. In the poems, Achilles and Hector and the like are portrayed as magical in their ability to fight and slay their enemies. In reality, they were just people. But to be a person whose fighting abilities would be remembered some 3000 years on, one imagines that such skill would have been honed to the point of artistry. While we imagine someone living 3000 years ago as unsophisticated, they were almost certainly at least as skilled at navigating their world as we are with our own.

It is probably best not to dwell too deeply on the details, but at least at a superficial viewing, the combination of Pitt’s performance and whoever did his stunts for him suggests a level of skill and athleticism that, while hardly other-worldly, certainly might have been perceived as such by those who found themselves at the pointy end of Achilles’ spear.

A contrasting portrayal is found in the fight between Paris and Menelaus. Paris is characterized as a novice to warfare – a lover not a fighter. When he challenges the Greek king to single combat, he is clearly outmatched. This is shown by camera work which depicts Paris’ point of view. He sees the fight through the eye holes of his (anachronistic) helmet, and the viewer is impressed with the lack of awareness that an unskilled soldier might have felt in such armor. Paris sees the confident and capable movements of Menelaus, and we are reminded of the difference in skill levels between one of Homer’s “heroes” and what we ourselves might be capable of under the same conditions.

I read (or maybe watched) somewhere that part of how the director (Wolfgang Petersen) prepared the actors, particularly for their final face-off, was to push the two leads to be competitive in everything. As Pitt and Bana prepared for and rehearsed their roles, they were challenged to outdo one another. The end result was not just to get them looking the part but to intensify the conflict between them because they were genuinely (if only figuratively) at each other’s throats.

While the film did have its pluses, it also had its pitfalls. The acting was one-dimensional, with an always-stoic Brad Pitt clenching his jaw at a perpetually forlorn Eric Bana. The script was a bit flat as well, with an over-emphasis on simple themes – the primary one being the trade-off between a happy life and eternal glory, taken from the Iliad itself. This too may justify some of the awkwardness of the dialog less attributable to the skill of the scriptwriters and more to the difficulty of taking Homer’s almost alien prose and human interaction, and mixing it in with the contemporary language and themes that are also in the film.

While I actually favored the version of the story where the gods are portrayed as a superstitious belief rather than actual, physical representations in the battle, other deviations from the original story make less sense. The entirety of the Iliad takes place at the end of a ten-year siege of Troy. In the movie, starting as it does with the abduction (?) of Helen, needs to smoothly transition between the start of the invasion and the end of the war. It does so by making it all take place within a few days – the Greeks land on the beach on day one and fight the Trojans in open battle before the walls (where the Iliad opens) on the following morning. While a few more days pass before they slip into the city within the Trojan Horse, the entire decade long wars seems to have been condensed into little more than a week.

The time distortion causes other problems. For example, Achilles is shown in the movie ready to fight and die over Briseis after she is taken from him by Agamemnon. We later see that he is considering giving up the war with Troy, and eternal glory, to return to Greece and make Briseis his wife. This is all taken, after being jumbled around a little bit, from the Iliad. But in the Iliad, Achilles has been living with Briseis for years, and the relationship has had time to develop since he killed her husband and made her his captive. In the movie? Achilles goes from oblivious to obsession in a matter of a few hours. Portrayals of love in ancient texts are often quite detached from reality but, at least in this case, the Iliad seems to make a lot more sense than this modern film version.

Petersen’s work runs that gamut of quality from good (The Perfect Storm) to great (Das Boot) to mediocre (Poseidon). But he has a string of box offices successes that entitle him to make big budget movies less than your typical big budget subjects. While you and I may have made Troy different, it took Wolfgang Petersen to make it. I also have to thank him for his indirect role in getting me that premier ticket.

All This Science, I Don’t Understand

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While I was looking into some information on ICBM development (relative to the SAC games I was playing), I remembered the very popular game of yesteryear, Buzz Aldrin’s Race Into Space. Except that I couldn’t remember that it was actually called “Buzz Aldrin’s Race Into Space.”

I began googling “Race for Space” and came across instead an old “board game” (sort of) from… well, I have no idea. Probably at least 20 years ago.

No copies of the game seem to be for sale anywhere and there is very little detail, either direct or descriptive, about the contents and working of the game. But this image…

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Some geeky charts, lifted from a review on Board Game Geek.

really has me intrigued; a very numbers-heavy modeling of R&D costs for spacecraft development presented as a visual space-and-counter game. The engineer in me wants to work through these charts and their ability to predict development. It looks like a nice way to depict the space development process, with the potential of getting stuck iterating on a design (without making progress) or hitting a technological dead-end.

A very similar game (who inspired whom, I have no idea) called Liftoff! was released in 1989. That looked much more like a real game, with board, cards, money (megabucks), and even a poster (woo-hoo!) included in the colorful box. Of course, we wouldn’t expect to find 30-year-old games of this type still on the shelves, so this too is something that, in 2017, is left to admire from afar.

One of the more interesting points, though, is that Liftoff! was turned into a computer game called “Buzz Aldrin’s Race into Space” (Oh right… that was the name). In 1993 BARIS, as it is often referred to, was released for MS-DOS, and like Steel Panthers, the BARIS story managed to put a happy coda onto its eventual commercial end. When the developer ceased work on the game, he released the source under a GPL license and the executable as freeware. It has since been ported to Windows, and undergone minor improvements, as well as being available as phone/tablet app.

Of course, when people are still pouring time and effort into 25-30 year old stuff, it only makes sense that a “modern” version might sell. Enter Leaving Earth on your tabletop and Buzz Aldrin’s Space Program Manager on your desktop – not to mention the crazy popularity of Kerbal Space Program and its physics simulation. Leaving Earth streamlines, simplifies, and converts entirely to a card game, the mechanics of the Space Race simulation – making a modern game to replace the old classics. BASPM (that’s not cool like BARIS, is it?) revamps the graphics and adds technical depth to the old classic.

So a quest to figure out what those charts meant left me with far too many games to contemplate. When in doubt, start with the freeware.

BARIS

The freeware version still has the original graphics and interface, but it runs as a (really tiny) window on the modern desktop. In my time spent with the program, I have seen no crashes and no obvious bugs. I will rank it among the better efforts to salvage an old DOS program that I’ve seen. Of course, it is still a 25-year-old game. The features of the game, such as the videos (compiled, mostly, from actual footage), do not make for the most exciting interactions. Even when it was newly on the shelves, The Guardian criticized the game as being “lifeless.”

As I have complained about before, the interface employs what at the time was considered a neat trick. Improved graphics, and the ability to deliver more and better within a game via CD, inspired a form of UI where the player interacts with “the real world” by navigating through (in this case) the various buildings of the space facility to initiate actions. Between the painstaking navigation from building to building and the necessity to prepare, possibly years in advance, for missions, this nifty interface makes it tougher than in needs to be to do what you need to do. Particularly annoying are the buildings you have to click on simply to confirm that the parameters set up elsewhere are, indeed, to be applied. Especially in contrast to current games that help the user along, this is game that probably requires keeping a notebook outside of the game to get it right.

I played through one time without relying on the manual and the result was a bit confusing. After getting far enough in, and pretty much failing in my charge as Space Director, I then turned to the manual for clues. I realize that the failure of the undirected trial-and-error approach is probably designed in purposely. By design, the game allows you to take actions for expedience’s sake that ultimately will result in failure. Rather than just make it obvious (e.g. a rule that says you can’t fly a man mission without X hours testing) it attempts to “teach” you why such a rule would be necessary by mathematical equations based on probability. It is a useful lesson, to be sure, but does it make for the best game? That, I’m not so sure.

As I alternate between game and manual, I think I begin to see the intended use for this game. First, several play-throughs will be necessary to learn the mechanics. There are certain rhythms in the game that a player has to learn. How to keep funding balanced over the budget cycle, for example, or the two-turn cycle necessary to setup launches. Once that is mastered, then several more play-throughs will be required to get the hand of the development/risk cycle. For example, when is a lack of research and testing going to end up in dead astronauts and program failures versus when a excess of research and testing will slow the program to a crawl? Finally, the player can embark in a new series of games focused on finding alternate development paths to get to the moon.

rocket-sputnik

The Soviets get a jump in the Space Race. So far, so historical.

It seems to me that an awful lot of playtime is required to get to the actual purpose of the game. It is designed, perhaps, for when a player might purchase the game at full price and then dedicate months to master it. It is not a design that favors grabbing a quick download to enjoy for a night or two.

rocket-benhur

Another goal of the game is to provide a view into the Space Race to a generation who was born decades after it ended. They also might be surprised by the popularity of Ben-Hur in its day.

The game was considered to be a difficult one upon release and that hasn’t changed with the years. After a couple of preparatory games, where missions are left undone because I didn’t to all the right preparation, I finally feel like understand enough to make an actual game of it. Still, I’m pretty far from knowing what I am doing. While I am managing to advance my Mercury program without killing any astronauts, I am a bit demoralized by the announcements of Soviet achievements far outpacing my own. I suspect that what I really need to do is create a timeline of the actual NASA program, and try to keep my game program on or ahead of the real-life schedule. Without such guidance, I’m sure I’ll never be (for example) testing Saturn V rockets soon enough to be ready for a first-man-on-the-moon lunar mission.

rocket-grissom

Gus Grissom returns safely to earth and is lifted aboard a carrier, making him the first American to orbit the earth. My Mercury program has finally borne fruit, although Grissom became demoralized and dropped out within a few years of his historic achievement.

Despite the DOS graphics and the MIDI synth score, the game is still playable today. I think the key to appreciating it is to recognize that the numbers model and the percentages are the real game and that the interface is loosely built around it. Does that suggest that a rework of the AI to streamline and modernize it would greatly improve the game? Would hiding some of the numbers behind a better narrative improve the feel? As I speculated about translating a board game to the computer recently, it could go either way. When the game is the numbers, hiding the numbers and automating the “spreadsheet” portion of the game could actually take away from what makes the game what it is. What is the best way to update this game for the twenty-teens?

Why Buy the Cow?

The Race Into Space story has another parallel with Steel Panthers, although without quite the bitterness involved. While a volunteer team has created an maintained the freeware version of the original code, the company Polar Motion reworked it into a completely new version. Buzz Aldrin’s Space Program Manager, released by Slitherine/Matrix, is quite clearly an updated version of BARIS. Now I have no idea how much code is shared between the two versions, if any, but it is clear that it was the starting point for the new project.

Unlike with Steel Panthers, however, the end result looks very different. Graphics have been updated and the current ability of consumer’s desktops to display a realistic, 3D representation of Space Hardware can look impressive. The interface corresponds to modern design standards, although it still seems to feature the aerial view of the space complex with selectable buildings. From what I’m reading, the game has both added to the technical depth as well as expanded the scope of the missions beyond the “Space Race” into the realm of modern planetary exploration.

I say “from what I’m reading” because, unless I’m missing something, I’m looking at basically an upgrade of a freeware product for the price of a top-shelf game. Yes, some of the graphics look pretty cool, but not necessarily $40 cool. I’m also pretty sure I’m not hankering for a more complex version of BARIS with some additional missions. Mostly, I mention Space Program Manager here as a compare-and-contrast exercise for my next section.

Similarly, I’m not going to dig into Kerbal at this point, except to show the demand for this type of game is out there. I’ve long meant to download and try the demo, but for right now, it looks like the game has got ahead of the demo and none is available.

State of the Art

Let’s compare to the design of Leaving Earth. At a first glance, this game is a re-implementation of Liftoff! It covers the same time period, the same Cold War struggle, and is played through assigning resources to the design and execution of missions. It’s hard to imagine that the Leaving Earth designers weren’t also familiar with Liftoff!, but looking at the details, no one would say that one is an upgrade or revamp of the other.

The compare and contrast shows much of how game design has changed between the boardgame heyday of the 1980s and the boardgame revival of today. First, as a board game, the design reflects the necessity to put value in the product beyond the rules and mechanisms. The components are unique, a pleasure to look at and handle, and have an aesthetic to reflect the period being played. I think this is a huge part of what makes the boardgaming market so big. The designers have learned to make products that players look at and want to own.

But the design is also heavily influenced by the changes in that Eurogames and the subsequent rethinking of game design. It’s a game of cards and tokens, minimizing the role of dice. It’s also hugely streamlined. Does that mean it’s more of a casual game, and less of a “simulation?” Is it, like many Eurogames, simply a mechanic with some contextual chrome lain upon it?

I would argue no.

First of all, Leaving Earth (perhaps more than its predecessor) exists in part to be a teaching game. A chunk of the manual is dedicated to explain the fundamentals of rocketry and orbits and how to plan missions. The relationship between engine impulse and Delta V are all explained to illuminate what a mission “difficulty” number entails. While it is possible to simply look up, on tables, the relationships between payload and booster size, the player is encouraged to design a launch system backwards from final playload through each staging.

Two of the obvious simplifications are costs and reliability.

The cost model in Leaving Earth is greatly simplified relative to its predecessors. Gone are concepts like inflation or managing budget allocations over multiple years. Instead, the costs in the game are charged a fixed amount that expires each turn, and they are adjusted accordingly. So the cost of a Saturn V during the height of that program can be proportional to the much higher budgets of that period. It is a decent way to simulate spending in an governmental environment while also eliminating the lion’s share of the in-game accounting.

Similarly, Leaving Earth has dramatically changed the reliability model that is the core of pretty much every space program simulation. The earlier versions have a reliability percentage that the user interacts with. These can be raised and lowered by events or improved with research spending and are eventually are compared to a die-roll when attempting a mission. What that means is that the probability of a mission success is always known in advance, but there is always some chance for failure. While engineers do spend a great deal of time calculating safety factors and estimating the possibility of failure, in truth, the predictability of mission success is not a known quantity. Worst of all, in the cases of actual mission failures, the cause of the failure is typically not a component that had a chance of failing and did. The cause is usually something behaving in a way that was unforeseen.

In Leaving Earth, the percentage reliability is replaced with a set of dealt cards that either have success or failure. These cards are drawn (while remaining unknown) in the “research” portion of a program. Unlike BARIS and others, research is a one-time cost, not something that is continuously managed relative to the percentages. Testing, on the other hand, is much more explicit. A booster with, essentially, unknown reliability can and should be flown in unmanned missions to prove its capabilities before chancing a failure in an unmanned mission. Ongoing research is modeled by the ability to, after a mission failure, invest additional research money to remove that failure card from the deck. Unlike the dice-rolling version of mission probability, it becomes possible to eventually reveal and/or remove all the cards associated with a particular component making it 100% reliable for the purposes of the game. While this also may not be a “real” representation of a space hardware, which may end up failing even after you are completely confident in its reliability, it does vastly simplify the game.  It also improves it, in my opinion. It is tough to model a historical space program when, at any given time, a freak role can wipe out your schedule and a team of astronauts in a system that you have thoroughly vetted as maximally reliable. It precludes a Space Shuttle Discovery, but fits well within the other simplifications of the game.

Is there life on Mars?

One other area of game design is something that this product really gets. I discussed earlier about the importance of a historical game simulating not what we know now to be true, but what historical figures knew at the time to be true.

One example discussed in the rule book is how scientists at the time expected to find life on other planets. First (although predating the period of the game) there was an expectation of life on the Moon. There was also long an assumption that observations made of the Martian surface showed signs of life. While during the period of the space program, scientists had discounted some of the wilder “martian” theories, the first lunar missions, in fact, had returning astronauts go through a period of quarantine to ensure that they weren’t bringing back any dormant bacteria from the moon. Although we now understand the impossibility of finding living organisms on the moon, the players in the game should (and do) face the possibilities that these wild possibilities are true. An unexplored planet might produce alien life, or valuable resources, or even exotic alien technology.

In another rulebook example, the fleeting belief that Phobos was an artificial satellite created by advanced alien technology ,was held by the Russians. It was based on a calculation of density compared to the orbital mechanics, which found that the moon was far lighter than any naturally-occurring space body could be. It turns out to have been based on bad observations of the orbit and was corrected before it had much of a practical effect on the Soviet space program. Had the misconception persisted, surely the Soviet military would have made a mission to Phobos to obtain this advanced alien technology an absolute priority. Unless the aliens are a real possibility, the players would never commit to a mission we know to be obviously based on a mistake.

This game reminds me of an experience as a tween. I was absolutely enthralled by space-based science fiction, probably due to the influence of Star Wars. I had the novelization of that movie, which I had read over and over, but had to rely on the local public library for variety for my science fiction diet. Unfortunately, nearly all of their science fiction had been published in the early 60s and, even with that caveat, wasn’t of particularly high quality.

I remember checking out one book set around the construction of a space station. The cover had a drawing of the large doughnut-style station, which one imagined as a way to produce an artificial gravity. It wasn’t a great book, but it wasn’t truly terrible either. I don’t really remember the plot, but I believe it had something to do with sabotage during the construction of the space station. What really got me (and the heartbreak stays with me even today) was the final paragraph of the book. Our heroes have defeated evil and put the construction of the station back on track. Once the station is completed, we are told, mankind can continue on their next step of their great journey into space – to the Moon!

I wept in my pillow that night. When the book was written, possibly in the 50s, the direction that the space program would go was unknown. When the book was read, probably in the late 70s, trips to the moon had come and gone and were considered by many to be, to reference the film Apollo 13, routine. The idea that the whole book that I read was not part of some fantastic future, but of a discredited past, just made me feel like I’d wasted the many hours that I’d put into reading the book.

A game like Leaving Earth actually resurrects the mindset of that much resented (by me, at least) author. Depending on the parameters of the game, the path to the moon may actually be via a earth orbiting space station.

I don’t know how popular Leaving Earth is in the boardgaming world, but I do have to wonder whether this is a viable path for a computer game to take. Rather than, like Kerbal Space Program, go down the path of ever more realistic physics, orbital mechanics, and flight simulation, is there a market for essentially a casual game? Something that lets players make a few of the Space Race decisions and, in doing so, appreciate the trade-offs the the physics presents, but not force the player to commit months of their lives to learning the system.