Tag: Star Wars

Trying to play more games

I spend a lot of time around games, but I seldom get to play them - except for ones I have installed on my phone. (On that score I’ve enjoyed The Guild of Dungeoneering, Futurama: Game of Drones and I still really dig Imbroglio.) Recently though I saved up and bought myself an XBox One, and I’ve tried to make some time to enjoy it.

I’ve only bought a few games for it so far, and to my surprise two are online shooters – not the kind of thing I’ve ever enjoyed before. The first was one of two games I bought with the console: Star Wars Battlefront. I’d played some local co-op with one of my best friends and his enthusiasm for how well it throws you into various Star Wars scenarios was pretty infectious, I have to admit. I’m still not a great fan of online military FPS, but I have really started to love the starfighter battles. At school I loved combat flight-sims; I bought a secondhand Flightstick Pro from a kid at school. But while I played a bit of Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe, really I mostly used it to play X-Wing and especially TIE Fighter. Getting back in that cockpit and shooting at X-Wings (or from an A-Wing) has been great fun – and I’m way better at it than I am at running around on the ground with a blaster rifle (though playing co-op with friends is good fun).

Overwatch got my attention and I have friends with whom I’d like to play, so I’m starting to get into it and learn how it all works. I like the individual character selections, rather than having faceless classes, and so far my faves are Hanzo, Ana (who I didn’t realise was the first post-release character; she’s great!) and Winston, but I’m planning to try everyone.

The other game I bought with the console was Fallout 4. I really loved Fallout 3, and spent a lot of time on six years ago; so far 4 doesn’t quite feel like it has the same magic, but it has lots going for it. I got a bit distracted by the settlement building and crafting, derailing both the main quest (which should feel much more urgent than it does) and my usual excitement of exploring a game with such a big world. It also reminded me that I never finished Fallout: New Vegas, though since it’s one of the growing number of backwards compatible titles I have installed it to continue on after a dear friend told me they liked it better than 3. After picking up from where I left off (at around level 14, and approximately halfway through the main storyline I think?) I realised one of my frustrations with the game: I didn’t want any of the perks. In Fallout 3 I could avoid the combat perks and focussed as much as possible on the ones that offered new dialogue and interaction options, or aided in exploration. In New Vegas, it feels like all my options are just about new ways to kill people. Still, the story is pretty good, so I think I’ll finish it too.

I also bought Batman: Arkham Knight. I wasn’t sure about this one; the Arkham series seems to be a case of diminishing returns, with the original Arkham Asylum still by far my favourite of the series. But I liked it a lot and now I can try the newest iteration.

But perhaps the game I’ve played most since getting the XBox One is Doublefine’s Massive Chalice. A turned-based strategy game with a long-term tactical element, it’s a bit like X-COM crossed with Game of Thrones, only without all the awfulness and a tremendously fun sense of humour. I love the classes, the dialogue, the system by which you can marry off your heroes (in any combination of genders, by the way) and raise new generations, all while you sit chained to your immortal throne trying to hold the kingdom together for 300 years when the titular chalice can finally cleanse the land of the evil Cadence. I backed the game on Kickstarter so I get to play with my own house: House Kenzie, whose emblem is a green Kraken on a black field and whose motto is “worse things happen at sea”. (I usually start with them and House Duffy.)

Next time on the blog: tabletop games! I want to play more of them too, and there are a couple of new releases I’m particularly interested in…

Science fiction double feature

I missed Moon at the Melbourne International Film Festival, and I was bummed, because it looks like the first “proper” science fiction film since Gattaca. My friends have heard my sci-fi film rant before, and I’ve mellowed a lot, but it boils down to this: science fiction isn’t just a backdrop.

Isaac Asimov called science fiction a “flavour” that can be added to any genre – best-loved Robot books are detective stories – but that flavour isn’t just the superficial set of tropes: space exploration, time travel, aliens, a future setting and so on. A film (or a story in any media, for that matter) can have some or all of those and not be science fiction.

Science fiction is about exploring possibilities, about asking “what if…?” and answering “then maybe…” Every great science fiction work explores the human answers to the technological and social questions they raise. “What if we invented robots that could truly do the work of any human?” “What if we colonised Mars?” “What if our population continues to grow at its current rate?”

Moon promises to do something like this, and using reasonable science (rather than technobabble) to boot. I don’t want to give much away – the trailer spoils the key premise of the film, but if you haven’t seen it it’d probably be more fun to go in blind – but Sam is a solitary worker on the moon, running a largely automated mining operation. His situation could be the setting for any type of film, but it’s “proper” science fiction because of its exploration of the effect his situation has on him, and its wider social and ethical implications.

I didn’t miss District 9, and I was cautiously optimistic. A spaceship comes to Earth and hovers above Johannesburg – no message, no destruction, not even any motion. Eventually the authorities land on it and cut their way in, revealing squalid conditions and a population of bipedal, crustacean-like aliens who don’t resist being moved into a camp on the ground, called “District 9”. It’s a pretty clear allegory for the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, especially here in Australia where we do keep those a large number of asylum seekers in detention centres for an unspecified time. (And, until recently, billed them for this – though thankfully this practice has just been abolished by the current government.) It devolves into a bit of a shoot-’em-up towards the end, but the emotional journey of the protagonist – forced by an accident to appreciate how the alien “prawns” feel – isn’t compromised. It’s pretty good science fiction, if not terribly deep and far too wobbly. (My beloved felt quite ill through most of it, thanks to the incessant shaky-cam.)

This isn’t to say I disapprove of pure entertainment, even when it uses science fiction tropes. I enjoy Star Wars (by which I mean Episodes IV-VI) as much as any card-carrying geek, it clearly isn’t science fiction, falling more into the science fantasy/space opera camp. Its story is mostly drawn from classical mythology and American history (in case you’re wondering about the latter, I don’t think it’s an accident that nearly all the Imperial officers have British accents, while all the rebels are Americans – though quite how Alec Guinness fits in I’ve never been able to work out).

I bring this up because of a little thing called Suburban Knights. Star Wars is full of cool ideas developed badly (especially in the case of Episodes I-III), and while there are a lot of fan-films out there, most of them don’t do anything new or interesting with those cool ideas. Most of them ape the original films, and not just the lightsabers and costumes – they even re-use or mash-up the dialogue, often to awful clunky effect. Suburban Knights is different: it takes a cool idea – Jedi Knights battling evil Sith – and takes it entirely out of the Star Wars context. Obi-Wanker and Darth Death are not Star Wars characters, even if they do throw lightsabers and Force lightning at each other. They’re more like the archetypal wanker and bogan, in Australian terms, but with Force powers.

What does this have to do with me, I hear you ask? Well, Suburban Knights Episode Two: Death Crush is about to get a premiere in Melbourne – and yours truly is in it. I won’t give anything away, but you should definitely check out the Suburban Knights web site, where you can watch the first episode and find details about the premiere. Note that it’s invite-only, but if you’re keen to come along and see both episodes of Suburban Knights, then please drop me a line at ben@labocatman.com.au and I’ll see what I can do.

Cat people and crinkly foreheads are not inevitable

Today’s Age has that rare thing – a news story about science. Specifically, astronomer Dr Alan Boss’ assertion that the existence of extraterrestrial life is “inevitable”. (ET? There goes the neighbourhood, Richard Alleyne of The Telegraph, Chicago; printed in The Age, February 17 2009.) Dr Boss is from the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, and they don’t have any such announcement listed as news; Dr Boss does have a lecture scheduled for early March, however, talking about this idea in the context of his new book, The Crowded Universe…but while there’s a shade of self-promotion, I think we can assume it’s all for science.

Dr Boss (and his students must love that name) reckons the aliens must be out there because of “the new belief that there is an abundant number of habitable planets like Earth” – according to the article, there could be “100 billion trillion Earth-like planets in space”. The most interesting bit – why this “new” belief has come about – is entirely absent from the article, so all we get is a retread of the old “well, if there are so many planets out there, there must be life on some of them!” routine. That argument may hold some water (if you’ll excuse the pun, which you’ll get as you read on), but as I’ve been reading in What Does A Martian Look Like? (Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart, Ebury Press, 2002; I’ll be talking more about it on my book blog) this is the least interesting reason to believe life is out there.

The standard idea in astro-biology is that life can exist on planets in the “habitable zone” around a star: that is, the range of orbital distances in which the temperature variation allows water to exist as a solid, liquid and gas. This is rubbish for a number of reasons, not least the fact that the existence of water in various forms is dependant on a vast number of things beyond just a planet’s distance from the star. In our own solar system, now that Mars has proven barren, Jupiter’s moon Europa is the most likely candidate for extra-terrestrial life, with it’s liquid ocean safe below the huge ice-sheets on its surface.

But that’s assuming you even need water for life to exist. And why should you? Just because Star Trek and Star Wars prefer aliens who look like humans with ill-conceived cosmetic surgery or anthropomorphic animals, it doesn’t mean that’s what life will look like. Stewart and Cohen argue that astro-biology is really just the application of Earth-based biology on other planets. It’s parochialism on a grand scale; the galactic equivalent of travelling the world but spending the whole trip in “Irish” pubs and eating at McDonalds.

How do we get past this? Jack&Ian (this is how they refer to themselves in the book) say we need a new discipline, “xenoscience”, to properly consider what aliens will be like. An essential ingredient of xenoscience is imagaintion, and in a sense this is where science fiction, or at least the popular kind – where the “science” really translates to “physics buzzwords and folk biology as window dressing on a fantasy story” – has failed us. Yes, some authors have thought about what life might really be like, but mostly the point of an “alien race” is just to act as a stand-in for some aspect of human culture. For my money, the biggest proof of this is that no-one stops to think about what it really means to have half-human half-Vulcans. Even if alien life did, impossibly, look very similar to us, it doesn’t mean we can shag it, marry it or build a picket fence and have 2.4 children with it; that people accept this in Star Trek is a clear sign they don’t really think of Vulcans, Klingons and the rest of them as truly alien; I’m sure if you suggested the same sort of “first contact” or “close encounter of the fourth kind” with a more realistic ET, you’d probably be blocked by the Great Australian Internet filter.

I’m not quite finished the book, so I can’t tell you what Jack&Ian reckon a Martian would look like. But whatever life does exist out there, odds are it will be incredibly unfamiliar to us; truly “alien”. If we’re to recognise it when we see it, let alone have any chance of conversing with it, then we need to embrace the imagination we have. Imagining something doesn’t make it possible, but science is about change, about difference, and about possibilities. Often it works by eliminating possibilities – but we can’t eliminate them if we don’t at first consider them.